While browsing merchandise at a Value Village store in Toronto, Evan Boyce spotted something he wasn’t expecting: a used vase for sale at the Value Village price of $8.99. He then realized that the original price was still displayed and that buying it at a Dollarama store would have only cost $3.
“Three times what it would have cost new… It’s pretty ridiculous, right? To be honest, it’s kind of like a scam,” said Boyce, a 30-year-old who works for a renewable energy.
For years, many Canadians have relied on Value Village to purchase used goods at a lower cost than other retailers. It is one of the largest and most popular thrift store chains in the country. Some customers are now accusing the company of massive markups on their items.
Examples of questionable prices at Value Village have been piling up for months. In Courtenay, British Columbia, a shopper found children’s shoes priced at $6.49, when the original label said $3. A used book at a Winnipeg store was selling for double what it would have cost at its previous retailer.
Children’s shoes – new at Dollarama for $3
Village des Valeurs: “let’s charge more than double” pic.twitter.com/rim894g2XA
Boyce expressed what many customers have asked: “Most of what they have is donated. Why is it necessary to increase it so much?
Shoppers have also recently called out the pricing practices of Goodwill and the Salvation Army. These nonprofits compete with Value Village, a for-profit business owned by Savers parent company Value Village. US private equity firm Ares Management is a majority shareholder and helped lead the company’s IPO last year.
The business model is quite simple: its entire inventory comes from second-hand donations, some of which are collected by non-profit partners. Value Village pays these partners a flat rate for the goods and then sells them for a profit. The company now has more than 300 stores in the United States and Canada, which generated revenue of US$1.5 billion in 2023.
Customers feel cheated
The Value Village brand could suffer from this recent backlash. Consumers mentally organize retailers into certain categories, says Matthew Philp, a marketing professor at Toronto Metropolitan University. They expect thrift stores to be less expensive than regular stores, and that second-hand items sold there will be discounted because they are used.
Philp suggested that questionable prices like this can ruin everything for consumers. “It kind of shatters what we know to be true and how we think the world should work, and it’s just shocking,” he said.
Companies all have different and complex pricing strategies, and markups are rarely against the rules. But Philp said businesses can walk a fine line, because customers who feel cheated by a retailer are less likely to return.
“We will be much more careful next time we buy.”
As thrift store videos on Youtube and TikTok explode, the popularity of thrift shopping seems to be increasing. Consumers are striving to shop more sustainably.
Many are also trying to save money as the cost of living skyrockets. “It’s driving more traffic to the thrift economy, the second-hand economy,” said Kerry Taylor, a personal finance expert based in British Columbia. “We all want to find cool stuff for less.”
But in this kind of environment, Taylor said consumers need to be more price conscious, perhaps by doing more research online or committing to shopping around. “If you see something that doesn’t seem like a good price, it’s easy to walk over it and find something else new.”
The Value Village responds
Value Village says thousands of items pass through each of its stores each week and staff strive to price products accurately.
“Customers should feel free to speak with a store manager if they think an item has been inadvertently mispriced so we can fix it quickly,” said Sara Gaugl, director of marketing at Savers, the company mother of the store. “We’d be more than happy to take a second look.”
Outside Value Village in Toronto, shoppers like Daniel Milford-Warren say they’ll always be on the lookout for a good deal.
“They’re going to try to maximize as much money as possible and it’s up to us to keep our money.”
CBC’s Marketplace and Streets Cents team up to take a closer look at the Value Village pricing controversy. They seek the truth about how prices compare to other major retailers. Tune into Marketplace on February 16.