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Secondhand can be Catch-22 for thrifty Earth-conscious shoppers

Conventional wisdom says buying secondhand is a good way to be frugal and help the Earth at the same time. Increasingly, shoppers are facing the choice of one or the other.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

Stephanie Liy didn’t expect to get sticker shock in the Goodwill store. When the upstate New York resident and homesteading enthusiast needed to buy canning jars, she planned to buy secondhand, as she often does for household goods.

Liy found single Mason jars priced at $1.80 each — but a discount-store promotion had the same jars for 42 cents each. “The disparity is huge,” she said. Liy was torn — she is mindful of her family’s environmental footprint and prefers to reuse and recycle whenever possible, but that ethos of frugality also means avoiding excessive spending.

“We are very careful to be financially cognizant of everything we do when we make purchases,” she said.

Conventional wisdom says buying secondhand is a good way to be frugal and help the Earth at the same time. “In general, most used things are a third to half of new [prices],” said Adele Meyer, executive director of NARTS: The Association of Resale Professionals.

But people like Liy say that increasingly they find themselves facing a choice of one or the other. Dollar and big-box stores are competing so fiercely with one another that they have effectively created a “secondhand premium” for household goods ranging from cookware to clothespins to kids’ clothes.

“I think a lot of consumers aren’t aware — they automatically assume a thrift store is the best deal,” Liy said.

Economies of scale

Big-box stores have economies of scale that nonprofit and independent thrift stores just can’t match, explained Michael Meyer, Goodwill’s vice president of marketing and donated goods retail. “They’re buying things in great volume, we’re getting things as one-off items,” he said.

In some cases, high staff turnover at secondhand stores could lead to inconsistent pricing, said Rusty Parrish, a retail consultant who focuses on thrift and secondhand stores. “It could mean that pricing knowledge isn’t retained,” he said. “You’re always replacing pricers. You’re always training.”

“Pricers in non-profit thrift shops are volunteers and may simply have made a mistake,” Kate Holmes, a retail reselling consultant, said via email. “In that case, if the opportunity presents itself, a quiet word to the manager or cashier might suffice,” she suggested.

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Dedicated thrifters say this approach meets with mixed success. Liy said she asked her Goodwill store’s manager about the canning jars she wanted, who told her the items did sell quickly at their current prices.

“Our role as an organization is to extract the maximum value from the donations we receive,” Meyer said.

To that end, Goodwill has between 10 and 20 “boutiques” across the country, smaller stores that are often in wealthier neighborhoods, where curated, elegantly displayed collections of higher-end goods like designer clothing are sold.

“That’s all designed to create a different type of shopping experience,” Meyer said. “It is a trend.”

“I had to stand in the aisle and just laugh,” said Daisy Shirley, who found a wide-mouthed, one-and-a-half quart canning jar with a $3 price tag at her local secondhand store. “I would’ve paid no more than probably about 75 cents,” the Aurora, Colorado resident said.

Be a smart shopper

When she asked the cashier about the price, the cashier lowered it. She also told Shirley it had been valued higher because of its size. “It’s a very unusual size, one they had discontinued making for a really long time,” Shirley said.

This is another reason why people might find secondhand store prices higher than they expect, experts say. “It is possible that the consumer is not cognizant of small differences, and is herself mistaken as to the value of something that looks like something else,” Holmes said. “I once had a shopper tell me that [a] Baccarat decanter was overpriced at $45 ‘because the dollar store has them for $5.’”

And just by virtue of their longevity, items donated to a thrift store may be better quality than dollar-store goods, thrifting aficionados point out.

“I would say, in general, vintage items are better quality than what you’re buying at the dollar store,” said Sara Tetreault, who blogs about green and frugal living at “What happens is people go into the dollar store and see the prices and think that’s what’s everything should cost,” she said. “Those costs are going down for a reason.”

The misconception about frugality, she said, is that it’s just about price without regard to associated social or environmental costs. “People think it’s cheap and it means the lowest price,” Tetreault said. “It’s being smart with your money.”

In Liy’s case, that meant forgoing the secondhand canning jar for the new, discounted ones. “I can always use jars… and they’re brand new,” she said. “I didn’t have to worry about what they could have been exposed to.”