• Washington Post

Inside ‘Bin Stores’ where People Line up to Buy Rejected Goods

Jamie Kelter Davis for The Washington Post
Maddie Szackamer, Garrett McNelis, Mia Lavi and Adriane Szackamer shop for home goods and gifts at the Best Bargain Bin in Fox Lake, Ill.

In strip mall parking lots around the United States, people start lining up at 7 a.m. to dig through other people’s rejects.

“I call it dumpster diving,” said Adriane Szackamer, a psychologist and mom of two living in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park.

Szackamer and her daughter are among the thousands of bargain hunters flocking to America’s “bin stores” to buy returned merchandise from retailers like Kohl’s, Target, Walmart and Amazon for as low as $1.

In 2022, Americans returned $816 billion in merchandise, according to the National Retail Federation. But at the dozens of bin stores that have popped up around the country, that merchandise is now getting a second life as store owners buy truckloads of pallets of returned goods either directly from retailers or liquidation companies. Goods can range from plastic toys and face masks to iPads and power tools. Prices are typically highest on restock day, the day after a new truckload comes in, starting at around $10 per item and decreasing gradually throughout the week.

“For me, it’s the thrill of what I can find,” said Szackamer, who bought an air mattress and bar stools for just $10 each. “What can I get that nobody else can get?”

On Black Friday, The Washington Post visited BinCredible Deals in Marietta, Ga., Best Bargain Bin in Fox Lake, Ill., and UnBox in Brooklyn, N.Y., to dig into the latest fad in liquidation, a long-standing industry aimed at lessening the loss of getting rid of unwanted goods.

Stories of people reselling returned items or flipping pallets as a side hustle on social media have helped popularize bin stores as a potentially profitable treasure hunt. Many bin store owners will post videos of new merchandise on TikTok or Instagram to entice customers to line up early in hopes of scoring the best deals. Target spokesperson Brian Harper-Tibaldo said that when an item that can’t be resold is returned, the store works with “third-party services to either salvage, donate, recycle or reuse materials.”

Stelian Gherman opened BinCredible Deals in 2021 after leaving a corporate career that made him miserable. Running a bin store is messy and challenging, but the independence makes it “the best job ever,” he said. The key is maintaining good relationships with suppliers.

Gherman says bin stores are only just starting to take off.

As more people have opened bin stores, Subhi Khalil, who has run Unbox since 2021, said competition for good merchandise has gotten too steep.

Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for The Washington Post
Employees restock bins at UnBox in Brooklyn.

The prep

Tanika West finishes her shift fielding crisis calls for the Department of Veterans Affairs at 5:30 a.m. A few days a week, she hops in the car after work, grabs a coffee or breakfast, and by 6:30 a.m. is parked outside BinCredible Deals. That’s when, West told The Post, “I work on my little plan.”

While she waits for the store to open, West watches videos posted on social media by Gherman the night before. “If you watch the video closely, you can gauge where everything is,” she said. “I look at the color of the boxes and the position.”

West is also a chef with a small catering business. She originally came to the bins to score a $10 iPad, but she keeps coming back in part because she can find good deals on catering equipment, like small cups for serving appetizers, cake stands and canisters for spices. On the busiest days, she said there’s already a long line by 8 a.m. When the store opens and the lights go up, she knows exactly what she’s looking for and where to go.

West isn’t the only shopper who keeps a close eye on her local bin store’s social media page. In Fox Lake, Kendra Smeigh and her husband, Jamie, prepare for their weekend trips to Best Bargain Bin by checking Facebook, where store owner Yana Polikarpova posts pictures and videos of new items.

“I will scroll through that and see if there’s anything good,” Smeigh said. If she and her husband see something they want, like the perfect Christmas gift or something for a home renovation project, they’ll get in line early to make sure they get a cart.

Polikarpova tries to build up the anticipation at Best Bargain Bin by covering the bins with black sheets. While they wait, Smeigh and her husband decide which bin to stand at when they get inside.

To get the crowd excited, Polikarpova hands out raffle tickets for a single hot ticket item, like a pair of headphones or a comforter set.

“They pick a winner of the raffle,” Smeigh said. “And then three, two, one, they pull the sheets off.”

The search

When she plunged her hand into the bin on the morning of Black Friday, the first thing Smeigh touched was Govee computer lights, which were perfect for her husband’s video game setup. She bought them for $10 – a steal compared with the retail price of $60.

The trick is to move quickly and not get distracted by things you don’t need, she said. The crowds and competitiveness “can be overwhelming, especially when I’m holding my son.” The family tries to spend no more than “an hour, hour and a half tops.”

“You have to be in the mood to do it,” said Szackamer, the Illinois-based psychologist. “You have to be in sweats and gym shoes and ready to fight with people.”

Szackamer first went to the bins with a friend to shop for a baby shower. The friend had memorized the box design for the pack and play crib she wanted to buy.

But while planning is effective, Szackamer said she never checks out the bin store offerings ahead online. It’s more fun to be surprised, she said, though she does check prices as she shops to gauge the quality of the deal.

On Black Friday, Szackamer’s daughter spotted some water guns and hippopotamus-shaped pool floats she thought would be perfect for parties on her college campus. But a child had spotted the toys, too.

“There was a lot of yelling,” Szackamer said, laughing. “She was like, ‘Move! Get out of my way!'”

The haul

Black Friday was Josh Rapier’s first visit to Best Bargain Bin. He got 12 volt lights for his truck, noise-canceling headphones, a tower fan and a Weber Smokey Joe portable grill.

He said he would “definitely go back” and maybe even “be a little more aggressive” on his next trip.

In addition to the pool floats, the Szackamer family went home with new bar stools, a queen-size air mattress and a smart Samsung TV from the VIP section that cost $34. But Szackamer’s favorite trip to the bins was the time she found a pack of 50 drawer organizers she had previously bought on Amazon for $17.99.

“I returned it, and then I found it and re-bought it” at the bins for just $10, Szackamer said. “We didn’t need them, but then I bought them again because they were super cheap.”

Many bin store customers said they find the thrill of bargain hunting addictive. Smeigh said she likes it so much that she got her parents doing it. And in Atlanta, West said she’s hooked on going to the bins, comparing it to her father’s penchant for gambling at the casino.

“I feel like I’ve accomplished something if I find a great deal,” she said. “I’ve accomplished something if I develop a method that ensures I get what I want.”

After a long night listening to the desperation of people calling the suicide hotline, “it’s soothing,” West said. On her most recent trip, she bought supplies for her catering business, swaddles and bottles for her niece’s new baby, and a toaster. She’s also gotten formal dresses for her daughter to model, new wigs, compression socks and an electric lunch box for her truck driver fiancée.

“It makes me feel like I’m taking care of my family, and that helps me deal with my depression,” she said. “Shopping allows me to have control over something in my life. When I get that stuff, it’s a burst of serotonin and adrenaline like, ‘Yah! I got it!'”