CORONAVIRUS

Thrift Stores Can Outlast A Recession, But Can They Survive The Coronavirus?

As the pandemic rages, secondhand stores around the country are flooded with donations and doubts.
Thrift stores like Goodwill have had to adapt to the new normal caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Thrift stores like Goodwill have had to adapt to the new normal caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Cindy Husband oversees a popular thrift store in Houston that was, until earlier this year, a vibrant, bustling place, where customers and workers hugged often and laughter rang out. Hundreds of shoppers showed up every day to browse the endless racks of low-priced, donated clothes. 

But then came the pandemic. 

Like many businesses across the country, the nonprofit Memorial Assistance Ministries Resale Store and Boutique shut down for nearly six weeks in the spring to curb the spread of the coronavirus. MAM (pronounced “ma’am”) reopened in May with a long list of new safety rules that Husband struggled to enforce. She was letting only a few people into the store at a time, but would still catch them standing close together and chatting. In the employee break room, she kept finding the chairs pushed together.

“Their guards are down, it’s scary,” Husband, 55, told HuffPost in late June. It had been about a month since she had reopened and was just days before she closed MAM’s doors a second time, following a surge of COVID-19 cases in the state that hit the Houston area particularly hard. 

It makes me feel like an ogre, yelling across the room, 'No, don’t hug her! Back away!' Cindy Husband

For months, Husband has been in a constant state of anxiety, distraught at the explosion of need in her community. The pandemic has prompted record unemployment in Texas, as the country reels from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Husband expects more people will need to shop at MAM in the coming months, but she can’t bear the thought of someone getting sick on her watch. So she’s focused on safety, limiting personal interactions in the store, quarantining donations before putting them on the racks — and closing the doors completely when infection rates in the region rise.

A bad economy can be a boom time for resale shops, which typically offer steep discounts on previously owned goods. Many households are short on cash and eager to pay as little as possible for essentials like clothing, said Jared Ristoff, an analyst for the market research firm IBISWorld. But the public health crisis complicates that dynamic. Hundreds of people are dying every day, states are seeing spikes in new infections, and shop owners across the country are trying to figure out how to stay in business while keeping workers and customers safe from a disease that’s still not well understood.

The Memorial Assistance Ministries Resale store in Houston has closed twice due to the coronavirus.
The Memorial Assistance Ministries Resale store in Houston has closed twice due to the coronavirus.

Many thrift stores saw their revenue dry up when the pandemic brought huge swaths of the economy to a halt. At one point in April, 98% of Goodwills — the largest network of secondhand stores in the country, with over 3,000 locations and tens of thousands of employees — had closed, according to spokesperson Lauren Lawson-Zilai. (At the time of publication, nearly all of them are open again.)

Though a handful of states have paused or reversed their reopening efforts, most local governments are easing restrictions on daily life, and businesses are welcoming customers back. Secondhand sales are expected to start ramping up again, IBISWorld’s Ristoff said. 

“This industry always gets stronger during a recession,” said Adele Meyer, executive director of the National Association of Resale Professionals. She added that not a single one of her trade group’s 1,000 members has gone out of business since the pandemic hit in mid-March.

This is a very different economic crisis. We’ve never had as fast an economic decline. Jennifer Le Zotte, University of North Carolina Wilmington

Husband isn’t convinced things will play out the way they did between 2007 and 2009, during the Great Recession. Back then, the MAM store “got busier” she recalled. “People realized they had to be more frugal.” The same thing might happen again, but Husband thinks the pandemic will keep getting in the way. For one thing, she expected she would have to close a second time, but she didn’t think that would be before autumn.

“This is a very different economic crisis,” said Jennifer Le Zotte, a professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington who wrote a book on the history of secondhand shopping. The sudden shutdown of the economy and the massive job losses that followed were unprecedented, she said: “We’ve never had as fast an economic decline.” And while she noted that consumer spending increased in May, she admitted that it’s impossible to say with certainty what might happen later this year. 

Vintage Wares, New Worries

What’s clear, for now, is that there’s no shortage of secondhand goods. As people emerge from weeks of home isolation, they’re donating mountains of old clothes purged during cabin-fever-induced spring cleaning. MAM, Goodwill, Salvation Army and America’s Thrift Stores (a budget chain with 20 locations across the southeast), all told HuffPost that people are dropping off record amounts of stuff. Many stores have so much extra inventory that they’re cutting prices, said Paul McFarland, who oversees six Salvation Army locations in the Dallas area. If not for the danger of contagion, “this may be the best time in the history of secondhand stores to go shopping,” McFarland said.

Brian Willey, a regional manager for seven America’s Thrift Stores locations, said that on May 15, when his biggest store reopened in Alabaster, Alabama, “there were 100 people waiting outside.” 

A worker wears a face mask at Sid and Nancy thrift and consignment store in Columbia, South Carolina, as a shopper browses a
A worker wears a face mask at Sid and Nancy thrift and consignment store in Columbia, South Carolina, as a shopper browses a rack of clothes on April 23, 2020.

To keep shoppers as safe as possible, many stores are operating on reduced hours, limiting how many people can enter at once, and policing the kinds of interactions that take place inside. 

