Jerry Balara, general supervisor of the Salvation Army’s adult rehabilitation center in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where sales were up 12 percent this year, said that some consumers had told him: “I just can’t afford even Wal-Mart or Kmart or discount stores right now.”
Many thrift stores, however, may soon be in need of fresh donations.
“At this rate we’re probably going to run out of product before Christmas gets here,” said James Brickson, corps administrator and pastor for the Salvation Army’s rehabilitation center in Albert Lea, Minn., where sales this year were up about 6 percent and the number of first-time users of the Salvation Army’s social services was up 12 percent. Donations, on the other hand, were down about 50 percent from last year.
George Hood, national community relations and development secretary for the Salvation Army, said the weak economy is “forcing people to re-evaluate” what they are willing to donate. “Young women are looking in their closet and saying, ‘You know, I’m going to wear that a little longer instead of giving it away,’ ” he said.
That means the Salvation Army is competing with other groups for a shrinking pool of quality castoffs.
“We’re all kind of scrambling for the same shirt and the same pair of pants,” said Timothy Best, administrator for the Salvation Army adult rehabilitation center in South Bend, Ind., where sales this year were up 12 percent and donations were down 8 to 15 percent.
To make matters worse, gas prices have drastically increased the stores’ operating costs. Some thrift shops have had to cut back on trips to pick up clothing donations.
“Even if they had 20 bags,” said Mr. Balara, who oversees seven thrift stores in Pennsylvania, “we just can’t afford to go get them right now.”
David Wilson, the administrator of the Salvation Army’s adult rehabilitation center in Manhattan and Queens, said his trucks used to drive to donors’ homes to pick up three or four bags of clothing, but that these days “we try to get over 10 bags of clothing to go to a house to make it worth it.” He has also had to increase the fee for delivering furniture to customer’s homes by $10, to $50 in Manhattan and $60 in Queens.
Aldo Accinelli, business administrator for the Salvation Army’s Anaheim adult rehabilitation center in Orange County, Calif., said that sales in the 12 thrift stores he oversees were up about 10 percent, but that expenses were up 20 percent.
“Diesel alone is up two times as much as last year,” he said. For the last couple of years it has cost Mr. Accinelli about $14,000 a month to operate his 22-truck fleet. Now it costs $28,000 to $30,000 a month.
In response to the slowdown in donations and the growing need for social services, the Salvation Army is introducing the sort of national advertising and marketing campaign usually ordered up by department stores and specialty retailers.
Salvation Army officials believe that if more Americans were reminded that the money generated by thrift stores goes toward drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs, they would be more likely to make donations. The campaign will include fliers, signs, new logos on trucks and even some radio and television advertisements.
“We’re going to be more aggressive about marketing,” Mr. Hood said. “Instead of operating like a charity, we now know we have to operate like a real retailer.”
The Salvation Army said its average thrift-store shopper had traditionally been upper or middle class. Many came to hunt for designer clothing at rock-bottom prices.
“I found once a pair of Chanel black leather shoes,” said Shannon Gallagher, a marketing manager for Simon & Schuster, as she shopped for maternity clothes at a Salvation Army thrift store in Midtown. “They were like $12.”
But thrift store operators say the demographics are changing.
People who once shopped daily or multiple times a week for vintage treasures are making fewer trips. For some, thrift-store shopping is no longer a hobby but a necessity. Then there are those who have stopped buying entirely or are buying only when there are promotions, leading a few thrift stores to experience a dip in sales this year.
Mr. Brickson, of Minnesota, said a longtime donor to his store had recently showed up in tears.
“She had given so much to the Salvation Army over the years,” he said. “She never thought she was going to be a recipient of the services.”