As Southern Nevadans head to stores in search of gifts this holiday season, they may -- thanks to the continuing recession -- add a few stops to their shopping itineraries.
Namely, the Las Vegas Valley's collection of nonprofit thrift shops.
Adele Meyer, executive director of the National Association of Resale & Thrift Shops, a trade group whose members include both nonprofit and for-profit resale stores, noted that shoppers for years have supplemented their holiday season trips to traditional retailers with values found at secondhand stores.
However, about 67 percent of the association's members experienced increased holiday sales last year, and Meyer said an "overwhelming" number of members expect that trend to continue.
Thrift stores, Meyer added, offer gift buyers "more unique items, and you can go in and buy three times as much (versus retail)."
Locally, Sharon Mann, community relations director of Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, said the agency's thrift store at 1767 N. Rancho Drive has seen an increased number of shoppers all year, many of whom are stopping in because "they can't afford to pay retail."
And, already, Mann said, shoppers have been scooping up the store's inventory of gift-worthy items and inexpensive holiday decorations.
At Goodwill of Southern Nevada, which operates eight thrift stores across the valley, "overall sales have been slightly up," said Kathy Topp, the agency's marketing and business development director, at least in part because of the economy.
Two weeks ago, Renee Figous of Las Vegas filled her cart with inexpensive new, or almost new, items at the Catholic Charities thrift store that, in a few weeks, she'll give out as gifts. Among them: a Los Angeles Lakers jersey (for $2), Christmas tree ornaments (25 cents) and Spider-Man note kits (50 cents).
Figous said she distributes the items in gift bags to people she thinks might need a bit of Christmas cheer.
"I just give out stuff to people I don't know," she said. "I just walk up to them and say, 'Can I bless you?' and give them a gift bag."
It is, Figous added, "sort of my ministry."
Mary Stella of Las Vegas also is a frequent thrift store shopper. On a recent excursion to the Catholic Charities shop, Stella's finds included Christmas-shaped baking tins for 50 cents each -- versus, she estimated, the $2-plus they'd sell for in supermarkets -- that she plans to use as casserole dishes for holiday potlucks.
"You just have to be creative," she said.
But make no mistake: For some, holiday thrift store shopping isn't a value-hunting option, but an economic necessity.
"You do see the effects of the recession," said Crystal Morehouse, manager of Catholic Charities' thrift store. "People will come in and look at something and say, 'Oh, I can't afford that, but I can get two of these for the price of that,' to make their money stretch."
For newcomers, the first surprising thing about thrift store shopping may be that the stores are -- contrary, perhaps, to stereotype -- clean, orderly and well laid out.
The second surprise might be that -- again contrary, perhaps, to stereotype -- the merchandise found in thrift shops includes not just used merchandise, but also new or almost-new items at dramatic discounts.
On one recent day at Catholic Charities' thrift shop, for instance, shoppers could have walked away with a recliner-rocker for $80, a five-piece sectional sofa set for $800, a 50-inch or so Sony projection TV for $200, a five-piece bedroom set for $200, and an organ and stand for $50.
Meanwhile, men's pants were selling for $2, as were men's long-sleeved shirts, and new rolls of gift wrapping paper that sell for $7.99 in stores were selling for 50 cents each.
Mann said the wrapping paper, as well as the store's other new Christmas items, were donated by retailers after last year's Christmas shopping season and kept in storage until now.
Morehouse said the items hit the sales floor just after Halloween. How are they selling?
"Let's put it this way," she answered. "I started out with 20 pallets two weeks ago and I'm already down to six. So I'm flying through it -- wrapping paper, bows, even some decorations."
Linda Smith, associate executive director of Opportunity Village, said the agency's retail store at 921 S. Main St. offers good deals on such items as new furniture donated by valley retailers.
"Maybe they had an excess of something in a particular line, and they will donate that to us," she explained.
Similarly, Smith said, exhibitors at conventions and trade shows that come to town often will donate items from their exhibits -- gardening equipment, for example -- to Opportunity Village for thrift store sale.
Other popular new or nearly new gift-suitable items at the store include sporting equipment -- ski and golf equipment always are good sellers, Smith said -- and gowns bearing designer labels that donors have worn only a few times and then donated to the charity.
However, holiday shoppers who wish to add thrift stores to their shopping itineraries need to be savvy. While mulling over a prospective buy is a virtue when shopping retail, it's a detriment in thrift shopping because the items available today may not be available tomorrow.
"Forget about putting stuff on hold and saying, 'I'm going to come back for it,' " said Emika Porter, a professional thrift store shopper and owner of Haute Thrif'Ture, a styling service that offers clients the ability to replicate high-priced looks via thrift store purchases. "You'd better grab it because it will be gone."
Porter also recommended that thrift store newbies become familiar with stores' sales calendars. At Catholic Charities, for example, half-off prices are available to seniors on Tuesdays, men on Wednesdays, women on Fridays and everybody on Thursdays, while Saturdays are half-off furniture days. At Goodwill, meanwhile, the sales calendar includes discount days for military personnel and casino workers as well as various specials throughout the month.
In a similar vein, Morehouse said smart shoppers at Catholic Charities know that colored markers on price tags denote how long items have been on the shelves and, more importantly, how primed they are for price reductions.
The basic thrift store pricing principle is that the longer an item has been for sale, the more price reductions it will experience. For example, Morehouse said, a piece of furniture will sell at its full thrift store price for about a week, then drop. And, after that, further price drops can occur daily until the item sells.
But don't hesitate to haggle. Porter likes what she called "old school" thrift stores such as The Salvation Army's, where "you can go in there and wheel and deal. You can say: 'You have this for five bucks. All I have is two-fifty.' "
"You can definitely find some hidden treasures there," she says.
Thrift store shopping also requires flexibility. The very nature of thrift shopping means that anything could hit the sales floor at any time. "If you're looking for a particular something, we may not have it. It's more (that) you just come in and you browse," Mann said.
Ideally, a shopper will arrive with a general understanding of how much a desired item would cost at retail. That, Porter said, will enable the shopper to determine how good a deal they'll be getting.
Because items don't come with warranties, and because stores have varying return policies, buyers also should examine items thoroughly for dents, nicks or other damage, Porter said. And, if buying an electrical item, ask to plug it into a store outlet to make sure it works.
For clothing, "you really want to look at wear and tear," Porter continued. "You want to look at the color, to see if it's faded, and check for holes and moth (damage). If it's a sweater, you definitely want to check for that.
"Know your fabrics," Porter added. "What I did when I was just getting started was, I'd go into Saks and Nordstrom's and look at the labels and what they were selling, so I would know if I see a brand that it is good quality."
Be patient. Morehouse said some Catholic Charities regulars stop by daily or at least several times a week. While they might not buy something on every trip, it does enable them to keep up with the constantly changing inventory on the sales floor.
That, Topp said, is "part of the fun of thrift shopping: The merchandise turns over so quickly because we are always bringing in new things. We never know what's going to be coming through our doors."
But shopping at nonprofit thrift stores does more than simply help consumers stretch their gift-buying budgets. Because proceeds from the stores fund the agencies' social service programs, it also helps to make Christmas a bit more merry for others in the community.
"What I like to say is, at this holiday season, the best gift you can give someone is a job, and by shopping at a Goodwill store, that's what you're doing," Topp said.
Contact John Przybys at jprzybys@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280.