Did you know that besides the dozens of Goodwill stores throughout our area there are a couple other locations in which even greater treasures exist, sometimes for well under a dollar?
Welcome to the Goodwill Outlets — otherwise known as “The Bins”.
And I’m going to show you what’s happening behind the scenes — and just a fraction of all the fun things my buddies and I’ve found there.
Let’s step back for a minute.
As a kid, I spent endless hours beach-combing in the hopes of finding hidden treasures. In the winter it would be in Naples, Florida and in the summer it’d be on the beaches in Cape Cod.
Beach vacations would follow a daily pattern. Early each morning my family would walk the nearby beaches, and while my brother and sister would often scamper in the water, I’d have other plans. I’d often be found poking through driftwood, overturning seaweed clinging to strange objects, and occasionally digging under sand piles that looked unusually promising.
I was looking for some kind of lost treasure: a rare but intact shell, a piece of jewelry or perhaps a bottle with note inside.
I’d inevitably run into someone with a metal detector and I envied them their ability to hone in on something valuable fairly quickly, and I’d share in their excitement as the machine would start to ping and zero in on a target.
I’ve found the modern day equivalent of Treasure Island.
Welcome to the Goodwill Bins.
I’ve been shopping at these Outlets for over ten years but it was only fairly recently that I’ve had the chance to look behind the curtain. I’ve now been in the back room of a couple Bins locations, witnessing first hand how it is that the Goodwill Industries of Columbia Willamette (GIWF) processes the roughly 235 millions of pounds of donations it receives yearly.
I drop off stuff regularly at Goodwill drive-thrus, and I’m not alone; the average donor gives over 60 pounds a year, making our Goodwill stores the jewel in the nationwide crown.
The Portland area receives more donations than anywhere else, including such huge markets as Los Angeles and New York.
Friends all over the country who’ve visited me are shocked by our world-class GW stores and they always ask me: Why are ours so chock-full of amazing merchandise while their own stores seem sadly stocked in comparison?
I asked Dale Emanuel, the very knowledgeable and savvy head of the PR department, why our stores are so well-stocked with such fantastic merchandise and she said that they can point to three reasons.
One, so many people give so prolifically because of the convenience of the multitude of drop off centers throughout the area (surely your neighborhood has one, too). Two, this generous community buys into the reduce/reuse/recycle way of living and they donate because they are committed to this sharing principle (and recognizes the importance of keeping unnecessary items out of landfills).
And thirdly, donors give so voluminously because they’ve seen or heard what their donations do for their greater community and they like to contribute to that (and most donors are shoppers, too).
FUN FACT: Most regulars refer to the Outlets as the Bins. The first GW Outlet in our area was located in the old Pendleton Woolen Mills factory on Highway 99 and everything was wheeled out in enormous bins, and the name stuck with regulars. To this day, large blue rolling bins (measuring ( 9 X 4 ft.) are still used for everything but furniture, and filled with merchandise they weigh between 130-300 pounds a piece.
Here’s the geographic scope of our local Goodwill Organization; turns out there is a network of 160 autonomously operated GW chapters in North America, and our network covers 51 locations, including five outlets, boutiques and roughly 40-odd stores.
Think about that — over 235 millions of pounds of donations flood this system every year.
How do they do it?
Goodwill does a masterful job of trying to maximize the profit of every single item they receive because their outstanding free programs (serving thousands of people with everything from EISL classes, Job Placement and Training and so much more) are completely reliant on the proceeds from these donations.
GW takes those with barriers to employment (be it language, broken work record, lack of education, physical disability or other issues) and offers them a number free classes and services and then helps find them work. They also give generously to food banks, toy drives and other charities, be they at-risk youth, disaster relief or meal services in missions.
And what very few people realize is that not only does our Goodwill keep admin costs (including executive pay) so low — 95% of the proceeds from your donations go directly to their free programs’ operating costs — but they are also leaders in the world of sustainable operations.
GICW manages to sell, recycle or salvage about 85% of those 235 million pounds of donations, meaning that countless tons of discarded possessions are kept out of landfills. (Turns out our Goodwill is so masterful and thorough with their efforts that executives all over the world come to see the nuts and bolts of this operation in action.)
Clothes and various textiles that aren’t sold on the floor of the Bins are compacted into huge bales weighing 1,000 -1200 pounds each; these are then sold en masse for pennies on the pound and then the items often end up in Third World countries where manufacturing can’t keep up with customer demand.
(And no, I’m not on the Goodwill payroll to write about them; anyone who has known me for more than five minutes– or has visited my home –knows that I’m just a GW junkie and fan, especially that of the Bins.)
FUN FACT: There are 5 Outlet/Bins in our area. In order of sales volume they are: Milwaukee, Airport, Hillsboro, and tied for fourth, Vancouver and Salem. They are nearly 24 hour operations which employ almost 500 people, none of which are able to shop there, making sure that all these bargains are available to non-employees only.
I’ve been to the Bins hundreds of times, and I get asked about them all the time, so when I was invited to check the operations in person, I jumped on the chance.
