Is it worth it?

The gentrification of thrift stores


Lauren Holcomb

For the first time in fashion history, thrift stores have become as essential to the middle class as they are to the impoverished communities they were designed to serve. The potential effects on lower-class communities are worrying. As thrift stores increase prices to meet resellers’ upcharges, the longtime, poorer buyers will be left feeling the effects: thrift store merchandise will not be as accessible or affordable to them. “It’s just going to separate the lower class from [the resources] they [need], and it will separate [the] middle and higher classes. It will make things a lot more difficult,” junior Kristen Skordos said.

Macklemore may have to update the lyrics to his 2012 hit single “Thrift Shop” soon because as we head into a new era of thrift stores, the line “But it was 99 cents (bag it)” now reads like a cruel joke to any long-term patron of thrift stores. 

Economic inflation has been wreaking havoc on industries nationwide, with prices increasing by 6.0% in February 2023. At first glance, thrift stores would also be increasing to adapt to the changing market. However, this inflation runs deeper than just currency.

“Thrift stores have more than clothes; they have houseware [items]. Kitchenware, dishes, microwaves, kid’s toys, bedding, anything you can think of. That’s just going to make [finding things at thrift stores] increasingly difficult for [lower-income families],” junior Kristin Skordos, a former employee of Savers, said. 

Goodwill was ranked the seventh largest charity in 2022 and is one of the biggest chain thrift stores, boasting over 3,000 locations in the United States and Canada alone. Though claiming their only purpose is to “transform lives through the power of work,” Goodwill has a history of choosing profit over people, such as when it came under fire in 2012 for paying disabled employees under the minimum wage.

Goodwill has recently joined other thrift stores to raise prices through a “tiering system.” They have three tiers of products: base price, tier one and tier two. Prices of products increase with every tier. This tiering system means that depending on the quality or brand of a piece, the price could increase by up to 250%. 

“There are three main tiers. The base one is the [least expensive] tier, the middle tier you’re going to get a more worn out designer, then the third tier is the most expensive, that’s straight out-of-the-box type stuff. I can notice a big difference between tier one and tier three,” junior Will Anderson, a former Goodwill worker, said.

Goodwill has also launched an online store with the intention of upcharging more valuable items. The website places a minimum base price on an item, and then consumers bid on the item of interest. However, a first look at the site procured listings of Shein and Forever21, with the base price for some items being only a few dollars lower than the retail price. This encourages consumers to bid higher than the base price of the item, which leads to them paying more for it than it would cost from Shein or Forever21. While the model of a website that can charge more for more valuable items makes sense, charging $15 and higher for out-of-season, Shein is just greedy.

Price increases from national chain nonprofits to local charity shops are hitting the second-hand industry. However, prices aren’t going up for no reason; they fluctuate due to consumer behaviors.

The 2010s and 20s have seen the largest shift in public perception of thrift stores. Beginning in the early 20th century as charity shops often run by religious organizations or figures, they quickly obtained a reputation as purely for the “poor and needy.” These classist implications became more than implications in the mid to late 20th Century as thrift stores carried a stigma among many middle-class families of being “dirty,” and children from lower-income families were commonly ostracized for having to buy from thrift stores. 

Simply put, teenagers from middle-class to upper-class families wouldn’t have been caught dead in the Salvation Army. Those who may have chosen to venture into one were often mocked by their peers.  

“My parents were both extremely, extremely poor when they grew up. My dad came from a third-world country, and my mom was from a lower-income family,” junior Inaya Chishti said. “My mom [went] to high school, and everybody else was wearing nice, new clothes and [she wore] Goodwill clothes, and all of her clothes were passed down. As an immigrant, my dad couldn’t afford the nice clothing the white doctors had. Though they aren’t living those lifestyles [anymore], the lifestyles that they used to live were traumatizing [for them].”

Thrift stores are using alternative outlets to drive up costs to meet the higher prices of resellers. This is true even for items from stores like Shein and Forever21, which can often lead to the Shopgoodwill price being the same or even higher than the original retail price. This is dangerous, as thrift store prices could eventually be on par with retail prices for new clothes. This makes the original purpose of thrift stores, to be a resource to lower class families by making clothes and household items more affordable and obsolete if there is no longer any notable price difference between new items and used donated items. (Lauren Holcomb)

However, this all changed in the mid-2010s with the rise of influencer and vlogger culture. Influencers like Emma Chamberlain presented thrift stores as an affordable source of less common yet cute clothes for the average teenager who does not have the resources to frequent vintage boutiques. This trend has led to purchasing at thrift stores being a more acceptable practice and a hobby. This has even led to the invention of the term “thrifting” to describe the act of recreational shopping at thrift stores.

Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see videos on TikTok of influencers stumbling upon vintage Harley Davidson tees or rare Miss Me jeans with retail prices in the hundreds or upcyclers who take “ugly” clothes and turn them into unique and flattering pieces. And more likely than not, most teenagers have probably seen “resellers” that hunt for pieces to upcharge and resell on the online store Depop.