Husband said that, before she closed again in June, she had tried to ban hugging at MAM, even though it broke her heart. “It makes me feel like an ogre, yelling across the room, ‘No, don’t hug her! Back away!’” 

Every company HuffPost spoke to for this story said they’ve made face masks mandatory, despite objections from a small number of customers. 

America’s Thrift Stores locations now station a safety monitor in a reflective vest at each entrance to hand out masks when people show up barefaced. “As guidelines are relaxing ... people are not wearing their own [as much],” said Stacy Turner, general manager of two America’s Thrift Stores in Birmingham, Alabama.

Goodwills in Georgia are using a misting device that sprays a cloud of sanitizer into the air at night. The stores feel fresher and cleaner because of it, said Dell McKinney, who oversees dozens of Goodwill locations in the state. “We might even keep this around [after the pandemic],” McKinney said.

A crew equipped with electrostatic sprayers cleans a Goodwill store with a hydrogen peroxide disinfectant cleaner in Colorado
A crew equipped with electrostatic sprayers cleans a Goodwill store with a hydrogen peroxide disinfectant cleaner in Colorado Springs, Colorodo.

Stores are quarantining donated and consignment clothes for a day or more before putting them on shelves. It’s unclear how long the virus remains on fabrics (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said it can spread via touchable surfaces, but is much more likely to be contracted from an infected person in a confined space), and Husband has decided to “err on the side of caution,” waiting 48 hours before putting new donations into MAM’s rotation. Safety measures are her biggest priority ― even if that means fewer sales. 

E-commerce has helped some stores weather the coronavirus lockdown and continues to sustain those that haven’t seen foot traffic or revenue rebound to pre-COVID levels, said Meyer, the trade group director. But success online requires a totally different skill set. 

Karyn Oetting, who owns the Second Skin Vintage boutique in Wilmington, North Carolina, found switching to Instagram and Etsy during the lockdown overwhelming, though it did help save her business. “I knew we had to adapt quickly or we’d lose the store,” Oetting said. She re-opened in mid-May. In June, her brick-and-mortar sales stabilized just as her state’s COVID-19 hospitalizations spiked. She told HuffPost that she’ll move back online if she has to close her doors again, but hopes it won’t come to that. 

Mary Tabor’s used furniture store, Second Helpings, in Bristol, Rhode Island, was struggling to keep up with online competitors before the pandemic. Tabor kept slashing prices to lure customers instead of trying out e-commerce. During the shutdown, she found herself in a bind ― foot traffic was gone, and she didn’t have an online presence to fall back on. The shop went out of business. “I couldn’t get deeper in debt,” Tabor said. “I had to pull the plug.” 

Selling For The Greater Good

For the many thrift stores that also operate charity programs or give part of their profits to social service initiatives, going out of business can hurt the wider community. 

This is no time to be losing money, said Husband. Memorial Assistance Ministries runs a number of emergency relief programs that include rental assistance, mental health counseling and employment services for people in the Houston area. The resale shop’s revenues go to support those programs, which are now in higher demand than ever before. While the store’s sales are down, the nonprofit is keeping its social services afloat with grants and donations, said Husband. She tried boosting revenue with flash sales on Facebook Live, but hasn’t sold much there.  

Many of MAM’s programs previously operated out of the same building as the thrift store; now they’re mostly online, to limit in-person contact during the pandemic. 

Clothes for sale inside MAM. The shop's revenues support a number of relief programs for people in the Houston area.
Clothes for sale inside MAM. The shop's revenues support a number of relief programs for people in the Houston area.

Goodwill’s retail revenue supports professional services like resume writing, interviewing techniques and job training; the organization has pivoted those offerings online, as well. “Our online learning doubled during the shutdown,” CEO Steve Preston said. Still, the pandemic took a toll on these programs. Lawson-Zilai said that many regional Goodwill offices are seeing 10% fewer program participants than last year, and that a few had to shut down their in-person services completely.

As the coronavirus emergency grinds on and the recession deepens, the future is uncertain for America’s secondhand stores. Will consumers feeling the crunch of the slowdown be eager for discounted used goods, or turned off by fears of contamination? Will they show up to the door or shelter online?

Le Zotte, the thrift store historian, worries that fast fashion chains like H&M and Zara will continue to be one of the secondhand industry’s biggest threats, unless the pandemic completely upends fast fashion’s sprawling global supply chains, as sustainable fashion advocates hope. “Fast-fashion is so cheap to produce, so easy to shop online or in person,” she said. “It’s still the easiest option.” 

Cindy Husband is optimistic about the future of secondhand. She thinks that the virus won’t totally kill the in-person store experience. And she’s noticed that, compared to their elders, young people today place a higher priority on reducing their consumption, shopping more consciously and keeping old clothes out of landfills.

“The next generation cares,” she told HuffPost. “They want to recycle and repurpose.” 

For now, she’s trying not to think too far into the future.

“The unknown is the scariest thing,” Husband said. 

But she’s looking forward to the day when she can hug her staff and customers again.

HuffPost’s “Work In Progress” series focuses on the impact of business on society and the environment and is funded by Porticus. It is part of the “This New World” series. All content is editorially independent, with no influence or input from Porticus. If you have an idea or tip for the editorial series, send an email to thisnewworld@huffpost.com.


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