9 Secrets of Thrift Store Employees

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Whether you're a hardcore shopper who combs the racks of the Salvation Army regularly or rely on secondhand shops as a place to donate your old stuff, you may have wondered what it's like to work behind the scenes. Wonder no more: Mental Floss talked to several workers at thrift stores around the country about what happens to rejected donations, the coolest (and weirdest) items they've seen, and the best way to score an even better deal.

1. THEY DON'T KEEP EVERYTHING YOU DONATE.

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Thrift stores don't always keep all your donations, either because they don't have room or because items aren't in good enough condition for resale. But rest assured they try to responsibly redistribute or recycle what they can't use. Stacie Morrell, manager of Homeward Bound Pets Thrift Store in McMinnville, Oregon, tells Mental Floss that her non-profit has several destinations for unused donations. They take the best clothing to a local consignment store, generating another revenue stream; they give their "pulls" (items pulled off the racks that didn't sell) to the larger St. Vincent de Paul thrift store across town; and they send donations that aren't fit for resale to homeless shelters or a recycling facility.

Goodwill, where Morrell has also worked, has a different system. The stores send pulls and poor-quality items to Goodwill Outlets, where the stuff is set out in giant bins for customers to buy by the pound. That can mean gems for patient thrifters—the stores occasionally send donations to the outlets "raw," meaning they haven't even had time to open the boxes before sending them off. "It's like a treasure hunt," Morrell says.

For really unsalable merchandise, Goodwill sometimes finds overseas buyers, and they recycle what they can. If they can't recycle it, it goes in the trash. "They have huge garbage bills every month, into the millions," Morrell says.

2. THERE'S A MEANING BEHIND THOSE DIFFERENTLY COLORED TAGS.

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

If you shop at Goodwill, you'll recognize the colored plastic price tags on all the clothing. It's all part of a system for rotating inventory and keeping the merchandise fresh. Most Goodwill stores use five different colors and rotate them weekly in a regular pattern: A new batch of clothing going onto the sales floor might get a blue tag, for example, and next week's merchandise might get yellow. Every week on a Sunday, Goodwill puts the oldest color on sale for 50 percent off to help get it off the floor. If you can figure out your local store's color pattern, you can predict when an item that catches your eye will go on sale. Tip: Try (nicely) asking an employee.

Other thrift stores use different systems, but they usually have some way of tracking the date on their wares. At Homeward Bound, the month the merchandise arrived is written on the tag. "We have a sign up front that says, 'Items this month and before are 50 percent off,'" Morrell explains.

3. YOU MAY HAVE A BETTER SHOPPING EXPERIENCE AT A SMALL, NON-PROFIT STORE.

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Small businesses can mean a more friendly experience for the customer. "Most of the small thrift stores will be staffed by volunteers, so they want to be there," Morrell says. A volunteer at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, a secondhand shop in New York City, explained to us: "They're not in business to make money. They're a charity. … The people that work there understand that, that they're there to be helpful to each other and to the community."

Another benefit: Unlike chain stores, small stores may let you bargain. "If a person came up to me [with a pair of $15 pants] and said, 'I love these pants. I've only got 12 bucks on me,'" Morrell says, "I'd be like, 'Sure,' because that's 12 bucks I'd have in my hand rather than the 15 I didn't."

4. THEY MAKE A LOT OF MONEY SELLING ONLINE.

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Believe it or not, your favorite thrift store probably has a thriving e-commerce business. When donations come in, employees separate out collectibles, books, and other higher-end items to sell online. That means it's worth checking out your favorite store's web presence occasionally. Goodwill, The Salvation Army, and Housing Works all have their own online stores, and sell books on Amazon, too. In fact, Housing Works Bookstore Cafe makes the majority of their money selling online, our source says. Mom-and-pop shops, on the other hand, might opt for eBay stores.

"For non-profit stores, e-commerce has become an essential part of selling," Morrell says. "I know a number of small business owners that, if they weren't online, they wouldn't be making the rent."

5. SOMETIMES THEY FIND REALLY EXPENSIVE ITEMS.

It doesn't happen often, but thrift stores sometimes come across a rare item and make a ton of money. Morrell set up the e-commerce department for Goodwill of the Columbia Willamette, where in 2006 she sold a 1923 watercolor by American impressionist Frank Weston Benson, whose work is also owned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The price: $165,002. Morrell was sorting through donations one day when she came across the painting and instinctively knew it was worth something. "It was in its original frame, but the frame was beat up. It had been obviously in somebody's basement and the matting had gotten wet." The work was signed but she couldn't make out the name, so she listed it for auction on shopgoodwill.com starting at $10. The store was contacted by a relative of the late artist; apparently, the family didn't know this particular piece existed. After the watercolor was authenticated, the bidding soared until it reached the hefty sum.

