When Kansas City preschool teacher Elizabeth Eastburn walked down the aisle last April she wore an $800 wedding gown from a major bridal retailer. Only she didn't pay $800 for it.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Kansas City preschool teacher Elizabeth Eastburn walked down the aisle last April she wore an $800 wedding gown from a major bridal retailer. Only she didn't pay $800 for it.

She paid $15 for the never-worn dress at a thrift store.

With money tight these days, this is Eastburn's new way to shop.

"I'll go to thrift stores first," she said. "You can find anything, anytime. It's like a garage sale inside."

So on a recent day off from school, with book shelves and exercise pants on her shopping list, Eastburn wandered the aisles of Hillcrest Thrift Shop, one of several stores changing their ways to attract, and keep, new customers like Eastburn.

With its Le Boutique (sequined evening gowns for $15) and sporting goods department ($3 for a Royals T-shirt), the store is one of her favorite stops. Manager Lou Warner couldn't be happier.

"We're going gangbusters," he said of business. "It's the economic times the way they are. People are just needing to find things cheaper."

And thrift stores are thriving. Members of the Association of Resale Professionals, which represents nearly 1,000 consignment and thrift stores, reported that net sales increased 12.7 percent in 2009 from 2008, trouncing overall retail sales that declined 7.3 percent over that time.

"People are so distressed right now," said the group's president, Kitty Boyce, who runs a shop in Rochester, Ill. "A family with a limited income has to spend more on gas and food, and they have less money to spend on clothing and housing and everything else."

In the Hillcrest store, more than 90,000 transactions last year boosted sales 55 percent over 2009. It has been so successful that its nonprofit parent, a ministry for the homeless called Hillcrest Transitional Housing, plans to model two new stores after it.

As Americans become increasingly comfortable with and interested in buying "used," thrift stores are stepping up their game. Stores are being remodeled and redesigned with traditional retail details — think mall-bright lighting, dressing rooms, shopping carts, public restrooms.

If you're shopping at the Hillcrest store on the right day, you might even get a free cookie.

"We want to compete. We want people to see that we are an avenue that they can use and they don't have to deal with the image of dirty, smelly thrift stores," said Teri Mairet, manager of Synergy in Style thrift store in Gladstone, Mo. The store is run by Synergy Services, which helps abused women and children.

Synergy and other thrifts have launched marketing efforts, too, emphasizing the eco-friendly, reuse-recycle nature of buying secondhand and, in the case of charity thrift stores, what the money is being used for. Many now are using Facebook and Twitter to tell customers about in-store specials, daily merchandise offerings, even drawings for prizes.

And did you hear?

It's cool to shop at the Salvation Army.

Or so says a new TV ad campaign the Salvation Army will launch in Kansas City in the coming weeks.

Sgt. Troy Barker, a self-described "thrift-store geek," was transferred to Kansas City from Detroit more than a year ago to help rebrand the organization's local stores. One of the newest opened last September in an 18,000-square-foot renovated furniture store in Belton, Mo.

But the crown jewel of Barker's efforts will be a new, $2.2 million Salvation Army "superstore" in a former Comp USA building in Overland Park, Kan. The store is slated to open in about three months. "We don't even call ourselves thrift stores; we call them family stores. Because thrift to me is a 5,000-square-foot store, poorly lit, musty smelling, for low-income people," Barker said.

"We look at it as a retail adventure now."

As part of its own rebranding project, Goodwill of Western Missouri and Eastern Kansas has remodeled five of its Kansas City area stores since last April, with five more on tap for makeovers this year. Most recently it remodeled its 20,000-square-foot store in Olathe, Kan., a former Hastings bookstore.

"That was a really large Goodwill store for us," said J. Stuart Hoffman, vice president of marketing and development. "We reduced the size of the sales floor so it didn't look so daunting. We repainted it. We pulled up the old carpet and redid the floor, and reorganized the merchandise itself. ... It looks much, much cleaner in there."

Walk into the store and you can see all the way from the front to the back, past orderly rows of $5.99 jeans and $4.99 women's blazers toward 49-cent drinking glasses and other housewares arranged by category on metal display shelves at the back of the store. Books are lined up library-perfect; it's one employee's job to keep them so.

Maria Rayas of Kansas City was impressed with the store as she, her sister and niece recently hunted for church clothes. Rayas and her family moved to Kansas City last year when their home repair business dried up in Los Angeles.

"It's a nice store. There's a lot here," she said, pushing a cart loaded with skirts, blouses and dresses to try on. "What (people) don't need, it's good for us."

Since reopening in early January, the Olathe store's sales have increased about 30 percent, Hoffman said.

There's no typical thrift-store shopper anymore, say managers who are selling to young people buying clothes for job interviews, displaced workers buying clothes for their new job, families and seniors — busloads of whom pour into the Hillcrest store on the weekly Seniors Day.

"People, I think, are getting smart in the economy," said Synergy in Style manager Mairet. "And telling their neighbor, 'Hey, look what I got. Guess how much I paid.' "

Leann Bailey bought a house last spring with her husband in Overland Park. Now they have a house but little money left to buy the stuff that goes in it. "But I still want it to feel like home," she said.

Needing a lamp for a bedside table, the substitute teacher checked out the latest arrivals at Blessings Abound, a thrift shop around the corner from her house.

She didn't find the lamp, but did buy a bedskirt and a green throw pillow embroidered with a white "B." Total bill: $7.

Blessings Abound is operated by Metro Lutheran Ministry, which provides services for the homeless and others. Like Goodwill and the Salvation Army, this store, thanks to a small army of volunteers, is putting on a new face.

"When you walk in the store, we want people to say 'This doesn't look like a thrift store. It doesn't smell like a thrift store,' " said the store's director of operations, Deborah Napoli. "We don't put out junk."

With a no-junk policy catching on, thrift stores are finding other uses for donated items that don't make the final cut — passing them on to homeless shelters and overseas charities, and selling clothing to be used for rags, for instance.

In upgrading its image, the Salvation Army is changing its distribution process while placing new stores in more affluent neighborhoods.

"In the old process, the Salvation Army and a lot of your thrift store agencies would receive donations, take them to a central warehouse, sort it, price it and you never knew what you got," said the Salvation Army's Barker. "So somebody in Overland Park could donate something and it would end up in Independence."

As the organization begins closing smaller stores and replacing them with new superstores, "everything that comes into the store stays right there," he said. "So now it's your neighbor's stuff. It's nice stuff."

He can't wait to show off the Salvation Army's new way of doing thrift in the new Overland Park store.

"I believe the old saying, 'You've got about three to eight seconds to make an impression,' " he said. "And when I have a customer walk in, I want them to go, 'Wow, wow, wow.'"