Thrift shift

Value Village rebrands as chic alt-Winners


Sitting on a beat-up couch at the back of a suburban Value Village, two hip young dudes are busy googling with their iPhones. They have a pile of items at their feet collected from around the store.

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“This sells for as much as $50 online,” says the main googler, holding a pack of expired professional film. He leaves it, figuring it’s too old to be resellable. The pack’s priced at $6.

Something new has been added to the world of rummaging.

“Those kids come in all the time,” explains a staffer when I ask how often she sees customers checking online for the street value of goods they’re sifting through.

This high-tech treasure hunt is just one tiny part of the ever-evolving scavenge – at Value Village in particular – where a shopping sea change sees shoppers seeking a steal rather than scraping together enough to buy bare essentials at the lowest price.

Fact is, the Village, often the only low-cost goods stores in many communities, is getting pricier, tonier and more conscious of the designer brands that end up in its bins. The process is changing the shape of the clothing market and limiting options for low-income folks who find even Walmart a bit of a stretch.

Will a new ultra-hip second-hand clientele lead to gentrification of Goodwill and Salvation Army, the last big thrift shops?

Retail experts point to a new conscious, ideological frugality that’s made second-hand virtuous. “The [market] for this type of retail offering is no longer [coming] from a place of need,” says Frances Gunn of Ryerson’s Ted Rogers School of Retail Management. “We’re looking at a customer who is oriented to personal style.”

And Value Village knows it.

A fact sheet on its website identifies shoppers as “urban hipsters, families on a budget and six-figure professionals.”

And, hey, a six-figure professional stopping in at Value Village might snap up the $20 Harry Rosen tie I spotted at the Rexdale location. Sure, you can get a decent tie at Honest Ed’s for half that – but not Rosen, and that’s the clincher.

A woman I talk to outside the Pickering store is beaming over her $80 Danier leather jacket. “I just paid $400 for one of these for my son,” she says. How could she pass up a Value Village find at that price? It’s not like she could mull it over and return for it later. Someone else would have scooped it up.

The fact that a store is selling one-offs, says Gunn, “shortens the purchase window. And she points out that rummage consumers no longer feel the sting of embarrassment.

“The thrift and consignment folks owe a nod of thanks to Winners,” who, she says, helped rebrand the notion of buying cheap as the pursuit of value, not an admission of inability to pay. They even display their clothing, she says, in a way that makes it look like one-off stuff: all mixed up on long racks.

According to Value Village’s head U.S. marketing manager, Katrina Price, the store prides itself on its careful pricing. A quality pair of jeans can be had for $5.99, and T-shirts will start at $2.99, she points out. “We have the quality name-brand labels at a fraction of what you would pay at the mall, and we carry Walmart-level stuff, too.” For the record, widespread rumours of Walmart owning VV are an urban legend.

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Paul Terefenko

Top-end pricing, says Price, is decided by trained production crews.

So that $20 used Harry Rosen tie? It’s a bargain to guys from Bay Street and suburban shoppers at middle-class box centres, where Value Villages are popping up near competitors like Winners and Walmart.

“I see us more as a mainstream retailer,” adds Tarek Salama, the Toronto district manager.

So, where do places like Goodwill and the Salvation Army fit it? Are they about to seize the moment and slap fancy price tags on their designer booty, too? Not yet anyway.

“We’re a lot more than a thrift store,” says Brian Kellow, Goodwill’s director of external relations. “We enable people with limited disposable income to participate in consumer culture,” he says, explaining that money from sales in his non-profit stores gets recycled into job creation, training and education.

At St. Christopher House, exec director Maureen Fair worries that higher prices in the second-hand sector could take a toll on low-income families. “Obviously, the more affordable, the better. Stores like Value Village are an important part of the choices that low-income people need to have.”

But, ironically, she says, many folks in dire straits would rather buy new. “For some it’s still somewhat shameful to wear used clothing.”

Value Village, owned by Washington’s Ellison family and an L.A.-based equity company, may be raking in the dough in its 230 North American locations, but it likes to boast of its own community connections.

“Our business model revolves around non-profits,” says Salama. He means the company buys from charities like the Canadian Diabetes Association. In 2009, Value Village paid out $117 million to charities throughout its empire. Of course, we don’t know what VV rakes in. “We don’t disclose we’re a privately held company,” says Salama.

So, okay, shop there, pad Value Village’s bottom line, as long as you’re okay with the fact that the company is mutating from thrift to an entirely new segment of the retail landscape. But when it comes to donating, give to non-profits like Goodwill. That way you know you’re fully maximizing the value of your cast-offs.

pault@nowtoronto.com

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