How Goodwill’s New Boutiques Are Dressing Up Secondhand Shopping

When Macklemore donned a mangy fur coat and strutted over the used sofas in his 2013 "Thrift Shop" video, fans got a good look at the Goodwill Outlet at 1765 Sixth Ave. South in Seattle—a stereotypical realm of fluorescent lights, linoleum floors, and bins of plastic toys. Macklemore’s copious bling and king-sized personality did a lot to make Goodwill shopping look cool, but here’s the twist: Lately, some Goodwill stores are looking pretty cool on their own.

Goodwill is quietly transforming a small but growing number of its stores across the country into boutiques—smaller, more intimate shops where the furniture is antique, the clothing is designer, and the space feels more like Urban Outfitters than a warehouse selling “those moccasins someone else has been walkin’ in,” as Macklemore put it.

“Boutiques are a growing piece of our business,” said Goodwill’s marketing vp Michael Meyer, whose office oversees the 165 independent organizations that operate stores regionally. “There’s not a written plan, but more and more of our members are refinishing their stores. And it’s exciting because it brings in a shopper that we might not otherwise have had at Goodwill.”

At the Rare boutique in Anaheim, Calif., for example, handpicked clothing by the likes of Burberry and Prada sell in an industrial-chic setting of polished concrete floors and exposed ductwork. There’s a lounge featuring books and a listening station where shoppers can play vinyl LPs before buying them. The store’s plate-glass frontage on West Broadway features “RARE” in huge lettering, with “Goodwill” decidedly smaller. And that’s no accident.

“You feel like you’re in Anthropologie,” said Frank Talarico, CEO of Goodwill of Orange County. “It doesn’t look or feel or smell like a thrift store.”

No, it doesn't. And neither does Déjà Blue Boutique, a Goodwill concept that recently opened in Colorado. Located two blocks from the Denver Country Club, Déjà Blue is a freestanding brick cottage where plank wood flooring and recessed lighting form an understated backdrop for the Coach handbags and pink Chanel blazers. The boutique, said Goodwill Denver’s CMO Kristen Blessman, “allows us to engage with a new segment of shoppers looking for a curated collection of higher-end labels and looks. It was an exciting retail and public relations opportunity for us.”

As a nonprofit entity, Goodwill obviously isn’t under the same financial pressures as a customary retailer, upscale or otherwise. Nevertheless, Goodwill is a major retail player that pulls in some $4 billion in annual revenue from its 2,900 stores. Taking cues from smaller resale concepts like Buffalo Exchange and Housing Works that pioneered the idea of hipper thrift, Goodwill has finally recognized that drawing new customers means shedding the flaky, funky trappings of yesteryear.

It’s also recognized that while thrift-store merchandise might come from grandpa’s closet, increasingly, it’s his grandkids doing the shopping. “The 18 to 24 market has expectations when they walk in,” Talarico said of younger customers, “and I know what it takes to get them to walk in.”

The OC Goodwill Boutique marked the organization's first foray into upmarket resale. Located in Tustin, Calif., it's a loft-like store with bare-brick walls, open rafters, and designer clothing displayed on vintage furniture. After OC did encouraging business, Goodwill Orange County expanded on the idea with Rare. “Three years ago, the marching orders were to make thrift cool,” Talarico said. “This is not a card-table-and-open-cigar-box operation—it’s a sophisticated, social enterprise.”

It also helps that young shoppers are looking for alternatives. The cookie-cutter sameness created by mall chains has left many consumers hungering for variety. And while an old-guard thrift store like Salvation Army probably isn't all that enticing, Goodwill's boutiques may well be. “In a world of disposable clothing, young people are looking for vintage clothing to express their personalities,” observes Matti Leshem, CEO and founder of multimedia branding firm Protagonist. “It’s no surprise that smart marketers are looking at that trend and marketing the thrift store as the next great curated experience.”

Below, a peek at those curated experiences at Goodwill's Déjà Blue and Rare boutiques.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.