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Originally published Wednesday, March 30, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Secondhand stores prove to be first rate

On good days, they'll find bills pinned inside an old housecoat or a Gucci suit, never worn. They'll find an antique doll or vintage Levi's...

Seattle Times retail reporter

On good days, they'll find bills pinned inside an old housecoat or a Gucci suit, never worn.

They'll find an antique doll or vintage Levi's or a diamond ring.

On bad days, they'll find moldy — sometimes rotting — clothing and other things too bizarre to be mentioned twice, much less here.

"We've had people donate urns," said Adam Hair, an assistant production supervisor at Savers in Las Vegas.

For 50 years, Bellevue-based Savers, which operates a chain of Value Village stores in the Pacific Northwest, has led what it deems "the ultimate treasure hunt."

But what its customers may not know, what they may not see, is how all those 99-cent romance novels and afghan throws have added up over the years.

Savers


Founded: By Bill Ellison in 1954 under the name Salvage Management.

Stores: 104 in 23 states, 88 in Canada and five in Australia under the names Savers, Value Village and Village des Valeurs.

Sales: $430 million in 2004.

Employees: More than 7,000.

Charity: partners 140, which receive $100 million a year for collecting the goods Savers sells in stores.

Source: Savers

Savers has paid out more than $1 billion to its 140 nonprofit partners for collecting the goods it sells in stores. The for-profit thrift-store chain marked its strongest performance last year, posting $430 million in sales.

That's a lot of secondhand suits.

"The key is not to be greedy," said Ken Alterman, a former PepsiCo executive who was named Savers chief executive in January. "You're not trying to max out every sale."

Savers, founded by Bill Ellison in 1954 as Salvage Management, was the first to make a business out of purchasing donated items from nonprofits.

Under this model, select charities collect donations of reusable clothing and household items from the community. Savers, in turn, pays the charity a bulk rate based on volume, regardless of whether those items reach the retail floor.

The pounds add up. Savers pays its partners about $100 million a year.

It recycles the items not suitable to sell in stores. The company ships 220 million pounds of clothing, shoes, toys and books to developing nations each year.

"We literally go to the ends of the earth to make sure nothing finds its way into a landfill," Alterman said.


Jessica Valles, front, and Greg Brown, price clothes at the Value Village on 15th Avenue Northwest in Seattle's Crown Hill neighborhood.

Over the years, Savers has built a network of 140 charities in the markets where its nearly 200 stores operate. In Seattle, it works with the Northwest Center, The Moyer Foundation and Community Services for the Blind and Partially Sighted.

This differs from the thrift-store chains operated by nonprofits such as Goodwill Industries.

Goodwill, for instance, is a network of independent agencies that run 2,000 stores in the U.S. and Canada. Those stores serve as a training ground for people who seek to learn job skills, and the revenue goes to its jobs and training program.

"Many of the folks are there as part of their training," said Christine Nyirjesy Bragale, spokeswoman for Goodwill Industries. "They're learning job skills, while earning a paycheck and building a résumé so they can go onto the next employer with a work history."

Both chains depend on customers like Toni Yuly of Magnolia.

Yuly, 50, a lifelong thrift-store shopper, goes to Value Village once a month in search of designer-label clothes and collectible dishes. She's found camel-hair coats and antique cups.

"I'm bored real easy in department stores," said Yuly, wearing black-rimmed glasses and a purple turtleneck. "I like variety. I get so much bang for my buck."


MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Jakob Phipps, 3, of Seattle, looks through a book from his shopping cart at Value Village in Seattle's Crown Hill neighborhood.

For Savers, the key has been offering more variety to get the Yulys of the world to purchase a few more items per trip.

Alterman, who spent 20 years at Pepsi before joining Savers two years ago, said the chain has invested in a management-trainee program to build a deeper bench.

It also has mined its data to find ways to improve performance.

In the U.S., for instance, it found its stores didn't carry enough merchandise. The company nearly doubled the amount of items to 5,000 pieces per store on any given day.

It also worked on improving the quality of its inventory. A few extra pieces, per rack, per store adds to the till over time.

"That's what we're trying to do," Alterman said. "Just do it a little bit better, have a little bit better merchandise."

Hair, the assistant production supervisor in Las Vegas, is the key to this formula. His employees sort through thousands of pounds of clothing, furniture and toys each day looking for gems — most common, some rare.

As for the rare:

One of the Las Vegas-area stores received a brand-new Gucci suit and another got an accordion. Both, worth thousands, sold for $299.

At the Savers in Phoenix, assistant production supervisor Billie Watkins recalled finding $1,000 pinned in the sleeve of an old overcoat.

The wad of mostly $100 bills dated between 1924 and 1926. Someone had saved for a rainy day.

Sometimes, they find a diamond ring in a pocket. They first notify the charity to locate the owner.

If they find none, Savers and the charity split the proceeds.

Hair said the only thing he hasn't seen donated is a Las Vegas showgirl headdress. (He suspects they're saved as memorabilia.)

"We sell just about everything," he said. "We won't sell those urns but we'll sell everything else."

Monica Soto Ouchi: 206-515-5632 or msoto@seattletimes.com

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