Goodwill's New Look: Cheap Can Also Be Chic

Em Hall, marketing manager and fashion blogger, with a custom men's suit to be sold on Goodwill's eBay store. Hall is part of the nonprofit's effort to rebrand itself as a seller of
Em Hall, marketing manager and fashion blogger, with a custom men's suit to be sold on Goodwill's eBay store. Hall is part of the nonprofit's effort to rebrand itself as a seller of "vintage" clothing. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 29, 2007

Like other fashion bloggers, Em Hall dispenses advice on matters such as the appropriate cut for ankle boots, pairing floral patterns with polka dots and how to wear a three-piece suit.

The twist? Many of her sartorial suggestions and inspiration come from Goodwill.

The Washington chapter of the international nonprofit organization has launched a campaign to recast itself as a source of vintage and high-end fashion in an attempt to expand its customer base to young, professional women. It has hired Hall to blog about stylish merchandise found in its stores and uploaded a video of its annual fashion show to YouTube. Its new eBay store has featured a fur stole and beaded evening gown by Oleg Cassini, who designed clothes for Jacqueline Kennedy.

"Most people think of Goodwill as a dirty old thrift store, and we're trying to change that perception," said Brendan Hurley, vice president of marketing and communication for Goodwill of Greater Washington.

Goodwill was founded to educate and employ people who are disadvantaged or have disabilities. The nonprofit operates nine stores in the region and receives more than 400,000 donations each year. Hurley said the average shopper is a 35- to 49-year-old woman with a household income of less than $70,000.

He said the group does not want to alienate those core shoppers. But it decided to reach out to more affluent shoppers as well after noticing the popularity of high-end vintage boutiques -- many of which sell the same items found at Goodwill stores. It was a lesson in marketing. There is a difference between "vintage" and "used." And Goodwill fell into the latter category.

"If we can help reposition the nature of the merchandise," Hurley said, "we can garner a lot of market share."

Goodwill held its fashion show in September. The local chapter of Salvation Army also holds an annual fashion show, which is scheduled for Wednesday at the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Washington.

Hurley said the local Goodwill chapter is the first in the country to test the concept and begin marketing itself through social networking outlets such as MySpace and YouTube. Hall was named retail marketing manager in June and began blogging shortly afterward under the pseudonym DC Goodwill Fashionista.

"At first I was surprised that there were comments at all. You do not know what to expect. This is brand-new territory for us," Hall said. "Is anybody going to take Goodwill seriously with a fashion blog?"

In a recent post, Hall wrote about fall looks for men culled from Goodwill's stores. She picked a gray wool zip-up sweater from J. Crew with flat-front trousers for one outfit, and a shiny striped button-down shirt in another -- a bit unorthodox, but fashion is about risks.

"The shirt is a little bit shinier than I'd usually recommend, but it's from DKNY and it still has the tags on it, so I thought I'd throw it in," she wrote. "I think this shirt is perfectly acceptable if it's always covered by a jacket, sweater, or -- at the very least -- a kicky vest. Otherwise, you look like an extra from 'A Night at the Roxbury.' Not cool."

The site receives 600 to 800 visitors each week, most of them local. Hall blogs three days a week and features Goodwill finds on Tuesdays. The items are then auctioned on Goodwill's eBay store. (Another online storefront,, sells a wider variety of merchandise from Goodwill stores around the country.) Hall recalled one Yves Saint Laurent men's suit in mint condition that sold for $168 online -- and was tagged at $12.48 in the store.

In September, Goodwill posted an 8-minute video of its annual fashion show on its Web site and YouTube. About 10,000 visitors played the video, Hurley said. About 15 percent of them also shopped Goodwill's online store or its eBay store, he said.

"I think social media really lends itself to nonprofits in particular because a lot of them are cause-oriented, and a lot of people are compelled to care what those organizations are saying," said Geoff Livingston, founder of marketing consulting firm Livingston Communications and author of the book "Now Is Gone," who advised Goodwill on its strategy.

One of Hall's blog posts that has received the most comments had little to do with fashion. She was working in a store in August when a customer approached her for help finding jeans that fit. As they searched the racks, Hall learned that the woman was homeless and had been in the clothes she was wearing for the past month. She had only a $40 clothing voucher to spend.

Hall helped her find a new outfit over the next hour: a printed, button-down blouse; a purple-and-black rain coat (the woman said she liked dark colors); new shoes; plaid flannel pajamas; fleece sweaters and cotton T-shirts.

"At one point, I told her that she could go on in the dressing room and she said, 'Don't go anywhere. I want you to tell me if these jeans look good on me, okay?' " Hall wrote. "And I did. And they looked good on her."

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