Credibility:

  • Original Reporting
  • On the Ground
  • Sources Cited
Original Reporting This article contains new, firsthand information uncovered by its reporter(s). This includes directly interviewing sources and research / analysis of primary source documents.
On the Ground Indicates that a Newsmaker/Newsmakers was/were physically present to report the article from some/all of the location(s) it concerns.
Sources Cited As a news piece, this article cites verifiable, third-party sources which have all been thoroughly fact-checked and deemed credible by the Newsroom in accordance with the Civil Constitution.

Story first appeared in:

Scanning the shelves at Goodwill’s Parker retail thrift store, Tammy Nelson wasn’t really looking for eight ceramic bowls and the curious metal stand that might once have been a candleholder. Those are just the items that fill her shopping cart. 

What she actually brings to the register are the ingredients for an antidote to economic uncertainty, political toxicity and pandemic-induced angst of the times. Someone else’s cast-offs that could be repurposed into hope.

Nelson, 58, envisions her purchases, bound together with some heavy duty glue, as a multitiered birdbath, a yard ornament or maybe even a fountain. More importantly, she sees the previously used merchandise as flint to spark her creativity and fuel a hobby that might become a home-based side gig for a self-described introvert.

“Social anxiety is a real thing — especially after the pandemic,” says Nelson, who drove over from Aurora to check out the store. “If somehow I became so creative that I were able to find a way to make some money at this, wow, wouldn’t that be incredible? Retirement seems like it’s eons away, so any kind of side hustle helps.

“That seems to be the culture now.”

Whether driven by the urge to join the gig economy, inflation fears feeding frugality or some combination contributing to a general malaise, both donors and buyers have returned to thrift stores in a resurgent tide. Thrift store leadership notes that the same pandemic self-seclusion that curtailed shopping also triggered massive personal decluttering — and a firehose of donations.   

While shopping at Goodwill’s Parker location, Tammy Nelson found items that she planned to use for crafts, and possibly turn her hobby into a money-making side gig. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Goodwill of Colorado, like other thrift organizations, saw a predictable decline in both drop-offs and purchases during the pandemic that effectively closed its stores for a good portion of 2020. But 2021 saw a substantial turnaround of more than 35% in both its retail and the increasingly popular secondary outlets, where shoppers often seek merchandise they can resell online.

With the opening of a 34th location soon, Arc Thrift Stores, which fund advocacy programs across the state for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, will have nearly doubled its retail outlets over the past 13 years, with almost 200,000 square feet of warehouse space split among four Colorado locations. Rather than branch into e-commerce, Arc has chosen to focus efforts on its bricks-and-mortar business.

In terms of sales, the pandemic delivered that same gut punch that others felt, notes Arc Thrift Stores President and CEO Lloyd Lewis. Although he estimates the Colorado stores experienced roughly a 20% decline in sales during 2020, Lewis adds that Arc saw a huge uptick in donations that year — an industrywide trend that has continued. 

“That was the toughest year in our company history,” he says, “and the toughest year of my business career. But there was a huge increase in donations in 2020 as people at home started to do home clean-outs. And donations continue to be strong now. That’s going to be helpful as people start to shop more as we get through this economy.”

Donations piling up

With a 2019 consolidation that joined two separate territories, Goodwill of Colorado, a nonprofit that provides a variety of community services, remains a thrift giant with 47 retail operations — 42 conventional stores, one upscale boutique in Denver’s Cherry Creek district and four of what it calls “outlets” that specialize in secondary sales, salvage and recycling.

It also has expanded transportation operations and integrated inventory control so that, theoretically, any given donation could ultimately wind up at any Goodwill location across Colorado. At the Parker store, for instance, two or three semitractor-trailer truckloads of merchandise per day pass through the sorting process in the space behind the retail operation and head out to other destinations.

“We want to get items out here on the merchandise floor available for sale as quickly as possible,” Goodwill spokesman Bradd Hafer says. “So that whole process from donating to actually allocating, whether it be to a warehouse for redistribution or to the store where it’s donated, usually happens the same day.”

In the summer, it’s not uncommon for workers to see 500 to 700 cars cycle through the Parker location in a single day. Often there’s just a casual handoff. But in some cases, donors will point out items that are of particular value in the hope that somewhere in the secondary market buyers will appreciate its value.

On this particular day, donors say goodbye to once-treasured items that add to those accumulating in several giant boxes. For John Bosco, a Parker resident delivering an offering from the latest household purge, the quick trip to the donation line delivered a Barbie Dreamhouse that his daughter outgrew — and would soon provide an affordable housing option for some plastic figure in another ZIP code.

“Kids outgrow stuff really quick,” Bosco says, noting that his wife, an elementary school teacher in Elizabeth, also shops there frequently. “It’s easier to bring it here than it is to try and sell it on OfferUp or in a garage sale.”

His family’s last attempt at a garage sale yielded about a half-dozen browsers. They ended up bringing most of their items to Goodwill.