6. THEY GET A TON OF FORMAL DINNERWARE.

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A much-talked-about 2017 New York Times article documented the unfortunate truth that millennials just don't want their aging parents' stuff, especially not their china, silver, and crystal. And that means that huge amounts of it go to the thrift shop. "Those are wonderful, beautiful things and they look great sitting on a shelf, but that's exactly where they stay. It's hard to sell them," Morrell says.

7. THEY'VE DEALT WITH A LOT OF BAD CUSTOMERS ...

In an article for Cracked, a former employee of a major thrift store chain writes that rich customers are often some of the worst. "The thrift store I worked at was in a really wealthy neighborhood, so obviously we got a solid handful of rich, bored housewives who'd come in out of idle curiosity for how the other half lives," she writes. "The wealthy customers would talk to me as if being around donated clothes meant that I was also some kind of discount, donated human. One such woman sneered when I told her an Abercrombie shirt was $2.99, because she expected it to be free, apparently. After I finished ringing her up, she stood by the register and pointed out every dismal aspect of our store like a judgmental stepmother."

The anonymous Housing Works source says, "I think the most horrible customer was the one when the cashier told her that we don't take Discover. She put her Discover card in the machine and said, 'Well, I'm going to try my Discover anyway,' and it caused the whole computer system to crash."

8. ... AND SEEN A LOT OF GROSS STUFF.

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Morrell has seen a lot of bodily fluids in her time in the industry. "I was working at Goodwill and I saw a mom grab her kid and hustle out the door. I thought, well maybe he's sick or something or she got an emergency call. I'm walking the floor and I go past the toy aisle, and the kid had pooped and spread it all over the floor."

A former Goodwill employee who did a Reddit AMA once found a rat at the bottom of a bag of clothing. "It made the entire back room smell, and we had to get rid of all the clothes."

9. THE OCCASIONAL BAD EMPLOYEE WILL TRY TO GAME THE PRICING SYSTEM.

"People think that we glean the good stuff off the top, but that is absolutely not true," Morrell says. However, while she emphasizes that the majority of employees are honest, she has seen a couple workers who see a treasure, furtively price it for less than they should, and buy it for themselves or to flip online. Usually, there are rules in place to prevent that: The manager prices everything when it comes in, and if an employee wants to buy something, someone else has to ring them up.

"Most people are fine with this, and if they aren't, that's a good sign that they shouldn't be there," Morrell says. "Our first job as employees and volunteers is to make sure the organization gets the most they can out of every donation."

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Secrets of Epidemiologists

Epidemiologists are fans of charts.
Epidemiologists are fans of charts.
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Unless you know an epidemiologist or are one yourself, those “disease detectives” might not have occupied a very large portion of your brain. Last year, that is. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic at the top of mind—and at the top of so many headlines—there’s a good chance you’re at least aware that epidemiologists study diseases.

To be more specific, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines epidemiology as “the study of the distribution and determinants of health-related states or events in specified populations, and the application of this study to the control of health problems.” So what exactly does this mean? Mental Floss spoke with a few epidemiologists to shed light on what they do, how they do it, and which germ-friendly foods they avoid at the buffet.

1. People often mistake epidemiologists for skin doctors.

Since the word epidemiologist sounds like it might have something to do with epidermis (the outer layer of skin), people often think epidemiology is some offshoot of dermatology. At least, until the coronavirus pandemic.

“Prior to that, no one knew what I did. Everyone was like ‘Oh you’re an epidemiologist—do you work with skin?’” Sarah Perramant, an epidemiologist at the Passaic County Department of Health Services in New Jersey, tells Mental Floss. “I would be rich if I had a dollar for every time I got asked if I work with dermatologists.”

2. Epidemiologists don’t discover a new disease every day.

Though some epidemiologists do look for unknown diseases—certain zoonotic epidemiologists, for example, surveil wildlife for animal pathogens that might jump to humans—most are dealing with diseases that we’re already familiar with. So what do they do every day? It varies … a lot.

