6 Things Thrift Stores Get Right

Retailers should take lessons from their charitable counterparts
Posted April 10, 2014

I haven’t gone crazy. Yes, I’m giving you retail advice based on a thrift store (what?). I understand that these stores have a lot of retail and merchandising “opportunities.” To be honest, the majority smell, have horrendous flickering lighting, no fitting rooms (unless you’re lucky), no helpful sales staff and wildly unattended children. But they can do a few things right, so let’s take a look at those:

1. The merchandise is always changing. (AKA: they know how to keep it fresh)

If you’re on the hunt for a specific item, you know that your visit may be hit or miss. But every time you go, there is the potential for something original and vintage - the possibility exists - so you come back often. The lesson? Rotate your product frequently so that customers know not to miss out and to visit often. Refresh your floors, rearrange a display, post new items to Instagram or a Facebook account linked to your store and keep employees talking about what’s new.

2. Thrift stores attract a huge demographical customer base.

From hipster to early bird, Mercedes to Honda, size XXS-XXXL, and everything in-between, everyone is welcome to frequent the thrift store. It’s the place to unload and reload and has something for everyone. Think of this in terms of accessibility. Goodwill created an online auction site over ten years ago so their merchandise could be accessible anytime, anywhere and to anyone.

3. There is urgency. (AKA: pick it up now, think about it later.)

At the thrift store you’d better take it immediately or it will be gone. If I’m on the fence about something I will typically buy it anyway because there are no guarantees you’ll find it ever again and this could cause serious emotional toll on my shopping psyche. For a retailer with multiples of an item, display only one or two. Edited, the item will be perceived as special and create a higher demand. Have a bar labeled “Best Sellers” or “Going, Going, Gone!” to create that sense of urgency and to highlight what the customer must have now before it’s gone!

4. Sales happen like clockwork. (AKA: Show me the Money!)

The thrift store does a good job of letting every shopper know when they have sales and what is on sale when you walk in the door. The Salvation Army in Columbus, Ohio has a “half-off” sale every Wednesday. Likewise, Ohio Thrift and Volunteers of America have half-off sales on the last Monday or last Tuesday of every month. Not only are you gaining potential new customers, but you’re keeping your current customer base happy and returning to your store frequently.

5. Everyone likes a reward. (AKA: Thrift stores have incentives too)

Turnstyles, a thrift store in Overland Park, Kansas, gives out punched cards to its customers. Your card is punched for the dollar amount you spend at each visit and when the punched card is full, you get a certain amount off your purchase.

6. Grab bags are fun. (AKA: and not just for kids either)

The Goodwill Outlet in Austin, Texas is a thrift store without racks and without hangers. All merchandise (and I mean all) is dumped into very large blue bins on wheels. You hunt, you scour, you sort and you fill your bag or cart which is then weighed and charged to you for $1.39 per pound! Why not let this idea inspire you to have a “grab bag” sale for your own customers? They buy a shopping bag from you for a pre-determined price and use it to fit as much sale product in it as they can. It’s fun! And pre-assembled “blind” bags are also a good way to move product.

I believe there are lessons we can take away (good and bad) from every retail environment. When we stop being open to ideas, we stop growing. Thrifting is definitely a shopping experience that’s not for everyone (or the faint of heart). But I suggest you visit one someday (with hand sanitizer, of course) to soak up some inspiring ideas that can take your store in new directions.

Faith Bartrug of FBD Studios (Columbus, Ohio) has more than a decade of experience in transforming national brands. Her background includes brand strategy, environmental design and visual merchandising, and she has been able to practice what she preaches with leading design firms and clients such as Neiman Marcus, JCPenney and Mark Pi’s.