Downstate thrift stores adjust to new normal

Bridging the Gap thrift store in Milford, owned and operated by three sisters, from left, Susan Pleasanton, Vicky Reynolds and Kathi Little, has had to adjust during the coronavirus pandemic. (Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller)

The coronavirus pandemic has been a mixed bag for thrift stores Downstate.

Some stores report that interest in donating and purchasing secondhand goods has increased, but others say diminished traffic has hurt the sector, leading some to close.

“Our shoppers have not totally returned to the levels where we were in 2019,” said Colleen Morrone, the president of Goodwill of Delaware and Delaware County. “Our transaction count is down from the prior year.”

Still, she said demand for Goodwill’s secondhand products has increased.

“We are seeing a higher transaction value from the customers that are shopping,” she said. “We’re just not seeing the same number of shoppers.”

While Ms. Morrone said her stores are not necessarily selling more, the organization did see an enormous uptick in donations, particularly as her stores reopened from a statewide lockdown June 15.

More donations
As the stores were shuttered, donations continued coming. Ms. Morrone said that through the lockdown, store managers went in to work to handle the piles of donations left outside.

Furthermore, “when we reopened in June, what we hadn’t contemplated was that everyone who had been under stay-at-home orders for the last 12 weeks had spent that time cleaning their homes, purging their basements, cleaning and organizing,” she said. “We got bombarded with donations.

“The community certainly does know that there’s a value to Goodwill in the community, and we certainly felt that from the community’s support in donations,” Ms. Morrone said.

“It has made it very difficult for our staff, just because of the pure volume,” she said. “We’re not structured to be able to manage through all of the donations that are coming in.”

Recently, she said Goodwill has cut back the hours it accepts donations to just four per day to help manage the flow.

Smaller operations have also seen an increase in donations in the aftermath of the lockdown.

“When we started back up, that’s when we had to catch ourselves back up,” said Jared Cooley, who owns three American Veterans Thrift Stores in Lewes and Rehoboth Beach. “When the quarantine happened, we got kind of overloaded.”

Roger Wood, who owns four God’s Way thrift stores across Kent and Sussex counties, also attributed the increase in donations to people staying at home during quarantine, which Mr. Wood said has led many to clean out their homes.

“We go out and do pickups, too,” said Mr. Wood, who also runs a moving company. “Today, the guys are out doing a house clean-out.”

He’s seen an increased desire for clean-out services like these, but Mr. Wood has also seen more demand on the consumer side of his operation.

“We’ve seen an increase in revenue and donations and just in business,” he said.

Mr. Wood added that his business tends to do better when the economy is struggling.

“When that all happened in 2008, when the housing market crashed and all that, the two or three years after that were some of our best years in business,” he said.

Businesses struggle or close
But even Mr. Wood’s recession-proof business is not entirely safe. God’s Way had a fifth location in Camden, which closed in June.

“It was the one we had more issues with than the other ones,” Mr. Wood said. “The pandemic didn’t help things, as far as being shut down for three months. That kind of put a stinger on us across the board.”

Mr. Wood’s Camden store wasn’t the only one to close in Kent County. Mungobwele Saidi’s shop called Local Synergy, which he opened in Dover in 2014, also closed at the beginning of the lockdown.

“We were paying rent for no reason. If we were open, no one was coming,” Mr. Saidi said. “I applied for the government aid. I don’t know why or what the criteria were, but they did not approve me. So I let it go.”

Mr. Saidi often gets calls from locals looking for his business, but he has no plans to reopen soon.

However, he has some advice for other business owners.

“Life is always up and down, so that’s why it’s always good to plan things ahead and prepare for this failure,” Mr. Saidi said.

Bridging the Gap, a small thrift store in downtown Milford founded last year and run by three sisters, has been struggling since it reopened from the two-and-a-half-month lockdown June 1.

“What we’ve been getting through the door is pretty much the same as before COVID and after COVID,” Kathi Little, one of the sisters, said of items donated to the store.

“It really surprised us, because we thought the same thing, that people would be cleaning stuff out and bringing it in, and it would just be more for us to wipe down and clean before we can put it out,” she said. “But it hasn’t been that way.”

Customer Joan Durand looks at tableware at Bridging the Gap. The store’s owners say, amid the COVID-19 crisis, they are just breaking even (Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller)

Vicky Reynolds, another one of the sisters, said that although there was a flurry of customer interest in the first week of June, demand has remained muted in the months since then.

“I think everyone was anxious to get out that first week, but people are still being very cautious as far as money coming in. So we haven’t seen as many customers coming in as we did before we closed.”

Ms. Reynolds said the business is just breaking even at this point and that neither she nor her sisters are taking home a salary.

Newfound focus on sanitation
The sisters are doing a lot of cleaning, though.

“We disinfect everything,” Ms. Reynolds said. “We wipe things down constantly.”

She also said all customers are “required to wear a mask and try to keep the 6-foot social distancing.”

These were the only sort of changes noticed by Mr. Cooley at his American Veterans Thrift Stores.

“We just have to do the mask thing, so everyone’s comfortable,” he said. “We have a bunch of hand sanitizer spraying everywhere up at the counter.

“That’s really about it. Everything else is still the same,” Mr. Cooley said.

He said persistent cleaning is a part of his job that predates the pandemic.

“We’ve always tried to keep it as clean as we can,” he said. “We don’t know where all of this stuff comes from.”

Mr. Wood said cleaning has become an even greater priority at his stores.

“We had to make changes to make sure we clean everything a lot more now, daily, just with the cleaning the counters, the doorknobs,” he said. “Our stores were already pretty clean, but we’ve come up to another level with that with this virus.”

Mr. Wood said the most challenging new element of his job has been figuring out how to cover the shifts of his workers who call out sick.

“It’s more challenging for us to make sure that someone who’s not feeling well … stays home,” he said.

New jobs
This has led Mr. Wood to hire a new employee who started Monday.

“This person’s position is going to be the fill-in person. If we have someone who calls out because they’re not feeling well,” he said, “we hired this one person to fill that spot, because we can’t be too short-handed in these types of stores, because there’s a lot of work involved in running these stores the right way.”

Ms. Morrone said that her Goodwill stores have added 60 new positions since the stores reopened from the lockdown.

“We were able to bring back every employee who was willing, wanting and able to return back once our stores opened,” she said. “We’ve been adding some positions for production, to be able to get additional product out onto the floor.”

In addition to a whole new shift that was added to the organization’s textile-recycling plant in New Castle, she said two to three new retail positions have been added at each Goodwill store in the region.

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

Have a question, tip, or resources about the coronavirus pandemic? Submit it to our newsroom and we’ll do what we can to provide answers.