Exploring Social Media: Learning About Social at the Goodwill Outlet

Filed as Features on December 1, 2008 11:33 pm

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Exploring Social Media article series badge“It was an experience. It was a real experience!”

That was the proclamation my mother-in-law, Linda Kay VanFossen, used to describe her first visit to the popular Goodwill Outlet store near Portland, Oregon. Known to locals as the “Bins,” this is where local Goodwill thrift store items come for a last ditch sale to the masses, delivered up for sale not in orderly rows grouped by styles and types like pants, skirts, shirts, blouses, and jackets, but dumped willy nilly into large bins for shoppers to dig through like the holiday sale tables of old.

Much later, as I understood her “experience” with the Bins much better, I realized I had experienced the magic of social media in action. It began in the first few seconds of our arrival.

The Essence of Social Lessons Learned at the Goodwill Outlet

The store is really a giant warehouse with lines of bins running parallel from wall to wall, all stuffed with similar goods. Soft goods like sheets, clothing, pillows, curtains, rugs, and such are all grouped together in rows of bins. Shoes get their own four bin row. Books are in two to four bins across the back of the store. Somewhere in the middle or side aisle are bins filled with lamps, vacuums, jars, bowls, pots, pans, silverware, toys, toasters, televisions, and whatnots of every shape, size, color, and use. At the very back of the store is the furniture area, and through a double door is gardening, exercise, tools, and outdoor stuff for sale.

The Goodwill Outlet doesn’t sell individual items. It sells by bulk. Everything except glass, furniture, books, and CD/DVDs are sold by the pound. The more you buy, the cheaper the per pound price is.

I explained this to Lynda Kay and watched her eyes shift from clouded with shock at the overwhelming confusion of people digging into bins with stuff flying in every direction, to comprehension then eager anticipation of the hunt. She is a long time expert on bargain shopping and this was going to be one of her most unusual shopping experiences.

At the first bin, she and another woman grabbed the same item with a gentle tug of surprise. The other woman gave it up with a laugh, but my mother-in-law insisted that she take it. They giggled together and within a few seconds, the two had bonded, even if for a few minutes. The woman reached into her shopping cart and brought out the most darling jean jacket for a small girl hand decorated with tulips and sparkling stones.

“It’s a bit big for a seven year old, but I just know my grand daughter is going to love this.”

“How could she not,” Lynda Kay responded, taking the jacket in her hands and admiring all sides. “It’s adorable!”

“I can’t wait to see her face!” The woman reached back into her basket asking Lynda Kay if she had grand children. “Would you have someone who would fit a size 7T? This is the cutest thing but I think it’s just too big.”

Lynda Kay told her that it was too big for her many grand children, but appreciated her sharing the darling pants with embroidered flowers on the legs. Instantly, the two had set up a relationship and for the next few minutes, they shopped together, pulling pretty things for kids out of the bins, comparing notes, and trading grand children stories.

We slowly moved away towards the furniture, but returned to the bins later, running into this woman repeatedly as we explored the store, greeting each other with smiles of recognition and camaraderie, holding up some of our finds and comparing them.

In the furniture area, we found several pieces that would go perfectly into my new home. As the area clerk filled out the proper paperwork, he told us about how tired he was from the busy holiday week with a lot of last minute shoppers trying to set up their homes for holiday visitors and events from among the inexpensive but good furniture in the store. He helped me inspect a couple of pieces, giving me his opinion on their quality and integrity to withstand daily living, and I trusted him as an expert of sort after finding out he’d been working there for over nine years. He’d seen a lot of different types of furniture pass in and out of that Goodwill store between Hillsboro and Beaverton.

Watching him share his expertise with us, I wished he blogged. What a wealth of knowledge he could offer so many on how to choose antique or old furniture for use in a home, not just for financial gain. People shopping there are often looking for treasures to use in interesting ways, rather than traditional, and he’d talked to many of them about their ideas, learning a lot over the years. His weathered and dried hands moved across a sofa’s wood frame with a deep understanding for structure, like my husband’s hands as he moves them over wood for his woodworking projects, the engineer in him understanding much about the quality and grain of the wood through touch. The feel through the skin often provides more information than the eyes.

The furniture clerk moved three pieces out into the storage area awaiting our pickup as we moved back into the bin area to continue our exploration.

I had Lynda Kay watch one of the bin line-ups before we made our own attempt. There is a system to the anarchy. The workers move out a row of bins leaving empty space outlined in white stripes on the cement floor. The long time experts line up along these lines, waiting for the new bins, starting at the end of the row, and filling in towards the top, where the last bins will arrive.

Two by two the bins are brought out and shoved into place, two across. Their wheels are locked and the next two come in behind it, and so on, until four sets of two across are in place and then the attack begins.

After watching a couple shows, we were ready to try our hand at the bin lines.

We stood toe-to-line at the first bin placement, rocking back and forth with eagerness when the first two bins were moved into place. Our eyes scanned the bins’ goodies and I spotted a small glass table top that would be perfect to cover a Damascus wood carved coffee table we had. I planted myself in front of it, not reaching in. You are not allowed to put your hands in the bins until all eight bins are in place as they move and jerk around as each set of bins is added to the row and people can get hurt. While the attendants might warn you, other shoppers will usually warn you first, self-policing each other as well as themselves.

