Sunday, February 19, 2012

Thrift Store Confidential

I've been a regular volunteer at our local community thrift store for over a year now. The Montgomery County Emergency Assistance Program Thrift Store, also known as MCEAP (we pronounce it "Muh-keep), puts all of its profits (minus rent and similar expenses) back into the county in the form of financial assistance, the food bank, and the clothing bank for eligible clients. None of the volunteers at MCEAP, including the director, are paid for their efforts, which is amazing when you consider how many much time it takes to run this store. The program's philosophy is to assist county residents in maintaining their households and restoring their self sufficiency. It's a great program, and I highly recommend it to anyone local who's interested in volunteering.

I have greatly enjoyed working with my co-volunteers and serving my community at MCEAP, but this Friday will be my last day at the thrift store. I'll miss seeing friends each week, but Steve's and my work schedules are about to change and continuing to donate 5-6 hours a week will be too much for me right now. I'm sure at some point in the future I'll resume volunteering there again, but in the meantime I'll continue to shop and donate goods to the store.

Over the past year I've learned a lot about thrift store management and human psychology as it pertains to a thrift store. I thought I might share a few highlights with you. Some of these points are humorous, some are pitiful, and all are true.

1. Reputable thrift stores and clothing banks depend on your donations which they sell to produce funds for a charity, organization, or a project. There are some thrift stores that will take your donations, but only a small portion of the money they make when they sell your items is donated to a charitable organization because the store is actually for profit. If you have any doubt about where the money the store generates from your donations goes, ASK for more information. You might even ask how much much of the store's profit goes to the stated charity. If you don't approve of the answer you receive, take your items elsewhere.

2. Most thrift stores gladly accept clean, wearable clothing that is in good shape and not too out of date. Thrift stores do not always have the facilities to wash dirty clothes or repair any that are torn, missing buttons, or lack a working zipper. For some reason, people often donate clothing or items that are not clean or usable.

2a. Let me reiterate that last point, as my experience has shown me that some people do not understand the concept of "clean, wearable clothing in good shape and not too out of date." If you are cleaning out your old uncle's house and you are aware that he had some difficulty with his bladder functions, please do not donate his soiled clothes to the thrift store. If you are donating your toddler's outgrown clothes but you just haven't had the time to wash them and there's still spilled milk (or worse) on them, please do not donate them. If you have cats and your items are covered in cat hair, please do not donate them. If it's missing buttons, has holes in it, and the zipper is permanently stuck? Don't donate it. And that lemon yellow tuxedo shirt with the frills and super-wide collar? You know, the one you last wore with the polyester double knit blue leisure suit to your cousin's wedding in 1973? Yes, don't donate that either. Much of my time at MCEAP is spent throwing away dirty and otherwise unusable clothing that should never have been donated in the first place.

2b. And it's not just clothing. Do not donate any household goods that still contain moldy food, cigarette butts, trash, or any other kind of filth. If it stinks, has bugs in it, or requires hazardous waste handling procedures because of the presence of bodily fluids, DO NOT DONATE IT! The thrift store is not a dumping ground for your trash.

3. Sadly, some people who donate unusable goods seem to have the viewpoint that anyone who receives assistance from the thrift store in the form of vouchers for clothing or household wares should take whatever is available without complaint. It's difficult to fathom why anyone would think these clients somehow deserve dirty and torn clothes. That's a demeaning, disrespectful, and humiliating attitude towards your neighbors. No one needs that.

4. There is no shame in shopping at a thrift store. No one is going to assume you're on welfare or a client using a voucher just because you're in the store. I like shopping at MCEAP because it's economical and I have found some fantastic pieces of clothing there. Plus, a thrift store needs customers because that's how they generate the money. I'd rather have at least some of my money go towards helping my community than have it line the coffers at the headquarters of Target.

5. Thrift stores often have regular customers who show up first thing each and every morning that the store is open. Some of regulars are dealers or re-sellers while others are hoarders. Frankly, most thrift stores couldn't care less what their customers do with an item once it's sold as long as it was paid for.

6. A surprising amount of merchandise will recirculate through a thrift store. I've seen the same jacket show up two or three times over the course of a year, and I'm only there one day a week. I sometimes wonder if an item that I've seen before also got bought and sold at a yard sale before it making its way back to MCEAP again. It's fascinating.

7. People steal from thrift stores. I realize that people steal from other businesses, too, but it's sad when they steal an item that only costs a dollar in the first place. I just hope they really, really needed that shirt or pants or whatever it was that they stole.

8. If you shop at a thrift store, do not be surprised when you discover that the merchandise has been previously worn or used. One gentleman was astonished and announced with great surprise, "These jeans have been WORN!" Well, yes they have been, sir. You're not shopping at a department store.

9. Thrift stores cannot carry all items at any given time. You may not find pool toys in the middle of winter, and don't be surprised if Easter-related items aren't on the shelves in August. The one exception to this rule is that many thrift stores will put out Christmas items year round. Shoppers love to buy Christmas stuff and you'd be amazed at how much Christmas decor arrives at a thrift store in any given week.

10. If you have had a great experience in a thrift store and really approve of what the store is doing for the community or charity, please let the volunteers or staff members know. Most of us have suffered burn out at some time or another after sorting through yet another bag of dirty clothes, and a simple "Thank you for your help!" can get us through an otherwise long day of service. (We also appreciate a bag of candy now and then!)

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