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Published November 01, 2013, 11:33 PM

As economy heals, thriftiness thrives; Secondhand growth glimpse into hard-to-measure market

SANTA ANA, Calif. – Maria Garcia’s front yard sale held no theme. Shoes, wrenches, blender, a Darth Vader mask – all were on the driveway in front of her one-story Garden Grove home. A child’s shirt? Five bucks. The blender? Fifteen.

By: Kasia Hall, The Orange County Register , INFORUM

SANTA ANA, Calif. – Maria Garcia’s front yard sale held no theme.

Shoes, wrenches, blender, a Darth Vader mask – all were on the driveway in front of her one-story Garden Grove home.

A child’s shirt? Five bucks.

The blender? Fifteen.

Garcia, 31, began holding monthly garage sales three years ago to earn pocket money for her father who had been forced out of the workforce by illness. Times were tough in Orange County then and unemployment was at its peak.

These days, the economy has improved. Local unemployment is 6.2 percent, slightly better than the national average. Home prices are going up.

Still, for people like Garcia, the lessons about thriftiness learned during the dark times haven’t gone away. Garcia works full time. But she also does what she can to save cash, buying cheaper clothes for her kids and shopping at thrift stores for herself.

Garcia says she and her sister once were big mall shoppers.

She also says she hasn’t been to a mall in years.

With people like Garcia taking on new habits, and rappers bragging about 99 cent sheets, and entrepreneurs looking to franchise garage sales, one thing seems clear:

Thrift is chic.

“One man’s trash, that’s another man’s come-up ...” – From “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis.

Thrift stores are the Chia Pet of industries. Local and national experts say thrift store sales grew during the last recession – and they’ve continued to grow during the supposed recovery of the past three years.

And thrift stores are just part of a bigger trend. The Association of Resale Professionals reports that national sales in all quarters of the so-called secondhand industry – including retail categories ranging from thrift shops to high-end consignment stores – grew more than 7 percent in each of the past two years. And that number, they add, gives only a glimpse of a hard-to-measure market.

Economists who calculate gross domestic product count the value of goods only one time, the first time they’re sold. So it’s hard to gauge the true volume of America’s thrift economy.

But one industry – used cars – offers a clue about the relative popularity of used versus new.

And in Orange County, used has been hot. Sales of new cars in Orange County fell hard in 2008, the peak year of the recession, and didn’t return to prerecession levels until last year. But during that same period, used car sales grew consistently, according to the state Board of Equalization.

It’s Finance 101. When consumers have less to spend, they look for ways to get more for their money, said Esmael Adibi, an economist at Chapman University.

“A higher unemployment rate, a loss of income, means that people are going to choose things that nobody would have touched (a few years ago),” Adibi said.

But that trend is playing out even as those basic factors – jobs and income – seem to be improving.

Matthew Zabala, front supervisor for the Savers thrift store in Anaheim, said both gross sales and the number of customers walking into the store have jumped by about 20 percent in 2012. During that same period, unemployment in Orange County fell from 8.8 percent to 7.6 percent.

Officials at Goodwill of Orange County have seen something similar, saying sales at their retail outlets in Orange County have grown steadily since 2008, even as economic conditions have improved.

And the Lutheran High Thrift Shop in Orange, which helps provide scholarships for a private high school, has seen double digit sales increases in each of the past three years.

Still, it’s possible the fundamentals aren’t as rosy as the economic statistics suggest. And boom times at thrift stores might be a sign that some of the jobs created in the past few years don’t pay enough to send consumers back to the malls.

Or, for shoppers like Yvonne Varela, the jobs might not be consistent enough to keep them away from the discount rack.

Varela, 35, was laid off in 2010. Before that, she says, she wouldn’t have considered shopping in a thrift store.

“A lot of my girlfriends are single moms, too, and at first we were like ‘Oh, secondhand? That’s kinda gross,’ ” Varela said.

But since 2010 Varela has had a hard time finding consistent, full-time work. And, on a recent Wednesday, she was looking sifting through jeans for her 10-year-old daughter at Lutheran High Thrift.

The stigma of shopping secondhand, she said, has evaporated.

“We are addicted,” Varela said.

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Thrift boom by the numbers

- $13 billion: The value of previously owned stuff sold last year in thrift stores, consignment shops, swap meets and similar outlets, according First Research.

- 7 percent: The annual growth rate in the number of U.S. thrift stores and consignment shops since 2011, according to The Association of Resale Professionals.

- 32.4 million: The number of used cars sold in the United States through September of this year, a jump of about 4 percent from 2012, according to CNW Research.

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