Thrift store closure a harsh illustration of economic buzzwords in action

Array

Despite occupying a prominent place in the downtown Whitehorse business scene for 40 years, the Salvation Army thrift store announced its closure last week. While unsustainable losses were the immediate cause, it’s worth asking what is fundamentally differenttoday from previous decades that made the business unsustainable.

After all, the interweb is full of chatter about the “sharing economy,” which includes people renting things they don’t use very often to strangers via digital platforms. In a sense, the thrift store took this even farther. You didn’t just rent your old sweater to someone,you gave it to the thrift store and they sold it forever. Usually at a fire sale price.

However, the Salvation Army’s thrift store did not achieve a billion-dollar valuation in Silicon Valley like some sharing economy websites.

The episode is a harsh real-world illustration of some common economic buzzwords in action.

The first is “competition.” The free stores at Yukon dumps — sorry, solid waste management facilities — are popular. My favourite Yukon dump is at Tagish, and the free store there, known as Tiffany’s, seemed sometimes to have more customers than certain MainStreet businesses in Whitehorse. Dump bosses have in some cases closed down or put restrictions on their free stores due to public safety issues or burgeoning piles of surplus stuff.

One often hears Whitehorse entrepreneurs muttering when a government agency starts competing with them. Remember the reaction of private gyms when the Canada Games Centre started offering gym services? In a sense, the thrift store managers were in asimilar bind. They were trying to sell a used pair of work boots for five bucks while the government-run dump at Tagish offered them for free, assuming you could find your size and no squirrels had moved in.

Furthermore, bigger ticket items in the Yukon now trade on the Kijiji online marketplace. Access to the internet is not universal here, but most Yukoners can check Kijiji rather than heading down to the thrift store as they might have done previously.

More fundamentally, you have to ask why we have so much surplus stuff that it can fill multiple free stores and the thrift store to capacity and beyond. Fifty years ago, clothes were considered expensive. Statistics on the number of pairs of pants owned by typicalNorth Americans at the time would shock today’s teenagers. When young couples got married, family members would give them sets of plates and cutlery since these were so expensive. Toasters were valuable enough that people took them to get repaired.

Which leads us to the next buzzwords: “globalization” and “low-cost manufacturing.” With large-scale factories in low-wage countries in Asia and cheap containerized shipping, many items have become amazingly affordable. Teens purchase clothes at H&M at pricesso low they are almost disposable. Closets overflow. You can buy a 16 piece set of bowls and plates for $32.87 at a Whitehorse big-box store. No self-respecting bank would give away toasters if you opened an account these days.

Not only did cheap manufactured goods undercut demand at the thrift store, it created even bigger strategic problems. It led legions of well-meaning Yukoners to deluge the thrift store with donations. Having viewed the donation pile, I would guess that storemanagers weren’t always thrilled by some of the things they ended up with. Sorting this stuff and taking piles of it to the dump costs money.

The thrift store’s competitors didn’t face this problem. If something doesn’t sell on Kijiji, the website doesn’t have to pay to dispose of it. And if something doesn’t get picked up at the dump’s free store, no one has to pay dump fees to get rid of it.

It’s already at the dump.

The next buzzwords are “asset-light” and “scaleable.”

The thrift store had its own building, which costs money to occupy and run. Asset-light competitors like Kijiji don’t have facilities like this. Their customers arrange to meet somewhere and transfer the goods. Tiffany’s at Tagish doesn’t even really exist, so has noexpenses.

In simple terms, a scaleable business is one whose costs don’t go up as fast as its revenue. Internet businesses are like this. Kijiji could double in volume, but the cost of its website would hardly change. The thrift store had to hire people to deal with its growingvolume of donations, even as revenue struggled.

Some government officials may argue with this buzzword, but there may also have been an element of “policy failure.” News stories about the closure noted that organizations like Zero Waste Yukon and Raven Recycling had received government funding for projectsaround managing surplus goods. How much funding was the Salvation Army’s thrift store getting?

