9 Secrets of Thrift Store Employees

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Whether you're a hardcore shopper who combs the racks of the Salvation Army regularly or rely on secondhand shops as a place to donate your old stuff, you may have wondered what it's like to work behind the scenes. Wonder no more: Mental Floss talked to several workers at thrift stores around the country about what happens to rejected donations, the coolest (and weirdest) items they've seen, and the best way to score an even better deal.

1. THEY DON'T KEEP EVERYTHING YOU DONATE.

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Thrift stores don't always keep all your donations, either because they don't have room or because items aren't in good enough condition for resale. But rest assured they try to responsibly redistribute or recycle what they can't use. Stacie Morrell, manager of Homeward Bound Pets Thrift Store in McMinnville, Oregon, tells Mental Floss that her non-profit has several destinations for unused donations. They take the best clothing to a local consignment store, generating another revenue stream; they give their "pulls" (items pulled off the racks that didn't sell) to the larger St. Vincent de Paul thrift store across town; and they send donations that aren't fit for resale to homeless shelters or a recycling facility.

Goodwill, where Morrell has also worked, has a different system. The stores send pulls and poor-quality items to Goodwill Outlets, where the stuff is set out in giant bins for customers to buy by the pound. That can mean gems for patient thrifters—the stores occasionally send donations to the outlets "raw," meaning they haven't even had time to open the boxes before sending them off. "It's like a treasure hunt," Morrell says.

For really unsalable merchandise, Goodwill sometimes finds overseas buyers, and they recycle what they can. If they can't recycle it, it goes in the trash. "They have huge garbage bills every month, into the millions," Morrell says.

2. THERE'S A MEANING BEHIND THOSE DIFFERENTLY COLORED TAGS.

A Thrift Town customer prepares to pay for her merchandise.
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If you shop at Goodwill, you'll recognize the colored plastic price tags on all the clothing. It's all part of a system for rotating inventory and keeping the merchandise fresh. Most Goodwill stores use five different colors and rotate them weekly in a regular pattern: A new batch of clothing going onto the sales floor might get a blue tag, for example, and next week's merchandise might get yellow. Every week on a Sunday, Goodwill puts the oldest color on sale for 50 percent off to help get it off the floor. If you can figure out your local store's color pattern, you can predict when an item that catches your eye will go on sale. Tip: Try (nicely) asking an employee.

Other thrift stores use different systems, but they usually have some way of tracking the date on their wares. At Homeward Bound, the month the merchandise arrived is written on the tag. "We have a sign up front that says, 'Items this month and before are 50 percent off,'" Morrell explains.

3. YOU MAY HAVE A BETTER SHOPPING EXPERIENCE AT A SMALL, NON-PROFIT STORE.

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Small businesses can mean a more friendly experience for the customer. "Most of the small thrift stores will be staffed by volunteers, so they want to be there," Morrell says. A volunteer at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, a secondhand shop in New York City, explained to us: "They're not in business to make money. They're a charity. … The people that work there understand that, that they're there to be helpful to each other and to the community."

Another benefit: Unlike chain stores, small stores may let you bargain. "If a person came up to me [with a pair of $15 pants] and said, 'I love these pants. I've only got 12 bucks on me,'" Morrell says, "I'd be like, 'Sure,' because that's 12 bucks I'd have in my hand rather than the 15 I didn't."

4. THEY MAKE A LOT OF MONEY SELLING ONLINE.

Debra Smyklo, 64, an assistant thrift store manager
Mark Makela, Getty Images

Believe it or not, your favorite thrift store probably has a thriving e-commerce business. When donations come in, employees separate out collectibles, books, and other higher-end items to sell online. That means it's worth checking out your favorite store's web presence occasionally. Goodwill, The Salvation Army, and Housing Works all have their own online stores, and sell books on Amazon, too. In fact, Housing Works Bookstore Cafe makes the majority of their money selling online, our source says. Mom-and-pop shops, on the other hand, might opt for eBay stores.

"For non-profit stores, e-commerce has become an essential part of selling," Morrell says. "I know a number of small business owners that, if they weren't online, they wouldn't be making the rent."

5. SOMETIMES THEY FIND REALLY EXPENSIVE ITEMS.

It doesn't happen often, but thrift stores sometimes come across a rare item and make a ton of money. Morrell set up the e-commerce department for Goodwill of the Columbia Willamette, where in 2006 she sold a 1923 watercolor by American impressionist Frank Weston Benson, whose work is also owned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The price: $165,002. Morrell was sorting through donations one day when she came across the painting and instinctively knew it was worth something. "It was in its original frame, but the frame was beat up. It had been obviously in somebody's basement and the matting had gotten wet." The work was signed but she couldn't make out the name, so she listed it for auction on shopgoodwill.com starting at $10. The store was contacted by a relative of the late artist; apparently, the family didn't know this particular piece existed. After the watercolor was authenticated, the bidding soared until it reached the hefty sum.