Lynda Kay moved around behind, peering for goodies further down the bin. I spotted a thin cardboard container labeled “Pampered Chef: Cooking Stone” and directed her to it. She stood tiny next to the giant of a man next to her who had spotted the same box. I knew from both of their anxious and nervous twitches that this would be an interesting competition to see who got to the box first.

The crowd around the bins grew thicker, and the rocking back and forth, hands behind their backs, of the people in front got more frantic as the bins stacked up behind each other. The moment the last bin connected, the long time experts threw themselves into the bins with a rush of air, flying limbs, and flying bits and pieces of stuff.

Distracted by the last bin hitting hard, Lynda Kay lost the race to the Pampered Chef box, but was rewarded when the guy tossed it deep into the middle of the bin with an exasperated, “It’s empty.”

We both dived in and then circled like hawks around the other divers and fishers, watching what they uncovered and tossed our direction. We were eager for the scraps they left behind, trying to figure out which treasures should deserve a spot in my new home.

In the chaos, we got separated. I found some great treasures in a bin a few over from where she was digging, and let them distract me. A few minutes later, Lynda Kay came over with a huge arm load of stuff and piled it onto the end of one of the bins.

“Tell me what you want to keep.”

We go through her discoveries and pull out the keepers and toss back the unwanted items. She then gathers the survivors up and heads towards our baskets in the back of the store, out of the confusion of the shoppers and bins.

She repeats this several more times until she announces that we have enough stuff and must stop. There’s no more room in the truck. I agree. She heads back towards our carts, only to return a few minutes later with another arm load and an overjoyed expression on her face.

“Look what I found!”

Like a child in a candy factory given cart blanche, I also gave into temptation and went through her found treasures with glee. I knew we’d somehow find room in my truck, especially since she was now clearly having too much fun.

We overflowed two carts. Watching us struggle with all the stuff, the furniture area clerk brought over a third cart to help us out, grinning at our situation. It was clear we needed help, and he did his best to rescue us. We went through the three carts and managed to shrink them down to two, and avoided temptation as we crossed the store towards the check out counters.

At the check out, the woman in front of us was the first woman we’d met. I peeked in her basket and asked her what goodies she had discovered for her grand children. She pulled out a variety of cute clothes for her grand daughters, including a flowered turtle neck. “This is so perfect, but it is way too big. You don’t have a child that will fit 5T, do you?”

Lynda Kay told her she did and the woman handed over the top to her. “Please take this and give it to her.”

Lynda Kay smiled and assured the woman that she would indeed. She said one of her grand daughters would be thrilled to have such a lovely shirt. The woman preened contentedly and moved her cart over the weigh scale to pay and leave, everyone smiling.

Lorelle and Lynda Kay VanFossen with a truck load of furniture from the Goodwill OutletSome how we got all the two overflowing carts’ contents into the small pick up truck and backed up to the loading area for the furniture we’d procured. The furniture clerk helped us load everything onto the truck and tie it down for the ride up the foothills to my new home. The truck looked like something from the Beverly Hillbillies.

Once in the truck, with my mother-in-law barely wedged into the passenger seat with stuff crowded under her feet, on her lap, and around the sides, we couldn’t stop laughing. We’d look at each other and grin and start giggling until we were choking. I could barely drive we were laughing so hard.

“It was an experience. It was a real experience!” Lynda Kay kept saying over and over again.

As I retold the story of our Bins adventure to my husband later that night, he laughed and said, “Do you realize what a great blog post story have here?”

Real World Meets Bloggy Social World

Did I? It hadn’t occurred to me. Our experience at the Goodwill Outlet was typical of every visit of mine. What made this experience different? Ah, it was shared. I finally had someone to share the fun. A place like that is best enjoyed when it is shared. Hmm, maybe he had a point.

As I went over the afternoon in my head, I realized that much of our “social” shopping experience at the Goodwill Outlet was similar to the social in my blogging and online experiences.

Strangers meet, brought together by like minds and goals. We share common interests, stories, and knowledge, then move on. We look for people with expertise to learn from, ask questions, and gain valuable insights. We rely upon others within our community to teach us how our community works, learning the etiquette as we go. We have to learn to depend upon others to help us along the way, and to help others in return.

There are lessons to be learned and discoveries to be made everywhere – and the best lessons are those learned together and shared. And that one person’s junk is another person’s treasure.

Most of all, the best experiences are the real experiences. The ones that stay with us, turning experiences into memorable moments – shared memorable moments.

My husband was right. That whole afternoon was a bloggy social experience without the Internet. Then why should blogging and social media be so hard to understand. It’s what we do in the real world translated onto the net.

Have you had any “real life” moments that translate to your web experiences? Why do so many people have trouble understanding how social works on the web when it really works the same as it does in real life? Only the tools are different.

Exploring Social Media Series

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