The Challenging World of Thrift Shops Today

Posted by Vivian McNeil on

Opening the door of my house leading to my attached garage, I was dispirited when I noticed a couple of boxes and plastic shopping bags that I had put away in the winter to give away to the local thrift shop. As my electric garage door unlocked, I reveled in the gorgeous and sunny Wednesday morning. As the birds chirped enthusiastically, I placed the bags and boxes into my receptive trunk to take over to the thrift shop that day. Of course, I wanted to get rid of the items as quickly as possible so my car trunk would be vacant for my trip to the supermarket the next day to stock up on bulky items. I believed I was being pretty organized in my weekly routine and knowing the hours of the thrift shop were ten to three from Monday to Thursday, I was confident that the bags and boxes of unneeded household items and clothing would be cleared from my possession. 

As many other homeowners were doing during the COVID-19 lockdown, I was reorganizing and taking stock of the many unneeded possessions in my home. I had recently read an interesting article about a woman, Marie Kondo who is considered the organization queen of this era. Her philosophy states that if something is not making you feel good and you are not using it then throw it or give it away. We all know that whether it’s garbage or thrift shop donations, you want them out of the house as quickly as possible. 

You can imagine my disappointment when I presented myself at the back door of the thrift shop and the worker told me that there was absolutely no way he could accept my stuff since they were overwhelmed with donations and I should return tomorrow. With no alternative, I went home displeased that my week was going off schedule. Of course, we are not in charge of even simple occurrences, yet I was still getting back into the swing of standard errands that used to be easy to accomplish pre-COVID-19. 

The next day, the door of the thrift shop was opened by a friendly worker who pointed to a pod on the left side of the parking lot near the door of the store. Wow was I surprised to see the buildup of black and white garbage bags piled high in this huge pod. What was going on? He helped me with my heavy loads and dumped them into the pod. How many workers would this popular thrift shop require to sort through the maze of unknown items hidden in those trash bags? Couldn’t there be a better and more efficient way to give away or sell these items, many of them such as mine, in excellent condition waiting to be used by some needy people? 

According to an article last year on Bloomberg News, as people were glued to their homes their spring cleaning blossomed. At first the thrift shops were not open, so the trash bags full of clothing and other miscellaneous items proliferated in people’s basements, garages, or apartments. Now that the thrift shops have reopened there is a tremendous backup of thrift shop donations.

The original purpose of thrift shops in America were two-fold. The first reason was for the less fortunate or immigrants to be able to purchase used clothing that were in good condition at huge discounts or sometimes if the thrift shop had a certain religious affiliation to take what was needed, gratis. In the beginning of the nineteen hundreds, immigrants who came over from the eastern European countries had completely different modes of dressing. For example, the ladies were not used to wearing light weight dresses that were required in the stifling summers of the American eastern seaboard cities such as New York. Since the husbands were still looking for work or working for meager wages, the wives had to be satisfied shopping in secondhand shops. I remember a lovely children’s book, “Molly’s Pilgrim”. In it the little immigrant girl was made fun of by her classmates because the clothes she wore were so strange to the American students in her class. 

The second purpose of the popularity of thrift shops was to give employment to many people. IIt takes a person who is strong and willing to work hard sorting through some decent and not too decent thrift store donations. These are then displayed in a positive manner to give dignity to those who must shop in these stores. The profits are then given to the organization that owns the store unless it is a privately owned shop. It is more inviting to call the clothes preowned in the shops that began to pop up in the latter part of the twentieth century. These shops began to draw elegant women who can buy designer clothes that were gently worn at huge discounts. When I was a child there were advertisements on TV for a trendy shop in Manhattan where a middle-class working woman could exit with a beautiful preowned authentic fur coat that was discarded or given on consignment to the store. These trendy upscale stores are still popular in high class neighborhoods only accepting the better designer clothing to resell. 

On the next day, Thursday when I dropped off my items at the pod next to the thrift shop it was raining making it more challenging to donate. There were actually a few other women dropping off their trash bags as well. I thought it odd that the bags piled up could very easily be mistaken for actual trash except that there was no odor emanating from the pod. Couldn’t there be a better way to transfer the clothing from the owners to the thrift shop? There were just too many bags for so few workers to sort through. How would they ever complete this task? With the continuous flow of thrift shop donations, if the days on which they accept merchandise are like the Thursday I experienced, it seems their job would be never-ending. For example, let’s say that the manager notices that the store is short on boy's clothes such as shirts and pants. A customer comes in and asks for these items. In the pod are many items that could fit this description. It’s akin to when you go to a private clothing store and they say that they just got new shipments in, but it will take a couple of days to unpack, but at least the store owner is not oblivious as to what is in the boxes, they have ordered the merchandise themselves. 

Some thrift shops require labeling the bags, but I did not see any labels on the many bags that were piled up so high. Heavy-duty clear plastic bags would certainly help the hardworking thrift shop employees identify the various types of clothing, linen, household goods, and other thrift store donations.

The shopper who was waiting to sort through some boys clothing could be helped faster if the employee would be able to identify a bag of boys clothing and make it his priority to sort through that bag first. Or, if the store is short on baby clothing, he would be able to find those on short notice. 

Another practical idea would be for the thrift shop itself to require donors to put specific items of specific colored trash bags. It would be prudent for the thrift shop management itself to give out these colored garbage bags to the donors to put their earmarked contributions. A small charge per bag would most probably not be frowned upon as people know that their good deed will reap rewards. Although the employees of the thrift store would still have the same amount of sorting to do, it would be so much easier for them to place the items in the correct locations of the store. 

In Conclusion 

Thrift store donations by good people to thrift shops help both people and the environment. By cutting down on the amount of unneeded clothing that would be tossed into the garbage and then into landfills, they are contributing positively to the ecological landscape. We must be careful to learn what will happen to the clothes that we donate. There are some companies that will accept your old clothing to make into rags. However, if the clothing you donate is in satisfactory condition, there is a very good chance that someone else will benefit from them. It would make a huge difference to you and your family knowing that another child or adult would get pleasure from wearing your discarded clothing rather than having them turned into rags or filling a landfill

We, the people who donate to thrift shops should try to make it as easy as possible for our clothes and household goods to be reused. Let’s make sure that they are clean and in good condition before we donate them and place them in easily identifiable bags preferably heavy-duty clear plastic trash bags or at least color coordinated according to the thrift shops requirements. 

No good deed goes unnoticed and who knows maybe one of your children will spot their cute tee shirt on another child in the park. Just make sure your child does not go over to them and admit that he or she once was the owner. That would be an embarrassment. Instead, let them be friendly to that very child who is wearing a used garment and that goodwill could make all the difference in the world to the future of that child.

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