Thrift stores, in my opinion, are outpacing antiques shops for diversity, cost and quality. It’s a generational thing. So many families can only keep so many items from grandma or their parents after a household clean-out. I have seen families back up a semi-truck at a thrift store and donate the entire contents of a home. Somewhere in that group are treasures the family neglects to see the value in and the thrift store staff will price well under a collector’s demand.
On the flip side, I have also seen members of the millennial generation race through thrift stores to find high-end fashion at a fraction of the cost.
What was once considered the lowest rung on the collectors’ scale has now become one of the largest segments of the used and vintage goods industry – and everybody wants in.
Over the last five years, revenue for the thrift stores industry grew an annualized 2.3 percent to $10.2 billion in 2019. In 2019 alone, revenue is expected to grow 1.6 percent, according to industry watcher IBISWorld. That rate of growth might appear small, but when you look at the quantity of items sold compared to the revenue, that increase equals a lot of bric-a-brac and knickknacks. Goodwill alone turns an estimated $3 to $4 billion in profits a year. The report excludes consignment shops, antiques shops, rare books stores, used records stores and other resale shops that do not allocate a significant portion of their revenue to charitable activities.
As a result of growing consumer spending and demand for methods for sustainable consumption, industry revenue has increased. While consumers may be more likely to seek out new goods during periods of high disposable income, the growing trend of recycling clothing and other goods has benefited the industry.
For collectors and resellers, however, we’re most interested in all of the material that is underpriced and ready to flip.
Just as profits in the antiques business are determined by volume, so is the profit margin at thrift stores. That’s why they’re happy to see the same customers stop in day after day. There is another perk that people overlook when shopping thrift stores: the friendships that can be made with the clerks, staff and fellow shoppers.
I love when I walk into my favorite shop and the checkout clerks shout “Hi, E!” I don’t know if that is a sign of great customer service or a serious spending problem. Nevertheless, thrifting can be a great social activity, which leads me into one more point. If you are maintaining an antiques booth in a group mall, then thrifting is the game for you. Estate sales are always a good source of high-end material (especially on the first day) but thrift stores can be the bread and butter of a decently stocked booth.
Odd, don’t you think?
So what kind of finds are out there? Since I’m a collector of oddities and curiosities (Wedgwood just doesn’t do it for me) I sometimes get skunked, but the days that I do hit a jackpot it is a jackpot well worth it. Recently I found a fantastic 5-foot-tall folk art Uncle Sam flag holder. These vintage holders were often made in the garage and were placed out in the yard or on parade floats during important holidays such as Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. Sometimes you see these flag holders pop up at country auctions or sometimes in third-tier auction houses, commanding as much as $200 to $300 – or more depending on quality. My wife was speechless when Sam and I walked in one night, although admittedly he spent a few years hanging in my garage.
Other favorite finds include lots of vintage postcards and even Staffordshire figures; however, you have to be careful when buying these tiny statues because most all of them are modern reproductions fresh off the boat. That doesn’t mean I won’t pick one up from time to time. In my office I have a reproduction Staffordshire depicting the death of Lord Horatio Nelson, the famed 18th century Royal Navy admiral, right next to a book titled, The Life of Nelson. It’s a macabre little vignette in my quest for the unusual.
Thrift shops are also a great source of odd items from foreign lands. Families are now donating souvenirs from family or business trips that took place 40 to 60 years ago. Just like the Grand Tour items well-heeled ladies and gentlemen purchased during the Renaissance, early 20th century tourist items take on a whole new life in the 21st century. Marble obelisks, marquetry wooden boxes, unusual clocks, vintage African masks, mineral collections and even some taxidermy, have all been added to my cabinet of curiosities.
One trend I have noticed is a number of young people buying brown furniture. Because of my role, I ask these youngsters what they plan to do with their new, beautiful bookcase or desk made of oak.
After hearing for years that the brown furniture market is dead, believe me that I am shocked when their response is “enjoy it as it is.”
I think that’s mainly based on the price. Antiques shop owners and dealers who exhibit at shows have struggled for the last 15 years to move these large pieces of furniture, but 20-somethings are willing to buy when they are priced right. It seems those starting out appreciate pressed-back chairs and oval oak library tables. Let’s all hope that trend continues and prices will increase in shops and at shows.
Let’s talk tactics.
I head straight for my favorite shelf: the whatnot shelf. This is the corner of the store where staff and volunteers either don’t know what the object is or it defies all classification and looks out of place everywhere else. This wall of misfit toys has yielded my most valued treasures, probably because people don’t associate the unusual at the thrift shop. This is where I’ve found excellent examples of segmented handmade wood turnings, treen objects from the 19th century, antique puppets, a scientific plaster model of a human pelvis, Native American masks, unusual collections of fossils and miniature carriage clocks.
One of my favorite finds is a tiny horse’s saddle, perfect in every way with tooled leather and real stirrups. I suspect it is a salesman sample but have yet to confirm it. This shelf is also a haven for one of my largest collections: boxes. There is no limit to the number of wooden boxes a person can own, in my opinion. Most all of the ones I’ve found are handmade and the craftsmanship is a lost art.
Thrift store items are sorted by color, making it easier for the staff and volunteers to quickly fill the shelves. Rows of reds and blues and yellows and whites and purples are just dazzling to the eye. These sections yield wonderful art glass, beautiful china and many foreign-made objects. I visit the assemblage of white objects first. This is where the Toby jugs, statues and figural groupings, framed vintage objects and carved stone items hang out. These items are a gold mine because they can be unusual or small enough to flip in an auction or online to find and appreciate.
Next is artwork. I always look for signed prints, printer’s proofs, maps and images of general interest. This is where I lament my ignorance in modern and contemporary art. I miss the work of great artists, but I shrug it off as a treasure for someone else to find and appreciate.
The last stop is “pop culture and toys.” As far as I’m concerned, there is nothing wrong with a grown man checking out the toy offerings, hoping to find a vintage Hot Wheels car or a premium freebie given out to promote an obscure movie.
So I’m curious, how do Antique Trader readers shop thrift stores? Is Goodwill your main hub? Are small charity shops the source for your booth? Do you find yourself talking for an hour with your fellow shoppers, either learning something about an antique or collectible or educating someone else on such? Are you the one who brings Starbucks gift cards to the staff every Christmas season?
Finding that diamond in the rough is among the most exhilarating feelings collectors ever have and it’s extra special when it comes with a story or found in the corner nook of a thrift store.