Secondhand Surge: as wallets lighten, thrift shops thrive

Secondhand stores report rising sales as most retail is down

Posted: Sunday, March 15, 2009

As hard times hit some Juneau residents, retailers that specialize in secondhand, new-to-you and not-so-pricey items are coming into their own.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

"My numbers are up. I was hurting this time last year," said Lisa Ibias, owner of the Alaskan Dames Consignment Shop in the airport shopping center.

Bargain hunting is a national phenomenon. People are spending less - 4.3 percent less in the last quarter, according to national reports, which is the biggest quarterly drop in 28 years. Neiman Marcus is down. Wal-Mart is up.

Juneau only has a few secondhand stores, each with its niche. St. Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army run thrift stores that rely on donations. They're the kind of places with unexpected treasure - that boom box you never received for Christmas as a kid, silverware for pennies, or unused Helly Hansons in last year's colors. Alaskan Dames (and Gents) and Mommy & Me are consignment stores that are choosier about what they sell.

Ibias said customers seem to be spending differently lately. They still want to shop, but they're being more careful and less frivolous. And they're using more consignment credit in the store.

"People are thinking a little bit harder," she said.

An out-of-town regular, Deb Woodruff, said bookings are down this year at her Gustavus bed-and-breakfast. That means it's time to concentrate on the essentials - but then again, she still has an $8 credit to spend at Alaskan Dames.

Same story at Mommy-N-Me Wear, across the street: busy, fewer impulse purchases, more use of store credit. Owner Christine Van Sickle said drop-offs of maternity wear tripled in the past month. People are trying to get extra cash where they can.

"Everything's tight," Van Sickle said.

She also said customers are using credit cards more often than before.

The Salvation Army Family Store manager Henry James said he is seeing "more office-style people," including state or federal workers in the new Juneau store.

This has been an exceptional winter in sales for the Salvation Army.

"They're buying the same things, but they're buying more," said Jack Smith, the Salvation Army corps officer known as Captain Jack, who is in charge of all the Army's Juneau activities.

It's not just the economy, he said. The store is reaping the benefits of its new building, four times larger than the old one, which opened Feb. 1. There's more on the shelves, it's more accessible, and people are curious about the new place.

Aside from the new building, Smith is seeing signs of downturn. More people have come in asking for help. Smith gives them vouchers for clothing, a pot, that last bit of rent or a prescription as yet unfilled. He has given out 50 percent more vouchers since Jan. 1, he said.

"That tells me that a good portion of the shoppers we get are in the same boat," he said.

The Salvation Army's Alaska division spokeswoman, Jenni Ragland, said Alaska's trends are similar to those in the rest of the church's western region: Donations are down, particularly in furniture and appliances. Customers are spending less, but there are more of them. Revenue, on the whole, has risen.

"I was really surprised to see that," Ragland said. "When you look at national trends, we're not in the dire circumstances we're hearing about elsewhere."

These secondhand stores are seeing new customers, but they rely on their regulars.

"This is where I shop," said Kris Harrington, a 15-year Alaskan Dames patron, who was browsing the shop last week with her teenage daughter.

Pamela Walton perused the pants Wednesday morning at the Salvation Army. She's a longtime thrift-store shopper who delights in discovery, and who also can't afford to pay full price. Walton arrived at the Salvation Army by cab, but she didn't have enough money to return home that way.

Her pants budget that day: $4. But customers must choose carefully. The bathrooms are labeled with a note: Absolutely no trying on items in there. The former professional seamstress eyed a pair of candy-pink jeans critically, then moved on.

"Yes, I'm tightening my belt," she said.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or

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