Goodwill stores in D.C. area flourishing in bad times

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Linda Heskett had been watching the signs out front, waiting for Goodwill's new store in Alexandria to open. Standing in a room crowded with other shoppers, she said she never used to think of herself as someone who buys clothes at a thrift store. "But with today's economy," she said, "any time you can get a bargain, you grab it."

The economy has been tough on retailers and nonprofit groups alike. But Goodwill of Greater Washington is taking advantage of the downturn with an aggressive expansion. It is scouting locations for eight to 12 more stores in the area in the next five years, doubling its current numbers.

Why now? Because rent is down, and demand is up.

Retail traffic increased this year nearly 10 percent to its nine stores, spokesman Brendan Hurley said. In the past few months, sales have been 17 to 20 percent higher than the previous year, according to Dave Sullivan, vice president of donations and retail.

"It's the economy -- people are looking to stretch their dollars," Hurley said. "It's a real shift. . . . Only a few years ago, people were bragging about how much they were paying for purchases. Now they're bragging about how little they're paying."

Nationally, Salvation Army thrift store sales rose 7 percent last year over 2007, from $499 million to $532 million, and anecdotally, sales have continued to be strong this year, said spokeswoman Jennifer Byrd. The Salvation Army has nine stores in the D.C. area.

The high unemployment rate has benefited Goodwill, too, with a crush of applications -- more than 225 for this store, for 20 or so jobs.

Some days, Sullivan said, 100 people would walk up to the store, asking when it would open. On its first day, Friday, the parking lot was full by the time the doors opened at 10 a.m. At one point, so many customers were waiting to pay that two lines stretched about 40 feet from the cash registers. Opening day sales were $12,000, and Saturday's $9,000 in sales mirrored the returns at Goodwill's busiest store in the area, on Glebe Road in Arlington.

Mary Porter, a health counselor, was driving home on Richmond Highway after visiting a client Monday morning when she saw the "Open" signs finally up at the Alexandria store. "I saw the sign and -- " she mimicked screeching the car into a sudden hairpin turn, " I pulled in."

Goodwill of Greater Washington, the local chapter of an international charity, sells clothes, furniture and other donated items to support its job-training programs. Those sales can generate between $200,000 and $400,000 a year in profit.

The local stores are also making changes to pull in new customers: They launched a mobile Web site, a Spanish-language fashion blog (shadowing earlier efforts to rebrand the store as a trendy place to shop, rather than a stale outpost of clothes no one wants), and a video campaign focusing on recycling by donating and buying used.

The new store is the biggest in the region, with 12,000 square feet of sales space, including a children's area stocked with videos to watch and toys, shelves of electronics, furniture, kitchen gadgets -- a little bit of everything from the closets and garages of Alexandria. On Monday, the inventory included Redskins jacket, a set of champagne glasses, a pair of Cole Haan crocodile heels, a dull green trash bin, a T-shirt from the Hogan & Hartson law firm, a painting of a hot-pink unicorn, a black lace negligee and a plaster snail.

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