ELIZABETH CITY — If you believe the thrift store business is booming in Elizabeth City, you're probably right.
More than a handful of consignment and thrift stores have opened in the past two years, offering slightly used items at much lower prices than at larger retail stores.
Shoppers — hammered by rising costs for everything from housing and food to fuel and medicines — are only too eager to snap up the bargains.
"People don't have the money they used to have," said Gail Byberg, who opened Christian's Treasures consignment shop on U.S. Highway 158 in Belcross last January. "(The cost of) everything's going up. Food's going up. Gas is the only thing that came down (in cost)," and that was only recently.
Like the rest of the country, the Albemarle is still struggling to rebound from the Great Recession in 2008 that nearly brought the nation to its knees. Housing starts came to a crawl, bankruptcies and foreclosures shot up. Many people lost their jobs, and employers either closed up shop or moved on.
Elizabeth City has long been home to thrift stores — Albemarle Hopeline, the Salvation Army, and Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters have operated stores here for years. They were joined within the past year by Goodwill Industries, which built and opened a new store on Ehringhaus Street in 2012.
But there's been a surge in consignment store openings in recent years. Besides Byberg's Christian Treasures, other consignment shops that have hung out a shingle in the past two years include Needful Things at Road and Fearing streets, Tiffany's Closet at Southside Plaza off U.S. 17 south of Elizabeth City, and Skye's Consignments at Griffin Street Square.
Two others are Kialanie's Kloset off Halstead Boulevard Extended and Phase II Consignments in the Ken-Nix Plaza off U.S. 17 south.
Within the past month, Southern Yankee Boutique opened at 105 S. Water St., Elizabeth City, next to the old Pure Oil Service station. Brandy Forsdick, owner of the Southern Yankee Boutique, said she specializes in selling name-brand clothing, jewelry, purses, shoes and accessories for teenagers and grown-ups. She said her marketing strategy is to target middle-income residents who may not be able to pay full price for name-brand items at more expensive stores.
Although both sell slightly used merchandise at lower prices, thrift stores and consignment stores operate very differently.
Thrift stores are typically operated by nonprofits and the proceeds from sales go back into the agency, usually to further its work in the community. Typically thrift stores receive their merchandise to sell from donations. Residents drop off used items and receive a receipt stating the estimated value of the donation that can then be used to claim a tax deduction.
"Whatever we make stays in services in our community," said Pat Youngblood, executive director of Albemarle Hopeline, which operates the Clothesline thrift store on Halstead Boulevard. "(The store) makes us more visible in the community and we can more readily connect with victims who need our services.
Hopeline is a private, nonprofit that provides direct and preventive services to victims of family violence, sexual assault, and teen dating violence Pasquotank, Camden, Chowan, Currituck, Perquimans, and Gates counties.
The Salvation Army, which operates a thrift store on Hughes Boulevard, also provides a number of local services, including monetary assistance to financially strapped residents who need help paying their electric bills during the winter.
"Eighty-four cents of every dollar stays in the community said Major Butch Mallard. "Proceeds go right back into our social service program."
A consignment shop, on the other hand, is operated by entrepreneurs and is designed to earn money for both the consignors — those who own and are selling the merchandise — and the store owners.
Byberg said she splits sale proceeds 50-50 with consignors. Her store sells some new items, but most of the merchandise are used items in excellent condition, including baby and ladies clothing, jewelry, toys, household goods, books, shoes, antiques, furniture and knickknacks.
With rent to pay and competition stronger, items must stay competitively priced in order to move and create more room for inventory, Byberg said.
Many times, customers end up becoming consignors after Byberg learns they have items they want to get rid of, but not throw away.
Youngblood and Mallard say the growth of consignment, second-hand and resale shops is creating competition in the low-cost merchandise market. While that can be good for customers, it does cut into the thrift stores' proceeds, which in turn can reduce the revenues their parent agencies have to provide services.
"The buying is spread out," Youngblood said. "We have as many customers, but the purchases are smaller because (customers) have less money. They're trying to stretch (their money) as far as they can."
The market for consignment, thrift, second-hand and resale stores is booming nationwide, according to Fox Small Business Center, a website that offers tips for start-up businesses.
Pawn stores and dollar stores have been flourishing during the tough economy for several years, and now thrift shops and consignment stores are growing as well.
According to the National Association of Resale Professionals, resale is now a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry, growing at a rate of 7 percent annually. There are more than 25,000 resale, consignment and thrift stores nationally.
The NARP website cites a report indicating that up to 18 percent of Americans will shop at a thrift store during a given year, while between 12 and 15 percent will patronize consignment or resale shops.
"The resale market is blossoming thanks to value-conscious consumers," the NARP's website states.