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Nonprofit thrift stores grapple with growing resale market

Michael Livingston

Nationwide trends show the resale business spiking as thrifting becomes trendy. Small nonprofits to religious institutions and legacy retailers are taking notice.

The resale market was worth roughly $30 billion in 2019 and will more than double by 2024, according to research from GlobalData. Shopping at resale outlets is often cheaper, easier, and environmentally sustainable.

Manager of Women’s Resource Center Thrift Carol Rose said she noticed the cultural shift by watching the cars in the parking lot.

“(In the last 15 years) you got Cadillacs pulling in right next to this little beater that's barely going to make it up the hill,” Rose said. “The old stigma of the smelly store where everything is dusty and dirty, that's gone.”

For decades, the resale business has served nonprofit organizations as a lucrative way of funding their cause. The WRC has worked to protect, shelter, and empower people impacted by domestic and sexual violence in Northern Michigan for 40 years.

Rose said 48 to 51 percent of WRC’s total income is made by the thrift stores on N. US 31 and W South Airport Road.

It’s no wonder, she said, why more nonprofits are diving into the resale business.

Just down the street from WRC’s Airport Road location, the Cherryland Humane Society opened its own thrift store earlier this month.

Despite the tight labor market, General Manager Sharon Carmean said business has been top-notch since opening day.

“I know that the community wants to get behind this,” Carmean said. “There's a deep-rooted relationship, they want to see this succeed, and they want to benefit the Humane Society because of the work that they do.”

Donation-based thrift shops have traditionally been dominated by the non-profit sector and religious institutions. Items are donated and sold at a modest price - while the money goes into funding the cause.

That’s not the only business model.

The success of online thrift shops like ThredUp and Poshmark is inspiring legacy retailers to test consignment programs - where customers bring in merchandise and receive cash or in-store credit.

The Associated Press reports iconic fashion brands like Levi's, Eileen Fisher and Patagonia will turn to Trove, a tech startup that handles the logistics of taking back merchandise and preparing it for resale.

Trove CEO and Founder Andy Ruben predicted any premium brand that is relevant in five years will be in the resale space in his interview with the AP.

One might expect nonprofit thrift stores to face new competition.

However, Rose said donation-based, nonprofit resale offers things those corporate retailers can’t – lower prices and peace of mind.

“I don't have to pay for my supplies,” Rose said. “So, I can do a pair of jeans for three bucks, (corporate retailers) have to make it at least seven in order to pay for the cost of the pants.”

The Isabella Child Development Center is a free preschool program for three- and four-year-olds based in Mount Pleasant. Its thrift store is tucked into a small space at 1012 W. High St. and has been supporting the program for 50 years.

Despite problems with visibility, volunteerism, and a year of COVID-19 restrictions, ICDC board member Megan Goodwin said the store will live on.

When people know their donations benefit a good cause, Goodwin said it keeps them coming back.

“We try to talk to our customers as they come in and just remind them where the things are going,” Goodwin said. “Often that leads to people saying, ‘Oh, well, you know, here's a little bit more to go towards your efforts.’”

Michael Livingston is a senior at Central Michigan University majoring in Journalism and International Relations. He grew up in Hartland, a small town in Livingston County. After graduation in 2022, he aspires to take his reporting abroad as a correspondent.