When you donate clothing to a thrift store in the Pittsburgh area, it might be sold to someone down the street or end up on the other side of the world. In recent years, the nonprofit agencies operating the stores have better marketed themselves to local customers, built a global market for their wares and partnered with each other to achieve economies of scale.
This is a behind-the-scenes look at the multimillion-dollar-a-year thrift-shop trade.
If you haven’t been in a local thrift store in the past 10 years, you are in for a big surprise.
In the past, you may have visited a small, dimly lit store with worn-out clothing and household goods that looked like junk. Today’s store is large, well lit and sparkling clean. It offers gently worn designer clothes and slightly used household goods. You might find Prada shoes, art, Depression glassware, Coach purses, a Red Flyer scooter, an Armani jacket, never- or once-used wedding dresses, a chrome mixer, Lenox dishes or rare concert movie posters.
Today’s store is a place where savvy shoppers and antique dealers find bargains. It’s not your grandmother’s thrift store.
The transformation began about 15 years ago, when the leadership of the major agencies (Goodwill, Salvation Army and Society of St. Vincent de Paul) realized that the stores could be more successful if they were larger, more appealing and operated by professional staff. There also was a major marketing effort to help people understand that, by donating to and shopping at thrift stores, they were helping the environment, getting good bargains and helping the local communities.
In all, 11 agencies operate 56 thrift stores in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler and Washington counties. Combined, the stores annually take in 60 million pounds of clothing alone.
Donors deposit clothing in drop boxes or take it to stores or collection centers. Goodwill, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army also have trucks that pick up donations.
Once the clothing arrives at stores or warehouses, staff will sort through it. Clothing that is clean and usable will be placed on racks to be sold in the store. Items that are torn or stained, missing a button or otherwise damaged will be set aside, then baled and sent to companies that recycle them for rags, stuffing and similar uses.
Items placed on the rack — including shoes, purses and belts — usually remain in the store three to six weeks. If they don’t sell in that time, they will be given to agencies that work with the poor and homeless or baled and sent to brokers, who in turn sell them to developing countries. (A local customer who donates clothing tells the story of visiting an African market and finding a local high school team’s athletic shirt for sale there.)
Because of the natural disasters that have occurred across the world during the past five years, this clothing is in high demand, and brokers will offer agencies 16 cents to 43 cents per pound for it.
The income from such sales can give an agency’s budget a major boost. For example, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which has six stores and more than 100 collection bins in the area, made $1 million selling clothing to brokers during the 2012-13 fiscal year.
Of course, this money went back into the greater Pittsburgh community in the form of food pantries, child-care programs, emergency shelter for homeless women, services for ex-offenders, utility payment assistance and employment, literacy and volunteer training.
Many of the stores invite consignment sales. The initial price might be determined by a store manager and the items placed on the sales floor for 60 days. After 45 days, items are marked down 50 percent. After 60 days, unsold items either can be donated to a nonprofit agency of one’s choice or returned to the consignor.
What is most important to know is that none of the donated clothing is wasted. It is sold or recycled, given to clients of human service agencies or sent overseas.
Because of the growing competition for used clothing and household goods — the booming resale trade includes the large number of people selling on eBay, Craigslist and Liketwice.com — five local nonprofits in 2005 teamed to form the Alliance of Nonprofit Stores.
The alliance since has grown to 11 agencies, whose 56 stores represent more than 90 percent of the area’s nonprofit thrift trade. The agencies’ combined annual budgets total more than $75 million, with revenues from stores and recycling topping $41 million.
Because agencies compete for donations and shoppers, people often are surprised to learn that alliance members work together so closely. But the agencies believe that there is a great abundance in this country and enough to go around.
In addition, alliance members share information on merchandise display, pricing, marketing and other topics. They purchase their gas from a single supplier, who gives a per-gallon discount. Stores also give each other referrals: “We don’t have that item, but have you tried these other stores?”
The alliance also is seeking to collaborate with Pittsburgh Area Resale and Consignment Stores, a network of 11 for-profit thrift stores that came together for marketing purposes.
Every time you shop, consign or donate to an alliance store, you are helping to:
• Protect the environment. Donations kept 21,190 tons of usable goods out of landfills in 2013.
• Stretch dollars. Shoppers find high-quality items at bargain prices every day, including many they otherwise couldn’t afford. Donors and consignors benefit, too, by receiving tax deductions and/or a percentage of the sale price.
• Create jobs. In the past fiscal year, the 11 agencies supported 1,640 jobs and generated 2,814 volunteer opportunities.
• Build stronger, healthier communities. Nearly 400,000 people in need received help through alliance members in 2013.
So, when the time comes to clean out your closets, consider helping the community by filling up the car with clothes and household goods and heading for the non-profit thrift store of your choice. And while you are there, take time to shop — you’ll never know what bargains you might find.
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For additional information, go to shopans.org. Regent square resident Fred Just (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former executive of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul who helped organize the Alliance of Nonprofit Stores. He chairs the alliance meetings.