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Editorial: If everything is expensive at the thrift store, it’s not because of resellers
The meaning of "thrift store" has changed, but it's because of something bigger than a rise in resellers. Photo: cottonbro studio/Pexels

Editorial: If everything is expensive at the thrift store, it’s not because of resellers


Can we let go of the myth that thrifters and resellers have driven up thrift-store pricing and look at the actual issues?

It’s a conversation that many vintage sellers are tired of having with consumers, but one that keeps showing up in the news and on social media every few months: why are thrift stores so expensive these days, and why are resellers “contributing” to the problem?

The latest entry is an article from Toronto Star, published Dec. 30, 2023. In “As ‘sustainable’ thrift shopping booms, consumers wonder why everything is so expensive in Toronto stores?”, reporter May Warren centres her story around the idea that an increase in the number of thrifters and resellers in recent years has contributed to higher prices at thrift stores, preventing low-income shoppers from buying the things that they need.

We’ll get into why that’s not quite the case in a moment, but first we need to get into semantics: historically, the term “thrift store” meant a place that stocks affordable secondhand goods. 

As a result, thrift stores were often frequented by low-income populations, though thrifting as a social, environmental and self-expression activity has always existed, too, regardless of income. 

Many thrift stores, especially independent ones, were directly tied to local charities and community programming.

These two facts have led to public assumption that all thrift stores exist primarily to serve people who can’t afford to shop elsewhere. 

But not all of them do just that anymore. (Check their mission statements carefully.)

The for-profit thrifts don’t sell items directly on behalf of charities. They purchase clothing and household goods that have been donated to local charities, in bulk, for a flat rate.

The charity receives that fee and is out of the picture before the goods ever hit the shop floor. Anything the for-profit thrift shops acquire over and above that is usually donated for free by the public (e.g., you drop off a box of used goods behind a Value Village). Purchasing any of this stuff doesn’t directly benefit a charity.

By the time all of these items are set out on the shelf, they’re regular inventory, just like any other business, and the powers-that-be raise the prices to account for things like overhead costs and labour.

In particular, “trendy” items that see higher demand from shoppers have been slapped with a noticeable markup over recent years, far higher in some cases than could be attributed to inflation or rising overhead, and those prices are what's at the crux of this “resellers are driving up the prices at thrift stores” conversation. 

The real issue is that nowadays, “thrift store” isn’t a great way to describe the big chains like Value Village, even though they self-identify as thrift stores. They’re better described as for-profit businesses that stock secondhand goods — a lot of goods. 

Enough goods, in every department, that even amid heightened demand for trendy products tagged with higher prices, there are still countless other lower-priced options. Walk into any Value Village and see the number of glasses crowding the shelves, or the racks filled with just as many $4.99 T-shirts as $39.99 brand-name ones. 

Responding to market demand is a choice

For anyone who shopped at thrift stores when they stocked items for 50 cents or a couple of bucks apiece, a $9.99 item in 2024 might still come with some sticker shock. 

In fact, the Toronto Star article opens with an anecdote about how inexpensive items were at thrift stores in 1993.

For anyone counting, 1993 was 30 years ago.

The price of everything has increased in 30 years, so we can’t quite compare the then to the now — at the thrift store or anywhere.

Take gasoline: In July 1993, the price of unleaded regular gas in Toronto, Ont. was 50 cents per litre. Using the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator, it should be logged at 92 cents in July 2023 — but it was actually $1.62 per litre, according to Statistics Canada. 

Increases in wages, soaring transportation costs, political challenges and a host of other factors account for the difference. 

Thrift stores share a similar set of pricing constraints. The Toronto Star article positions the rise in reselling and sustainable shopping as a phenomenon that is driving prices higher than those normal constraints — but it’s a faulty generalization. 

Importantly, it reinforces a perpetual, stubborn myth that resellers are greedy and uncouth just by virtue of being resellers.

For anyone new here, most resellers do not just buy up items from a thrift store and flip them. (To say nothing of the fact that resellers comprise a wide range of people — including some who would be classified as low-income and thus affected by rising thrift-store prices, and who resell as a source of income.)

Has there been a rise in thrifting and reselling in recent years, especially over the course of the pandemic as it became a more mainstream activity? Absolutely. 

But while there may be more thrifters and vintage sellers strolling the thrift-shop aisles, and prices on some thrift-shop goods may be higher than ever, there's a distinction: they are not directly responsible for the price hikes. 

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The price increases are happening because of higher overhead costs, and because the thrift stores themselves are responding to higher demand. They see the market value on certain products increase, so they increase the prices. 

Market value on secondhand goods, however, is often dictated by reselling as a service — a service that thrift stores don’t provide and thus a line item that shouldn't be reflected in their price calculations.

Instead of conflating resellers as the reason for higher prices, think of it this way: thrift stores don’t necessarily have to respond to market demand. They don’t have to drive up prices beyond what’s absolutely necessary to cover their own rising overhead. (Many independent charity shops don’t respond much to market demand at all).

There is no shortage of goods in the big chain stores, and they could easily forgo market value on the “trendy” items to maintain lower prices for the people who need them and who have no shopping alternatives — if that’s what they were solely in the business of doing. 

The ones that respond to market demand by driving up prices have more skin in the game, usually because they’re either responding to shareholders, like Savers Value Village, or they have massive community programs to staff and run that have rising fixed costs, like non-profit Goodwill and its employment placement services.

Lots of inventory available

This notion that thrifters and resellers are actively restricting people’s access to goods simply by shopping at thrift stores creates artificial scarcity, a fallacy that relies on the idea that there isn’t enough to go around. 

But thrift shops saw record donations during the pandemic. The Toronto Star article acknowledges that stores had to hire more staff just to work through all of the donations coming in. 

These are not environments that are hurting for inventory. 

Further proof there’s no shortage of goods: A 2018 story by CBC News found that only a quarter of what’s donated to thrift stores ever makes it to the shop floor. 

And there are plenty of anecdotal stories of thrift-store shoppers witnessing staff clearing perfectly good inventory from shelves into bins in the interest of keeping the items on display fresh. Where do the bins of tossed items go? Out back, into the store’s dumpster

There’s a difference, of course, between what is available versus what is trendy. Vintage sellers and thrifters generally aren’t popping into thrift stores to buy basic necessities. They aren’t “taking away” things from people who need them.

A used wine bottle marked for $5.99 at a Value Village or a dog’s ashes in an urn for $3.49 are problems with a company's pricing strategy, not problems because more people are shopping at thrift stores.

However, it is a problem that individuals with low incomes may not be able to access “trendy” items at thrift stores because the products have been priced too high. They shouldn’t be relegated to buying only certain items in a store that markets itself as a place to find affordable goods. 

(For what it’s worth, resellers and thrifters aren’t buying those marked-up items either — just watch the countless “thrift with me” pricing Reels and “pricing fails” TikToks.)

But overpriced trendy goods and strangely priced personal effects with no market value are separate issues than having an abundance of available product and ensuring ongoing access to basic necessities for prices that remain relatively low after 30 years of inflation.

And the solution to those issues lies with the thrift-store companies, not the resellers. 

The argument that people can’t buy what they need because of the rise of thrifting is untrue, and it’s damaging for the livelihood of vintage sellers who yes, source at thrift stores but countless other places as well. It’s a misdirection of blame, and at this point, a very tired one.

Let’s put the onus for change where it actually belongs: on the companies that use the term “thrift store” but play the market while purporting to be for the budget-conscious.

That’s what we should be talking about.

A fresh take on all things old.
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