Thrift Store Death Spiral – Three
The standard approach to dealing with problems and errors in a system is mitigation. We mitigate the probable cost of crime by employing police, and by doing things like supplying the poor with welfare payments. We mitigate the trend of economic failure, repossession, foreclosure and exclusion by providing unemployment benefits, consumer credit and payday loans. We mitigate stagnant income and rising transport costs by gradually shrinking the portion size of food items. We mitigate the cost of producing those food items by substituting ingredients of lower quality. Toxic agricultural practices, unsustainable frameworks of corporate governance and policy, on and on — this web of generalized unconcern mitigates the responsibility and the accountability of power structures which have never taken their position or their responsibility seriously. Despite the reality that people everywhere are paying a human cost for systems-wide neglect and malaise, profit margins don’t shrink much and traditionally-defined inflation is virtually non-existent. By common metrics, that means we’re doing it right — which assumes we’re measuring the right things, of course. Returning to the point, thrift stores fit nicely into the category of mitigation. There are some uglier terms we could apply to the overall function of donation-based retail — ‘Noblesse Oblige’ is one — but let’s stick to some practical aspects here.
The poor need many of the same manufactured goods that everyone else use. Clothing, furniture, shoes, knick-knacks, items of utility, few or none of these are likely to be hand-made by a modern individual. With a need to economize, the poor and working people of our society naturally look for secondary options, legal and illegal. Thrift stores are a reasonable response to that demand. For the purpose of illustration I’m going to use the example of an item close to my heart, shoes. Some people buy new footwear based on fashion, season, or social requirements, as with a graduation or funeral. Others will only own one or two pair of shoes and wear them until they need replacing. Then you have that breed I’ve never really understood, who simply love having a lot of footwear options, buying and buying and buying shoes that they wear a little at a time. Seems a little weird, but that’s people. Whichever sort of consumer they are, the people in this example one day decide they’re going to donate a pair of shoes they’ve not got any further use for. You can imagine the difference in shoe each different type of consumer might be donating. The person who buys new shoes for style or occasions is likely to be donating moderately used items, well cared for and of brand name quality. The person who only owns a couple of pair will be donating shoes that probably have little in the way of life left in them. The shoe-obsessive is probably laughing at anyone who gives away good shoes or buys from a thrift store, but we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt here and say it’s probably a donation of a pair of high quality shoes with maybe a scuff that won’t take polish. Now we have these three sets of donations, each of a quality that you’d hope represents the broadest range you’ll find at your thrift store, good quality, poor quality, and subjective.
The important parts of a shoe are the heel, the blade, the toe, and bridge support. The upper and the sole are important, to be sure, but when the interior of the shoe has collapsed, the rest doesn’t matter. My own shoes wear pretty heavily at the heel, collapsing the support in a poorly made shoe fairly quickly. Some people ride the outer blade of the foot, which breaks the edge of the internal part of the shoe down. Others are particularly hard on the ball or the toe of the shoe. Across brands, these problems will exists depending on design and material. Most of the shoes you’ll find on the shelf will have at least one of these issues. Depending on what condition the shoes were in when they were donated, the internal wear pattern can be tolerable for a little while, or at least until you can find a better pair. If they’re in bad shape from the start, though, you’ll end up walking around like you’re drunk, always a little off balance, always seeking to correct and offset inertia and momentum. Worse, it can badly affect your posture.
The quality of the products on a thrift store shelf is entirely dependent on the quality of products people have donated. That in itself is dependent on the decisions being made by those donating. Some people donate items because they no longer have use for them. Some donate items because they have obtained something newer or better. Some items are donated as a matter of habit, people thinking of a donation as recycling. As salary and wages continue to stagnate and people of all income levels are motivated to look for savings, a long and insidious cycle begins. More shoppers accessing a limited pool of items, all sourced from the consumption cycle, means there are fewer items available overall. That difference, between goods manufactured and goods reclaimed, presents us with real problems. With no mechanism to increase the available supply, the existing material is depleted more quickly, and standards, already low, are lowered. The poor and working poor, people who have a real need to shop for necessities at thrift stores have increasing difficulty finding the items they need.
Over a slightly longer time-line, the impact of the complex of factors which produce the conditions in which thrift stores, dollar stores, and retail liquidators thrive creates a situation that reaches into the homes and families of the middle-class and of professionals. This has a dangerous, cascading effect.