COVID-19: Thrift Stores Face Economic Pressures of Pandemic

Outside the now-closed VNA Thrift Store in Manasquan, New Jersey. (Courtesy Bridget Murphy)

Nick Kril, the resale operations manager at The Wardrobe, a nonprofit thrift store that offers low-income customers a place to shop for professional clothes, had been wondering if people would still want to shop secondhand during the pandemic. 

“We were really worried,” Kril said. “When we felt we were going to reopen in April or May or June, [we thought], ‘Crap, are people going to want things that other people have touched and worn?’” 

The Wardrobe, which opened in 1995, prides itself on offering people who have been struggling to find work affordable, professional clothes that help instill confidence. Proceeds from the store also used to provide free clothes for those in need. 

Before the pandemic, business had been on an upswing.

“Resale was one of the only growing facets of retail,” Kril said. “People are more environmentally conscious. They’re more price conscious, but we were definitely worried about it. Like, people might be done with secondhand, but we haven’t really seen that change.” 

Unlike large chain retail stores, thrift stores are usually owned by nonprofit businesses that are actively involved with charities in their local communities. They often provide an easy shopping outlet for clothes, furniture, and other household items for low-income families. 

But thrift stores don’t bring in nearly as much money as retail giants. And as a result, the pandemic has hit some thrift stores hard.

Like many other businesses, The Wardrobe’s physical location shut down in March. It reopened during the second week of July but still had to come up with a plan to sell clothes, generate money, and give clothes to those in need. 

“We were hearing a lot of different things about clothing,” Kril said about potential dangers of transmitting COVID via textiles. “But we were pretty confident in the information that we have been able to share that the virus doesn’t live on clothing very long, and if you clean your clothes the way that you would normally launder something, it’s pretty safe.”

Although Philly AIDS Thrift closed in March before reopening on June 19, co-founder Christina Kallas-Saritsoglou didn’t have any fears of customers being afraid to do secondhand shopping. 

“The fear may have crossed my mind when I didn’t understand anything about COVID because there were so many unknowns,” Kallas-Saritsoglou said. “We didn’t know what the deal was. But now as we start to know more about it, that fear doesn’t really come to play in my mind at all.”

Instituting new protocols has been crucial to keeping stores open. 

Since The Wardrobe reopened in July it has required masks, put up plexiglass at checkout, added social distancing signs throughout the store, closed every other fitting room, taken temperature checks, limited the number of customers in the store, and clothes that are tried on and not purchased are held for 24- to 48-hours before returning to the sales floor. 

“I know my staff was feeling a bit nervous,” Kril said. “They were thinking, ‘What, if I come back to work and customers refuse to wear masks?’ Or, ‘We have a capacity of 10 guests at a time — what if we have a line of 50 people out the door?’ We just didn’t know what to expect.” 

Upon reopening, revenue began to flow back into Philly AIDS Thrift, helping the store bounce back from the forced quarantine closure. 

“Now we’re opened up and even with our reduced hours, we’re doing pretty good,” Kallas-Saritsoglou said. “In the beginning of the pandemic we weren’t doing good, but now we’re almost back to similar numbers that we were at before we had to close.”

Even with a reduced capacity, Philly AIDS Thrift can fit 50 people inside at a time, which is a reason why the store is doing better than others at this time. Managing traffic flow and certain procedures inside its space has helped staff stay safe 

“We rearranged the way that we take in our donations,” Kallas-Saritsoglou said. “We used to bring them all through the front entrance, so it could get very congested. Now there’s a separate entrance off to the side that we have where we’re able to process donations which keeps traffic flowing just one way right now. As a matter of fact it’s better than it was before.”

Staying open while instituting and sticking to COVID-19 protocols have also kept up staff morale at The Wardrobe.

“So by putting all of these strict protocols in place, I know that made my staff feel a little bit safer,” Kril said. “And they know that I have their backs if there’s any issues with masks and cleaning. We can’t keep our guests safe if we can’t keep ourselves safe.”

The store had always had a small online presence on secondhand websites like Poshmark but decided to launch its own online store for better control. 

“The online appointments were and still are a huge component,” Kril said. “One thing we’re continually working on to make that better is to create a really robust online store that helps to fund us to be able to send out clothing to clients for free.” 

