Editor's note: Second in a series about helping the middle class deal with the struggles of today's economy.

The series

Everything costs more, but we're not making more money. The middle class is said to be suffering its worst decade in modern history. For the next two months, the presidential candidates will contend that they hold the middle class' best interests at heart. The Post and Courier is detailing the struggles many of us face, and offering you solutions for getting out of debt, paying the bills, clothing the family and putting food on the dinner table.

Medical office manager Colleen Creech remembers her father working two jobs to make ends meet. She has no qualms going through racks of donated children's clothing for outfits that don't carry fresh designer labels.

West Ashley resident Linda Jenkins knows if she's patient, she can go to a secondhand store and pick up a recent best-seller for 99 cents, as opposed to paying $29.95 retail.

Lynette Cato of Ravenel beats out both women when it comes to chasing bargains. “I furnished everything in my whole house from Goodwill,” she said.

Cato even remodeled at a discount, listing “the tile, the beds, the couch” all coming through thrift.

One truth rising out of the Great Recession is that thousands of middle class South Carolinians can no longer afford to outfit themselves at the top — or even middle — of the retail rung.

Flat salaries, world fuel and labor costs, and brands that have become too expensive to keep up with, all come into play.

For some, it's meant swallowing their pride and stepping into stores that for decades were associated with poverty. For others, thrift stores have tried to make those steps easier, largely by moving from depressed strip malls into the heart of the suburbs.

Either way, the second tier has taken hold as a first choice.

“2008 was the turning point,” said Dr. Marianne Bickle, a professor of retail at the University of South Carolina.

When the economy collapsed it hit everyone's clothing and spending patterns. “Baby Boomers, the middle class and upper incomes; some very wealthy people,” she said. “It shook everybody. People had to re-evaluate how they were going to keep things going.”

The upper middle class was particularly vulnerable, she said, because they might have been let go first in white collar layoffs.

Enter the Thrift

Bickle's peg of 2008 as when thrift became a reliance is right on, according to the National Association of Resale Professionals, which tracks the growth of second-generation sales.

About 14 percent of Americans visited a thrift outlet regularly in 2008, they reported. That number has since jumped significantly. Today, as many as 20 percent of Americans do so, joining discount “dollar” stores and car repair shops for where consumers most commonly seek budget stretches.

Around Charleston, Goodwill Industries of Lower South Carolina is considered the largest thrift operation in the region with 14 stores in the 18 counties it covers, including an outlet that sells merchandise by the pound and an electronics center.

It's been years since the group did a survey examining its customer base but the last report pegged its average shopper as a female, likely a mother, between the ages of 25 and 54.

Even before the downturn's severity, Goodwill realized that it could do a better job attracting buyers if it cleaned up stores and became anchored where the middle class lived: Mount Pleasant, West Ashley, Goose Creek, James Island and Summerville. That too made it middle class acceptable.

“Ten years ago, our shoppers were those on a shoestring budget trying to make ends meet, mostly of lower income,” said Tina Marshall, vice president of corporate relations at Goodwill here.

The upgrade, however, brought about a change in demographics. “We began to see customers of all income levels,” Marshall said. “College students, moms on a budget, bargain hunters, etc.”

Industry observers also credit Goodwill for marketing and making the industry hip.

“Now it's 'chic' to be thrifty,” Bickle said. “Not only is it fashionable, it's in vogue.”

But not for all. Creech was shopping last week for clothes for her grandchildren at the Goodwill store off Glenn McConnell Parkway in West Ashley. She listed some family members she doubted would ever come in.

Penny-pinchers, however, can't stop. “I came here because the economy got tough,” said Cato, a full-time baby sitter with adult children who likes to buy gifts for people she knows.

Cato bargain-hunts so frequently that her husband has been known to telephone the Goodwill Industries store in West Ashley trying to track her down.

Even her church has recognized Cato's skills, asking her to teach a class on the best ways of creating, mixing and matching dress outfits from items off the racks. She estimates her annual savings at about $2,500.

The quality of thrift offerings has definitely changed in recent years. College of Charleston finance professor Jocelyn Evans said department store chains use thrift to send unsold designer items still in its packaging; the company would then take a tax donation deduction.

The result has changed the already competitive consumer-driven landscape, she said.

“One part of the psychological hump people had to get over is that these stores have quality merchandise that hasn't been sitting in a closet and not worn for 20 years,” she said.

Consign it

Thrift isn't the only second-hand outlet that's prospered in the recession. Consignment stores offer huge savings in a win-win-win deal where a shop owner, private seller and consumer meet in the middle.

Budget-watcher Marti Chitwood of Charleston shopped at Consigning Women in West Ashley last week.

“I just don't see any need to pay full price,” she said.

The store has a variety of pricing but eventually offers discounts for items that don't move in a timely fashion, sometimes giving reductions of 50 percent to 75 percent.

Last week a Dana Buchman suit was marked 75 percent off of the floor price of $60, or about $15 out the door.

“People are finally getting that this is the way to shop,” said Cynthia Heible, store manager.

The same type of consignment arrangement works at Once Upon a Child on Sam Rittenberg Boulevard, where mother Elizabeth Hildebidle has been taking clothes and items used by her now 12-year-old son. As he grew into and then out-grew items, she returned them to the store to re-consign them again, keeping the circle going.

Her annual profit is “not a whole lot,” she admits, maybe $50 to $100.

But it's enough to keep current.

“Whatever it is, it helps to go to the next (school) uniform,” she said.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.