6. THEY GET A TON OF FORMAL DINNERWARE.

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A much-talked-about 2017 New York Times article documented the unfortunate truth that millennials just don't want their aging parents' stuff, especially not their china, silver, and crystal. And that means that huge amounts of it go to the thrift shop. "Those are wonderful, beautiful things and they look great sitting on a shelf, but that's exactly where they stay. It's hard to sell them," Morrell says.

7. THEY'VE DEALT WITH A LOT OF BAD CUSTOMERS ...

In an article for Cracked, a former employee of a major thrift store chain writes that rich customers are often some of the worst. "The thrift store I worked at was in a really wealthy neighborhood, so obviously we got a solid handful of rich, bored housewives who'd come in out of idle curiosity for how the other half lives," she writes. "The wealthy customers would talk to me as if being around donated clothes meant that I was also some kind of discount, donated human. One such woman sneered when I told her an Abercrombie shirt was $2.99, because she expected it to be free, apparently. After I finished ringing her up, she stood by the register and pointed out every dismal aspect of our store like a judgmental stepmother."

The anonymous Housing Works source says, "I think the most horrible customer was the one when the cashier told her that we don't take Discover. She put her Discover card in the machine and said, 'Well, I'm going to try my Discover anyway,' and it caused the whole computer system to crash."

8. ... AND SEEN A LOT OF GROSS STUFF.

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Morrell has seen a lot of bodily fluids in her time in the industry. "I was working at Goodwill and I saw a mom grab her kid and hustle out the door. I thought, well maybe he's sick or something or she got an emergency call. I'm walking the floor and I go past the toy aisle, and the kid had pooped and spread it all over the floor."

A former Goodwill employee who did a Reddit AMA once found a rat at the bottom of a bag of clothing. "It made the entire back room smell, and we had to get rid of all the clothes."

9. THE OCCASIONAL BAD EMPLOYEE WILL TRY TO GAME THE PRICING SYSTEM.

"People think that we glean the good stuff off the top, but that is absolutely not true," Morrell says. However, while she emphasizes that the majority of employees are honest, she has seen a couple workers who see a treasure, furtively price it for less than they should, and buy it for themselves or to flip online. Usually, there are rules in place to prevent that: The manager prices everything when it comes in, and if an employee wants to buy something, someone else has to ring them up.

"Most people are fine with this, and if they aren't, that's a good sign that they shouldn't be there," Morrell says. "Our first job as employees and volunteers is to make sure the organization gets the most they can out of every donation."

14 Secrets of Food Sample Demonstrators

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Tim Boyle, Getty Images

Ever turn a corner in your local grocery store or warehouse club and see the aisle backed up? You might be able to blame a food sample demonstrator, those stationary sales representatives who invite congestion in stores by offering up free bites of food products in an effort to raise sales. (The strategy works—one study found that samples can increase sales by as much as 2000 percent.)

The task might look easy, but it isn’t. Sample demonstrators have to endure annoyed customers who can’t navigate aisles due to the traffic, unattended kids, and more—all while adhering to food safety regulations. To get a better perspective on the job, Mental Floss spoke with two former demonstrators. Here’s what we found out about life in the apron.

1. THEY’RE USUALLY NOT EMPLOYED BY THE STORE.

Food demonstrators are often mistaken for store employees, but they're usually not. The people working behind sample trays at Costco, for example, are often employed by Club Demonstration Services (CDS), a separate entity that hires sample representatives to present products endorsed by Costco and usually backed by the product manufacturer. (Companies can send their own reps out, too.) “CDS might have an office set up in the back of the store,” says Jim, a former food sample demonstrator for Costco locations in California. “We’d sign in, go through the warehouse, and get a quick brief on the product we were demonstrating.”

Though CDS is owned by Costco, CDS employees aren’t technically store employees, and don’t migrate to other work areas. But because customers figure the demonstrators work for the warehouse, they’re often asked for directions. “People just assume you know where stuff is,” Jim says. “I usually told them to find someone in a red vest.”