Once off-loaded, items are rolled — bin by bin —  into the sorting area in the back of the store, where workers keep an eye out for higher-end items. Every store has an employee with that special eye for detail whose job is to identify those pieces, rather than slow down the sorting process by having everyone treasure hunting for valuable donations. But anyone who spots something can divert it to a walk-in closet-sized area on the sorting floor for further evaluation.

“Everything in this room somebody that works here sees value in it and thinks it’s worth enough to get more than what we can get in the store,” store manager Kristina Smith explains. “But just because it’s in here doesn’t mean it’s worthy.”

Some of the worthy items: Pyrex dishes, even if they’re faded from years of dishwashing. Or Legos, which the stores can sell in bulk. Cabbage Patch dolls. Electric train sets. Fisher-Price toys. Frequently, particularly in-demand items feed an evolving thrift-shopping presence — and an entire online culture.

Goodwill employee Bryan Petersen transports curbside donations into the Goodwill Parker Store. Donations surged as people have decluttered homes during COVID. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“The intrigue of thrifting, it’s a trend,” Hafer says.”People are doing it now more because it’s in vogue. You have all these new people that are social media influencers that come into stores and they highlight high fashions and merchandise and shopping habits and tips on shopping — in thrift stores specifically.”

From Facebook to Twitter to Instagram to TikTok, Goodwill has engaged influencers, and even invited them to grand openings or seasonal campaigns like Halloween. Some, Hafer notes, produce time-lapse features on gathering an entire wardrobe within the store — and then tally up the savings. Others do virtual “takeovers” of Goodwill’s online channel for prescribed periods.

“There’s just a vast number of followers,” he says. “It skews towards the younger and middle age groups and when you’re in a thrift store industry, you’re always looking to engage as broad of a consumer base as you can for donating and shopping. So social media is a great way to get the word out.”

But it’s those rapidly filling boxes lining the wall outside the store, awaiting their turn to be emptied into roller-bins and wheeled into the sorting area, that represent the conundrum for managers trying to effectively regulate the flow of merchandise. 

Yes, donations are great — Coloradans donated about 200 million pounds of goods last year. But so many, in a tidal surge, present challenges, says Shery Richer, Goodwill’s senior director of retail operations.

“We love it. This is our lifeblood. We absolutely need it,” she says. “We just don’t need it all at once. So to see it sitting outside, that’s not what we want. There’s an ebb and flow of what you get, and we don’t have the luxury of ordering: ‘Hey donors, we only want this today.’”

What she notes on this particular morning outside the Parker site is an embarrassment of riches. The overflowing boxes indicate that donations have outpaced the staff’s ability to process them — a situation she sees repeated at sites across the state. 

Some of the items given here will find their way to the local retail shelves, but much more will be sorted and shipped by truck to a sprawling structure on the south end of Colorado Springs, one of three such sites in Colorado where goods undergo another screening that further determines their ultimate destination.

A worker moves items in the warehouse section of the Goodwill Outlet and Retail Support Center in Colorado Springs in June. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“It’s not a perfect world anymore”

The Goodwill Outlet and Retail Support Center includes a cavernous 30,000 square feet of warehouse that’s just a fraction of the building’s total footprint. It fills and empties in cycles, with most donations arriving from May to September, followed by a drawdown from September through April. 

Managers expected donations to tail off this summer under the theory that inflation would curtail new purchases of items like clothing, which often leads donors to purge their old stuff. But it hasn’t happened. In fact, Goodwill leased another 15,000 square feet of warehouse space nearby to deal with the influx.

Amid the constant hum of activity, punctuated by the dull roar and beeps of forklifts and other machinery, workers dart in every direction. All the outlets are running about 30% short on labor — at the busiest time of the year. About 42 workers keep the outlet running.

“In a perfect world, I should have 64 employees,” says Sharon Kelly-Reyes, aftermarket manager for the Colorado Springs outlet. “But it’s not a perfect world anymore.”

It’s a changed world, for sure. In the front portion of that same cavernous building, workers at the Goodwill Outlet Store feed demand from a constant stream of customers hungry for used merchandise they might find personally useful — but more often find marketable.

Every 15 minutes on a typical weekday here, employees wheel another double-row of about 16 large bins — some call them “boats” — into the display area of the facility, replacing a set of picked-over containers. On an average day, 380 boats will cruise across the sales floor in the process Director of Operations Larry Shea calls Goodwill’s “second bite at the apple” — an opportunity to monetize donated goods that didn’t sell at the retail store. 

There’s no coordinated color scheme or customized soundtrack or organized display racks. It’s more like an all-you-can-eat buffet of consumer goods, priced largely by the pound — plates 69 cents a pound, linens 49 cents — although there’s also tiered pricing for larger items.

Ravenous buyers swarm the new arrivals. 

Here, shoppers will purchase about 15-20% of the merchandise before the remains move further down the chain to salvage and recycling. (In another area of the building, machines condense materials from cardboard to plastic to handbags into 1,200-1,500-pound bales to be put up for bid on the international market. About 50 container-loads a month leave Colorado, primarily textiles and shoes.)

