While some of the giant retail chains are pulling out all the stops to lure shoppers and bolster their abysmal sales, some of their customers are defecting to an unlikely rival: the local thrift shop. The must-have item for fall, it turns out, is someone else's castoff. That may sound like a boon for the thrift stores, and in some ways it is. But the same economic woes that are sending buyers their way are causing donors to hand over fewer items, so many stores are running low on inventory.
Second Image thrift stores in Tampa and Clearwater are feeling the effects of the downturn, says manager Kevin Hecht.
"People don't shop as much, so they don't have as much to give away," he says. "It's getting harder to get good merchandise."
The customers are coming in, he says, and sometimes they can't find as much high-quality merchandise as they'd like. They're also more budget-conscious. In the past, he says, a customer would typically spend about $15 per visit; now it's $11 or $12.
At Goodwill Suncoast, which has 18 stores in 10 counties in Florida, things were looking up until this month, says Michael Ann Harvey, vice president of marketing.
"We have the same number of donors, but we believe they're donating fewer items because they're buying fewer new things," Harvey says. "Things were looking great, June, July and August. But now we're starting to get concerned."
It's a similar situation at the Salvation Army, which operates 1,300 thrift shops nationwide. Officials also say the tough economy has led consumers to hold onto their old clothes longer and to use Web sites like eBay and Craigslist to make money from unwanted items.
George Hood, a national official of the Salvation Army, said the weak economy was "forcing people to re-evaluate" what they are willing to donate.
That means the Salvation Army is competing with other groups for a shrinking pool of quality castoffs.
Figures from the Salvation Army show sales have risen 5 to 15 percent at stores across the country in recent months, compared with the same period a year earlier. Donations are down 10 to 25 percent.
Information from Times wires was used in this report.