2. THEY CAN SPEND HALF THEIR SHIFT PREPPING.

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It may seem like a sample demonstrator is burning calories at the rate of a Queen's Guard, but they're usually very busy during the course of a six- or eight-hour shift. Food prep—including mixing ingredients for things like chicken salad or cooking steak strips—can take up as much as half of their time. It’s worth it, as cooked food has a huge advantage over ready-to-eat samples like chips. “There’s a kind of anticipation you build up when cooking something like steak,” Jim says. “It could take a few minutes or 45 minutes, and people are standing there asking when it will be ready.”

3. THEY NEED TO STAY WITHIN A 12-FOOT RADIUS OF THE CART.

Food sample demonstrators may sometimes work in a massive warehouse, but they don’t have the run of the property. Once they’ve settled into their work area—typically near where the product they’re demonstrating is stocked or wherever there’s free space in the building—they’re expected to never be more than 12 feet away from the cart. “The 12-foot radius has to do with the fact that you’re responsible for maintaining your station and keeping customers safe,” says Skyler, a former demonstrator for Costco. “If a kid sees an unattended station with a hot grill running and grabs a sample off of it and burns themselves, it’s a liability.” Demonstrators also need to make sure no one is grabbing a sample and then putting it back, which would be a gross (literally) violation of food handling safety. Once you touch it, it goes either in your mouth or in the garbage.

4. THEY FOLLOW AN ACRONYM FOR SALES SUCCESS.

Vice-president Joe Biden greets food sample servers at a Costco
Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images

Food sample pushers don’t work on commission, but they can get bonuses if they sell through their inventory, so it benefits them to make sure people are consuming what they’re offering. One method for enticing customers is what Jim describes as a corporate acronym called SITGA. “It stands for Smile, Invite, Talk, Give Sample, and Ask,” he says. Demonstrators are also free to come up with their own strategy. “I liked to rhyme, like ‘come on by, give it a try,’ that sort of thing.”

5. THEY HAVE TRICKS FOR STAVING OFF BOREDOM.

Speaking with the Yes and Yes blog, Sam's Club food demo specialist Jan said that the hours spent sporadically interacting with customers can require demonstrators to make up their own fun. "I deal with the boredom in several ways. I practice standing on one foot and count the seconds before I lose my balance ... I count and rearrange samples. I reorganize the equipment under my cart. I alphabetize equipment. I grab items off the shelves and read the ingredient and nutrition labels, read slogans on T-shirts, or I try to engage customers in conversation."

6. THEY GET TIRED OF HEARING THE SAME RESPONSES.

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Sometimes it's hard to tell what's worse—going for long stretches without customers, or hearing the canned answers they love to give over and over (and over) again. "Customers make stock remarks about certain foods," Jan said. "If you serve sausage, they ask, 'Where are the pancakes?' If you serve a cold drink, they say it would be better with vodka. Coffee samples inevitably get, 'Now I need a donut.'"

7. THEY HAVE TO DEAL WITH “SAMPLE NINJAS” ...

There’s usually no cap on the number of samples a customer can grab from a cart. Still, people can feel a degree of embarrassment going back for seconds—or thirds—and sometimes try to sneak a taste without being seen. Skyler calls these people “sample ninjas” for their attempts to go undetected. “People love free food,” he says. “They don’t want to be seen as freeloaders, they don’t want to hear a sales pitch, they just want snacks.”

8. ... BUT THAT SHAME CAN WORK IN THE STORE’S FAVOR.

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When people are so addicted to a food sample they keep going back for more, they might opt to just buy the product rather than risk being perceived as a greedy shopper. “There have been cases where I’ve been shopping at Costco myself and went and bought something because my overwhelming shame kept me from grabbing a fifth sample,” Skyler says. “The system works.”

9. THEY HAVE A HEIGHT POLICY.

Kids represent a dilemma for demonstrators. If they’re unaccompanied by a parent, it can be potentially problematic to offer up a baked good or other food that could contain an allergen. Fortunately, most kids are aware of their food sensitivities. According to Jim, the unofficial rule of thumb is to give out samples to unattended children if they’re tall enough to see what’s on the cart. “We can’t really determine the age of a kid just by looking,” he says. “They just need to be tall enough to see the sample and discern what it is.”

10. THEY HAVE REGULARS.

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Many Costco demonstrators stick to one store or district, making them a familiar face for people who shop there frequently. “There were definitely regulars,” Skyler says. “I would see old teachers from school, old friends, new friends, and regulars who would know my sales pitch and always play along—for more free samples, obviously.” Others were memorable for other reasons. “I was making cookies once and a woman grabbed the raw cookie dough and yelled at me because it was not cooked.”

