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The Thrift Shop Maniac takes on North Wales

Black Friday is over. Cyber Monday long gone. But they can be an everyday state of mind if you are a Thrift Shopping Maniac. Waterford, Coach, Valentino and Burberry, Samsung, Cuisinart, Le Creuset, Pottery Barn, Ethan Allen -- whatever the label, look or manufacturer -- could be lurking on the next shelf, the next rack, within reach, just around the next corner.

It ain't Fifth Avenue or Wall Street yet, but…

Ever drive up Rt. 309, or any other major American suburban sprawl shopping strip for that matter, and, like me, zone out, as the all too predictable corporate logos flash by? Well, wake up and take a second look.

Clothes Mentor, located at 782 Bethlehem Pike in North Wales, is part of a growing trend towards high-end, women's secondhand clothing stores, hiding in plain sight. In accordance with Merchandising 101, they've successfully challenged any latent, consumer perception of 'the yuck factor' still associated by some with buying secondhand.

Corporate chose a non-committal name. No 'Second This' or 'Thrift That.' And this particular franchise owner strategically located this particular Clothes Mentor next door to a DSW for added mainstream camouflage. Typical new strip mall construction: sidewalk to ceiling double-wide glass windows and doors, and a bright-as-a-summer-day interior, reveal a professionally laid out selling floor, and the elongated counter top sweep of a streamlined, fully staffed sales and processing area.

Somewhere in Minneapolis, the corporate headquarters, equivalent of the Wizard of OZ, is lurking behind the curtain, pulling the strings on this buy outright, tightly controlled, rapidly expanding franchise.

So slick, there's even a print out agreement that requires your signature, when you turn over your belongings for inspection, and another when they decide what and whether to buy/return. Generating these forms captures a lot of useful, consumer data: phone number, address, email, etc. for this eye-popping 138-location company, poised to add another 50 locations, according to their website. All this raising tongue-in-cheek questions like: Is there a hostile takeover looming? Or a secondhand bubble? Will the owner be appearing on an episode of Undercover Boss?

Every garment is pristine. Beautifully displayed. Current. Mid-range. Nothing 'below' a Dress Barn or a Forever 21. Little 'above' a Talbots or a Ralph Lauren. I'm having Montgomeryville Mall deja vu. Secondhand.

On my fourth visit I brought some of my own clothing to experience, first hand, what it's like being a 'buyer.' Gracious, professional, well-dressed, saleswomen removed any possible sense of rejection. I browsed, and surreptitiously watched, as my garments were methodically scanned twice.

Step #1: Everything eyeballed, top to bottom, inside and out, looking for defects.
Step #2: Labels cross checked against the pages of a thick three-ring binder print out of all clothing manufacturer labels. This is the store's Holy Grail. The end result? A by-the-book-decision-making process resulting in thumbs up/thumbs down. But it's one that also, inadvertently or intentionally (and unfortunately), excludes any quirky, vintage, or timeless fashion. But, hey! This is business. Serious business.

Clothes Mentor stores are required to reject anything past the imposed, three year manufacturing cutoff date easily found in THE BIG GREEN BINDER.

My text arrived announcing completion of the inspection process. I returned to the counter to close the sale on two of my items: a coat and blouse. Are they third hand now? TIP: Cash (in your hot little hand) buys slightly less than store credit.

Glitches: Evening wear was disappointing, especially so close to the holidays, while the everyday dress rack was so overstocked hangers wouldn't budge. Few size 10 and up shoes.

Questions: What happens to their bottom line if at season's end the 'fashion-by-three-ring-binder-system' got it wrong? Will their ongoing "Item of The Week Sales" be enough to empty out the winter line and make room for summer?

How will they quickly acquire fresh, targeted inventory for depleted sections/sizes? (I proposed customer email notifications/requests.)

What becomes of what isn't sold? Donated? Tax write off? Stay tuned...

So organized, so friendly, the shop could be The Stepford Wives of Secondhand.

Are you what I call a "Thrift Shop Virgin," inexperienced and/or put off by what you imagine traditional secondhand shopping is like, or a seasoned Thrift Shop Maniac on a tight budget with a tight schedule? No matter. Come here. Shop here. Effortlessly. It's the best of 'Every Mall USA', laid out before you, resplendent. All at 75 percent off (give or take), seven days a week.

Find Clothes Mentor in My MilkCrate here.

On to our next stop. Another mass merchant, but with a different secondhand business model.

2nd Ave. Value Stores (some locations also use the name Village Thrift), is the ultimate supermarket size family thrift store dominating (yet another) strip mall, this time at Montgomery Commons at 1200 Welsh Road, North Wales.

Big and bright, clean, efficient and relentlessly well organized, I could, and did spend hours wandering, examining the contents of shelf after shelf of unendingly useful clothing and household items. Most customers leave happy. And so did I after my second, undercover trip to this regional chain of secondhand thrift stores selling everything and anything since 1959.

Partnered with local, unidentified charity thrift shops, 2nd Ave's website states they buy collected, unprocessed donations.The charities make money. 2nd Avenue acquires inventory.

Scope out the section set aside for higher end merchandise. Conversely, skip the tiny, ho hum furniture area. It's just taking up space. Children? They have toys and clothing galore.

Legions of female employees, heads down, purposeful, were constantly straightening, pushing carts and clothing racks, lugging arms full of goods, to and fro and monitoring dressing rooms.

Their website cites ten stores from as far away as Virginia to one hugging Franklin Mills. This location could have a high return on investment, located right next to this regional factory outlet blockbuster.

TIP: Just what do Franklin Mills outlet shops do with unsold, end of the retail line merchandise? Think about it.

TIP: Men buy less, hold on to it longer, wear it out. Consequently, secondhand trickle down shopping is frequently slim pickings for guys. With a high concentration of gentlemen's wear at this North Wales 2nd Avenue, the odds just improved. Is this why men's was consistently priced a notch higher than most women's clothing. What the market will bear? Men's shirts averaged $8 to $12. Blouses $5 to $7.

I first heard about 2nd Avenue the old fashioned way, eavesdropping on a conversation over the racks at a nearby thrift. I drove over, impulsively, on what turned out to be a non-sale day.

TIP: Every Sunday, Monday, and Thursday all sales of certain ticket colors are discounted. Even without the discount, prices were still good-to-great on the 'wrong' day. Scanning online customer reviews, sale days can be intensely competitive. Check website for hours, locations.

Find 2nd Ave Value Stores in My Milkcrate here.

Next Time: The TSM takes the My MilkCrate team thrift shopping for the day...

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