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A pandemic-induced closet purge has blanketed local thrift stores. What happens to all those donations?


Maybe it’s a side-effect of too much HGTV, being cooped up with the kids or simply channeling their inner Marie Kondo, but Baton Rougeans are answering COVID-19’s clarion call to clean their closets.

At Here Today Gone Tomorrow, St. Vincent de Paul stores and Goodwill Industries of Southeastern Louisiana and other area donation centers, cavernous rooms burst with a floor-to-ceiling jumble of antique dishes, new shoes, broken toys, DVDs and other discards.

How—and why—do the nonprofits process the mess?


Finding the need

Although there is no centralized tracking system for donated goods citywide, all three nonprofits noticed a sizable increase in donations last year.

Even when pandemic protocols shuttered retail operations, donations piled up outside.

Goodwill recorded 134,000 donation drop-off visits at its six Baton Rouge locations.

While many items donated to nonprofits like Here Today Gone Tomorrow are sold at the organization’s discount stores, some are diverted directly to those in need. Photo by Collin Richie.

Here Today Gone Tomorrow processed nearly 390,000 items at its Burbank headquarters.

And, St. Vincent de Paul reported an intake of about 350,000 items in its five Baton Rouge area stores. All three organizations say the numbers marked a significant increase over 2019.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul President & CEO Michael J. Acaldo says the first step to managing the mountains of inventory is finding the “highest and best use” for each piece.

“If there’s nothing wrong with (a donated item), we want to give it away or sell it,” he explains. “If we can’t do those things, then we recycle it.”

That requires an employee to evaluate every item. A mint-condition Juicy Couture track suit or a pristine Beanie Babies collection takes a different route from a stained shirt or beyond-repair iPod charger.

While many of the usable items are sold at the organizations’ discount stores, some are diverted directly to individuals and families in need.

Recently, Here Today Gone Tomorrow manager Chanea Wannamaker helped a client from a shelter for victims of domestic violence. The client felt overwhelmed trying to provide for her teenage sons.

“The abuser says nobody’s going to help you—but don’t believe that,” Wannamaker assured her. “It’s a struggle, but you’re going to make it. If you need something, we’re here.”

St. Vincent also offers necessities to families at its dining room or homeless shelters, and the charity will even deliver.

“(If) we’re able to document there’s a true need,” Acaldo says, “we will get the item to the person free of charge.”

And, Goodwill frequently issues gift cards to its stores to individuals and families in need of disaster relief.

Meeting the needs of these families doesn’t even put a dent in the donated inventory. So, it’s a good thing the thrift store business is booming.

 

Supporting a cottage industry

With a staff of 15 employees, “Here Today Gone Tomorrow’s goal is $10,000 a week,” Wannamaker says.

That’s doable because many Here Today Gone Tomorrow shoppers use a $20 Angel Card to get 50% off any purchase. Angel Card patrons often pay it forward, too, buying baskets of clothing, shoes and jewelry to ship to families in Africa, Mexico or Central America.

In recent years, Goodwill’s shopper demographic has shifted, with a new group increasingly coming into the stores: women in their 30s seeking more than savings.

“(They) come in to thrift, then they show off (their fashion finds) on social media,” says Goodwill Vice President of Retail Operations Tim Salvato. “We have a lot of customers who make their income (by) purchasing our items and reselling on OfferUp, Facebook Marketplace or in their own retail stores, flea markets and garage sales.”

Savvy customers aren’t the only ones taking advantage of the hot resale market. St. Vincent has taken to the internet to offer Hummel figurines, antiques, and other in-demand, high-ticket items such as RVs. Selling these high-value items means more funds to accomplish the organization’s goals.

But even with the growing resale market, inventory levels remain too high to sell everything. Due to the crushing volume of incoming donations and shoppers’ demand for new merchandise, even usable items have a three-week shelf life.

After they’re relegated to a sale rack for a week, the unsold merchandise is whisked from the sales floor into the recycling bin.

 

Recycling and revenue

Recycling doesn’t mean a loss of income.

Here Today Gone Tomorrow sells some overage to a Florida broker, who distributes products in Africa.

At Goodwill’s New Orleans recycling facility, unsold clothes are compressed into 1,000-pound bales and picked up by a salvage broker.

Poor quality clothes may be shredded and become insulation or rags for car washes, construction, restaurants and hotels.

“It’s one of our higher volume operations,” Salvato says. “We sell (the baled clothes) for less than in the retail store, but we still generate revenue.”

Seemingly worthless items may hold hidden value in their components.

“You’re throwing a lamp away because it doesn’t work,” Acaldo says. “But, we have a recycler who buys cords for copper.”

And, the stores’ thriftiness extends beyond donated items themselves.

“People bring us a lot of things in boxes, and we recycle the cardboard,” Acaldo says. “The less we put in our dumpster, the less our garbage costs.”

Photo by Collin Richie.

 

The greater good

If there’s anything better than keeping unwanted items out of the landfill, providing necessities to the families in need and stimulating small business, it’s reinvesting the proceeds from those sales in community services.

Here Today Gone Tomorrow accepts donations on behalf of Cat Haven, IRIS Domestic Violence Center and 75 other local churches, schools and other organizations.

“When those items are sold, half of that sale goes to that organization,” Wannamaker explains. “So, from start to finish, proceeds go back to the community.”

Typically, the local St. Vincent de Paul stores bring in $1 to $2 million a year.

After expenses, the nonprofit clears 5% to 10% to devote to its mission.

“It’s a win for the environment. It’s a win for our cost. And, it’s a win for the people who are recycling these items,” Acaldo says. “And, if we get a dollar out of recycling income, we’re able to feed somebody, fill a prescription or provide a school uniform.”

In 2019, Goodwill’s Capital City stores’ revenue totaled $7.5 million.Some of those funds pay the salaries of its 100 Baton Rouge employees, and they also support a regional job training program for individuals with disabilities as well as re-entry training programs for Louisianans in work release programs, recovery houses and residential release centers.

So, if you still need inspiration to finish—or start—your spring cleaning, remember: There’s a world of good lurking in the back of your closet.

Expensive Christmas gifts from your ex, broken belts and single socks can do more than just suck up valuable space.

They can spark joy and make a real impact in the community—not to mention serve as a deduction on your taxes.

“If you have anything you can no longer use, bring it to us,” Salvato says. “We can always use it to generate jobs and generate revenue. Don’t be afraid to donate.”


This article was originally published in the May 2021 issue of 225 magazine.


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