11. THEY DEMO NON-EDIBLE PRODUCTS, TOO.

While Jim estimates that 90 percent of his time was spent demonstrating food, CDS also handles accounts for a variety of indigestible products, like Ziploc bags. “I’ve done dish soap and laundry soap, which is hard to demonstrate on the floor,” he says. “You have to give someone a sample and hope they try it and then come back.” Another time, Costco charged him with selling prefabricated outdoor tool sheds. “No one is buying a $3000 shed on the spot. They take a flyer. We didn’t get a sale the entire week.”

12. THEY HAVE A PLAN TO MAKE SURE NO FOOD GOES TO WASTE.

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Toward the end of their shift, demonstrators start to estimate how many more samples they’ll need to meet remaining demand without setting out food that will wind up going to waste. “I do what I can not to waste anything,” Jim says. “We’ll usually make sure we’re done cooking by a certain time so nothing is left over.” Sealed food might go to a food pantry, depending on store policies, but prepared and unused food goes into the garbage. And no, it's not going to the demonstrators: They’re prohibited from taking the excess home.

13. NOT EVERYTHING THEY MAKE IS APPETIZING TO THEM.

Sample demonstrators are usually expected to taste their supply so they can make informed comments when a customer presses for details. While most everything is intended to be delicious, it may not necessarily be the demonstrator's own personal preference. "[I served] horrifying steak chimichangas, microwaved," Jan told Yes and Yes. "When cut into bite sized pieces, [they] squirt out a nasty brown liquid. Worse yet, lots of people liked them."

14. THEY APPRECIATE A LITTLE CUSTOMER ETIQUETTE.

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While free food can cause some of us to abandon civility and manners, food sample demonstrators always appreciate when customers acknowledge they have a job to do—and it’s not to hand out free stuff. Listening to their sales pitch is the polite thing to do in exchange for the eats. “Just try to remember that it’s a sales job and that final sale number is being held over the sample demonstrators’ heads,” Skyler says. “They’re not just someone being paid to hand out food to boost customer morale.”

17 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Bookstores

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For book lovers, there’s no more magical place than the local bookstore. Endless shelves of stories and characters, all at your eager fingertips. And while most of us have probably spent a significant amount of time wandering the aisles, few of us know what goes on behind the scenes. Here are some insights into the life of a bookstore, gleaned from the people who keep the shelves stocked.

1. EMPLOYEES WANT YOU TO ASK THEM FOR RECOMMENDATIONS.

“A person will say, ‘I have a really strange question, I’m sorry, but can you recommend a book?’” says Phyllis Cohen, owner of Berkeley Books in Paris. “That is the most normal question. It is my favorite question in the world! Give me some clues. I’ll ask them some pointed questions and then I make a pile for them. When they discover it they’re over the moon—it’s like they have a personal shopper in the bookshop.”

2. BUT BOOKSELLERS ARE NOT MIND-READERS.

They want to help you find your book, but they can’t if you don’t know the book’s name, author, or what it was about. This happens all the time, and it drives them crazy. “Customers will say ‘I don’t remember the name or what it was about but it has a blue cover. I think it had this word in the title,’” explains Katie Orphan, manager at The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. Sometimes the questions are so vague that no amount of Googling will help, and then the customer leaves unhappy.

Even a botched title is better than no hints at all. “One funny thing that happens with customers is they get the titles totally wrong,” says Marissa Rodriguez, who has worked in a bookstore for two years. “High school kids will say ‘I’m looking for ‘How To Kill a Mockingbird’ or ‘Angry Grapes.’”

3. THEY CAN SPOT THE BOOKWORMS FROM A MILE AWAY.

A woman browsing near a sign for half-price paperbacks at a bookstore
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Just browsing? Bookstore workers can tell. “Cookbooks is one of the sections where that happens the most,” Orphan says. “Art books and cookbooks. The people who are going to buy books, I can tell by the way they look at them, touch them, start carrying them around in a stack. I can always tell when people come up who is going to buy a book and who isn’t.”

4. THEY KNOW WHEN YOU’RE “SHOWROOMING.”

In recent years, many brick-and-mortar stores have fallen victim to online outlets like Amazon, which often offer the same books for a lower price. Some customers will browse for books they like, only to buy them later online, and they’re not very sly about it. “They’ll come in and use their phone to take a picture of the cover and barcode and just use the bookstore as the Amazon showroom,” says Keith Edmunds, a former bookstore owner. “It was awful. Seeing people do that was the height of ignorance.”

5. AND WHEN YOU’RE PLAYING THE SYSTEM.

“Some regulars would buy books one or two at a time and then within the two-week return window bring them back and be like, ‘I bought the wrong book,’” said Kat Chin, who worked at The World's Biggest Bookstore in Toronto for five years. “You’d know they read them because you could see the book was a little bit worn or the spine was cracked.”

6. THE GOAL IS TO GET BOOKS IN YOUR HANDS.

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One trick to get customers to commit to a book is to physically put the book in their hands and have them flip through it. “You can direct them to a part of the store, but that’s only half of selling a book,” Rodriguez says. “It's important to get merchandise in people's hands so they feel there’s already some ownership happening. They say ‘I like the way it looks and feels in my hands and I like the way it smells.’”

7. YOU HAVE TO HUNT FOR THE COFFEE SHOP.

Many bookstores, particularly the bigger ones like Barnes & Noble, have incorporated cafes into their layout. Alex Lifschutz, a London-based architect, told The Economist that putting the coffee shop at the back of the store or, if there are multiple stories, on the top floor, “draws shoppers upwards floor-by-floor, which is bound to encourage people to linger longer and spend more.”

8. THE KIDS SECTION IS STRATEGICALLY LOCATED.

According to Edmunds, the kids books are almost always located at the back of a store. “If the parents want to get a book for the kid they have to go through the whole store,” he says. “They’re hoping the parent will see something they want.”

9. SOMEONE PAID FOR THAT PRIME SHELF REAL ESTATE.

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In many big-box stores, publishers pay for good placement on “front tables, end caps and window space, in the same way General Mills and Procter and Gamble buy space for their breakfast cereals and dish detergents in the supermarkets,” Andy Ross, a literary agent, told The Book Deal.

10. AUTHORS, BEWARE THE “SOCIOLOGY” SECTION.

No author wants their book tucked away in the “sociology” section, claims veteran publishing insider Alan Rinzler. It’s “a catchall section for ambiguous titles, and the kiss of death for book sales,” he says.

11. BOOK THIEVES LOVE THE BIBLE.

At The World's Biggest Bookstore in Toronto, “the Bible was the number one stolen book of all time,” Chin says.

Other frequently stolen books? Japanese comics (a.k.a. manga), expensive medical books, and Kurt Vonnegut’s work. Chin also says Haruki Murakami books were so frequently stolen that her bookstore had to take them off the shelves, only bringing them out when they were specifically requested.

12. EMPLOYEES HATE WHEN YOU LEAVE BOOKS WHERE THEY DON’T BELONG ...

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“Neatening up a bookstore is a daunting process,” says Demi Marshall, a bookseller in Austin, Texas. The next time you pluck a book from its designated shelf slot, put it back when you’re done. Otherwise, “it’s like if you go to a clothing store and unfold all the clothes and then put them back on the shelf but don’t fold them,” Chin says.

13. ... AND WHEN YOU TREAT THE STORE LIKE YOUR LIBRARY.

“It’s nice to be able to go in and read maybe a chapter to see if you’re gonna like the book,” Chin says. “But then when you sit and read the whole book and put it back on the shelf, it gets grubby.” You’ll know a bookstore is trying to nudge you out the door if multiple employees drop by to ask if you need any help. “We would quietly pester people,” says Caleb Saenz, who used to work at Barnes & Noble. “I was at my peak passive aggressive phase when I was working at a bookstore.”

14. THE INTERNET HAS ACTUALLY BEEN A GOOD THING.

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Before the internet became ubiquitous, the process of looking up a book for a customer was daunting. “We had to look it up in 'Books In Print,’ which is a multi-volume, 4-inch thick, hardcover book,” says Liz Prouty, who owns Second Looks Books in Maryland with her husband, Richard Due. “It was a slow and cumbersome process and if anything was indexed wrong or a customer had the first word of a title wrong, you were out of luck.”

15. IT’S ALSO MADE US LOVE BOOKS MORE.

Some thought the e-book would surely spell the death of the bookstore. But many independent sellers say digitization has actually made people crave physical books more. “I’ve noticed in the last couple of years, so many people come in waxing rhapsodic about the smell of books, the feel of books,” Prouty says. “And they say it more now because the alternatives exist. People are deeply attached to the old-fashioned books.”

16. SOME BOOKSELLERS CAN IDENTIFY BOOKS BY THEIR SMELL.

Especially used booksellers. “These Penguins have their own particular odor,” Cohen says. That odor? Vanilla. Others might smell like almond or coffee.

17. BOOKSELLERS AREN’T IN IT FOR THE MONEY.

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In fact, most of them have second jobs or need monetary support from family members. “It is definitely a work of passion for everyone that I know,” Marshall says. “We don’t do it for the money, we don’t do it because we have any power or prestige. It’s genuinely just that we love books and we love getting them into people's hands.”

A version of this story first ran in 2016.

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