Ranch Thrift Stores were launched in the 1980s to create sustainability and stability for Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch. The Thrift Stores give folks another way to support the Ranch and help provide the therapy and other services our kids need to heal.
Day after day, week after week, month after month, a steady stream of random and mixed items arrive at the doors of the nine Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch Thrift Stores. Toasters, clothes, hats, mittens, ties, wall hangings, knickknacks, pottery, glassware, yarn, home goods, and more are stuffed into grocery bags, garbage bags, boxes, totes, and laundry baskets, and dropped off at one of nine Ranch Thrift Stores (eight in North Dakota, one in Minnesota).
The basic premise of any thrift store is that one person's clutter becomes another person's treasure.
"Thrift stores are an outlet for items or products you no longer want or need," said Lisa Olson, Vice President of Retail at Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch. "We are the middleman that can take your things and give them a new home."
In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2019, Ranch Thrift Stores accepted 183,110 donations (whether it's a small grocery bag or a horse trailer full of items, each drop-off/pick-up is counted as one donation).
Many people are surprised to hear how hard we work to avoid putting broken and unsaleable items in the dumpster on their way to a landfill. Ranch Thrift Stores go way beyond the "clutter to treasure" premise with their approach to finding a new home for what comes in the door.
And that's nothing new. Ranch Thrift Stores were big advocates for recycling and sustainability long before millennials raised the environmental consciousness of the nation.
What the thrift stores recycle
Not everything the thrift stores receive is saleable, but thrift store employees are very resourceful about finding ways to turn things into cash.
Joy Ryan, President and CEO of the Ranch, said, "We know our thrift store donors donate to allow us to help the Ranch kids. We take that very seriously and work to capture every possible bit of income we can. Income comes from sales, but also from recycling and repurposing."
Appliances and Metals: A thrift store employee or volunteer tests every donated appliance to make sure it works. Some of the stores have regular volunteers who fix what can be fixed. But even stores without that resource find a way to recycle the broken appliances.
Jo Martin, manager at the Ranch Thrift Store in Grand Forks, said, "We won't sell appliances if they don't work, but we can turn lemons into lemonade by recycling everything on them that is recyclable. We cut the cords off and take them to the recycling center a couple of times a month. Depending on the market, we get $40-$75 a tote for those cords."
At the Grand Forks store, sorters cut the cords off broken appliances before putting them in the middle of the room where someone else goes through them with a magnet to remove any steel. Steel isn't worth a lot, but if separating it out and selling it means the thrift store breaks even, it's worth it.
"That's one less thing for the landfill," Martin said.
In addition to the metal found in appliances, the Ranch receives a lot of recyclable metals—copper pots, brass candle holders, metal bed frames, cookie sheets, muffin tins, etc. If the items are broken or won't sell, we sort and recycle the metal. Ranch Thrift Store employees separate metals because of the huge demand for copper, brass, and aluminum which sell for higher prices when separated.
"It is extra work to sort it, but if we didn't, we'd get stell price for everything," Martin said.
Jewelry: Employees or volunteers check all jewelry to make sure it's not broken and to ensure every earring has a match. Broken jewelry and mismatched items are placed into grab bags, which are popular with crafters. We also sort through the jewelry for valuable silver or gold pieces we can sell to precious metals buyers.
Textiles: Clothing makes up the bulk of donations to the thrift stores. While much of it goes on the sales floor, some of the clothing we receive is too loved, not in style, or more than the stores can sell. Clothing in these categories is sold to a recycler that sorts it into different grades. Last year, Ranch Thrift Stores recycled 1.8 million pounds of clothing.
The recycler distributes any usable clothing to other countries. They make the rest into rags or shred it for other purposes, like home insulation, pillow stuffing, car stuffing, and even "new" fabric made from recycled fibers.
Speaking of rags...even ripped t-shirts and towels are recyclable.
"In Fargo, we save any white t-shirts that don't make it to the sales floor for a local auto detailer. They come in every month to buy them," Olson said. "Other buyers want regular t-shirt rags and towels that don't make the cut or don't sell. If we don't have a buyer in that community, employees and volunteers make up rag boxes to sell in the store."
Electronics: The Ranch has a buyer for old cell phones, but it's difficult to find a buyer for computers and televisions.
"We don't accept computers more than seven years old, and we only accept flat-screen TVs. It's a tough one, but we literally can't give them away. We've tried, and no one wants them. It costs us $25 to dispose of a TV at the landfill so we had to stop accepting them."
Books: In some locations, we work with a company that recycles any books that don't sell. We are just now looking into another potential outlet for books.
Other recyclable items: Sometimes people donate cleaning supplies. If we can sell them without violating OSHA rules, we put them on the shelf. If we can't, or they have been opened, we use whatever we can in the store. We receive a lot of flammable chemicals, which we are not allowed to sell, so we dispose of those at the Hazardous Waste site. We'd like to catch the flammable chemicals as people are dropping off their items, but we don't often have time to go through everything while the donor is still at the donation door.
We repurpose a lot of the cardboard boxes and send any we can't use to the recycling center. We have to pay for them to be picked up, but they don't go to the landfill.
Olson said, "Sometimes we receive fixtures and we try to use those. We are pretty thrifty and want to use whatever we are given, so we try to make them work."
When it doesn't sell
The thrift stores have a complete inventory turnover every three months.
"Items are on the floor for two months before going on sale the beginning of the third month," Olson said. "We start at 50% off, then go to 75% off. Anything that hasn't sold after three months is removed and recycled to make room for more inventory."
Win. Win. Win.
While many people hold garage sales to make a little extra cash from the things they no longer want, others love the ease of dropping them off, letting someone else do the work, and knowing they are contributing to a cause that helps local children heal.
It's a win-win-win situation. People making donations can easily dispose of items they no longer need; shoppers purchase things at a fraction of the cost of new; and the troubled, complicated, and amazing kids at the Ranch receive specialized care and programming made possible by additional revenues from the thrift stores.
This article was originally published in Ranch Voice: Summer 2019.
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