As president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of Greater New York and Northern New Jersey, Katy Gaul-Stigge sees economic trends in a unique environment. And the outlook isn’t all good at the moment: Shopping styles and offerings at 23 stores, a range of second-hand goods suggest shoppers are holding their wallets tight and looking for cheap clothes and home goods.
Goodwill NYNJ’s retail business took in $47 million in the year ending in June, up 19% from a year earlier, as shoppers in the greater New York area sought financial relief from a troubled economy and rising cost of living. Meanwhile, Gaul-Stigge says donations have slipped because people are holding on to their items for longer or selling them on places like Poshmark and eBay rather than giving them away.
The organization, whose profits help people with disabilities find work at companies such as Amazon and Walgreens, has long dabbled in the retail wave but is looking for a more reliable distribution of goods to sell. Now, Gaul-Stigge is seeking partnerships with retailers to donate their unsold goods instead of firing them, arguing that it makes more sense in the environment and will help them achieve their corporate social responsibility goals. “We’re ready to help you achieve your ESG goals,” he exclaims.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Good luck: So, how is business these days?
Gaul-Stigge: We’re getting an early bird view of how people feel about things, and we’re seeing a strong interest in value shopping. But we’re starting to see a drop in donations, which means people are holding on to their items or saving them to sell to competitors like Poshmark, ThredUp, and other online consignment players, so they can make money. That decrease in the number of sponsors will affect our ability to deliver products to our consumers.
Given that, are you rethinking your sourcing approach?
We are always looking for more partnerships with national retailers, local retailers, warehouses, and anyone with excess inventory. We are happy to help them because we don’t want to see that material end up in a landfill or burned. Our message to them is, ‘We are ready to help you achieve your ESG (environmental, social, and governance) goals.’
And how does inflation affect the way you work?
We have not raised our prices, and our prices at the beginning of 2020 are the same as today. We also have $2 Tuesdays where everything in a certain category, like women’s tops, is $2.
Has the slow economy changed who shops in your stores, attracting more middle-class shoppers?
The stigma of buying secondhand is gone. But much of what drives the business is that Gen Z, and other young people, are interested in sustainability. Thrift is like punk rock; it has always been cool. It is now reaching a wider audience due to the popularity of second-hand shopping. People are interested in secondhand, in extending the useful life of something. People are interested in the circular economy.
What about the impact on those who use the services sponsored by your products?
Before the pandemic, we served 20,000 people a year in our programs for the unemployed and people with autism, intellectual disabilities, and mental illness. During the pandemic, people stopped going to work, so they didn’t use our training as much, but that doesn’t mean the demand has decreased.
And how does a tight labor market affect the way you do your job?
We have seen an increase in employers taking chances with people with disabilities. We think that once employers learn how good employees can be, they want more.
How has remote work affected what people bring in as offerings and what customers need?
There was a rift between people bringing in things like donated suits and shoppers who were more interested in things like jeans. But when we think about suits, people don’t just buy a whole suit; they’ll buy a blazer and pair it with jeans, and thrift is perfect for that.
In the past, you have struggled with balance of having inviting, hip shops with cool merchandise and customers who might get confused if your places get too “trendy”. Where did you get this?
We want to provide value to our valued customers, but we also want it to be a great experience. Just because the price is low doesn’t mean the store doesn’t have to look good, so we make sure the stores are bright and cheerful. We tried to make our stores fun in 2017, and we confused consumers. People come to Goodwill expecting a certain price range. Even if it’s a vintage Valentino, they don’t want to see it for $300 at Goodwill, even if that’s the market price. But it’s a fine line because you want value from donated goods.
A few years ago, you had 41 stores in metro New York. He is now 23. What happened?
We had to close some during the violence, including a group in Manhattan. Talk to any marketer there, and they’ll tell you they never see any return traffic. We rent, so we don’t own those stores. People don’t rate charity, so it’s still the bloody world of Manhattan. We have to go through the water with sharks. We are not for profit, and I do not own a real estate group.
Between this job and a previous one as executive director of workforce development in the mayor’s office in New York, he has a keen eye for workforce needs. What do you think workers need now?
Workers need more childcare, which is in crisis, and it’s giving back to working families in a big way. Regarding the skills our clients need in the workplace, we continue to ask government agencies for additional training in areas such as pharmacy tech and cybersecurity. That kind of training that is linked to certain skills is necessary to get better jobs. We don’t want things to go back to the way they were before the pandemic, but we want jobs to be better. Part of why many people don’t go back to their old jobs is that they were very hard jobs with low pay.
Get to know Gaul-Stigge:
- His first job was in sales at a Gap store in Austin, Texas.
- Gaul-Stigge, in August, was named one of the four chairs of New York City Mayor Eric Adams’s Future of Workers Task Force.
- He worked extensively in New York City government agencies before joining Goodwill, including as Deputy Commissioner at the Human Resources Administration (HRA) for Employment and Contracts.
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