‘It’s been epic’: Area thrift stores manage influx of donations following closures
While donations may be up, two months of lost revenue during closure orders issued by Gov. Tim Walz means nonprofit organizations supported by the thrift stores have experienced hardships.
Whether ditching possessions that didn’t spark joy or making room for impulse Amazon purchases, it appears some people spent their recent extra time at home cleaning out the depths of forgotten closets.
But while the coronavirus pandemic might’ve offered the opportunity to declutter, accompanying business closures meant all the ‘90s knick-knacks and outdated clothing had nowhere to go but into basements or the corners of garages.
“We just kind of stockpiled everything downstairs and tried to sell some stuff on Facebook Marketplace for people that would stop by one of our places of work to pick it up from our trunks, but most people aren’t out and about doing that kind of stuff, or they want to meet and try it on and we weren’t doing anything like that with clothing,” said Alanna LeBlanc, who stopped by Baxter’s Common Goods thrift store Wednesday, June 17, to drop off donations. “So it was just easier to kind of stockpile it, and then just to donate it whenever places were starting to accept donations. So that’s been sitting in my trunk now, for awhile.”
LeBlanc was just one of many people who faced such a predicament, evidenced by a massive influx of donations flooding area thrift stores.
“You could say influx, yeah. For those first couple weeks we were open, it was hands down the busiest we’ve ever seen our donation count in terms of volume,” said Scott Vezina, communications and training manager for Goodwill Industries Vocational Enterprises, Inc. in Duluth, during a phone interview Monday, June 15. “ … It’s been epic in terms of donations.”
The Duluth headquarters leads 12 retail locations across the northern swath of the state and northwestern Wisconsin, including the store in Brainerd. Vezina said on top of managing the mountains of previously owned household goods, the nonprofit organization is doing so in a new, precautionary way that takes more time. All donations are quarantined for 72 hours, meaning it’s three days from dropoff before any employees come into contact with the items.
At Common Goods, store manager Danell Eggert explained a similar process they’ve implemented to tackle donations upon reopening. Eggert said her own impulse to declutter during the stay-at-home order made it clear she likely wasn’t the only one.
“We knew there would be a huge influx, because everyone was cleaning out their closets and their house and we wanted to be able to manage it and also have things sit longer,” Eggert said. “ … Yep, people, I think they were bored and that’s what they did. Everyone did. I did.”
Common Goods instituted a policy to accept donations by appointment only, which differed from their pre-COVID procedures of accepting walk-ins. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are set aside for donations, allowing staff time to quarantine the items and clear out space to accept more.
Eggert said one of the things she noticed was people bringing in a lot more clothing than usual along with out of season items like Christmas decorations.
“I think people were just really overhauling everything,” she said. “You went into closets you haven’t been in forever, you’re cleaning out under the pantry — stuff you don’t normally do. I feel like we are doing a good job staying on top of it. I’m just thankful people are willing to make appointments, that was a big change for our donors as well.”
While donations may be up, two months of lost revenue during closure orders issued by Gov. Tim Walz means both nonprofit organizations have experienced hardships.
Vezina said Goodwill paid its employees for two pay periods in hopes the stores would be permitted to reopen, but when that didn’t happen, the board of directors recognized layoffs would be required. The organization ended up laying off 95% of its workforce. Just about half of those have returned to work so far, Vezina said.
Goodwill faces specific challenges because it employs many of those considered most vulnerable to COVID-19 — those with disabilities or underlying conditions.
“We’ve had others that live in group homes, and their group homes are not allowing them to go out,” Vezina said. “ … It’s been a challenge in that sense. Every person’s situation might be a little bit different.”
Vezina and Eggert both noted their stores were busy with customers and sales in the first weeks following reopening — although Brainerd’s Goodwill location was forced to close a week after reopening and remain closed for two weeks following a positive COVID-19 test of an employee. But even with a generally good start for the region, Vezina said he’s concerned about the longer-term outlook as the pandemic persists and consumer confidence remains stagnant or wanes. Retail sales cover 90% of Goodwill’s expenses and play a huge role in supporting the organization’s mission to provide vocational training and employment services to people who have a disability or other employment barriers across the Northland.
“It will be interesting to see how this plays out,” Vezina said. “We’re kind of trying to plan for that out as far as we possibly can. … Halloween is usually big for us, that’s one of my special projects. There might not even be trick-or-treating this year. … That’s going to look different as well.”
The two locations of Common Goods in Baxter and Crosslake also support the mission of a nonprofit organization — Bridges of Hope, which serves children and families in crisis in Crow Wing County and the surrounding communities by connecting them with local resources. Eggert said the forced closure combined with the cancellation of one of the organization’s major fundraisers, Tea of Hope, had a definite impact on expected revenue.
But it wasn’t a total loss. While the physical stores were closed, Eggert said the organization began offering an online store, an initiative that was actually planned before the coronavirus made such approaches to retail more commonplace. Now that stores have reopened at 50% capacity, sales are looking good, she said.
“It’s a very interesting time right now, but it’s good,” Eggert said. “I have no doubt that we’re going to bounce back. … We’re really close to hitting our daily goals every day. I am fairly confident that we’ll achieve that.
“I think people are becoming more comfortable, people are coming out and about more. I think people are just ready to be out spending money. … I really feel like God watches over this place for sure and the organization.”
Even so, Bridges of Hope noted on its website the challenges that lie ahead for the organization.
“Support of Bridges of Hope is more critical than ever as we work each day to serve the growing needs of our neighbors due to COVID-19 and its impacts including job loss, food insecurity and online learning. The road to recovery is long, and there are many needs to be met in our community as we look ahead. Partners, friends and volunteers who support our work are important to us and we count on all of you to join in to get the work done.”
CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .