Middle-class families turn to thrift stores during bad times, BYU study indicates

Published: Friday, Oct. 22 2010 11:07 p.m. MDT

People gather for the grand opening of the Deseret Industries Thrift Store and Donation Center at the Layton Utah Welfare Complex in October 2008.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

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PROVO — A Brigham Young University study shows when the economy slows and jobs are harder to come by, thrift stores and yard sales become an important part of many family budgets from a wide range of economic backgrounds.

Sociology professor Ralph Brown, who co-authored the story published in the current issue of the journal Family Relations, said the study divided families in Utah County into three economic and social groups. The lower-income group made less than $30,000 a year. The middle-income made up to $80,000 a year. Families making more than $80,000 were classified as the higher-income group.

The five-year study began in 2003 when Geneva Steel suddenly shut its doors, leaving a number of people in the county unexpectedly out of work and families trying to figure out ways to stretch their dollars.

Brown said what happened then applies to what has occurred in today's historic recession.

The study found that middle-income families had changed their shopping behavior after hard times happened. Before economic hardships, people had tried to mimic the class above them in their shopping habits. But when unemployment or recession hit, the opposite occurred.

"People are looking down instead of up in a way to try and soften the economic landing," he said. "A fall from economic grace, I suppose."

The study showed that middle-class families were shopping at thrift stores with about the same frequency as lower-income families, and for the same items.

"They're buying clothes, some small appliances, furniture," Brown said. "People really have come to depend on these things as part of their household economic strategies."

He said if the middle class continues to depend heavily on thrift stores, those stores might have to raise prices to keep enough employees to fill the demand, which in turn could change the purpose and function of those retail outlets.

The study also showed that the upper class occasionally makes visits to thrift stores, but they're typically shopping for antiques or unique trinkets.

Brown said he would like to continue the study to see how many families truly rely on thrift stores. He would also like to examine whether the social stigma of shopping at thrift stores has been reversed.

"Has a sense of frugality returned, where it's now chic to shop at these kinds of places and brag about it?" he said.

Brown said the overall study findings did support the argument that engaging in thrift economies may constitute one mechanism that families use during periods of economic stress.

"We can ... make the inference based on the fact that (families) that indicated higher levels of financial stress over the previous three months did shop more frequently at the largest thrift venue than those who did not indicate financial stress," he said.

e-mail: rjeppesen@desnews.com, jlee@desnews.com

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