“I think [resellers] are killing [thrift stores]. It’s like big chain restaurants like McDonald’s, and then [thrift stores are] like a little Ma-and-Pa burger place. But people don’t [pay] much attention to it. Depop’s killing thrifting, and it’s ruining their prices and raising them,” Skordos said.

This internet subgenre of “thrift hauls” or “thrift with me” videos generally consists of middle-class to upper-middle-class influencers visiting thrift stores and buying gross sums of clothes. These clothing items are often subversive garments, such as clothes intended for plus-sized people, children’s clothes or leather jackets, all items typically less common in thrift stores and all the more necessary for lower-income shoppers

As shopping at thrift stores becomes a more normalized and appreciated hobby, those who need their services most are marginalized and hurt by this new appreciation. Contrary to popular belief, this contemporary embrace of thrift stores has done very little to help lower-income citizens. Though the normalization of thrift stores has helped to support small second-hand stores as well as mitigate stigma towards impoverished people for their reliance on thrift stores, because of price increases, this has ultimately made thrift stores less accessible to people who require them. 

Another big topic in the popularization of thrift stores is sustainability and overconsumption. Since lower-income people are undeniably the most affected by climate change, removing the class factor from conversations about climate change and fast fashion is impossible. Thrift stores are often filled with discarded fast fashion clothes from companies like H&M or FashionNova, thrown out from the superfluous hauls by the upper middle class into thrift stores

By using thrift stores as make-shift trash cans to dispose of wasteful fast fashion hauls and the environmental guilt that comes with these purchases, the upper classes use these resources to absolve themselves of their shopping guilt. There is a widely held idea that donating unwanted clothes erases the original irresponsibility of the unnecessary purchase. 

However, the truth is much more unfortunate. Many donated clothes do not reach the standards of thrift stores and do not make it out onto floors, so a whopping 84% of donated clothes end up in landfills. Though donating these clothes is ultimately better than throwing them away, thrift stores are not the easy fix to unsustainable buying habits that people think. 

While the complications with thrift store shopping go beyond price increases and fast fashion brands, they are also much more simple than that. It comes down to the concept of quantity. 

It’s easy to be mindless while thrifting; even with price increases, the comparatively low prices allow many consumers to impulsively buy without thinking about potential consequences. Though each incremental price increase may exponentially impact lower-income buyers, for the growing base of middle-class patrons, these prices mean very little.

For the middle class, if they buy a $4 blouse they never wear, who cares that they wasted a measly $4? If a reseller buys masses of shirts and jeans and bags and sweaters, the potential profit they could make off of reselling on Depop massively outweighs the initial cost they would’ve paid for in-store.

Comparing original Goodwill prices against the prices assigned by Depop resellers helps to illustrate the priorities of Depop resellers. By buying these pieces to inflate the prices, this practice of reselling makes thrift stores far less accessible to the lower-income people who need them. Reselling thrifted items for inflated prices drives up prices in secondhand stores, making these stores less affordable to people living paycheck to paycheck who can’t afford to meet these raised prices. “There’s a difference between buying on Depop and thrifting. Understand that there are probably other people who need it way more. [Reselling] is bad for the economy of thrift stores,” Chishti said. (Lauren Holcomb)

With most stores, the vast quantity of uniform clothes removes any responsibility on the consumer to not overbuy — at least at the expense of other buyers. But when someone wastefully and thoughtlessly buys clothes from a thrift store, they take clothes away from someone else who could use them.

“[Thrifting] is just something that sometimes [people] have to do. Maybe it’s becoming more mainstream or ‘normalized,’ but it’s becoming even more classist and making people feel like, ‘Oh yeah, this is cool. I need it more than you do,’” Chishti said.

As a result of the financial struggles many teenagers are increasingly facing, this issue affects high schoolers at a disproportionate rate. Despite being at a point where fashion and fitting in become incredibly important, teenagers rarely have the money to fund this spending.

“A lot of high schoolers are working minimum wage jobs, and a lot of their parents do not fund [their] shopping addiction,” Chisti said. 

Considering all these things, it is still important to understand that arguing against the mainstream utilization of thrift stores altogether is faulty and dangerous. Using an “all-or-nothing” attitude toward anything is wrong, but especially towards something as fragile as the economies of second-hand stores, which, unlike most other retail stores, do not exclusively cater to one type of buyer, but instead have a consumer base that messily weaves together people from all demographics.

Instead, we should advocate for thoughtful appreciation of our second-hand stores. Though shoppers may be able to relax more about the stresses of sustainable sources and prices when they enter their local Goodwill or Savers, it is important to remember that mindful consumption should follow us no matter where we might be shopping. 

Buying things that won’t come to use is a waste, regardless of where they come from, and reselling harms the economy of thrift stores. Second-hand stores have a purpose: to provide communities with low-cost textiles and wares to bridge the gap between the classes of America.