Epidemiologists who work at academic or research institutions undertake research projects that help determine how a disease spreads, which behaviors put you at risk for it, and other unknowns about anything from common colds to cancer. But it’s not just about devising experiments and studying patient data.

“I like to tell my friends and family that my job is about four different jobs in one,” Dr. Lauren McCullough, an assistant professor in the department of epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, tells Mental Floss.

Writing, she says, is “the most important part.” It includes requesting grants, devising lectures and assignments, grading her students’ work, writing about her research, and more. She also sits on admissions committees, reviews other epidemiologists’ studies, and oversees the many people—project managers, data analysts, technicians, trainees, etc.—working on her own research projects.

Those who work in the public health sphere are often monitoring local outbreaks of diseases like the flu, Lyme disease, salmonellosis, measles, and more. If you test positive for a nationally notifiable disease (any of about 120 diseases that could cause a public health issue), the CDC or your state health department sends your electronic lab report to the epidemiologist in your area, who’s responsible for contacting you, finding out how you got sick, and telling local officials what steps to take in order to prevent it from causing an outbreak.

3. Epidemiologists have to make some uncomfortable phone calls.

At least the person on the other end can't see your expression of consternation.Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels

Epidemiologists sometimes have to ask pretty personal questions about drug use and sexual activity when trying to figure out how someone got infected, and not everyone is happy to answer them. “I’ve gotten hung up on many a time,” Dr. Krys Johnson, an assistant professor in Temple University’s department of epidemiology and biostatistics, tells Mental Floss.

Some simply aren’t willing to accept that they might have been exposed to a disease without knowing it. After several employees at a certain company tested positive for COVID-19, for example, Perramant started calling the rest of the workers to tell them to go into quarantine; this way, she could prevent sick people who weren't yet showing symptoms from spreading the disease without knowing it. But not everybody was open to her advice. “They would just swear up and down, ‘I haven’t been in touch with anybody who’s positive, please don’t call me again,’” Perramant says.

But there are plenty of cooperative people, too, especially victims of foodborne or diarrheal illnesses. “They really want to know where they got sick because they’re so miserable that they never, ever want to deal with that again,” Johnson explains. Parents of sick kids are also generally forthcoming, since they want to keep their kids healthy in the future. And then there are those who don’t have any problem spilling their secrets to a stranger.

“There was one woman who was very memorable,” Johnson says. “I called her about her Hepatitis C, and she was like, ‘Oh, honey, I did drugs back in the ’80s. That’s where I got my Hepatitis C. I pop positive every time!’”

4. Epidemiologists deal with a lot of rejection.

Public health epidemiologists have to learn to just shrug off all the rude tones and dial tones, and epidemiologists in academic settings need thick skin for different reasons.

“There’s just a lot of rejection,” McCullough says. “‘That idea isn’t good enough; this paper isn’t good enough; you’re not good enough.’ That is just a resounding thing. There’s a high bar for science; there’s a high bar for federal funding; and it takes a lot to cross that bar. So in the academic setting at these top-tier institutions, you really just have to have a thick skin.”

5. Just because epidemiologists' guidelines change doesn't mean they're wrong.

Sometimes, McCullough explains, the story of a disease can change over the course of one study. When you look at the first 100 people in a 10,000-person study, you’ll see one story emerge. By the time you’ve seen 1000 people, that story looks different. And after you’ve seen the data from all 10,000 people, the original story might not be accurate at all.

Usually, epidemiologists can complete the whole study of a disease and draw conclusions without the world clamoring for half-baked answers. But with a brand-new, highly infectious disease like COVID-19, epidemiologists don’t have that luxury. As they’ve learned more about how the pathogens spread, how long they can survive on surfaces, and other factors, they’ve changed their recommendations for safety precautions. Everyone else in the world of epidemiology expected this to happen, but the general public did not.

“If we say something this week that contradicts what we said last week, it’s not that we were wrong,” Johnson says. “It’s that we learned something between those two time points.”

6. Being an epidemiologist would be easier if people kept better track of their behavior.

Often, people omit vital information about how they got exposed to an illness because they just don’t remember all the details. You could easily recall devouring a few slices of the decadent chocolate cake your mom baked for your birthday last Friday, but you might not be able to name every bite of food you ate on a random Thursday three weeks ago.

“People aren’t telling us the whole truth, but it’s not that they’re being intentionally obtuse,” Johnson explains. “With recall bias, unless there’s a reason for us to really remember, we’re not going to remember everything we actually ate.”

