Thunder Bay

Most COVID-19 restrictions have lifted, so why are so many thrift store change rooms still closed?

Fitting rooms that closed amid COVID-19 concerns haven't reopened at many popular second-hand stores, and some customers are wondering why.

Staff shortages, loss prevention among reasons one popular chain keeps many change rooms closed

A shopper browses racks of clothes at Value Village
A shopper browses racks of clothes at Value Village in this file photo. The thrift store chain closed its change rooms during COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns, but has yet to reopen them. (Jim Ross/The Canadian Press)

Even as other retailers have returned to business as usual, if you want to try on clothing at a second-hand store, you may be out of luck. 

Shoppers at some thrift stores are noticing that fitting room closures put in place as a COVID-19 precaution simply aren't being lifted. 

It's something Elisabeth Boileau first noticed on a trip to Value Village in Thunder Bay, Ont., this fall.

Boileau, whose first daughter was only six months old when the pandemic began early in 2020, said the outing was one of the first opportunities she's had to update her wardrobe since then and she was looking for affordable options. 

She went expecting to be able to try on some items before making a decision, but was disappointed to learn it wasn't an option at the store, where change rooms have been physically removed. 

"There's no benefit to the customer that I can think of, other than this may be [a] vague idea that it's somehow protecting people from COVID, which I can't wrap my head around," Boileau said.

Value Village customers aren't the only ones puzzled. Fitting rooms also aren't available at Salvation Army Thrift Stores in Thunder Bay, part of a larger trend, according to a national spokesperson for the organization, who also confirmed the long-term change is due to factors other than health concerns. 

"The Salvation Army Thrift Store in Thunder Bay followed the decision of the entire organization to keep change rooms permanently closed in most Thrift Stores across Canada," said Clara Pina, national communications and engagement specialist, in an email. 

"The much-considered decision was made to make room for a wider selection of merchandise, while addressing staffing shortages and loss prevention, which unfortunately are challenges that we have continued to face as an organization even after the pandemic."

Value Village did not respond to a request for comment from CBC News on its change-room policy.

Has the shopping experience changed forever? 

But at least one independent thrift store in Thunder Bay says it has also permanently eliminated its change rooms, because it's better for business. 

"The big thing is loss prevention," said Ken Paulusma, manager at Twice As Nice, a small non-profit store on the city's south side.

The store owners wanted to cut down on theft as well as unwanted activities like drug use from taking place in the shop, which is run by volunteers, he said. 

Paulusma said that so far, customers seem accepting of the change. 

"And with our pricing, a lot of customers say, 'Well I'll just buy it and I'll donate it back if it doesn't fit,'" he said. "We get that a lot from a lot of customers."

Kelly Drennan of Toronto is the founding executive director of Fashion Takes Action, a non-profit organization focused on sustainability in the fashion industry. (Laura Clementson/CBC)

Kelly Drennan, founding director of Fashion Takes Action, an organization that promotes sustainability in fashion, said she also believes most second-hand shoppers will adapt to the change. 

"I think COVID changed a lot of the retail experience," she said, adding she has noticed the loss of fitting rooms at the Value Village in her Toronto neighbourhood. "It's definitely an inconvenience, but I don't think that it really is going to impact the sort of reason for people to shop second hand. 

"Mostly people are doing it because it's economical, and that's not going to change, and also there's those that are doing it because of the environmental benefit of buying thrift. So not having a change room — I don't think is going to deter people too much."

To alleviate any inconvenience for customers, the Salvation Army has extended its exchange policy to 15 days, Pina said, and additional mirrors are being added to stores. 

A woman browses through a rack of women's sweaters at a Salvation Army Thrift Store.
A shopper browses the racks at a Salvation Army Thrift Store in Thunder Bay, Ont. (Amy Hadley/CBC)

However, Boileau said for her, finding time for one trip to a store was difficult enough, and in the end, she decided not to gamble on items that might not fit. 

"I just don't think that I'm going to get back there in two weeks," she said. "It just wasn't feasible."

She said she also worries about the impact the change may have on people living on lower incomes, who already face barriers to buying affordable clothes, and may be less able to return to the store for an exchange due to challenges like transportation. 

"I'm sure you've noticed prices at second-hand stores have gone up in recent years ," she said. "So that's already a challenge. But I think it's just shifting the accessibility of it."

That's one reason Ewa Gulbinowicz, executive director at Community Clothing Assistance in Thunder Bay, gave for their change rooms remaining open. 

The charity, which operates a store but is also mandated to provide clothing at low or no cost to families in need, doesn't accept returns, she said. But even if they did, for their clients, a trip back could be a hardship. 

"They have to take a bus and sometimes travel sometimes [across town]. And it takes hours.".