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The Thrift Stores Are Alright
The “thrift store gentrification” narrative itself idealizes ordinary marketplaces
“The Complicated Reality of Thrift Store ‘Gentrification,’” reads a recent headline at Jezebel. “How thrifting became problematic,” writes Vox. An article at Paper magazine headlined “How Thrifting Became an Online Cult Personality” suggests that while “thrifting in itself isn’t a problem … it might create new ones.” “Is It OK to Thrift Online?” goes another story by a different author at Jezebel.
Hazel Cills writes in that first Jezebel article that platforms like Depop, Poshmark, and Rent the Runway have “further sanitized and glamorized secondhand clothing.” She continues, “The complicated popularity of thrifting and reselling is part of a decades-long discussion about the co-option and transformation of second-hand clothes by privileged buyers.” After a long cultural analysis, she concludes, “Are Depop sellers reselling thrifted clothing items for higher prices unethical? The answer might be that it’s only as unethical as the existence of vintage itself.”
All of this, coming out of the recently hot “thrift store gentrification” narrative, displays a progressive tendency to imbue commercial decisions with omnipresent yet imprecise moral concerns. It also, ironically, assumes an idealized view of thrift stores as goldmines of rare, valuable, and vintage products, unfairly scooped up and resold for an obscene profit by scalpers. This, incidentally, is exactly the idealized image that savvy thrift chains have themselves recently adopted as a branding angle.
For example, Goodwill markets itself to “thrifters” and even invites lucky shoppers to post their best finds. Savers, a big-box thrift chain which also operates stores under the Value Village and Unique names, produced a YouTube video ad titled “I Think I’m Turning Halloween.” The description reads, “We have thousands of new and thrifted costumes, plus costume consultants to help you find the perfect look! What will you turn into this Halloween?”
Resellers, in other words, are no guiltier of this phenomenon than are thrift stores themselves.
In a brief encapsulation of the dynamic that “thrift store gentrification” refers to, Hazel Cills quotes college newspaper writer Vanessa Delgado: “Resellers surging thrift stores for cool, trendy finds and buying in bulk are ultimately taking away from low-income communities in bulk. Thrifting is not wrong but profiting off something that people need in order to maintain their standard of living is.”
While no doubt based on a genuine concern for low-income folks who actually rely on thrift stores, this framing of the issue is not quite accurate. It isn’t true, despite those thrift store ad campaigns, that thrift stores are chock-full of vintage, valuable, desirable, rare, merchandise. Adam Minter, whose recent book Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale is a must-read on this topic, points out that the declining quality of consumer goods, and the explosion of the discount retail segment, means that thrift stores are increasingly swamped with worn-out or low-quality donations.
Doesn’t that simply intensify the ill effects of resellers scooping up the good stuff? Not really. There’s likely very little overlap between the items that people who shop at thrift stores out of necessity rely on, and the items that resellers or flippers are looking for. This isn’t even accounting for the fact that many, perhaps most, flippers are themselves working-class people, for whom flipping isn’t a big, glamorous moneymaker, but a busy hustle to help make ends meet. Those flippers, however, probably aren’t posting their hauls on TikTok.
So to recap, most of the stuff in an average thrift store isn’t worth flipping. And most of the stuff that is—a large percentage of a small percentage—doesn’t have any particular value for low-income folks who shop in thrift stores by necessity. Consider all the usual examples, like collectible sneakers, vintage jeans or jackets, or retro video games or vintage electronics. These are mostly collectors items, not practical everyday items. If anything, matching this stuff with its relatively niche demand base is a good thing, because it raises the chance that the product will have a longer life and thereby stay out of the landfill longer.
What’s more, despite marketing its stores to more affluent “thrifters,” Goodwill itself has for the last several years been operating its own boutique stores, where items judged particularly valuable are sent, to beat flippers at their own game and capture more potential profit. At one time, Goodwill operated a computer-focused store in Washington, D.C., and they still operate a retro video game store in North Carolina, which opened in the mid-2010s. For even longer, since 1999, they’ve operated ShopGoodwill, an eBay-like online auction site for various merchandise deemed valuable. ShopGoodwill features anything that’s estimated to have more value than can be captured in a brick-and-mortar setting, from toys to clothing to cameras, both vintage and recent.
There certainly has been an increased cultural trendiness about thrift stores, particularly in the last decade. There are reams of writing about celebrities who only wear secondhand (just one example). There was Macklemore’s viral 2012 rap about going to the club in thrifted old-man clothes. Nonetheless it remains the case that “thrift stores can barely sell most of the product they receive on the store floor.”
I should disclose, at this point, that I’m an occasional flipper/reseller myself. I can attest to a few things. One, almost none of what I flip is being “taken away” from people who “need it.” Two, thrift stores really do seem to be raising their prices in response to trendiness or an increase in affluent shoppers. And three, they are doing so imprecisely, overpricing many items while still failing to capture the full value of the most desirable stuff.
A lot of this comes down to thrift store pricing being more of an art than a science. The recent elevated prices I’ve observed are often quite disconnected from those items’ eBay prices. In general, stuff that “looks” valuable tends to get overpriced. For example, I’ve seen a Mario game for the retro Nintendo NES priced at $39.99. eBay? $15-$20, with 30-day returns! I’ve seen run-of-the-mill CD or DVD players, or even VCRs, at $30-$50. I’ve seen junky, obsolete digital cameras for the same price as much more valuable vintage film cameras. If that Nintendo game happened to be a truly collectible title, it would probably still be priced the same, making it a bargain. And if the old piece of stereo equipment happened to be a Nakamichi cassette deck—one of the best cassette decks ever produced, and collectible today—it would still be priced at $30. Other flippable items, like retro PC games, sturdy office equipment (Panasonic pencil sharpeners made in Japan sell surprisingly well), and vintage clock radios seem to still be unknown to thrift store pricers.
It’s exactly this mismatch between thrift store pricing decisions and “real” values that makes flipping worthwhile. Most of those valuable items aren’t obviously worth what they’re worth, and flippers generally know their markets better than thrift store staff. It’s possible that in raising prices imprecisely and across the board, thrift stores are cutting into the paychecks of their poorest customers—without really cutting into reseller profits.
To the extent that this is even a widespread problem, however, the answer is not to cast flipping as morally suspect. Rather, it’s for thrift stores to evolve a more scientific understanding of pricing, such that everyone can capture more of the value that’s there.