Goodwill Outlet and Retail Support Center employee Christopher Monces feeds clothing into a textile baler, a machine that compresses textiles into cubes, in preparation for shipping to secondary markets. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

This is also the setting where the thrift industry has seen a significant shift. Almost all the folks digging through the bins are resellers looking for inventory. But Shea notes that the nature of that secondary market has changed in the past five years.

Previously, the customer base for these Goodwill outlets leaned toward large buyers who would drive up from the U.S.-Mexico border region, fill a truck with goods and take them back to resell. Some customers had family thrift businesses in Africa. They’d spend days selecting items — primarily clothing — and then fill shipping containers and send them back overseas.

The new demographic is what Shea describes as a “younger, niche internet reseller” — especially younger women with side gigs in vintage or traditional clothing — looking for resales via sites like eBay, Etsy and Poshmark. Others found themselves homebound during COVID and set up side businesses, only to realize they could make more as resellers than they did in their original jobs.

“They’re not buying 10 carts,” Shea says, comparing the new customers to the bulk buyers. “But they’re buying one cart and being very selective. It’s that younger demographic, entrepreneurial, working from home, doing their own little internet business.”

Donations have also felt the impact of the expanded online marketplace, as younger potential donors feel comfortable taking their old items — or at least the most salable ones — to the secondary online market directly. But an older demographic has accounted for much of the surge in donations.

“We have this baby-boomer generation that is downsizing and giving us everything,” Shea says. “So we’re getting a lot of that, but at the same time there’s some people who are a little more savvy about internet selling that like to have their own skin in the game.”

Army veteran Aubrey Weston digs through second-hand merchandise at the Colorado Springs’ Goodwill store. Weston claims to have found a literal gold nugget worth thousands buried among the bins. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Aubrey Weston is one of the regulars who’s continually amazed by what he finds digging around in the boats. He also loves mingling with the friends who shop there Monday through Friday, then take their purchases to the flea market on the weekend before starting the cycle anew.

“I like having extra money,” says Weston, a 51-year-old retired Army veteran, “and there’s extra money in this place. You ready for the secret? The person who found the biggest gold nugget in the Goodwill? You’re talking to him.”

He pulls out his phone and produces a snapshot of … an actual gold nugget he found buried in one of the outlet’s bins. Shea does not dispute Weston’s claim.

“Why would somebody throw that away? I don’t know and I don’t care,” Weston says. “It’s in my collection. It’s worth thousands. And it’s very rare. I’m trying to find its brothers and sisters.”

He figures that in many cases, valuable items end up in the bins after a death in the family, when people who lose aging parents might be too quick to dispense with a house full of belongings without sifting through them carefully enough. 

“The kids just focus on life insurance,” Weston figures. “So I’m gonna focus on your mom’s jewelry, her Rolex watches or her gold or silver. I’m gonna focus on everything else.”

Buried treasures

Stories of other found treasures are fairly common. Sometimes there’s such an obvious oversight by the donor that Goodwill makes an effort to track them down to return items mistakenly discarded.

When someone donated an entire fireproof safe, workers opened it to find an envelope full of cash, passports, birth certificates and death certificates, Kelly-Reyes says.

“Normally if we’re going through handbags and we find somebody’s information we’ll shred it,” she explains. “In this instance, we knew it belonged to somebody who misdonated it somewhere. And although it showed up down here, it was actually donated in Denver.”

On the other hand, sometimes people intentionally donate items they know to be valuable. And that’s where Goodwill’s e-commerce operation steps in to try to maximize the return. Collections of Lego “people” have sold for more than $5,000. A 1959 Barbie doll brought $10,000 on shopgoodwill.com in May of 2020.

But it’s the hidden gems that bring people back.

“If we didn’t have tidbits out here for people to find, they’d never come back here or they wouldn’t shop as diligently,” Kelly-Reyes says. “A gentleman I was just talking to found those little brackets that you put on a climbing wall. He said those are worth 300 bucks, and he found three of them. I wouldn’t have known. I probably wouldn’t even know what something like that is because there’s no way I’m climbing up a wall.”

But Maley Lysle makes it her business to know what’s likely to bring a good price. Based inside an enclosure known as “the cage,” she casts an experienced eye — with the help of a red reference book simply called “the bible” — to root out potential bigger-ticket items. The 29-year-old Goodwill worker circulates through the facility and has just plucked a pair of unworn cranberry crush pants from the donations, complete with the original price tag: $64. 

She’ll create a label denoting the size and place them in a shipping container to be taken to the main e-commerce location near Garden of the Gods, where they’ll soon appear on the organization’s web site. But the antique and vintage items — in a military city, she sees a lot of World War II memorabilia — stir her fascination with history.

“The nice thing about this job is I never know what I’m going to see every day,” she says. “It’s almost like I’m a treasure hunter and I kind of like that aspect of it. You just never know what’s going to come through the doors, so it keeps each day interesting.”

Goodwill employee Maley Lysle sifts through donations looking for higher-value items that often are sold on the online store. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Latest

Kevin Simpson

Kevin Simpson

Kevin Simpson is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a general assignment writer and editor. He also oversees the Sun’s literary feature, SunLit, and the site’s cartoonists.