Centerville » Julie Sanders of Kaysville hauls a pile of children's clothes and shoes priced at only $2 to $3 each to the register at the Deseret Industries store.
Sanders is at the Davis County thrift store to help stretch her back-to-school budget. "You can find clothes here that are brand-new, with the tags still attached," says the mother of four, ages 4 to 12.
Nationally, families are cutting back on back-to school expenditures with a vengeance, pushing spending on everything from backpacks to new outfits down nearly 8 percent this year compared with last year, according to the National Retail Federation.
But much of the pain is being felt by department stores and specialty retailers. The thrift-store sector is benefiting from a renaissance of sorts driven by consumers stung by recession -- or at least worried about it -- and who are embracing new ways to save.
It's the concept of "trading down," when consumers select more-affordable alternatives during bad times. It's when a family elects to buy a $2 loaf of bread instead of the fancy $4 variety they have bought for years. Or the motorist who buys regular unleaded instead of premium-grade fuel.
On the retail level, "trading down" occurs when consumers who typically shop at mall department stores go instead to Target or a Walmart. Or when a Walmart shopper stops by a thrift store to see if the same stuff can be had for even less.
And when it comes to most items children need, they are priced much less at thrift stores. Deseret Industries, fed by donations, has a wide variety of clothes, shoes, toys, games, housewares and books that often sell for a fraction of the retail price. The thrift-store chain, operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, even sells new items -- coats, socks, underwear, sheets and towels -- that it buys at a discount from retailers. Ditto for stores run by the thrift-store chain Savers, which has outlets along the Wasatch Front
"We're pretty busy these days," said Blaine Farnsworth, manager of the Centerville Deseret Industries store. "We're seeing some people who have never shopped here before."
On a recent weekday, the parking lot of this Deseret Industries is jammed with vehicles, including two Acura and Lexus sedans.
Utah's downturn started in summer of 2007, when the housing sector began to suffer and builders and related companies starting laying off workers. Bad times have since trickled into most sectors of the economy. Today, many Utahns either have been affected by the recession in some way or at least know someone who has been. On Thursday, Utah unemployment was reported at 6 percent.
"The amount of job losses is spreading throughout the economy," Knold said. "Some people are forced to reduce their spending, while others are just being cautious because they don't know what the future holds for them."
Still, a number of shoppers, including the Lexus owner, said they don't want their name in the newspaper because they don't want "everyone to know" that they are shopping in a thrift store. The prospect of being in a photo sends another shopper scrambling to the opposite part of the store.
For some, secondhand goods still have a stigma attached to them. Several teenagers shopping at the Deseret Industries store with their parents said they wouldn't want anyone at school to know where they had bought their clothes and shoes.
Even "tweens" can have these worries.
Sanders said she buys items for her 4- and 6-year-olds secondhand, but her 10- and 12-year-olds want new stuff, in current fashion. (She makes them do extra work to earn the money to buy the much more costly new clothes.)
Shopping with her two daughters, Pam King of Layton said buying secondhand involves a bit more work, which some may find unappealing.
"You find some really nice things [at thrift stores]; you just have to look," she said. Her daughter was wearing a new-looking summer dress she bought for $5 at the Layton Deseret Industries store.
For Nannette Starks of Salt Lake City, buying secondhand allows her to be able to buy some back-to-school outfits for all of her grandchildren without breaking the bank account. The girls, 4, 6 and 13, eagerly browsed through racks of outfits with their grandma on a recent weekday, enjoying that by buying at a thrift store, they are able to pick out several items each.
Starks said she isn't worried about anyone knowing she shops secondhand. In fact, she says, she's proud of it.
"We shop for all kinds of things here -- clothes, toys, videos and books," Starks said. "Who wants to pay full price?"