Thrift Shops See Two Sides Of Economic Woes

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The tough economy has been a double-edged sword for thrift shops. Sales have increased as people try to save money on clothing and household goods, but the Salvation Army says donations are at their lowest level in 30 years.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Sales are also up at thrift shops. People are looking to save money buying used instead of new. And as NPR's Shomial Ahmad discovered, some thrift shops are worried about running out of things to sell.

SHOMIAL AHMAD: The Goodwill Store near downtown Harrisburg is a sea of round racks full of clothes. In the middle is an island of shelves filled with housewares and electronics. Stacks of dishes sit next to old typewriters and coffee mugs. Near the cash registers, Nudi Careas Garcia(ph) is riffling through a rack of swimsuits. She's hoping to find something for her twin daughters.

Ms. NUDI CAREAS GARCIA: This one right now, it says here $4. I could easily pay, like, 40, 45 for a swimsuit for them for competition. For $4 you can't go wrong.

AHMAD: Garcia is no stranger to this store. She's a single mother, and she's always hunted for a bargain. In fact, the clothes that she wears now, a tan tank top and shorts, are from the Goodwill. But several months ago, if she wanted sandals, sneakers or a party dress, she'd go to K-Mart or Wal-Mart. Not anymore.

Ms. GARCIA: Right now, I'm just resorting to come over here for everything first, then trying somewhere else if everything else fails.

AHMAD: Several racks away, Frances Scott(ph) looks at some decorations. She's also been coming to the store more in the last year. She's retired and on a fixed income. Scott says that in the past year she's seen all kinds of new people searching for good deals.

Ms. FRANCES SCOTT: All denominations, all races, and all income tax brackets. You know, it doesn't matter whether you're driving a Mercedes or you're driving a bomb; if you can save a penny, you want to save.

AHMAD: Many shoppers try to save big by heading straight to the plastic bins in the back. Everything in there is only 75 cents. Anna Ragland(ph) is the store's manager. She is used to seeing the regulars, but in the past few months she's been greeting new faces at the cash register.

Ms. ANNA RAGLAND (Store Manager, Goodwill Store): They buy everything - the clothes, the furniture, the household items. Everything sells pretty good.

AHMAD: Laila Baggich(ph) is sifting through a bin filled with bags of clothes, a lamp, and some knickknacks. She's a donation sorter at another Goodwill store a few miles away in Mechanicsburg. Her job is to weed out anything that's broken, faded or fraying. These days it takes her longer to fill up a rack or a shelf with sellable items.

Ms. LAILA BAGGICH (Donation Sorter, Goodwill Store): Sometimes there's a bag that I really only find two things that are really good in a bag. So the rest are usually salvage.

AHMAD: People are still dropping by with donations, but she's noticed that the quality has gone down.

Ms. BAGGICH: There's more bad stuff lately.

AHMAD: And it's not just here at this Goodwill. Other charities say they're finding the quality and quantity of donations have also fallen. The Salvation Army says donations have hit a record low nationwide. Salvation Army spokesman Major George Hood says he hasn't seen such an obvious decline in donations in more than 30 years. He blames the tough economy.

Major GEORGE HOOD (Spokesman, Salvation Army): If a person has to make a decision, do I want to give away this sofa or keep it for another year until the economy becomes more stable, they're going to hang on to that sofa. And the same is with clothing.

AHMAD: Hood said six months ago Salvation Army warehouses overflowed with donations. Now many warehouses have lots of empty space. He worries if they'll have enough stuff to sell in August.

Major HOOD: Back to school is definitely an increased time. And it's not just for kids going to elementary school and junior high schools, but the college market.

AHMAD: The charity is planning an aggressive marketing campaign that they'll have ready in time for the fall shopping season. And with more awareness, they hope more donations will trickle into their stores.

Shomial Ahmad, NPR News.

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