One of those times I went to the Airport Bins alongside another blogger, Katy Wolk-Stanley.
Her blog, the Non-Consumer Advocate, is an addictively fun read and has all kinds of thrifty hints, glimpses of PNW living and pics of treasures she’s found thrifting.
I had a blast touring the facility with her, both of us asking questions and seeing first-hand how operations at this location alone manages to process nearly 80,000 lbs of merchandise daily, again with the vast majority being sold, salvaged or recycled (and that includes defunct TVs, spare shoes, broken pots, an endless stream of clothing and textiles and pretty much else you could dream up.)
I loved hearing of her own successes shopping at both retail and Bin locations; one of her most recent Bins success was a $20 Dyson vacuum cleaner she cleaned up and then re-sold on CL for a $100 profit).
FUN FACT: Katy’s not the only one who sees opportunity here. Roughly 85% of Bin shoppers buy Bin items with resale in mind, be it on Ebay, Craigslist, Etsy, retail shops or to other sellers (supposedly some vintage shops are largely filled with Bins purchases!).
Think about that— so much of what you see in those blue bins have sufficient value that people make a living by re-selling it.
How does stuff end up in the Bins, you might be wondering?
I wasn’t really clear until I toured the facility, but here you go.
The majority of what you see at the Bins has just spent four weeks at a GW retail store (each Bins pulls from the stores closest to them) and hasn’t found an owner. Maybe it’s out of season, is perceived to be too spendy, is too common or it just didn’t get matched with the right new owner. So after four weeks it comes here– and it’s given one last chance to find a new home.
(The other two ways items show up at the Bins is when they are direct donations dropped off at that same location or occasionally they are items that come directly from another donation site elsewhere).
And when I tell you that you can find pretty much anything there, believe it.
Here’s another great example: look at this fantastic Dansk enamel pot my girlfriend Chrissy found at the Milwaukee Bins and brought home.
The average bin lasts on the floor just a matter of hours and then it’s moved out, with these items never to be seen by a GW customer again.
I found this pristine roll of vintage gift wrap and nabbed it just five minutes before it left the floor and disappeared forever.
Frequent bin rotation is part of the appeal here; a certain item may not be on the floor when they open at 8 am only to make a brief appearance midday. It could last on the floor for just seconds after it’s spied by a lucky recipient or if still in the bins after a few hours, off it goes back to the back room to be sorted and moved on to its final home post-GW.
That’s the thing about the Bins; market demand ultimately determines the value of a donation, and access to such is democratization and equal opportunity in action— just act quick because each bin is only on the floor for a matter of hours.
It’s also all about timing — if you’re standing in the right place at the right time, that one magic bin might be rolled out directly in front of you (or conversely, sometimes you’re forced to watch someone else get something crazy cool and valuable just seconds before you).
On that tour, Katy found these hand-sewn socks and vintage scissors.
Katy hadn’t brought cash with her that day, but I was all too happy to spend the 57 cents to treat her to the two items she found.
On another visit she found other items both for personal use and re-sale.
She found a vintage Brooks Brothers cap and a scarf that was also a beauty.
Katy is a clearly a clever shopper and has a great eye, and it was my pleasure to do a tour with her behind the scenes. (Girl, I can’t wait to go Binning again with you!)
Here’s what I found on the floor that day (many of which were brand-new and sporting labels from familiar retailers).
I also found a vintage doll’s crib that I just had to have– and looks great now corralling my succulents in my living room.
I also came home with an authentic French wool beret (I’d been kicking myself that I forgot to pick one up on last summer’s trip to Paris so the timing was perfect).
I also found some new clothes in my favorite colors, including this pristine sailor shirt from Garnet Hill.
I think these three tops ended up costing me $1.25.
FUN FACT: Here are the top 5 most donated items to GW: 1. Textiles (including clothes and linens). 2. Housewares. 3. Books. 4. Electronics. 5. Shoes.
Another tour had me visiting the largest Bins, the granddaddy of them all — the Milwaukee one (just blocks from Sellwood).
This time I made the tour with another new pal, the crazy creative blogger/designer/author Rebecca Ringquist of Dropcloth Sampler.
I met Rebecca through this blog and when we realized that we both love to thrift, I snagged an invite for both of us to see the backroom here. We left the main floor and headed back.
Here she is with Mark, one of the funny and friendly managers at this location.
It was fascinating to walk into the warehouse just beyond the floor and see the sorting, baling and organizing in action.
It’s a good thing they’re so organized; 7 days a week, 10 40-50 ft. trucks unload more merchandise for sale.
Rebecca too was mesmerized by both the enormity of the operation and the variety of the treasures headed out to the floor (and occasionally diverted to their online store shopgoodwill.com).
FUN FACT: Each Bins Outlet sees hundreds of customers passing through daily, and as many as 30-40 await by the front door of each before they open. Many of these regulars spend the entire day there or pop in and out multiple times daily, checking in with pickers who sort through items for them. They see so much volume that some Bins report a new sale (some of them hundreds of pounds in weight) almost every 90 seconds, round the clock, from 9-9 daily.
