In recession, Goodwill becomes a force on the retail scene

Vikki Miglionico never used to shop second hand.

But Tuesday morning, Miglionico was thumbing through the racks at a new Goodwill in Sandy Springs, looking for deals. Since discovering the chain, she comes at least once a week.

"It's so organized, it's really nice," she said. "I don't have to go to large department stores anymore. I just come to Goodwill."

A certified massage therapist from Alpharetta, Miglionico has seen her hours decrease in the recession and watched the prices of some things rise. She can no longer justify spending $50 on a pair of jeans – especially when she can find them at Goodwill for $5.89.

In an economy in which very little is thriving, Goodwill stores are flourishing. So much so that Goodwill is opening new outlets across metro Atlanta -- and even in some well-to-do markets, such as Johns Creek. In the neatly organized, brightly painted stores it’s easy to see the appeal: Goodwill has gone retail.

Since 2007, Goodwill has added 10 locations in North Georgia; the Johns Creek store will open Sept. 23. Goodwill of North Georgia president and CEO Ray Bishop said the nonprofit has plans to open five stores a year until 2014, though the locations of the others have not yet been set.

Others have taken note of Goodwill's growth. Mike Neal, Atlanta senior vice president of the retail services group for real estate services organization Colliers International, said Goodwill is probably the most active user of retail space in the market today. They’re also a desirable one.

“They are a great company to do business with,” he said. “They’re a good draw.”

Neal said not only do the stores get a lot of traffic from shoppers, but high-income individuals come the area to make donations, then stay to shop at Goodwill.

While Neal said he has noticed other thrift stores are also expanding, Goodwill, he said, is the best of them.

Because of North Georgia's large population, Bishop said, Goodwill has the chance to be a much bigger retail organization than it already is. He said donations are growing:

  • 2010: Up 8.9 percent, by 122,386 donations
  • 2009: Up 10 percent, by 127,000 donations

Revenue is also rising:

  • 2010: $7.7 million, up 14.4 percent
  • 2009: $6.02 million, up 13 percent

Much of the increase, though, can be pinned to an increased number of stores and donation centers; the stores also saw a $5.5 million increase in sales from 2007 to 2008. In that same time period, though, donations increased by fewer than 10,000.

To continue its growth, the organization is constantly searching for available space. Goodwill has been expanding at the same pace for much of the past 15 years, but current economic conditions are leading to potential real estate deals, Bishop said.

"We're trying to take advantage of opportunities that exist in the market," he said. "We still have to find the right places that work with our growth strategy."

Goodwill leases most of its space, but has built -- and owns -- two locations in areas.. It also bought two former Circuit City stores.

Elaine Armstrong, spokeswoman for Goodwill of North Georgia, said Goodwill sees its competition not only as other second-hand stores, but as any retailer that is selling quality items at a good price.

The area’s Goodwill shops are reminiscent of small department stores like T.J. Maxx or JCPenney. Brightly colored walls house dresses and purses and glass cases contain jewelry and other valuables. The end caps at cash registers hold records, videos and DVDs. Patrons are greeted as they walk in the door. Aisles are wide.

"The stores are laid out that way because it's a comfortable atmosphere to shop in," Bishop said.

In addition to clothing, the stores have a large section with couches, book cases, other furniture and household items. Across the back wall, shoppers can find televisions, appliances and other electronics. Bishop said while the design has evolved over the years, the goal is to create a satisfactory shopping experience.

Bob Hollingsworth, a respiratory therapist from Dunwoody, went shopping at Goodwill for the first time Monday. After finding a designer sweater for $2, he returned Tuesday in search of more deals.

“I don’t have to come here, I want to come here,” he said. “There are good deals. Why would I spend more if I don’t have to?”

Hollingsworth found more shirts in his second trip.

“I think it’s a great place to come and shop,” he said. “There should be no stigma attached to it.”

While the goal of the organization is to put people to work, and proceeds from the stores are used to fund such job-placement services. Bishop said no new store is planned until a donation center has succeeded in that area. In each of its strategic plans, Bishop said, Goodwill plans to double the number of people who are helped with such services. The stores are used to support that mission.

Because stores are primarily stocked by donations at that store, new locations will not open until an area has the donation volume to support it. All Goodwill merchandise comes from donations, including those from yard sales or estate sales; the organization does not pay for merchandise. There are, however, more donation centers than there are stores. The centers are divided into regions and feed into particular stores.

Armstrong, the spokeswoman, said there has always been a conscious effort to make the stores look good as Goodwill continues to expand and tries to reach more people. More and more, she has heard people mentioning Goodwill as their "best-kept secret."

"The shopping experience is different from traditional retail stores," she said. "There, everything they come out with is the same. People like coming here because they get different things."

MEET THE REPORTER

Arielle Kass arrived at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this month and covers retail business. She writes about Home Depot, UPS and retail trends in the area. She grew up in Cleveland, Ohio; graduated from Emory University and has covered planning and zoning for the Gwinnett Daily Post and banking at a business newspaper in Cleveland. You can follow her on Facebook at http://bit.ly/bWPQqb and on Twitter at

What happens to a donation?

Donations can be dropped off at Goodwill stores or donation centers across the region. To find the nearest Goodwill, go to www.ging.org.

Items that are donated at a store are sorted, priced and put out for sale as needed at the same store where they were donated. If an item is damaged or otherwise unable to be sold at the store, Goodwill looks to sell it to recyclers. It works with companies that turn old clothes into carpet fibers or other materials. Once an item has been on the floor for three weeks, it is also recycled. Spokeswoman Elaine Armstrong said it is important that shoppers find “quality products” they would want to spend money on at the stores.

Quality and condition of products

Goodwill takes items including: clothing, housewares, books, furniture, lamps, knickknacks, radios, antiques, shoes, clocks, small appliances, china, cookware, glassware, kitchen utensils, toys, records, tapes, CDs, linens, jewelry, bicycles and sporting equipment.

They do not accept: furniture in need of repair, carpeting, animals, water-soaked or stained items, used parts, swing sets/children’s swimming pools, air conditioners, doors, chemicals, paint, weapons, wall cabinets, tires, mattresses, large appliances, lumber or motor vehicles of any kind.