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The New Era of Secondhand Shopping

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series called Secondhand Nation, which takes a closer look at how thrift stores, garage sales and secondhand shops have fared during the recession and what the future holds for the frugal consumer.

The recession may have ended in June of last year, but for many Americans, being thrifty is still very much in vogue and will likely stay that way for years to come.

Consumers now put aside more of their money after taxes and spend significantly less on day-to-day items. In fact, a recent Gallup study found U.S. consumers spent an average of just $59 a day in September, which ties for the lowest amount since the recession began in late 2007.

As a result, thrift stores and secondhand shops around the country have seen an increase in sales and customers in recent years, even as retail sales on the whole suffered a long and gradual decline throughout 2008 and 2009.

For proof, you need look no further than your local Goodwill store. At Goodwill, a nonprofit organization that runs thrift shops around the country, business is booming.

"We know that our retail sales have grown an average of 10% from 2006 to 2009," said Jim Gibbons, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries International.

During that time sales at Goodwill have increased steadily to $2.4 billion from $1.8 billion. The number of transactions made by customers has increased even more, by 13.5%. Last year alone, there were more than 160 million transactions at Goodwill stores.

Other secondhand stores such as the Salvation Army and Value Village have experienced similar upticks, as have many pawn shops around the country.

While the economic downturn may have been the catalyst driving consumers to their nearest thrift store, it is certainly not the only factor in the success of retailers selling used goods. The U.S. has long been on the path toward becoming a secondhand nation, where consumers focus on buying only what they need and get rid of the rest.

"This is a trend that had been building for a decade or more," said John Gerzema, a consumer expert and author of Spend Shift: How the Post-Crisis Values Revolution is Changing the Way We Buy, Sell, and Live. "Americans had been changing their behavior even before the recession hit, saving more, spending less and closing the gap between their needs and wants. Consumers are becoming more conscious about their excesses and moving from mindless to mindful consumption."

The rebirth of the thrift store is only one aspect of this. Dozens of websites have popped up in the past three years offering shoppers the opportunity to share, trade, barter and resell products to people who need them, no matter where they are.
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