A comprehensive policy would have included and supported the thrift store for its role in giving goods a second life instead of filling up scarce space in our dump.

Have the agencies involved done the math on how much waste the thrift store diverted from the dump? Or how much they’ll spend on other programs supporting the 12 Yukoners who have lost their jobs because of the economic buzzwords above?

The closure of the thrift store is not a good thing for our community. It illustrates the relentlessness of economic change. And don’t feel smug because it was the thrift store that closed and not your employer. Someday, someone (or some robot) will be writing acolumn about buzzwords like “artificial intelligence” and its impact on middle-class jobs.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Willow Brewster, a paramedic helping in the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre, holds a swab used for the COVID-19 test moments before conducting a test with it on Nov. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
An inside look at the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre

As the active COVID-19 case count grew last week, so too did… Continue reading

Conservation officers search for a black bear in the Riverdale area in Whitehorse on Sept. 17. The Department of Environment intends to purchase 20 semi-automatic AR-10 rifles, despite the inclusion of the weapons in a recently released ban introduced by the federal government, for peace officers, such as conservation officers. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Environment Minister defends purchase of AR-10 rifles for conservation officers

The federal list of banned firearms includes an exception for peace officers

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: The K-shaped economic recovery and what Yukoners can do about it

It looks like COVID-19 will play the role of Grinch this holiday… Continue reading

Jodie Gibson has been named the 2020 Prospector of the Year by the Yukon Prospectors Association. (Submitted)
Jodie Gibson named 2020 Prospector of the Year

Annual award handed out by the Yukon Prospector’s Association

A number 55 is lit in honour of Travis Adams, who died earlier this year, at the Winter Wonderland Walk at Meadow Lakes Golf Club in Whitehorse on Nov. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
A new take on holiday traditions

Winter Wonderland Walk, virtual Stories with Santa all part of 2020 festive events in Whitehorse

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

Colin McDowell, the director of land management for the Yukon government, pulls lottery tickets at random during a Whistle Bend property lottery in Whitehorse on Sept. 9, 2019. A large amount of lots are becoming available via lottery in Whistle Bend as the neighbourhood enters phase five of development. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Lottery for more than 250 new Whistle Bend lots planned for January 2021

Eight commercial lots are being tendered in additional to residential plots

The Government of Yukon Main Administration Building in Whitehorse on Aug. 21. The Canada Border Services Agency announced Nov. 26 that they have laid charges against six people, including one Government of Yukon employee, connected to immigration fraud that involved forged Yukon government documents. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Charges laid in immigration fraud scheme, warrant out for former Yukon government employee

Permanent residency applications were submitted with fake Yukon government documents

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Karen Wenkebach has been appointed as a judge for the Yukon Supreme Court. (Yukon News file)
New justice appointed

Karen Wenckebach has been appointed as a judge for the Supreme Court… Continue reading

Catherine Constable, the city’s manager of legislative services, speaks at a council and senior management (CASM) meeting about CASM policy in Whitehorse on June 13, 2019. Constable highlighted research showing many municipalities require a lengthy notice period before a delegate can be added to the agenda of a council meeting. Under the current Whitehorse procedures bylaw, residents wanting to register as delegates are asked to do so by 11 a.m. on the Friday ahead of the council meeting. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Changes continue to be contemplated for procedures bylaw

Registration deadline may be altered for delegates

Cody Pederson of the CA Storm walks around LJ’s Sabres player Clay Plume during the ‘A’ division final of the 2019 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament. The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28 in Whitehorse next year, was officially cancelled on Nov. 24 in a press release from organizers. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)
2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament cancelled

The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28… Continue reading

Lev Dolgachov/123rf
The Yukon’s Information and Privacy Commissioner stressed the need to safeguard personal information while shopping this holiday season in a press release on Nov. 24.
Information and Privacy Commissioner issues reminder about shopping

The Yukon’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Diane McLeod-McKay stressed the need to… Continue reading

Most Read