Turning Around an Old Thrift Shop

A little bit of merchandising goes a long way (Photo: Shelly Rabuse/TueNight)

It wasn’t really hard to convince me to volunteer at a second-hand shop. I’d been a thrift-shop/flea market/garage sale junkie ever since I scored the best wagon ever at a neighbor’s garage sale for a buck. Not chump change for an eight-year-old.

But what I didn’t realize was how a once-a-week job to consign clothing would become an all-consuming passion.

It started with a weekly lunch date with a friend who worked at a charitable consignment shop. The shop is in a well-heeled area of suburban Philadelphia. Downstairs the store sold household items, jewelry and art, and upstairs they sold clothing. My friend wasn’t always ready to go when I arrived so I’d hang out, peruse the jewelry cases and eventually I started volunteering.

I discovered I really enjoyed it: I’d scoop up great vintage pieces I could rework for my own handmade jewelry line and found pleasure in sprucing up messy displays.

Plus, I was “giving back” in the process. The store’s profits were equally divided between local charitable organizations — from a school for autistic children to a center that helps women in crisis.

The staff were mostly retired. Two women in their 60s and 70s had been running the shop for over 20 years with a bit of a dated perspective. The stock reflected it. We took anything and everything — from roomy stretch pants to polyester printed lingerie.

Their merchandise needed an upgrade, and so did just about everything else. We had about 10 customers a day,  if we were lucky. In fact, the upstairs clothing shop was performing so badly, it was in danger of closing.

One day a man came in to drop off an armload full of chic, current clothing as a donation. It turned out that he was with a grief organization and that his young wife had recently died. At that moment I realized that what we did in this shop had a lot more meaning and decided I could help them in a much bigger way.

We started by upgrading the shop’s website to add hours, consigning instructions, etc. — as a freelance graphic designer, this one was easy. Then I appealed to the President of the organization’s board to let me rework the shop with better displays, a three-way mirror, shelving and fresh paint job over the summer while we were closed. Happily, she was on board with all of my ideas. The result was a nicer, brighter, hipper and cleaner shop for the fall reopening.

Sales started to pick up. I was thrilled. The President was thrilled. The accountant was thrilled.

But the two women who ran the clothing shop were not exactly thrilled.

After decades of running the shop with no interest in the bottom line, my enthusiasm seemed an intrusion to them. We downsized the men’s clothing area since men’s clothing didn’t sell well. This made way for a wall of shelving for an expanded women’s shoe department. We also did away with selling lingerie and maternity clothing since these also sold poorly at this particular store. But to hear the current shop runners tell it, customers arrived daily lamenting the lack of suits, slips and third trimester jeans.

With the support of a small team of other volunteers who truly believed we could turn the shop around, we got pickier in the clothing we took in and people responded to the better brands and more current styles we started to carry. Over time, the resistant women left the shop and excited people on the same page as we were started to work there. The following year, our numbers doubled from the year before. We created a designer rack and found Chanel and Louis Vuitton making its way into our shop.

Every time I think of that dingy, sad clothing store with no customers, I realize how far we have come. There were many days I wanted to give up, but then I think of the man who donated his late wife’s clothing. The shop created a place to give and to give back. I hope in my heart that the time and work I have put in made a difference in someone’s life. And I’ve met wonderful people.

I love seeing what comes in the door every week — plus, scoring that snappy pair of red cowboy boots doesn’t hurt.

Tell Us in the Comments

What do you think?

3 Responses

  1. Editor’s Note: I’ll Sell It To You For a Dollar | Tue Night

    […] Shelly Rabuse shares how she revamped a consignment shop from ho-hum to humming. […]

  2. How to Get to Know Your Neighbors? Have a Stoop Sale | Social Dashboard

    […] life — or something you never knew you needed. Since the late '80s, my good Philly friend Shelly, a veritable thrift store-flea market genius, has been my partner in "the find" crime. Her patience to sift through musty bins always outlasts […]

  3. savvyworkinggal

    I once tried to drop an armload of clothes off at a consignment shop and they would only take one item  My clothes at the time were all small petites which they said didn’t sell well.  They also preferred designer brands over my Gap items.  I think I needed a minimum amount of items to open an account – it was like 3 or 5, so I ended up taking all my clothes back home.  A few months later I saw the shop had closed.  Glad to see you were able to turn around this shop.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.