Drive the streets of retiree-rich communities in Florida and you'll see a thrift store every few miles — if not blocks. Step inside and you'll spot crowds of shoppers that could make a department store envious.
But it's not just the bargain prices for gently worn clothing or almost-new furniture that attract customers. They've come to socialize, take classes and volunteer in what is becoming a new kind of American community center.
Typical is a Goodwill store in Sarasota that offers free classes every week in English, computer skills and crafts. Volunteer knitters make blankets and booties for expectant mothers, shawls for people in nursing homes and scarves for the troops in Afghanistan.
"I supply the soda and they bring cakes, pies and other goodies," says crafts instructor Fred Radmore, 65, a retired pilot. "It's a regular party."
Retirees and thrift stores have had a long love affair — but in recent years the relationship has turned red-hot. While many big retail chains have been shutting locations since 2008, new "resale" stores have been booming, increasing 7 percent a year, according to the National Association of Resale Professionals. Today there are about 30,000 coast to coast.
Hard times have brought in hordes of new "thrifters" — one in six adults now shops at the stores. Many are 50-plus. It's more than frugality that makes thrifts appealing, says Michael Gold, who runs TheThriftShopper.com, a searchable listing of more than 10,000 thrifts that benefit charities. "Some customers grew up in the Depression. And many grew up during World War II, with an ingrained understanding of the importance of volunteering."
Many thrifts rely on volunteers. At the Elephant's Trunk, a 13,000- square-foot store in Venice, Fla., they outnumber paid staff 24 to 1. "We've donated $7.8 million to the community since 1951," says store manager Stephanie Elliott. Beneficiaries include hospital patients and their families, students pursuing nursing or medical careers, and the Lions Club.
At the Hillcrest Thrift Shop in Kansas City, Mo., the ties with the older community are strong. The store's weekly 55+ Day, with its half-off prices, attracts busloads. "We sell high-end donations for dirt-cheap, so people can buy items for a dime or a quarter and, I believe, reminisce about their childhood," says manager Lou Warner.
Fashion shows at the thrift store and local nursing homes generate money to support transitional housing for the area's homeless. "It's a hoot," says Warner. "We have our volunteers modeling merchandise, as the announcer says, 'Can you believe this entire outfit — with accessories — can be yours for only $8?' "
In Orland, Calif., a town of 7,000 north of Sacramento, proceeds from the Twice Is Nice Senior Thrift — manned by 30 older volunteers — go to the local senior center, which hosts classes, card games and weekday lunches.
"It's $2.50 per meal. But most seniors come — some in shuttle buses from local care facilities — because it's something to do, a chance to socialize," says Darlene Friesen, president of the board that oversees the senior center.
The popularity of thrifts among retirees is driving changes in the industry. New stores are bigger and handicapped-friendly, located in upscale communities, with ample parking, brighter lighting and wider aisles. Many thrifts give special treatment to older donors, such as off-site estate sales, auctions and free packing and pickup.
"A large store used to be about 6,000 square feet," says Don Roberts, who oversees 150 stores and 500 donation centers as chair of the Florida Goodwills Association. "Today, anything new is 30,000 to 40,000 square feet." Retirees may come in several times a week, or even every day, he says. "They mingle and, for about $10, get merchandise that they usually bring back a year later for a donation taken off their taxes. It's a great cycle."
In Venice, Dick and Madie Oehlerts started their relationship with the Elephant's Trunk as loyal customers. Now they're among its 72 regular volunteers, all retirees. Dick, 71, a former construction engineer, works in the repair shop, ensuring that donated merchandise is fit for sale. Madie, 73, works the sales floor — where stories about grandkids are shared over background tunes by Tony Bennett.
"We got involved because we wanted to do something for the community, but also to be around other people our age," she says. "And this is the place for both."
Also of interest: Ways others give back — and how you can, too. >>
Sid Kirchheimer writes about scams and consumer affairs.
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