Marketing in Thrift Versus a Typical Retail Store

In a recent conversation with a thrift store operator, I was asked the question, ”So you channel all your marketing efforts toward donors?” My answer was a resounding, “Yes!”

Conventional wisdom tells you to focus your marketing on the customer. Retailers want the customer to come to their store to buy the widget instead of going to another store to buy the same widget.  That’s retail 101.

But in thrift, we can’t compete for the sale of that widget because we can’t “order” the same widget from the supplier.  There are many areas where the knee jerk reaction is to treat thrift just like any other retail operation, but marketing is one area where it differs.

We have limited marketing dollars. If you ask me where to best allocate those dollars, I am going to say donations, donations, donations.  The truth is the thrift shopper will find you no matter where you are located, if you have great quality items available for purchase. These aren’t widgets. They are unique, one-of-a-kind items, be they clothes or an antique.  Don’t get me wrong. There can be bad locations, but I have seen successful stores in old skating rinks and failing stores in prime locations. The primary difference being too much time spent educating people on where to shop versus how easy it was to donate.

There are three ways to effectively focus your marketing efforts into your community, and we recommend priority in the following order.

  1. Convenience – Spending marketing dollars on efforts such as clear signage, donation bins, mobile donations centers (wrapped trailers), and print & social media that focuses on “Free Donation Pick Up” and convenient locations for donations. These efforts will work wonders for product flow and ultimately sales.
  2. Engagement – We as a non-profit thrift store can strategically engage other like-minded organizations.  If you are faith-based, a natural relationship is the church.  Reaching out to those organizations, who are full of members already donating, is a great place to start.  Educating them on the good their excess can do for the community often results in a response of “I had no idea.”  And the next donation comes sooner and with higher value items than the previous one.
  3. Conscience – Most non-profit organizations spend a majority of their marketing dollars here. The errant thought is that if we tell enough people about our mission, more people will donate.  While no doubt important, the time and place should be at the register and the donation points in your store versus marketing dollars into the community.  No matter how much an individual resonates with your cause, by itself, there’s a lower chance they will go out of their way to donate a bag of clothes. However, when a donor or shopper is thanked properly and informed of the specific good of their donation or purchase, the chances increase significantly of that donor donating or that shopper shopping on a regular basis.

Marketing for thrift is inherently different than a standard retail environment. It is not, “If you market it, they will come.” It is, “If you get the right stuff donated, they (the shoppers) will come.”  Focus your marketing efforts accordingly for a season and watch the impact.

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