Who killed the thrift store?

By Morf Morford, Tacoma Daily Index

You could file this under the heading “Just another thing that isn’t as it used to be”.

Have you been to a thrift store lately?

As a long time thrift store shopper I have to say that the items, the clientele and yes, the prices are nothing like they were just a few years ago, when anyone could find quality, brand name (or not) clothing at ridiculously low prices.

One local thrift store, up until a year or so ago, sold vinyl LPs for twenty-five cents each. Now they are a dollar at least.

That same store also held an open air shed where the oddest, most indescribable stuff was piled and sold by the pound.

Everything from sports equipment to furniture to tools and strange abandoned home workshop projects could be found there. Mysteries and “what the heck” discoveries were common.

But, as is too often the case, that was then and this is now.

Thrift stores were once the semi-exclusive domain of those who, for whatever reason, chose to live life on the cheap.

As I mentioned above, everything has changed.

No one is as embarrassed to be seen at a thrift store as they once were, and in too many ways, thrift stores are barely distinguishable from mainstream department stores.

When did thrifting become cool?

In the 2010s consumers began considering sustainability in their clothing purchases.

Celebrities proudly flaunted their finds, and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ multiplatinum 2013 hit “Thrift Shop” dominated the charts. And conversations.

Thrift shopping was once primarily known as an affordable way for lower-income people to find secondhand clothing, furniture and who knows what else.

In recent years, in a trend that could be called, “the movement to ruin everything,” thrifting has become popular among the wealthy, leading to rising prices.

Some argue that thrifting has essentially become gentrified because of its trendiness.

Wealthier people have begun to frequent thrift stores, shopping for the same items as low-income people who were the original customers of the secondhand shops.

Besides wearing the clothes themselves, many thrifters in recent years also began to resell the clothing (and various collectibles from books to vinyl LPs) online.

The argument goes that by increasing demand (and the market size), this generation of shoppers has driven up prices.

And many of us, especially low-income shoppers, find themselves priced out of thrift stores in their area.

And those in need could be left with fewer options.

Survival of the thriftiest

Once the pandemic hit, thrifting became even more commonplace (and less embarrassing) as many lost their jobs and looked for ways to save money.

The popularity of thrifting has increased demand, and prices, at major stores like Goodwill and the Salvation Army.

Unlikely marketing

Many high-quality vintage pieces are quickly bought up, leaving lower-quality fast fashion in thrift stores.

A few years ago my daughter was at the largest Goodwill in Tacoma when she ran into a friend with a shopping cart heaped with clothes she was buying. She had a “vintage” clothing store in New York City – and was stocking it with used clothing from Tacoma.

Keeping clothing out of the waste cycle

As we clean out our closet, consider where our clothing goes.

Much of it goes to landfills – usually in distant countries.

Despite its charitable and semi-anti-capitalist face, thrift shopping is just as affected by the flailing market forces and inherent waste of capitalism as standard retail.

Are resellers bad? Maybe. And, if nothing else, they have certainly changed the rules.

Some resellers go through the effort of finding quality pieces, fixing them up, and then making them easy to find on resale websites, therefore justifying the increased costs and arguably increasing accessibility.

But for whatever reason, no matter what the item might be, the bottom line is that the entire scene has changed; the golden age of thrifting is over.

The prices are too high, the quality (especially of clothing) is terrible.

“Fast-fashion” tends to mean “fast” as in making the journey from retail store to landfill in record time. And sometimes with a stop at the local thrift shop in between.

Finding quality clothing is still possible at thrift stores – it just takes more work.

Many of the big thrift stores themselves have websites where they sell the “best” stuff, so what we see on the floor of the typical thrift store has already been sifted and sorted and appraised. If not taken by workers.

Long gone are the days of treasures found in a pile of donated, unsorted things.

I have found rare, signed first editions of books and money in the pockets of clothing – but not for a long time.

In short, in today’s thrift shop, for the most part, the prices are high and the quality is low.

What are you doing here?

On a regular basis I see people I never expected to see at thrift stores.

It used to be mostly young people. Or people on a near-survival level economically.

But those people have been priced-out of mainline thrift stores for quite some time.

Now I see obviously wealthy people “slumming” at the local thrift store.

And some thrift store have their own “boutiques” where they sell the collectibles.

I must admit that I miss the sheer randomness that used to be a key feature of a trip to Goodwill.

Now everything is organized and labeled. And costs far more.

Books that used to cost pennies are now several dollars.

Work boots, once common, are rare and pricey.

You can get a taste of what thrift shops once were by going to the Goodwill Outlet.

Massive bins hold clothing, household items, books and who-knows-what sold by the pound. Most of it is unsorted and, all too often, in pieces.

But even there, the experience is not what it once was.

The last time I was there, as I was waiting to get in as the store was opening, an older couple in a new Tesla pulled into the parking lot.

The message was clear – this was not your father’s thrift store.