Archive Serial

Thrift Store Death Spiral III

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.

Archive Serial

Thrift Store Death Spiral II

Thrift Store Death Spiral – Two

As a result of the time I spent in thrift store book sections, I found some real treasures. Those, I remember happily, were mainly passed along as gifts to friends. I remember with particular fondness finding one of Stephen King’s books in first edition. It was published under his nom de plume, Richard Bachman, including a fictional author’s photo and bio, which made it a rarity. It gave me immense pleasure to gift that to a childhood friend of mine who was very much a King completist. My own treasures were mainly reference books. My interest in gardening… well, I’ll spare you some obvious puns and simply tell you I was always on the look-out for titles on specific areas of horticulture. Like many who get a little obsessed with the subject, I badly wanted to grow orchids and other rare cultivars. Unfortunately, I hadn’t the right set-up or budget at the time.

Serendipitously, gardening and horticulture is an area of interest aided by a natural correlation between source material and relevance. That’s to say you’re not likely to find a book on desert gardening where there is no desert. Of course, as is true anywhere if you’ve an eye for it, it’s possible in a thrift store to catch a glimpse of the wheel of time in motion as trends in fashion, design, and aesthetic rise, fall, and rise again. The gardening world has it’s own trends and fads, some of them very distinctive. Terrariums and aquaculture were quite the thing back around 1977, apparently. Those have both evolved radically but as elements of interior design their resurgence has been subsumed, repeatedly, by larger forces and excluded by more powerful design strictures.

Apart from books, I centered my shopping on coffee mugs and cardigans, records, (too many) useless experiments with 8-Track, some minor furniture restoration projects, that kind of thing. I was never one for buying second hand appliances, those (by the time they get to a thrift shop) typically being useful only to people with some interest in tinkering. It wasn’t until I became homeless that I would come to depend on thrift stores for footwear and clothing. As a result of that necessity, I’ve tracked another sort of pattern developing in thrift stores, a worrying change in standards. If you’ve done any bargain hunting in the past ten years you’ll have noticed this change as well. It makes sense when you contextualize the life-cycle of a thrift store, but is easy to dismiss as unimportant or coincidental. When you zoom out a little, though, you may agree with me when I tell you what I think this pattern indicates.

(Most adults have a detailed awareness of the concept of supply and demand, I know, so please forgive me as I describe a version of it here for the purpose of framing.)

Normally, a retailer stocks items that have been manufactured to meet the demand of consumers. Consumer demand is something that depends on a lot of factors, not least being the amount of discretionary income available and a consumer’s willingness to spend. Typically the number of items available, cans of soup as an example, won’t far exceed the amount expected to sell in a given amount of time. This is fairly safe as an arrangement for all parties. The products consumers want are made available, and as they run out, more are manufactured and delivered. The consumer does not usually have to wait, and those involved in the process of producing, ordering, and transporting those products can safely assume they will be sold, which allows for planning and all of the correlative processes around businesses linked to retail sales. Because of the responsiveness and efficiency of production and shipping systems, those involved can respond to consumer behaviours fairly quickly, adjusting processes in the supply chain based on needs and expectations.

Thrift stores are unusual in the retail landscape because of their supply chain. For supply, thrift stores rely on behaviours that are based entirely in the consumption cycle. The improvised nature of that supply chain is vulnerable in some unusual ways. Its development and process involves a couple of important decisions. The cycle begins when a consumer buys an item, new. At some point, they decide they’ll discard the item and, instead of putting into the trash, they donate it. It’s pretty straightforward. While it is the nature of a consumer society to generate a steady-flowing stream of waste products as the cycle of demand, acquisition, and obsolescence proceeds, the introduction of re-consumption as a significant portion of that system has some problematic outcomes.

Thrift stores are a sort of outsider, a foreign influence, or, to borrow a word from two loves of mine, movies and gardening, they are a ‘grex.’ A grex is an unnatural or artificial hybrid. This is something you may already be aware of, as it’s a concept from botany mentioned in the 1978 movie, ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers.’ It’s proposed by one of the leads as a theory for the presence of the strange flowers that have started appearing in cities. While the film offers no explicit explanation of those unusual flowers, it’s safe to imagine they are the hybrid product of an alien life-form and an Earth-bound botanical native. You might also think of their function as akin to that of a virus, or perhaps the Xenomorph, living by diverting native resources towards producing undesirable outcomes not easily checked. As a description for what thrift stores represent, those flowers and their pods offer a pretty robust metaphorical hook.

