BY DESIGN : OFF THE CUFF : Bargains, If You Catch Her Thrift

A s any ex-hippie or fashion fringe-dweller knows, Goodwill stores have always meant cool clothes at low prices. But selling second-hand duds isn't what it used to be.

Although Goodwill Industries has been in Orange County for 70 years, Maria Guerrero, the retail sales merchandise coordinator, says it must now compete with thrift shops and discount stores. To do this, the Goodwill staff sorts through the donated tonnage, tosses aside the worn and torn, and culls out only "gently used" or new clothing to be sold at its retail outlets.

To make it easier for savvy consumers, Goodwill has created the Classic Closet, a bargain boutique in San Juan Capistrano, and the Collectible Corner inside the Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach and Westminster stores. Sales from clothing account for 65% of the funds Goodwill uses to provide vocational rehabilitation training programs for people with disabilities. More than 50 people work for Goodwill's clothing division in Orange County.

Our customers range from big families that need to clothe six to 10 people, to women who pull up in their Mercedes, wearing Ray Bans and designer jackets. We see a lot more men now than in the past, mostly single young men looking for discounts. They go directly to the shirts, jeans and boots.

We get daily shipments of merchandise, and we have people who come in every day. People line up a half-hour before we open to be first to look at the new items. Some are dealers who buy from us to sell at swap meets, antique shops or boutiques here and in other countries.

We get merchandise from home pickups, donation centers and drop-offs at our stores. I see brand-new merchandise with $100 price tags still on it, and I can't understand who would give it away. A couple weeks ago I found a 1930s satin wedding dress that was in amazing condition. We may use it for a vintage fashion show that we hope to stage next year.

Before a customer sees an item in our stores, we sort it, identify its condition and price it according to quality. The average price is about $4.50 for a blouse, shirt or skirt. The most expensive piece of clothing I've seen was a mink coat in mint condition that sold for $300 or $400.

What's hot now are the retro '70s wear, such as big cotton dresses, bell-bottom jeans, loud polyester synthetic shirts with big prints, denim hats with flowers and denim jackets with studding, beading and patches. These things used to stay in our stores forever, but now teens love them.

We have an "As Is" lot next to the main facility in Santa Ana, and if an item's not selling in the stores, even after it's been discounted to half-price, then it goes here. It's the last stop before it's sold as salvage internationally.

In Lima, Peru, they don't have the resources to make an item, but they can repair one, which we no longer do, such as replace buttons and zippers. Also, heavy winter clothing that's not salable here can certainly be used and repaired there.

In the stores, clothing is divided into groups for men, women and children, and then by categories: blouses, pants, et cetera are all together on the racks. We don't divide the garments by size but by color; all the white blouses are together.

At the Classic Closet, we have everything from casual wear from Liz Claiborne and Anne Klein to beaded formal dresses. Some of it has never been worn. The women in Mercedes come here looking for a good bargain. They know their labels, and if they come across a silk blouse, they grab it. Some women wear a leotard to the store so they can try things on in the aisle without having to wait to go into the dressing rooms.

Most people are pleasantly surprised that the Classic Closet is part of the Goodwill family because we have so many different kinds of items. Not only do people find values, but they feel good that their purchases are helping people be independent and productive.

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