Hosting an online store has made it easier for The Wardrobe’s clothing to help those in need. 

“Buy one, get one,” Kril said. “If you buy a subscription box from our website, we can then send a box of clothing to someone who needs it.”

Kallas-Saritsoglou has always toyed with the idea of creating an online store but decided not to once the store reopened in June. She realized they could make up for their losses even without an online store.

“Not everybody has access to the internet, and so I think we’re always going to be able to serve the community,” she said. “This is my personal opinion but there’s nothing like going to a thrift store and finding one-of-kind items and that kind of stuff”

Philly AIDS Thrift recently celebrated its 15-year anniversary. While it wasn’t the celebration Kallas-Saritsoglou had in mind, she’s still happy people were able to come together and support the store through the pandemic. 

“Typically we have huge block parties outside with bands and games, you know, dunk tanks and all that kind of stuff,” Kallas-Saritsoglou said. “We showed a movie; we sold out with 180 tickets and it was packed and people loved it.”

Some stores, though, have not been able to adjust, and have made the decision to permanently close. 

The VNACJ Thrift and Consignment Shop in Manasquan, New Jersey had been a part of that community since 1960. The shop had a small staff of paid managers, but it relied heavily on a network of almost 300 volunteers to run it daily.

“We really recognize that this store was very beloved,” Bridget Murphy, chief philanthropy officer at the VNA and the person responsible for managing the Manasquan shop, said. 

The shop announced on July 21 on its Facebook page it would be closing permanently due to the pandemic. 

And while both the Wardrobe and Philly AIDS applied for and received pandemic relief loans from the government, the VNA never did. 

There was never a plan of action put into place to even consider reopening the VNA due to the stores’ business model, which relied mainly on volunteers who were at higher risk to the coronavirus due to age and health concerns. 

“This decision was not made lightly, our number one priority is the safety and well-being of our long-standing volunteers,” the post stated.

Murphy called as many of the volunteers as she could to tell them the news of the closure, including the 25 volunteers at its other store in Montclair, New Jersey, which also shut down.

Volunteers from the VNA thrift store help customers check out. (Courtesy Bridget Murphy)

“We thought about it for a little bit,” Murphy said. “Maybe if someone got to run it just with a paid staff and whatnot, maybe it could’ve stayed open. But I don’t know, we didn’t try.” 

Prior to the pandemic, there wasn’t ever a fear of the store shutting down, she said. Not only was it a popular place to shop, but it was a model of thrift store financial success. Many other thrift stores often contacted the VNA’s store in Manasquan to get tips on how to more effectively run their own business. 

The VNA also had consignor contracts with 50 other businesses, and prior to the pandemic, the store had been grossing over $300,000 annually, Murphy said. 

Even if the shop opened at 25% capacity, Murphy doesn’t think the outcome would’ve been any different.

“If we were going to do something, we were going to try to follow the guidelines of retail that were put out by New Jersey,” she said. “But when we looked at it being 25% capacity in the store, I mean, these items sell for a minimum of 50 cents to maximum $20 or $30. I don’t think that we would’ve been able to make any kind of revenue to justify even that.”

The VNA has since found a buyer for the Manasquan location and ended the lease at its Montclair location. It also found a buyer in a thrift store owner in Bucks County for the rest of the stock in the VNA store.

The VNA hasn’t expressed much interest in opening up a new thrift store once the pandemic is over. 

“We just decided that our fundraising is going to primarily be driven by raising money from direct solicitations of individuals and foundations and corporations,” Murphy said. “That’s really where the effective fundraising is gonna come from versus thrift shops.”

Back in Philadelphia, staff at The Wardrobe continue to follow the protocols in place and push forward with the online store, hoping it can still provide a service to those in need. 

“We’re just rolling with the punches,” Kril said. “Things have been good so far, now that we are open. A lot of our former regular customers are coming in.” 

Customers may not need as many clothes now as since they are likely working from home and social distancing, he said. 

“But in general, we’re just perfecting our new processes and hoping for the best,” Kril said. 

Kallas-Saritsoglou said while it’s great that Philly AIDS Thrift is still being supported, she misses the when the store would be packed and everyone was together all at once. 

“It’s great to see people supporting us and being here, but I miss the group experience of everyone being together,” Kallas-Saritsoglou said. “Hopefully we can get that back soon.”

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