I had so much fun shopping alongside Rebecca and we both appreciate vintage so much.
She found a score of vintage activity books and encyclopedias — some of which will be used as inspiration for her hand-drawn embroidery samplers available on Etsy (you need to check these out!).
Don’t you just love this handwriting analysis?
Look at this very old children’s book she bought for her adorable son.
Lest you worry that I came home empty handed, allow me to reassure you.
I found vintage Japanese melamine platters, giant glass bottles for Kombucha making, scads of craft supplies, some clothes, shoes and loads of party and hostess items (the Bins always seem to have leftovers from parties and I snatch up these unused supplies for next to nothing).
All of this (and more!) for about ten dollars.
FUN FACT: Everything but furniture, books and glassware is one flat rate: $1.69 a pound with a huge price break of just 99 cents per pound for piles 25 pounds or greater.
You can combine weight with a friend or a stranger to get to that magic 25 pound weight discount as long as you use only one credit card (I bring cash and pair up with strangers to get the best deal).
Soft books are $1, hardcovers $2, magazines 29 cents and all glassware and breakables (like these French cafe au lait bowls) are a flat 49 cents a pound.
There is not one room in my house that doesn’t have Bins items inside it –and the treasures and highly useful items I’ve bought over the years are too numerous to mention (and so inexpensively purchased you’d want to weep with envy).
Everyone in my family regularly wears items I’ve found at the Bins (although Charlotte and I’ve had the most luck)
and I’m constantly using or sharing something I’ve uncovered at a Bin.
They’re been so many trips over the years.
When my kids were small it was all about toys and clothing
and magnetic letters and other small trinkets.
These days I look more for items to be used for entertaining and cooking,
appeal to my kids’ new passions (like this vintage football card I found at the Bins for Oliver)
or just for sharing with friends near and far.
So many of my friends shop at the Bins now that I regularly have a Bin and Lunch date with them.
My original Bin Buddy ten years ago was Elona. In addition to being a Cracker Jack yoga instructor and sex educator, she’s also masterful at looking at a mound of clothes and finding the most incredible clothes and accessories for herself and others here.
Look at her completely outfitted by the Bins and looking sharp for her 20th high school reunion.
And then there’s Chrissy, another Bin buddy who’s also been behind the scenes
and always finds all kinds of gorgeous things for her home there –not just the Dansk pot I showed you before but art
pillows, furniture and all kinds of interesting pieces that can be found in every nook and cranky of her house, too.
Yes, nearly every one of these thing was purchased by the pound here.
Just recently I went with yet another new friend named Ranya, who it turns out has bought almost all the furniture for her house from here.
We too shared lunch and hit the Bins. Shopping side by side, we both found things for one another.
I helped her find things for her small kids and she helped locate items that were useful
or just pleasing — to me.
Like this trivet that set me back a quarter (I recently saw a similar one retail for $22)
and these shoes that cost me about 5o cents (they fit Charlotte perfectly and cleaned up to near new condition).
People are shocked at the items I’ve found over the years at the Bins: cashmere sweaters, Coach wallets, brand new and in the box kitchen items, Anthropologie tops, you name it.
Of the countless acquired at the Bins, though, I’d have to say it’s some of those delightful vintage items I’ve found over the years that I most treasure.
Vintage board games.
Pristine boxes of greeting cards and stationary that somehow went unused and unwanted until I found them.
Look at these little lovelies
and so much more.
And so a jumbo-sized thanks to all my pals, old and new, who routinely shop the Bins with me and make picking so much fun.
Recently Katy found me this Bin treasure
and I shared with her another Bins find (she’s been looking for a pig cutting board and I had one!).
A big thanks to Dale (seen here trying on a Gap jacket to see if it might fit Charlotte) for all her time explaining how the Bins work and introducing me around.
Dale, like so many Goodwill workers, has been with the company for a very long time (21 years!) and not only does she fervently believe in their mission, but she’s an avid customer, too (she’s always showing me some stylish item she’s purchased at a store).
Speaking of which, one last FUN FACT: Did you know that in the interest of fairness to its customers, Goodwill Employees can only buy something on the retail floor after it’s been there for at least 3 days?
Another shout out to the employees who shared their time with me on these tours, explaining how things work and telling me their stories (I’ll never forget the story one employee told me about finding a Bible from the 1500’s — leather-bound and completely in Latin — in a donation box one day. It ended up on shopgoodwill.com and sold for thousands of dollars).
And lastly, thanks to all the Portland donors responsible for all those millions of items that one day ended up here– and not some sad, overstuffed landfill.
Thanks to you, I’ve been able to find all these lovely items for super-low prices for my home — and provided me with countless hours of fun in this urban treasure hunt.
Not been to the Bins yet but are interested in testing your luck finding a treasure of your own (like this giant vintage Santa)?
Shoot me off an email– I’ll make us lunch and we’ll Bin together.