Bonnie Bridges of Bonnie’s Boutique is seen in her store at 1451 A U.S. Hwy. 19 in Lee County.
ALBANY, Ga. — The opening of Plato’s Closet here on Aug. 4 was not just about another new business trying to make a go of it.
It was a happening.
Building a buzz about the store, according to franchise owner Stacey Scott, is part of the parent company’s business plan. But it’s also a sign of another truth about the lingering economic slowdown that has plagued the country in general and this region in particular: People from all walks of life are now shopping for bargains.
That’s why consignment stores, thrift shops and other such businesses are doing particularly well now, especially in the Albany area.
“Right now is actually the perfect time to open a Plato’s Closet,” Scott said. “The last three years, these stores have been booming. We had the second-largest opening-day sales of any of the 350 Plato’s Closets in the U.S. and Canada.”
And while businesses like Verge in Downtown Albany, TD’s Thrift Store in the Village Green Shopping Center in West Albany, and Bonnie’s Boutique in Lee County near the Lee-Dougherty line don’t have corporate offices to rely on for support, each is building a steady customer base eager to find bargains.
“This kind of business has its ups and downs, but now is a good time,” Odamise Taylor, owner of TD’s at 2401 Dawson Road, said. “We’re seeing people from all walks of life come in, people looking to downsize or moving to a new location.
“We buy and offer consignment, and that’s something our customers like. There are a lot of people out there — especially today — who’d rather find a bargain than buy something new. We make sure we get the best merchandise we can get. I only put things in here I’d have in my own home.”
And while TD’s Thrift Store, which has been open for three years, offers previously owned furniture, housewares, appliances and some clothing items, Bonnie’s Boutique primarily sells children’s, men’s and women’s clothing on consignment. Former Lee County Housing Authority Director Bonnie Bridges has owned and operated the U.S. Highway 19 South business for almost 12 years.
“I had some health issues and thought about selling the business, but I love it too much to give it up,” Bridges said. “People who bring their clothes in sign a 120-day contract, and we mark the price down at the end of each month. If the clothing hasn’t sold in 120 days, we donate it to various agencies that give the clothes to the needy, not to agencies that sell them.
“We work with a 60-40 split on sales with 60 percent going to the store. We try to price items at about a third what you’d pay at a store in the mall. The condition of the clothing, the name brand and the size have a lot to do with what is sold.”
Bridges owned Bonnie’s Trash and Treasure in Leesburg while she was working with the Housing Authority, but she sold all her merchandise and the building before she realized how much she enjoyed the interaction with customers.
“I walked into this place one Tuesday, told the guy who owned it that he should call me if he ever decided to sell it, and he told me he was interested,” she said. “I started bringing in the things people said they wanted, and it’s worked well.”
When B.J. Fletcher started looking for businesses to bring to Albany’s floundering downtown district, one of her original ideas was to bring in an upscale consignment store. Jessica Blair, wife of then-new Downtown Manager Aaron Blair, volunteered to work at the new venture, but Fletcher had a better idea.
“I think she saw how passionate I was about the idea, and she said, ‘We’ll let this be your thing,’” Blair said. “Before we moved here, I’d told Aaron I’d like to open a boutique downtown. If I’d done things the way I originally planned, I would have done a more upscale kind of business. But as it turns out, this is the perfect business for this location.
“We’ve created a kind of niche, and the response has been wonderful. We’re growing every day. I think people like shopping for bargains in a nice atmosphere, one where everything’s not helter skelter all around them.”
Verge has a list of more than 300 consigners or people who want to consign at the store, and they offer new, used and vintage clothing, accessories, handbags and shoes by some of the biggest names in fashion, from Louis Vuitton to Prada to Burberry.
“We don’t buy clothing outright,” Blair said. “That’s better for us, and it’s ultimately better for our customers and our consigners. We pay 40 percent back on items sold unless there’s something we have a keen interest in. Then we pay 50-50.
“As we’ve grown, we’ve been able to be more selective about what we offer in the store. And I think what sets us apart is that we’re very involved with local charities. We have a number of events during which part of the proceeds of our sales go to deserving charities.”
A line of shoppers waited outside Plato’s Closet at 2524-B Dawson Road for more than an hour before the store opened a little more than a month ago. And while the end of the back-to-school shopping frenzy has slowed customer flow a little, the demand for “gently used, brand-name clothing” is still high.
In fact, Scott said the store has a dire need for more merchandise.
“This area back here should be stacked up with inventory,” she said of the storage area off the sales floor. “But we’re selling the stuff we get almost as fast as we buy it. It’s really a pretty amazing concept. We pay you cash on the spot for teen, young adult and generally trendy clothing that’s from six moths to a year and a half old.
“Some people are upset when we tell them their clothing doesn’t fit what we place in the store, but we have very strict guidelines.”
Scott’s experience in her first 30-plus days at Plato’s Closet perhaps underscores the win-win that customers and consignment/thrift store owners share when they do business.
“I think it’s crazy for anyone to pay full price at the mall for items they could get here for 70 percent off,” she said. “Certainly people would do well to look around before they went to the mall.
“When I got into this business, I fretted over paying the franchise fee. I just didn’t know how things were going to go in Albany, if people were going to support us. But it was a good decision. I’ve made more total sales here in the first month than I made in five years working at an appraisal company.”