Without fail, my conversations with clients always include directly or indirectly the impact that the local “big” thrift stores chains potentially have on their business. It is true, there is an impact. But that doesn’t mean that the “small” thrift store can’t be profitable. The nature of free enterprise is such that we have to compete for business. That simple line can be viewed as a threat or a challenge. The neat thing that I have uncovered since being in the thrift store business is that competition is different in the thrift store world. There is little to no competition on the shopping side. All things being equal, and donations not being a problem, I would put a store right next door to a Goodwill or a Salvation Army. Thrift shoppers shop them ALL. For some, we are part of the “hunt”. Other times, we are the supply house for their resale business, nevertheless, they are shopping. The donor on the other hand is not! That’s where we have to set ourselves apart. In order to be successful, you simply need to set yourself apart. I have been a part of some very successful independent thrift store stories in markets where there was a huge BIG chain presence. The three things we always practice and coach to set ourselves apart are Convenience, Engagement, and Conscience. Approaching these three things well will help make your thrift store profitable.
Convenience in my opinion is ALWAYS the most important part of a successful thrift store operation as it relates to donations. If it is not easy to get donations to you, it’s going to be difficult to be successful. Visibly, we see the rise of donations boxes, attended truck boxes, stores, drive throughs etc. Just examples of convenience winning. Test after test shows that the typical donor will drop/donate at the most convenient place to their current path. We don’t want this to be the case. We want to think if they just see the billboard of our non-profit they will donate because our cause is so great. Guess what? Even if they care about your cause, they still are not going to drive an extra mile. Let me reiterate here that I am “generally” speaking. I have my share of donors who would drive 100 miles to donate to us. We obviously carry the convenience message over very heavily into the web using pickupmydonation.com. It is staggering to me the number of organizations that rely on phone line and answering machine to secure donation leads. If you think of your own habits, how often do you “call” organizations? We want to do everything online, yet we base the success of our non-profit thrift store on call ins. I know this isn’t you because you are using PickUpMyDonation.com! However, there are a lot of our colleagues who don’t have online request solutions.
Engagement is probably the most difficult of the 3 because it requires a certain level of man power, but still very important. We always use the adage “those who ask get, those who ask properly get more”. We are in a changing culture for fiscal donations to non-profits. However, we are in an expanding culture of excess consumption and donation. Everyone donates/throws away! What if we encouraged organizations with large congregations/constituents to donate to us? Not change a habit, not give money, but simply let them know where they give their excess matters. What if those potential donors saw their bags of old clothes as $100.00 bills vs. trash. That is how you set yourself apart. Then, what if we found a way to reward them for donating to us. If I walk into a church, a large local business or organization to say “here are some gift cards to our store because your constituents donated” vs. walking in and asking for money the response is a bit different. It also makes it easier to “ask properly”. Simply say, “help us tell the story and we can serve more of your people as well as the community with this initiative”. Engagement doesn’t have to be hard.
ThriftTrac is a company that helps thrift stores improve profitability by providing tools that encourage better understanding of daily operations. Several tools even help thrift stores engage with community partners, customers, donors, and volunteers!
Conscience is the one that most organizations lead with and spend the most money on, but has the least effect. Again, not because we are not excited about what we are doing, but because it will not change donor habits. We can say recycle all day long, but until we put a blue bin next to the trash can a majority of individuals will not recycle. Continue to tell your story, but do it from the store level, at the back door and on your trucks. All places where donations are happening. Don’t tell your story in lieu of buying another truck, opening an other store, or creating an initiative that doesn’t focus on donations.
In order to compete, we have to set ourselves apart. Using these three initiatives in the order delivered will give you a leg up in your market. For those of you in non-profit leadership that have read to this point and think these things do not line up with what you are trying to accomplish at the non-profit I hope you are right, I hope you support your thrift store advertising budget and messaging serving the store itself. Your thrift should help tell your story, but the goal of this post and everything we do at PickUpMyDonation.com is to help your thrift store become more profitable so YOU can expand your programs. If you simply want your thrift store to be an extension of your mission, it could very well cost you money If its not already.