Through the roof, almost literally: Thrift stores see spike in both donations and sales

·4 min read
Gavin Simms/CBC
Gavin Simms/CBC

You probably won't find a person happier to be inundated by garbage bags than Gail Dempsey.

The donations heaped in the warehouse area of Previously Loved Clothes & Things in St. John's overshadow Dempsey's five-foot-four frame, but the pile is nothing compared to a few months ago, when it formed a mini-Mount Everest of second-hand stuff.

"This is what's left over from when we opened on June 8," said Dempsey, the executive director of Epilepsy Newfoundland and Labrador, the organization which runs the store.

June 8 was the first day stores such as Previously Loved were allowed to reopen in the COVID-19 pandemic, and Dempsey remembers the concerns surrounding that new beginning: how to keep staff on if times were slow, how to deal with donations, how to get used to wearing masks.

"It was just strange times," she recalled.

Those fears turned out to be unfounded. Not only did donations flood in — and then were neatly separated into piles to let sit the required amount of time before sorting — so did the second-hand shoppers.

Dempsey said sales in June were up from the same month in 2019, even with losing one week's worth of sales. July was up by 13 per cent, and the trend continued for August, with sales up 20 per cent compared to the year prior.

"It's a huge jump. Why, I have no idea — we're just really, really grateful that's the way it turned out," Dempsey told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.

Ted Dillon/CBC
Ted Dillon/CBC

Big boost in business

That boost in business on both ends has been seen elsewhere in Newfoundland and Labrador, such as the storage bay of the Gander Goodwill Centre.

"We have a huge garage — I would say you could probably park maybe five or six family vehicles into it. And it is full, from floor to ceiling," said Denise Whalen, the president of the board of directors that runs the non-profit organization.

Those bags, while potentially full of clothes and other items to sell, are also a potential fire hazard, and the centre has reluctantly had to suspend taking in donations for the time being.

"I've tried to refrain from doing that, [but] because of fire regulation and the amount of stuff we can have in the building, we really didn't have a choice," Whalen said, adding other second-hand shops in central Newfoundland have had to do the same thing.

You just have to come, prepared that you're going to find your treasure today. - Gail Dempsey

The temporary pause on donations should clear up shortly, she said, as items have been flying off the racks with sales consistently high since reopening. There was even one day of record-breaking sales recently, she said, with the store making $2,000 in one day.

While Whalen is happy to have been able to hire back all her staff and satisfy so many customers, she said she thinks the uptick could be a signal of the strain the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

"A lot of people lost their jobs, a lot of things are still not opened up, and I can imagine that they're finding that they have to cut corners, and thrifting is always good," she said.

Stigma fades

However, said Whalen, she's glad to see a long-held attitude about thrift stores dissolving as people discover the deals to be had.

"At one time it was about need, and there was a stigma attached to it. People wouldn't shop at a Goodwill Centre, they just wouldn't do it. And now you find that, they realize that there's nothing wrong with buying something that someone else has had, it's thrifty and saves it from going in the landfill," she said.

Melissa Tobin/CBC
Melissa Tobin/CBC

One problem: some people continue to use the Goodwill Centre as a sort of landfill. Whalen said while the majority of donations are in great condition, there's also a substantial amount that is in such poor shape it can't be sold.

"The sad part about that is we have a huge, huge garbage expense. We pay about two grand a month to get rid of the stuff we absolutely cannot sell," she said.

At Previously Loved, Dempsey said staff usually manage to intercept such junk before it becomes a problem for their charity, and agreed that with 1,000 items being put on the floor each day, there are great deals to be found, second-hand.

"You just have to come, prepared that you're going to find your treasure today," Dempsey said.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.