Are we killing local thrift stores?

Students go to thrift empires rather than small boutiques

Despite close proximity to the University of Winnipeg (U of W), some local thrift stores don’t feel they’re supported by students or young people.

Outside of the Purple Cactus Thrift Boutique, co-owners Michelle Pennock and Paula Fillmore have put a canopy with rows of beige khakis and summer shorts. A small pink sign is stuck to the canopy: “Free! Please leave hangers. Thanks.” 

After 11 months of serving the community, Purple Cactus is closing its doors. They’re selling whatever they can and giving away everything else.

“We were fine until festival season started. We were just squeaking by,” Fillmore says. “We didn’t know what a winter was going to be like, whether it was going to get better or worse.”

Fillmore and Pennock say even though they were working hard and just getting by, they would have found a way to keep the store open.

 “The final straw was a landlord issue, but, before that, we were struggling to meet our operating costs,” Pennock says.

They say their customers are mostly 35 to 50-year-old women, and students rarely stop by.

In their opinion, it’s hard for a small community-focused store to compete with big chains like Value Village and The Salvation Army.

“Most people don’t know these places are for-profit organizations. They can afford to sell things for cheaper, which we sometimes just can’t do,” Fillmore says. 

On its website, Value Village says it’s a for-profit global thrift retailer with five locations around Winnipeg.

Its community impact report states that in 2015, it provided more than $140 million to its non-profit partners. 

Other thrift chains in Winnipeg are Christian-run, such as The Salvation Army, which is a charitable organization, and the non-profit Mennonite Central Committee Canada (MCC).

Evan Allan, a student research analyst and a frequent thrift shop patron, thinks bigger stores provide better services to customers.

“Usually MCC, Value Village have better deals and a bigger selection,” Allan says. “For people, it’s easier to donate and use places  like Value Village. You can just throw whatever you want to donate in a bag and drop it off. You don’t even have to bring it in. They come out to get it from you.”

Pennock and Fillmore say they think most young people and students don’t shop at thrift stores because they want to shop at brand stores like Forever 21 where they can get an entire outfit at once, even though thrift stores have similar items.

But Jez Torres, a U of W student and proprietor of small businesses, thinks if people just gave them a chance, these local stores would become profitable.

“When I was growing up, thrifting was seen as a ‘ugh, low class, don’t go there.’ Now it’s fashionable,” Torres says. “Why would you save a bunch of money to get something that’s expensive when you can have fun finding a bunch of cool stuff that will last a long time?”

Published in Volume 71, Number 3 of The Uniter (September 22, 2016)

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