Can Goodwill Capture Thrift Shopping Magic Online?

Goodwill is sorting through its donations in order to maximize revenue. Increasingly, wealthy Bay Area donors mean lots of treasure. (Andrew Stelzer/KQED)

Jane Modine leaves Goodwill’s flagship San Francisco store at 12th and Mission streets with her arms full of clothing. Today's shopping trip was a success.

“I found these fabulous black Hunter rainboots," she says. "I’m going to Texas next Monday and look what I found: an American flag shirt! I love this place.”

Modine is one of legions of Goodwill fans who dig through dusty shelves and bins for a bargain. They have helped turn Goodwill into a $5 billion global powerhouse. But as the store is looking to compete in the online world, it's selling way more than kitschy collectibles.

Down in the basement of the San Francisco warehouse, Jalisa James is listing a classy-looking pair of sunglasses for auction on shopgoodwill.com. The large and wealthy donor population in the San Francisco Bay Area has led to some amazing finds.

Goodwill employee Janique Lee holds up a Tiffany necklace she just listed online for sale.
Goodwill employee Janique Lee holds up a Tiffany necklace she just listed online for sale. (Andrew Stelzer/KQED)

“I got some pretty good Gucci and Prada purses, shoes ... people would be like, ‘This is coming to Goodwill?’ ” said James.

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A German tea set recently brought in $1,000. A Ming dynasty urn sold for over $3,000.  Goodwill of San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin counties makes more than 10 percent of its sales through online auctions -- that's more than $400,000 a month.

Identifying Treasure

Up on the main warehouse floor, Dario Saurez, senior director of e-commerce, is examining a donation. It looks sort of like a wicker sculpture in the shape of a tree, but he’s not so sure.

“Just by looking at it, we know this is interesting, this is cool, this is rare, this is unique. And yet I don’t know what it is,” says Suarez.

Goodwill is sorting through its donations in order to maximize revenue. Increasingly wealthy bay area donors mean lots of treasure.
Goodwill is sorting through its donations in order to maximize revenue. Increasingly, wealthy Bay Area donors mean lots of treasure. (Andrew Stelzer/KQED)

He says some of the top sellers are predictable, like jewelry and rare coins. Then you have the not so obvious items, like Legos, which they sell in 10-pound bags.

“We strive to have a 90 percent sell-through, but Legos have 100 percent sell-through. Doesn’t matter what it is, if it has the word 'Lego' on it, it’s going to sell,” Suarez explained.

Donnie Cowden with a cookie jar he just bought at Goodwill in San Francisico.
Donnie Cowden holds a cookie jar he just bought at Goodwill in San Francisco. (Andrew Stelzer/KQED)

ShopGoodwill.com was created in Southern California by Orange County Goodwill in 1999. Ryan Smith, technology services director for the site, says more than 100 Goodwill regions around the globe post items there. About 125,000 items are listed at any given time.

Most of the items are sold in an auction format, where buyers place bids during a period of time, and the highest bidder wins the item.

“The more people you can get to look at an interesting item online, the more people want to buy that item, and so the price of that item would go up as the market would demand it,” explained Smith.

“Goodwills look at their donations very preciously. They’re charged with getting the most revenue out of those items as they can to help fund their missions and forward their objectives,” he added, referring to the organization's job training and placement services.

But for shoppers like Jane Modine -- who travels from Oakland twice a month to visit the Goodwill at 12th and Mission streets -- there’s something about being in the actual store. She had no idea Goodwill sold online.

“I’m a feel shopper. I really like to see what they got there,” said Modine.

So while ShopGoodwill is set for a redesign, and there’s even an app expected for release next year, many will still search for buried treasure in the bins for a while to come.

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