From Rags to Riches

2007 by Eric Van Ness

Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

In 2006, the Alachua County Humane Society (ACHS) Thrift and Gift Store in Gainesville, Florida, netted $120k. As a result, ACHS has discontinued direct mail as a revenue generating strategy. The stores meteoric rise is due to Manager, Eric Van Ness. He describes the secrets of his success in the article below. (ACHS is the lead agency in Maddie's® Pet Rescue Project in Alachua County).

I spent sixteen years managing an independent bookstore before joining ACHS. I have been the manager of the Thrift and Gift since May 2005. I came here for many reasons, but mainly because of our CEO, Becky Goodman, and the vision she had of what ACHS could become. The year before Becky came to ACHS, the organization placed about 350 animals, of which about 250 came from Alachua County Animal Services. She knew that with the Humane Society name and funding from Maddie's, ACHS could do much more. In 2006, ACHS placed 987 animals and transferred 1013 from Animal Services.

In order to reach those goals, Becky knew that ACHS would need to increase its recurring income. She also knew that I had been able to increase the bookstore's profit in spite of increased competition from several national chain stores. She asked me to take a look at the Thrift to let her know what I thought could be done. After some evaluation and discussion, she asked if I would consider being the one to execute the transformation. I am a sucker for animals and have been caring for strays as long as I can remember, so of course, I said yes.

I am paid a flat salary, which is nearly the same as I had been making. Unfortunately, I no longer have matching retirement and my health insurance is now half paid rather than fully paid. I loved the bookstore, but knowing that I have been part of saving over 1000 animals brings me great satisfaction.

We have no record of when ACHS first opened a Thrift store, but it has been at least twelve years. It has been in the current building (on the same property as the original) for about five years. In 2004, the Thrift had gross sales of $55k, and net of about $48k. Part of what Becky and I thought would help increase adoptions, was to move all non-adoption related transactions to the Thrift to allow the adoption staff to focus on the animals. One of the things that moved was our Spay/Neuter voucher sales (which has next to no net yield), so our gross sales have increased much more than our net sales. We still consider our net increase successful.

In 2006, our gross sales were $270k. Our net was $120k. So, after a year and a half we've seen a gross increase of 490% and a net increase of 250%. We have also begun to generate a lot of cash donations through the Thrift, which helps to offset the Thrift budget, which is between $50k and $55k including payroll. The donations do not show up as Thrift sales.

Besides me, we have two part-time paid employees providing between 10 and 20 hours per week each. Our fifteen regular volunteers contribute anywhere from two hours per week to ten hours per week (one volunteer gives us nearly 30 hours) for a total of 80 to 85 hours per week.

We had a plan and a vision when I started, but nothing written. Everything centered on customer service, volume, and mission. We changed almost everything, including the layout of both the sales floor and the processing area. We expanded the store hours. We moved the voucher sales to the Thrift, partially to free the adoption staff, but also to bring the Thrift more exposure. We greatly expanded our selection of pet supplies.

Before I came, the Thrift was completely volunteer run and was successful considering the volunteer's limitations. Our typical volunteer is a retired woman in her late sixties or seventies. The women are not physically able to handle large item donations like furniture. Not only do we now accept furniture, but I also do free furniture pick-ups several times a week. They also had stopped accepting clothing because of how labor-intensive clothing can be.

The primary function of our paid employees is to deal with clothing. They receive basic training in Thrift operations, but mainly they were hired because we felt that they would be able to distinguish between clothing that should be sold for 25cents and clothing that should be sold for $75.00. I teach the volunteers whatever they would like to learn, but more than that, I learn everything that I can from them. Many of our volunteers have specific areas of knowledge and interest, so we do some of what we do because of volunteer interests.

There are six other thrift stores, three general consignment stores, and at least two used furniture stores within two miles of our store - half of them within 1/3 mile. That may seem like a bad thing, but it is one of the keys to our success. Many people come to the area to go to the thrift stores and many people who live in the interspersed neighborhoods shop at the thrift stores. Price and merchandise are aspects of customer service. Having things that people want at prices that they are comfortable paying is important, but knowing the merchandise and being friendly is as important. People like to spend time in places where they enjoy interacting with the staff and with other customers. We are somewhat like a combination between an old fashion general store and a neighborhood pub. The main thing that we have that other thrift stores don't is atmosphere.

Our used/thrift merchandise is all donated - none is purchased, bartered, or consigned. We do have new pet supplies. Those we purchase from wholesalers.

We do very little paid advertising. People tend to give to us because they believe in what we do, because they shop in our store, because they found us in the phone book, or because a friend told them about us. Being in the midst of so many other thrift stores also means that we don't have to spend much on advertising. People tend to know where the thrifts are and find us by coming to the area or from word of mouth. We do usually include at least some mention of the Thrift in every ACHS publication or promotion.

We have not done marketing/demographic surveys, but I can tell you that we have several typical customers and they are as varied as our merchandise. We have the poorest of the poor who clothe themselves and their families from our six racks of 25cent clothing. We have dealers who come in every few days looking for merchandise to add to their stock. We have people who are tickled to find a set of fine crystal stemware for $300 or a watch for $750). Caucasian/Anglo-Americans, Asians (of varied heritage), Hispanics (also of varied heritage), and African-Americans are pretty equally represented with African-Americans coming in slightly higher numbers. Women outnumber men 3 to 1.

We do not expect to continue to experience the level of growth that we have enjoyed over the past year and a half. We are projecting net growth in the existing Thrift to be 8% to 11% for each of the next five years.

We have had two "Yard Sales" in the last two years and we are planning to start doing at least two per year. The merchandise for those sales is generated mostly through the Thrift and is primarily sorted by Thrift staff and volunteers. The sales themselves are organized and run by our volunteer coordinator with non-thrift volunteers and a mix of Thrift and non-Thrift staff. We classify the money from those sales as event rather than Thrift. Thus, we will be doing Thrift related money generation that will not necessarily be reflected in Thrift sales, but will benefit the organization.

So far, there have only been a few things that we have had trouble selling in the store. We are exploring the E-Bay option and feel that the best way for us to proceed with this is with volunteer participation.

We would love to expand our space in our current location, but county regulations make that expansion cost prohibitive. We are looking for a second location. We hope to have that within a year.

If I were to offer the ten most important bits of advice to other animal welfare organizations I would say:

  1. Smile
  2. Be truly thankful for your customers, donors, and volunteers.
  3. Remember the organizational mission.
  4. Try new things.
  5. Be willing to fail and move on.

I guess I would repeat 1 through 5 as 6 through 10. Because every market is different and every group operates within a different dynamic, I would hesitate to offer specific strategic advice and ours isn't the only model. There are very successful stores that only deal in high-end goods. They only sell a few things a week, but they make a huge amount of money on each transaction. There are organizations that are more event-oriented. Our county Friends of the Library, accumulates books and other media for 25 weeks then has a huge sale. They net over $100k a year through those two sales. There are so many ways to be successful and the five bits above combine well with all situations.

I think that the most important thing for organizations to consider is finding a person who believes in the organizational mission and has the business acumen to make the endeavor successful.

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