A middle-class thrift store: Only their retailer knows for sure

At Savers, the wide, tiled aisles, color-coded clothing racks, and prominent corporate marketing slogan – “Thanks for shopping, neighbor!” – imply discount retail: maybe a Marshalls or T.J.Maxx.

But the occasional wrinkled blouse or exquisitely preserved, frumpy jumper – and most of all the prices – scream something else: thrift store. The thrift store – a nonprofit charity tradition for raising money and catering to the needy or the frugal – has gone upscale with the Savers national chain of for-profit outlets.

“This kind of store will change the way people look at thrift stores,” suggests Sharon McLean, a nurse and mother of three who frequents the Savers store in this suburban-Boston shopping area. “Image is everything. There are more upscale customers here because of that.”

Aaron Rubio, a Savers employee stocking shelves on a recent weekday, agrees, noting that his work environment here is not the usual “dark and gloomy” he associates with thrift shops: “It’s always bright and clean.”

Defying the stereotype works for Savers. Here in Framingham, just down the street from Target and around a corner from a high-end regional mall, Savers definitely has a retail vibe that blends in. But while most of its retail neighbors are still waiting for the reported “end of the recession” to actually hit their own registers, the Savers chain seems to be growing by focusing on a new secondhand-shopping demographic – the penny-wise middle-class shopper.

A working mom can unearth a gold mine in the Savers racks: On a recent day she could find top-quality Ann Taylor slacks priced at $9.99 for herself; and for her teenage daughter, a pair of trendy $8.99 Hollister jeans. She has a pick of sturdy family-room TV consoles all between $9.99 and $14.99. Colorful ties – sans spots – go for $1.99 apiece and an L.L. Bean men’s fleece jacket is a steal at $16.99.

Even as the economy tanked, starting with the stock market collapse in October 2008, Savers embarked on rapid expansion. It has opened 39 new outlets since January 2009. Now, with 250 stores in the United States, Canada, and Australia, Savers’ total revenue for 2009 was $750 million – up 12 percent from 2008.

Based in Bellevue, Wash., Savers opened its first store in 1954 in San Francisco. The chain operates stores under three names – Savers, Value Village, and, in Quebec, Village des Valeurs. It buys merchandise – clothing, home goods, books, and accessories – from nonprofit partners who collect donations. All nine Savers stores in Massachusetts buy from the Epilepsy Foundation. The chain targets shoppers with an average household income between $40,000 and $70,000. But it’s not just the lower middle class heading to upscale thrift stores, observes Delia Passi, CEO of WomenCertified, a Miami-based sales consultancy. “Take it up a notch: You have people you would consider affluent using thrift stores as a way to feed into their nouveau concept of what it means to be frugal.”

She offers that, on Labor Day, she visited a Salvation Army store for the first time to help her daughter look for a wall unit. “At first I was very apprehensive about the quality of product and the people there,” she says. “Well, was I surprised. I noticed cars in the parking lot [everything] from a Volkswagen to a Lexus. I saw the gamut.”

Across the board, secondhand stores are prospering. Industry net sales grew 12.7 percent from 2008 to 2009, according to the National Association of Resale & Thrift Shops (NARTS). Nonprofit Goodwill, for example, saw retail sales increase 9 percent from June 2009 to June 2010. In contrast, the US Census reports that total retail sales in the same period decreased 7.3 percent.

During tough times, middle- and upper-class customers also frequent dollar and discount shops, says Britt Beemer, founder of America’s Research Group. His research shows that in hard times as well as good times 16 percent of American consumers use thrift stores. New thrift-store customers don’t plan to leave.

“Whether they have a job or not, 80 percent of American shoppers said that they will not go back to the way they were,” Ms. Passi says. “Even if the economy turns around.”

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 10/18/2010 - 09:57 am.

    I appreciate the benefit that “Savers” offers to financially-strapped Americans, but I can’t help but ask myself the question,…

    Is there something wrong with the way the American economy has been reshaped over the past few decades under the “improve the business climate, create a free market nation” mantra that has resulted in the NEED for such a chain of stores for shoppers who used to be in the middle class?

    Is this the nation we want to live in? I, for one, would like to return to the economic nation I lived grew up in during the 1960’s and ’70’s, but to do so means I’ll have to join with a lot of my friends and neighbors to “take back my country.”

    But the truth is, we’ll have to take it back, not from “the Democrats” and “big government,” but from Wall Street, the “Chamber of Commerce” (which has become nothing but a mouthpiece to protect the interests of the fabulously wealthy), and what Eisenhower called “the military-industrial” complex.

    The first step for many of us, of course, will be to turn off the cable broadcasts of the Propaganda Ministry which seeks, day after, day, to prevent us from realizing the truth – that it is Wall Street, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Military Industrial complex together with a small number of unbelievably wealthy people who have taken our country away from us – that Propaganda Ministry being weasel news.

    Our ancestors in the 30’s, especially here in the Midwest, knew how to do this. Are there any local chapters of “The Grange” left?

  2. Submitted by Joanne Kube-Harderwijk on 10/18/2010 - 11:27 am.

    “shoppers with an average household income between $40,000 and $70,000. But it’s not just the lower middle class”

    Other stories here and elsewhere identify the middle class as household incomes of $30,000 to $80,000. How can they refer to $40 to $70 as “lower middle class”. I would really like to see a standard set of terms used!

    People who make $100,000 to 150,000 seem to think they are “middle class”. They are not. They are rich and upper class!

  3. Submitted by Anne Bretts on 10/18/2010 - 06:38 pm.

    This isn’t a new trend. Goodwill launched a whole new strategy nearly 10 years ago. In an effort to broaden its shopping base and improve the quality and quantity of its donations, it moved to first-rate buildings in high-traffic retail areas — note the new store opening soon near the Maserati dealership in the Ridgedale area of Minnetonka.
    For years, the Goodwill store in Hopkins has carried Talbot’s, Ann Taylor and other great brands, often with tags on. And now the stores pool the best stuff in the Second Debut locations.
    As the recession has deepened, people are buying less new stuff and holding on to their clothes longer, so racks are not as full as in the past.
    But the need is still there. When our church held its big rummage sale this month, people lined up around the building for the final day’s bag sale discount.
    Yes, life has changed in a fundamental way, for better and worse. We are far more frugal, but for many that’s not a choice but a dire necessity.

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