My store, like many, was in the empty hull of a medium-to-big box retailer. Sales floor and management office in the front, dressing rooms on the side, warehouse, break room and bathrooms in the back.
There are two major ways of gaining inventory: dropoff and pickup. Dropoff consisted of anyone with stuff to unload coming around to the loading dock in the back. The obviously soiled or damaged is rejected out of hand, along with some specialty products (like CRT monitors and TV's, for example). Everything else goes on a cart and gets taken to the warehouse. Pickup is a call-to-arrange service that covers the region. A fleet of small box trucks picks up what they can and delivers to the nearest store location. Both versions are typically run by some form of regional or national charity, which provides receipts for tax purposes.
Inside the warehouse, everything gets sorted. Clothes, typically arriving in hefty bags for ease of movement, are loaded onto steel frame carts about six feet tall and built around a sheet of half-inch plywood used as a deck. Those are divided by a team of three or four people. Normally, there's a base price by type with a sliding scale based on how good a condition any given piece it is.
Toys, media, housewares, electronics, and furniture all go to their own sections to be inspected and tagged. No real cleaning at all. If it's too grody for the sales floor, it's probably already in a compactor by now.
Pricing is more of an art than a science. After a few weeks, everyone working there has a good idea of what anything in particular will go for. Some things (books are typical) have a set price.
Price tags are color coded. Each week, a different color is used. Each week, a different color is half-off. There are about a half-dozen colors. Anything that hasn't sold by the time it's color has been half-off for a week gets trashed. The week after, that color gets used again.
Clothing is the exception. Clothes that haven't been sold are baled in an industrial machine and shipped off, either to ragmakers or overseas.
Anything that looks particularly valuable, unusual, or honestly antique (100 yrs old as opposed to 20) gets researched, priced accordingly, and put up for sale in glass cases or simply online.
If you've tried flipping items from thrift stores and noticed the pickings have been kinda slim the last few years? Well, they know about ebay too. Smaller or more rural holes in the wall might not bother, but bigger shops closer to big cities have at least one tech-savvy staff member who arranges to make a buck off what comes up without relying on foot traffic.
In fact, that's the biggest thing to affect thrift stores in the last 20 years is the same thing that's affected every other secondary market: e-commerce. At every step in the chain, a few seconds online will give a ballpark figure of what it sells for. (or at least, what someone is trying to sell it for. The number of people who don't pay attention to that little detail is staggering). The days of finding secondhand treasures at trash prices is well and truly over. All that's left is people being dicks about how it's not that way anymore. You thought boomer fudds at gun shows were bad? Try thrift store ladies on half-price day. Yikes.
Current trends of "good but cheap stuff" in thrift stores right now is centered on furniture and dinnerware. Long story short, the boomers are starting to die off and their kids don't want their stuff. Secondary markets are currently glutted with it all, but I think in the next decade prices are going to drop big and they'll go back to being competitive options.
The big future questions have to do with environmentalism and recycling. Right now, recycling has gone completely to shit, what with China having stopped buying ours, which has made recycling centers nationwide in America suddenly in financial trouble. Unfortunately, America still has a shitload of space for landfill use, which makes it ultimately cheaper for disposal of a lot of things, including stuff that's fairly easily recyclable.
If I had to get a wish list going?
- Paper recycling dropoffs at every secondhand market. The problem with paper is that it's so cheap, most of it isn't economical to recycle on a consumer scale. Most paper people discard has too many contaminants (food, spills) to make it worth recycling. Not so at the thrift store level. Media is the second biggest single inventory after clothing, and most of that is in books. By targeting the secondary markets, expenses like transport go down.
- Right to repair. The longer something can be used, the longer it will be. Fixing individual components of them is a big part of that. 3D printing is making that more possible every day, it just needs to be made easier.
- More easily recyclable plastics.
Everything from packaging to electronics housings. Make it easier to reuse instead of burn (A major hazard in electronics recycling, where casings are burned off to reach the valuable metals in the circuitry, making a shit ton of toxic smoke). Some sort of solvent that can destroy contaminants and reduce the plastic to a more workable form? Something.
- More container-deposit laws.
They work great in states that have them, and make for a great secondary resource stream. Seriously, if you can legally get cash for a duffle full of cans easier than it is to steal an A/C unit for the copper, two birds one stone.
- Some way of making it easier and more economical to actually recycle at the consumer level.
As a country, we're finding that our biggest resource is time. If we can do the right thing by tossing our food wrapper in a bin that's right there, we will. If not, we won't. Even little things like concert venues switching from plastic drink bottles to glass bottles and aluminum cans mixed with container-deposit bins listed above makes a huge difference.
I haven't even gotten into the fuckery involved with online returns. Ever heard of bracketing? It's the practice of not knowing what the fuck your size is, so you order the same thing in a 3 or 4 size spread, then return the ones that don't fit you. It's cheaper for the vendor to trash the returns than hire a human being to check to see if they can be resold, repackage, and restock it.
Whatever we do, they need to be
One, more affordable than the dumpster.
Two, easier to use than the dumpster.
Three, faster to use than the dumpster.