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Military Thrift Shops And Consignment Stores: Where Bargains Await

By Sarah Schmidt

Eleanor Davis can spot military spouses a mile away.

They come in droves, looking for something to spruce up their quarters or for something pretty to wear to the Air Force Ball. They're some of her best customers at Repeat Performance, the consignment shop Davis operates not far from Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala.

"Military folks have a sense of adventure about them," Davis says. She thinks that's why many of her military customers seek out consignment stores wherever they're stationed.

"It's like a treasure hunt," Davis smiles, "you never know what you'll find."

Many of her military customers buy designer clothes or unique home furnishings for a fraction of the retail price. "Department stores carry the same dress in four or five sizes, but my military customers know they can find a designer gown here at a great price and no one else will be wearing it at the ball," Davis says.

It's the ultimate in smart shopping: finding a treasure and saving money at the same time!

Smart Shopping

"For anyone living within a budget, resale is a smart way to shop," says Adele Meyer, Executive Director of the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops (NARTS). One of her former board members was a military spouse, so Meyer knows the demanding lifestyle military families face.

"With frequent relocations, sometimes things don't fit in the next home, so resale shops are a great place for military families to sell those items or find new ones," Meyer says.

With more than 20,000 resale shops currently operating in the United States, shoppers can find good deals if they know where to look, says Meyer, but they should first understand the difference between consignment and thrift shops. Thrift stores are generally operated by non-profit organizations to raise money for their charitable causes, such as the nationwide chain of thrift shops run by Goodwill Industries. Churches and other community groups often operate local thrift stores.

Many military installations host a thrift shop, usually operated by the local spouses' organization. Profits from base thrift shops support a variety of charitable causes, such as youth activities, soldier/sailor relief funds and scholarships. Thrift stores may accept goods on donation and/or consignment. Because many goods are donated, shoppers may find the quality of goods varies widely, but the prices are attractive.

Consignment stores sell items on agreement and pay consignors a percentage of profits when items sell, usually between 40 and 60 percent of the selling price. Most consignment stores will only display consigned goods for a limited period (usually 30 to 90 days). If goods don't sell, they're returned to the consignor or donated to other sources, depending on the consignor's instructions.

The merchandise generally is higher quality because consignment store managers can be selective about which items they accept. Some consignment stores even operate as boutiques or specialty shops where shoppers can find high-end furnishings or designer fashions.

Upscale Resale

Le Chic Boutique in Virginia Beach, Va., is just such a place. When Marie Pacio opened Le Chic's doors last year, she had military spouses in mind.

"This is a really big military town," Pacio notes, "so I knew military spouses would be my best customers." She was right. They now account for about 60 percent of her client base.

"Consigning is good for military families because they keep moving. Instead of selling their items at yard sales, they can consign and earn a lot more money," Pacio says.

Pacio's husband recently retired from the Navy, but she recalls the first time she had to buy a formal gown for a military ball. "The prices really killed me. That's when I learned to shop at resale stores," she explains.

She found consignment boutiques in New York and Boston when they were stationed there, and decided to open her own store to serve the high concentration of Navy spouses and other savvy shoppers in the Virginia Beach area.

At Too Good to Be Threw in San Antonio, Tex., owner Linda Reams welcomes military customers. "They understand value, so resale shopping just makes sense to our military shoppers," Reams says.

Many of her military customers from nearby Lackland Air Force Base and Fort Sam Houston tell her they've shopped resale stores in every location they've been assigned. She's proud when they say her shop is one of the nicest they've ever seen. In business since 1979, Too Good to Be Threw has spawned four additional stores in the San Antonio area, including one specializing in upscale furniture.

Women tend to be her most frequent shoppers, but men are getting into resale as bargain shopping becomes more popular. "It used to be that people would park across the street and sneak into a resale store because they didn't want anybody to know they shopped there," Reams laughs.

Through the years, resale shops changed their image and cost-conscious consumers discovered the bargains. Reams says there's no such thing as the typical resale customer nowadays; people from all walks of life shop resale.

"We treat people like they're smart shoppers," Reams says, "and they don't hide the fact they're shopping here. Customers today are proud to say they found a great deal."

Bargains On Base

Good deals also can be found at thrift shops on military installations. "The bargains military families find at the base thrift shop helps them offset the cost of shopping downtown," says Holly Schwarz, advisor to the Randolph Air Force Base Thrift Shop near San Antonio.

Most base thrift shops operate on consignment but pay a higher percentage to consignors than commercial shops. The Randolph Thrift Shop receives only 20 percent on sales, while a full 80 percent goes to the consignor. Plus, consignors have the satisfaction of knowing they're helping charitable causes in the military community. From last year's profits, the Randolph Thrift Shop provided more than $37,000 in scholarships to military families, Schwarz says.

"Every single day, we receive new merchandise, so we have some shoppers who are here every day we're open, looking for collectibles and other treasures," Schwarz says. She refers to a large oriental vase that recently sold for more than $1,500. Another customer bought an ashtray that had been consigned for $1.25. The customer bought it because of its unusual design, but it turned out to be a collectable piece; she sold it on e-Bay for $150 a few weeks later, Schwarz claims.

No matter where you shop, resale offers some great deals if you're adventurous. As Linda Reams put it, "Shopping resale is a hobby for some and an obsession for others."

Either way, bargains await and profits abound!

Tips for Shopping Resale:

  • Put your name on the store's mailing list so you'll know about sales and other special events.
  • Ask if the store maintains a "want list" where you can sign up to be notified when particular items come in.
  • Before you buy, ask about a return policy. Most resale shops are "all sales final."

Tips for Consigning:

  • Consign seasonal items at the appropriate time. Most stores have limited space and won't accept out-of-season clothes.
  • Clean and press clothes. Consign only current styles. If you haven't worn it in awhile, no one else is wearing it either.
  • Dust and polish furniture. Make glassware shine by rinsing with vinegar. Make sure you have all parts or pieces.
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