CENTRAL FLORIDA — The high cost of gas and a slumping economy have been a boost to one sector of the retail industry.

The resale business — thrift stores and consignment shops selling used, “slightly used,” and plain ol’ second-hand junk — has been doing big business.

Jean Lehmann, owner of Suntree Consignment Boutique, said the economic slide has been a bonanza.

“I’ve noticed people coming in with expensive things, and expensive purses in particular,” Lehmann said. “They’re bringing them in to get out from under a car payment, in most cases. And people want to feel less ‘frivolous.’ ”

Adding to their surging bottom line, thrift stores are attracting a more upscale clientele, said Adele Meyer, executive director of the National Association of Resale & Thrift Shops.

“There’s just an influx of customers coming into retail thrift stores for the first time, who are becoming more cautious in their spending,” she said.

Over the past five years, the number of resale stores in the U.S. has increased 5 percent a year. There are an estimated 25,000 thrift and consignment stores in the country, according to the association.

In many cases, thrift shops don’t have to pay their employees what other employers pay, or offer benefits. Many of the sales associates are volunteers.

“I volunteer here about five times a month and I just love it,” said 80-year-old Mary Sue Wright, who volunteers at Holy Trinity Thrift Store in Melbourne.

Meyer said one of the reasons Lehmann could be seeing more upscale donations is that nowadays, people need the tax write-off.

Lehmann said while customers may be spending more in her shop, people are cutting back on the number of shopping trips.

“Another thing I’ve noticed is people are banking their trips out, or even combining their trips to come shopping,” Lehmann said. ” It used to be fairly even in here, but, these days, people are coming in and shopping on only one day. They’re waiting to come in and spend. They’re ‘white-knuckling’ it.”

Maria Rosamos of Melbourne said now that she has become a thrift store shopper, she’s going all-out.

“It’s a habit and a hobby,” Rosamos said. “I don’t do a lot of driving, but when I’m in a neighborhood that has a thrift shop, we’re going in.”

Rosamos, like others, said she has been thrift shopping more these days because she made a vow to go to department stores less.

“With the price of gas, I decided to cut back on something, and shopping for clothes and things at the mall had to be the thing to cut.”

Generally, about 16 percent of all shoppers buy secondhand items at stores. But that number may go up to 20 percent this fall as people in Brevard and across the country look for deals on back-to-school clothing, according to America’s Research Group, a consumer research firm based in Charleston, S.C.

“The dollar is shrinking. The fuel cost is up. Food is up,” says Maj. Michael Waters, an administrator of four Salvation Army thrift stores in Nashville, Tenn. “Everything is going up, except people’s income, and therefore they are trying to be more frugal and more budget conscious.”

Thrift stores that rely mostly on donations say they have seen a boost in sales. The Salvation Army thrift stores reported a 15 percent increase in the number of customers visiting its 15 Southeastern regional stores. Meanwhile, Goodwill retail stores saw a 5.2 percent sales gain in 2007 at its 125 stores nationwide open more than a year, according to Rockville, Md.-based Goodwill Industries International.

But even as more people use thrifts to improve their lifestyles, stores are running into problems of their own as that region’s economy is hit hard by the implosion of the housing market.

“A couple of years ago, when everybody was buying multiple houses, we were getting tons of furniture” as people moved to a brand-new, freshly furnished larger home, says Brian Itzkowitz, vice president of retail for Goodwill Industries of Southwest Florida.

Now that source of goods has dried up as people hunker down for the hard times, he said.


While all shops that sell gently used consumer goods are “resale” shops, the National Association of Retail & Thrift Shops makes the following distinctions:

Resale shop: Stores that buy their merchandise outright from individual owners.

Thrift shop: Run by a nonprofit organization to raise money to fund charitable causes. These range from the large Salvation Army or Goodwill chains to individual school, church or hospital thrift shops.

Consignment shop: Accepts merchandise on a consignment basis, paying the owners of the merchandise a percentage when and if the items are sold.

–Gannett News Service

Ed. note: This story was originally published by Florida Today and posted to the Gannett News Service wire on June 16, 2008