Goodwill thriving in a bad economy

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Crystal and her 3-year-old son, Jordan, shop at the Goodwill Retail Center south of downtown for clothes for her family. The second-hand store is celebrating near-record sales this year.

Crystal and her 3-year-old son, Jordan, shop at the Goodwill Retail Center south of downtown for clothes for her family. The second-hand store is celebrating near-record sales this year.

Randy and RayAnne Smith did a bit of shopping last weekend. Wearing a gold watch, a sports coat and a Ralph Lauren oxford, Randy perused the men’s section while RayAnne, in a trendy skirt and matching jacket, sorted through ladies’ shoes.

The retired small-business owners have shopped for years at places like Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Macy’s, but on this occasion the aisles they roamed were inside the Goodwill Retail Center in south Colorado Springs.

“Ten years ago, we’d have been laughed at if we told our friends we shopped at Goodwill,” Randy said. “Nowadays we shop here at Circle or at the Goodwill on Constitution Avenue nearly every day.”

The Smiths aren’t alone.

As a majority of mainstream retailers around the country continue to suffer through stagnating sales, Goodwill is celebrating near-record years.

Goodwill spokeswoman Lauren Lawson said that sales between January and June are up 9.7 percent year over year.

And while consumers have become increasingly thrifty, cutting spending while padding their savings accounts, Goodwill has been growing.

The company opened about 35 new stores this year, and more than 400 since 2006.

The retailer’s customer demographic has undergone a transformation as well. It’s not uncommon to find the well-heeled sipping lattes at one of Goodwill’s retail outlets now that many of them boast fresh, inviting, modern décor, with superior lighting and open architectures.

The organization also seems to be benefiting from social changes, as more shoppers become eco-friendly.

Locally, Goodwill Industries of Colorado Springs caught some flack when it decided to shutter its downtown store, an operation that had served shoppers for more than three decades.

That store was replaced by a $7 million retail center Goodwill constructed on the city’s south side near Interstate 25 and Circle Drive.

“We like to say, ‘This ain’t your grandmother’s Goodwill,’” said Melissa Lyby, director of communications for Goodwill Industries of Colorado Springs. “Basically, that downtown store didn’t allow us to serve our customers very well. We saw declining customer counts and declining store revenue. Both of those factors helped drive our decision to close it.”

Today, “we can better serve our customers with this newer store,” she said. “We have a double-drive through donation center, more space to store donated goods and more retail space. At 26,500 square feet, this store is considerably bigger than our former downtown store.”

The new store, opened in December of 2008, was an instant success, driven by Goodwill’s effort to present a more upscale and trendy look. The Circle Drive store even holds a teen section, managed and operated by students from the local Harrison School District.

“I like their shoes,” RayAnne said. “We shop most every day because the selection changes so often, but we’ve also bought furniture and even a lawn mower for our son.”

Lyby says Goodwill’s sales at its eight retail centers here are up 6 percent this year compared to 2009.

“Really, our customers nowadays cut across all socio-economic lines,” she said. “We’re not seeing just low-income people. Goodwill has become the place for anyone who appreciates a bargain.”

Of course, it’s hard not to look to the sluggish economy as a big helper.

“Sometimes when the economy is not doing very well, the person who was not the Goodwill shopper before ends up walking through the door,” Lyby said. “But we need that. It helps us perform our mission, which is to help people transition from welfare to work. When the economy is not very good, people turn to us for our services.”

In fact, while retail sales for the company are up, Goodwill in Colorado Springs also provided services to 72,000 people during 2009. That’s double the number people it assisted in 2006.

As the economy begins to recover, traditional retailers are reporting better performance.

Kohl’s and Macy’s indicated sales jumped more than 4 percent year-over-year in August, while J.C. Penney reported a hike of more than 2 percent. But those numbers can be somewhat misleading because they’re compared to dismal months in 2009.

Tucker Hart Adams, senior partner at Colorado Springs-based Summit Economics, thinks Goodwill will continue to see growth in its business.

“I think, with the job situation so bad, about the best we can hope for is that overall retail sales stay as strong as they have been over the last 12 months,” she said. “I think discount stores and, quite possibly, thrift stores will continue to see business move there from higher end stores.”

The elimination of any stigma associated with shopping at a thrift store can only help.

“Now when I get something new, I’m excited to tell people where I found it,” RayAnne said. “I show them the Goodwill tag.”