This has made it especially difficult to trace an aerosolized disease like COVID-19.

“All my friends going into the Fourth of July were like, ‘Should we have a get-together?’” Perramant says. “And I said, ‘You can have people over, but you better take an attendance list. You better have a little spreadsheet on Google Drive that has every person’s name and their phone number, so that when one person tests positive and gets sick this week, when I call you, you will be able to give me that information like that.’”

7. Epidemiologists have reason to be wary of buffets, cruise ships, mayonnaise, and cubed ham.

It's all fun and games until someone eats warm egg salad.Tim Meyer, Unsplash

Infectious disease epidemiologists may have accepted that germs are a part of life, but they also know where those germs like to congregate.

“I don’t go to buffets, I have never been on a cruise ship and I don’t intend to, I’m super conscientious when I fly,” Johnson says. “And I’m really aware of whenever mayonnaise-based things are put out at family functions. If you’re ever at a potluck and people come down sick, the first thing people say [they ate] is potato salad or egg salad, because mayonnaise can spoil so quickly.”

“[Cubed ham] is one particular microbe’s very favorite thing to multiply on, so if you’re gonna have ham, make it a whole ham,” she says.

8. Teaching people is a really rewarding part of being an epidemiologist.

In addition to actually leading lectures in the classroom, academic epidemiologists also work extremely closely with their students on research projects; McCullough estimates that she’s in contact with hers at least once a day when they’re collaborating on a study.

“To work with someone so closely, and to watch them progress as a scientist and as a person, and then to have to let them go and send them out into the world, I find that very rewarding,” McCullough says of her trainees. “As a scientist in an academic institution, there’s not a whole lot of immediate gratification. Our papers get rejected, our grants don’t get funded, but the trainees are always a source of immediate gratification for me, so I hold them close to my heart.”

Epidemiologists in other spheres have teaching opportunities, too. When a community experiences a disease outbreak, public health epidemiologists like Perramant are responsible for helping the general public understand what they can do to prevent the spread.

“I like to teach kids about infectious disease and infection prevention for what’s relevant to them. We’ve had a couple of large outbreaks at summer camps, and last summer I put together a training for camp counselors,” Perramant says. “That’s always a part of my job that I really love.”

9. Epidemiologists have a unique understanding of racial disparities.

At this point, it's exceptionally clear that COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting people of color in the U.S. They're more likely to be exposed to it, they have less access to testing, and the preexisting conditions that place them at a higher risk can be the result of systemic racism. When these trends started to become apparent, McCullough got flooded with phone calls asking why. Her answer? This isn’t new. As she’s seen in her work as a breast cancer researcher, Black women are more likely to die of that disease than their white counterparts, and similar health disparities exist across the board.

McCullough explains that the general public is finally realizing what epidemiologists already knew: That poor disease outcomes in minority, low-income, and rural populations aren’t because of anything those people are doing on an individual level. Instead, it’s a result of systemic issues that keep them from leading financially comfortable, healthy lifestyles with access to healthcare and other resources.

“It’s not just COVID—it’s almost every single chronic and infection ailment that’s out there,” McCullough explains. “So this is a real opportunity for people to step back and take an assessment of where we are in terms of our healthcare system, and what we’re doing so that everybody has equitable outcomes. Because people shouldn’t die just because they live in a rural area, or just because they’re poor, or just because they’re Black or Hispanic.”

10. They've had to deal with a lot of “armchair epidemiologists” lately.

Until this year, epidemiologists had to suffer through people mistaking them for dermatologists. Now, during the coronavirus pandemic, people finally know at least a little about their jobs. In fact, people are so confident in their newfound epidemiological knowledge that many are fancying themselves experts on the subject.

“At the beginning of 2020, there were like 500 epidemiologists, and now there are about 5 million. Everybody thinks they’re an epidemiologist,” McCullough says. “There’s a science to it, and it’s a science that requires training. We went to school for a really long time to be doctorally trained epidemiologists.”

It’s not just about advanced degrees, either. Beyond that, you need years of firsthand experience to grasp all the nuances of understanding methods, interpreting data, translating your findings into recommendations for the general public, and so much more. In short, you can’t just decide you’re an epidemiologist.

Perramant has her own analogy for the recent influx of self-proclaimed epidemiologists: “It’s like armchair psychology. Poolside epidemiology now is a thing.”