As a group, people prefer to be lead. Our leaders are very effective at placation. As things exist right now, we live in a society that accepts the existence of poverty as a fact of life. Our society acknowledges the existence of chronic homelessness, hungry children, widespread deprivation, abuse of power, and innumerable ongoing problems. We dedicate resources to things like homeless shelters, holiday food drives, safe houses for abused people, and other stop-gap efforts. Yet collectively we do as little as possible to actually correct those problems. We settle for dedicating the minimum of resources and apply the lowest standard of effort. It achieves an easy-to-measure outcome and ticks some boxes on a form. We make ourselves complicit as we ignore the failures of our systems, trading away the lives of others for the comfort and safety of our personal worlds, keeping to our own small bubble. Sure, we sometimes wear pieces of ribbon, or go for a group run, a march, or retweet political ideas, often producing meaningful results. Some people volunteer, others work within the system, hoping to bring change in that way. The source of complex problems can take a long time to recognize, and even longer to know what to do about them. No matter the issue economics play an important role, both in the solution and the problem itself. Once we see the root of a problem, it is easier to imagine a way forward. Thrift stores, dollar stores, and other elements of the broader day-to-day of human life serve as indicators, as weather-vanes for an underlying reality. In a society that continues to only apply short-term fixes, spin, and tactics of division, problems will continue to propagate.

Archive Serial

Thrift Store Death Spiral I

Thrift Store Death Spiral – One

As someone who moved away from home early I often had to find ways to stretch my funds. It wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar situation. At that time, which was before Wal-Mart, before Amazon, and just as Dollar stores were opening across Toronto, anyone seeking discount retail value only really found it at second-hand and thrift shops. Early in my teen years I’d found second-hand bookshops a great place to discover new stories and authors. Not always the broad selection available at the retail chains, but a reliable source for some of the greats, and at a discount. Downtown had an abundance of used book shops, while my own suburban neighbourhood had only two. The calculus involved turned any search for a new book into something of an adventure. Really hunting around for the right book at the right place and the right price was a fun day out for my teenage self.

There’s more to life than reading, and more to books than shopping. Putting my acquisitive experience on a more practical footing, I did a lot of comparison and measuring, usually around cost but also which edition and what cover art any given book might have, the condition it was in, and whether it would fit in my back pocket. Thrift stores were, naturally, a resource. They could be found, much like franchise fast-food joints, paired up and competing wherever they stood. My apartment wasn’t large, which set a high bar for what came through the door. Small pieces of furniture, records, books, and miscellaneous tools and implements all had to meet criteria beyond simple need or desire.

Goodwill, Salvation Army, Value Village, there were perhaps one or two others… They each had that same distinct odour. (I mean, it’s not a bad smell, really, but if you give it any thought it’s definitely enough to make your skin crawl.) This being before the internet, I sought new information and guidance browsing book sections. There were usually a lot of books on spiritual and religious matters, pop psychology, and a hodge-podge of card game and car mechanics guides. My own hobbies were primarily gardening and house plants at that time. Having taken a deep interest in those subjects, the abundance of magazines and reference material was like a feast to me. The fiction was all pretty mainstream, and there were the inevitable large-format discount hardback books full of glossy pages recommending poorly designed culinary fusions, shoddy homeopathic advice, and unproven crafting projects. Adherence to genre and category were lax on the shelf, and the amount of attention paid to monitoring was limited to clumps of new arrivals all being fit into the appropriate section, resulting in a process of natural selection disturbed only by curious and indecisive shoppers.

Across franchises and locations the selection was at times uncannily similar, even consistent. Noticing this, I would often speculate on how much effort I ought to put into scrutinizing the shelves. A usual trip thrift store shopping was with my girlfriend at the time, which meant we were browsing with purpose. My approach would be to break away and give the book shelves a quick scan, just because. That would sometimes pay off, though not as often as a more thorough search. In some stores, though, a thorough look could take as long as an hour. To save time, I developed a kind of consumer profiling system in which I would try to predict behaviour. I’d guess at which would be the least-often-browsed sections, usually the uppermost and lowest shelves. It was easy spotting where no books had been added or removed. Using this approach, I could, when I made the rounds of our shops, focus my search in areas that I knew few others would have looked. Additionally, I relied on the probability that an employee adding books to the shelves would go about their work applying the least effort, and made plans to influence where they would apply their efforts. To this day I remember observing those upper shelves developing movement at a much slower rate than mid-level shelves. By creating gaps on the top shelves, I found I could encourage placement of new additions there so that I would get first crack. Another tactic I tried out involved basing my level of time-commitment on how quickly I came across a copy of the novel, ‘Coma,’ which virtually every thrift store had a copy of. It was a little unusual to find that book absent. Hard as I tried I couldn’t make a correlation between the selection available and the volume of copies of that book. No doubt there’s some explanation related to demographics and timing, sales, distribution, and the appetite for (re-reading) thrillers, but that was all beyond my expertise and interest. Ultimately I found that while I could influence the probability of success (as I defined it), I had no reliable way to predict my chances, so I just read every title on every shelf and sorted the wheat from the chaff.