The Thrift Store: Not Just for Penny-Pinching Grandmas Anymore

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Musty smells, bad lighting, aisles clogged with shoddy merchandise and ancient shoppers: If this is your perception of a thrift store, chances are you haven’t been in one recently.

The Great Recession era has been generally awful for housing values and job prospects, but a struggling economy can result in a boom for certain segments that benefit from consumers adapting to financially hampered circumstances. Namely, auto repair shops (when people hang onto cars longer, they spend more on upkeep), dollar stores (it’s nice to be able to buy something when you only have $1), and thrift stores (same basic concept).

According to the National Association of Resale Professionals, the number of resale stores—thrift stores, as well as consignment shops and other retailers selling second merchandise—increased 7% in each of the past two years. Goodwill now operates over 2,500 nonprofit stores in the U.S., while up-and-coming nonprofit resale stores such as Savers are flourishing: The chain has more than 270 locations and has been adding roughly 20 new stores annually, including, for instance, one set to open soon in the outskirts of Baltimore.

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A USA Today story points to the influx of young consumers as a prime reason thrift stores are booming:

Much of the recent growth can be attributed to young shoppers, many of whom are passing on trips to the mall in favor of thrift stores, says Britt Beemer, founder and chairman of America’s Research Group, which has studied the trend.

About 20% of people shop in thrift stores regularly, compared with about 14% in 2008, Beemer said.

At some point during the recession and its lingering aftermath, Gen Y, the youth demographic burdened with huge student loans and an awful job market, realized that perhaps paying $30 for a new T-shirt at Gap was unwise. It certainly was not sustainable. Young shoppers may have first turned to thrift stores out of necessity or desperation, but by now, they’re more likely to view secondhand shopping as sensible—even cool.

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Irma Zandl, of the consumer-tracking firm the Zandl Group, tells USA Today that secondhand finds suit young consumers who want to stand out and make a statement:

“People today take pride in being individual and unique, in setting trends vs. following them, and with so much sameness at malls throughout the country, one way to achieve this kind of originality is by buying retro and vintage items that are no longer in production.”

Fashion-conscious consumers are also more comfortable in the thrift store setting nowadays because outfits like Goodwill, Savers, and even local church-affiliated nonprofits are increasingly likely to boast racks organized by color and size, as well as surprisingly new, seldom-worn clothes. Shoppers today, it seems, are reaping the benefits of years of overconsumption. The donations delivered to thrift stores often come directly from the overstuffed closets of the rich, or at least people who once shopped like they were rich—and who barely wore the clothes before passing them on to the secondhand market.

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After thrifting excursions, the Thrift Store Hauls section of Reddit and other online forums allow shoppers to show off the latest secondhand treasures they’ve purchased. When you think about it, this is quite remarkable: Not long ago, certain shoppers would have been embarrassed to admit they shop in thrift stores. Now, they’re bragging about it.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.