Thrift Shop nets more in cyber space

By Lynn Porter

Mercer Island Thrift Shop Coodinator Suzanne Philen recently was sorting a batch of ties destined to be sold for a few dollars each when she noticed something interesting: a number of them were graced with designer labels.

Philen went to the Internet to determine how much the Gucci, Hermes and Chanel cravats sold for new retail. The answer: a lot more than they would bring in at the store.

So she put them on an Internet auction site, in this case eBay.

The ties fetched between $30 and $40 each. One Chanel number brought in $86.

``It was about to go on the shelf for $2.50 when I raised the question,'' Philen said.

Cyberspace is proving a boon to thrift stores. More and more managers of the nonprofit venues are turning to it because it offers a worldwide market for items, which are auctioned to the highest bidder rather than selling for a set price in-house. It also provides a place rife with collectors to auction goods that dealers might otherwise buy at thrift shops and then sell at a profit, often on the Internet.

Mercer Island Thrift Shop eBay sales have been so successful, in fact, that the nonprofit is creating a separate eBay room to store items it deems Internet worthy -- goods that are the ``cream'' of the thousands donated each day, Philen said. The room will have a stage on which to take photos of the items, a computer designated for Internet sales and a shipping station. Also, certain volunteers will do only eBay-related work.

The shop has seen a steady increase in eBay sales since it began using the site in 2001. The auctions now bring in about $1,800 a month, money used to support Mercer Island Youth & Family Services, Philen said.

``I do expect this portion of our business to grow rather quickly,'' she said.

So does Seattle Goodwill, which grossed more than $100,000 in fiscal year 2004 from the online sales of donated goods instruments, toys, cameras and other collectibles through eBay.

They are not the only thrift stores to turn to the Net for profit. Some other Goodwills across the country and another large nonprofit thrift store have too, said William Hill, online coordinator for Seattle Goodwill.

``It does seem like it's a trend,'' he said. ``It's an opportunity for us to maximize the revenues for our programs.''

But learning what will bring in the bucks on eBay has been a matter of trial and error.

Cell phones, which most people won't hunt for in a thrift store because of the limited selection, sell well on eBay where there are a variety, said Philen.

``Cell phones are like finding a needle in the haystack, so eBay is kind of where you can get ahold of the whole haystack and whittle it down really quickly,'' she said.

Designer clothing and shoes, vintage clothing, collectibles, antiques and electronic goods also are popular.

Oddly enough, Mercer Island Thrift Shop volunteers have found that knitting machines, ironing presses and old-fashioned egg beaters fetch a fair amount of dough on eBay.

So did the truly-worse-for-wear 1967 Superman lunch box that volunteer Carol Simons was neither enamored of nor had high expectations for.

This was reflected in the description of it she prepared for eBay.

``I said it's beat and it smells like crayons, but it will let you relive your memories,'' said Simons.

Much to her surprise it garnered $67.67, almost $60 more than it would have been priced at in-house.

That's another thing about Internet auctions: What might not sell well in-store may be quickly snatched up in an online worldwide market.

So Mercer Island Thrift Shop volunteers, who normally scour books and other sources for information on the worth of donated items, are becoming more and more cognizant of the value of things sold on the Internet. Some items that fetch in a best-case scenario 50 percent of their true retail value in the shop, on eBay, with its many collectors, can bring in 75 percent of that value, said Simons.

Then there are the just plain unusual items which are easy to spot as eBay worthy, such as the 1932 first edition titled ``The Fun Of It'' authored by Amelia Earhart, which the Mercer Island Thrift Store auctioned online for $2,850. It contained a small record of a broadcast the famous pilot did from a London radio station. Other such items are the projection television, which brought in $2,500 and the Franklin Mint Monopoly game, which sold for $500.

Seattle Goodwill's biggest one-item sale: a 1937 Jane Peterson oil painting, which garnered $5,756 in November, said Hill.

Whether it be through Internet sales or those in-house, the idea is to make the most profit possible from donations to help the most people possible, said Philen.

But now that the Internet is becoming more a part of thrift shop sales, what are those people who have traditionally looked to the venues as a Mecca for good buys to think? Philen said fear not. Not nearly all the good deals make it to the Net.

``We don't catch everything. There's still the adventure of that great find,'' she said.

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