Thrifty Shops give a second life to Vail Valley discards

Vail Valley Cares finds new life for no-longer-needed stuff and helps out lots of people at the same time

EAGLE — There were around a dozen people sorting through the racks and shelves at the Eagle Thrifty Shop during the noon hour on Thursday.

One of them was 11-year-old Janay Ruiz from Eagle. She was carrying a bright blue ski helmet that looked like it had never been used. It was a great deal, she said. But Janay noted she was already wearing her favorite find ever from the store — a pair of like-new American Eagle jeans.

Shopping at the Thrifty Shop is partly pure commerce, partly treasure hunt and partly philanthropic endeavor. A nonprofit Christian help organization called Vail Valley Cares opened its Thrifty Shops in Eagle and Edwards in 1994 to collect and then resell clothing and household donations.

“Vail Valley Cares Thrifty Shops turn your donations into dollars,” proclaims the organization’s website. “Since 2000, we have given revenue generated by the thrifty stores directly to numerous nonprofit organizations as well as scholarships to Colorado Mountain College. To date, we have given over $3.6 million back to our community in the form of grants, scholarships and individual benevolence through our partnering help organizations.”

But turning donations into dollars isn’t as straightforward as it sounds, notes Vail Valley Cares Executive Director Greg Osteen. Some patrons object to pricing at the shops while others use the drop-off dock as a garbage dump. Osteen figures if folks could just understand the operation better, they would have a better appreciation for how each Thrifty Shop operates. To that end, he and general manager Ryan Leingang offered drop-off to sales floor tours last week in Edwards and Eagle.

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“We would like people to know what’s going on in the stores,” Osteen said.

No one showed for the tour in Edwards. I was the only attendee in Eagle. But the Vail Valley Cares executives are undeterred. They said they would try again in a month or so. In the interim, here’s the story of what goes on behind the scenes at the Thrifty Shop.

Wadded up and stuffed in trash bags

Unlike most retail shops — where the merchandise arrives in pristine condition, often priced and on a hangar, — the inventory at the Thrifty Shops looks like trash when it arrives.

While surveillance cameras record activities at the shops’ drop-off docks, there is an honor system in place. The shop hopes people leave only items that can be resold, not stuff that has to go to the landfill such as outdated electronics, broken furniture or clothing that is well past its prime.

“We try not to take that stuff. We have to pay, like anyone else, to take it to the landfill,” said Leingang. “It’s discouraging for us and discouraging for the staff when we have to throw stuff out.”

After the donor drives off, the staff at the Thrifty Shop digs in. The staff at the shops numbers between 25 to 30 full- and part-time employees. Their initial sorting effort includes three categories — stuff that can be sold in the stores, stuff that can be sent to a different site and stuff that needs to be tossed. That’s when the broken, badly stained, ripped and unusable donations are transferred to the trash.

Many of the donations that go to the Thrifty Stop don’t make the cut to appear on the local sales floor. But that doesn’t mean they don’t find their ultimate resale destiny. If an item has life left in it, but it doesn’t meet the Thrifty Shops’ standards, it is donated to an organization called New Horizons that operates large thrift stores in Colorado Springs, Canon City and Pueblo.

“Our people here have good taste and they want good stuff,” Osteen explained. “If we put junk out on the racks, it won’t sell.”

After the initial sorting, donations move to the pricing room. A lot of thought and experience is represented on each tag the Thrifty Shop places on an item.

Always ‘new’

The merchandise at the Thrifty Shops is ever-changing by design. There is a five-color tag system that gives each item a specific sell-by date.

Each week a new tag color is used for items priced at the Thrifty Shop. That lets the staff track how long an item has been on display. When an item hits its fifth week on the sales floor, it is sold for 50 percent off the marked price. After the fifth week, the price drops to 75 percent off. If the item still doesn’t sell, it is packed up and sent off with the other New Horizons donations.

Leingang said the tag system is also an accuracy check for initial pricing.

“Our staff is great and they have a lot of knowledge about pricing,” he said. “They have worked here long enough they know what we can get for different items.”

If the price on a given item is higher than what customers want to pay, it will eventually drop to half-off. At that point, it’s more likely to find its way to the cash register.

Osteen said staff does occasionally hear complaints about prices, but the gripes are more about a particular item rather than the shop as a whole. It’s in everyone’s best interest to price items appropriately, he noted.

“If you miss a price on Walmart jeans, people are going to get upset with us,” he said.

Fall signals one of the big inventory change times for the Thrifty Shops. Summer clothing and sports equipment are coming down and winter coats and skis are coming out.

The sales floors at both shops represent only part of their overall square footage. In Eagle, the building has around 9,000 square feet, with 4,000 square feet of sales area. In Edwards, the operation has around 8,000 square feet, with a 5,000 square foot sales floor.

This week, backroom storage areas are stacked with skis, snowboards and boots. Those items will be making their way to the sales floor in the days ahead.

While seasonal turnovers are the biggest change inventory changes at the shops, Osteen and Lenigang said they aren’t the only ones.

“A lot of inventory is sold every day so we are replacing it every day,” said Osteen.

He also acknowledged that because the inventory comes from the public, it includes a fair number of surprises. Sometimes the Thrifty Shop staff has no idea what an item is and sometimes staff members have no idea why someone would have bought an item in the first place. This week’s donations included a never-opened knit-your-own-beard kit, for example.

Osteen said one of the donations he remembers most vividly was a truly awful couch.

“It was a terrible couch and we normally wouldn’t keep it,” he said. But at the time, there was room on the shop sales floor so the staff slapped a $10 tag on the item and, sure enough, someone bought it.

But when the ski season ended, the couch was re-donated and then it was resold again. The pattern repeated itself several times.

“It was great that it kept being used. I got so I enjoyed seeing the couch return every offseason,” Osteen said.

Charity beyond checks

Every year, Vail Valley Cares hosts a breakfast to hand out checks to various community organizations — the proceeds from the Thrifty Shops. It’s the best day of the year, Osteen said.

This year the total proceeds were around $320,000. But that’s not the only giving going on at the Thrifty Shops.

The Thrifty Shop regularly donates clothing and household items to families at the request of Vail Valley Salvation Army, Catholic Charities or other groups in the community. When the Vail Public Library’s children’s program needs items for its scarecrow-building project or the local high schools need costumes for a play, the shop helps out.

Additionally, regular shoppers often get benefits with 15% off Wednesdays or special events announced on Facebook or Instagram.

For Vail Valley Cares, every sale is a success not only for the money raised but also for the community impact.

“Whatever you purchase new today will eventually end up in the landfill,” Osteen noted. “Someday, everything is going to end up there.”

But hopefully, he noted, the Thrifty Shop can help give unneeded items a second life before they meet that ultimate end.

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