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How much is that doggie sweater in the window?

Thrift stores turn secondhand goods into treasure for shelters

From Animal Sheltering Magazine January/February 2014

It takes time for a shelter thrift store to establish a reputation in a community, build a customer base, and attract donors who will contribute quality items to the store. The Pick of the Litter, the thrift shop of the Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA in Burlingame, Calif., has been in business for more than 40 years. The Blue Ridge Humane Society thrift stores in Hendersonville, N.C., attract customers from a wide area, like these visitors from South Carolina, who ended up buying a love seat.Anna Dyche, who runs the Barkin’ Basement thrift store of the Allegany County Animal Shelter in Cumberland, Md., says one key to the store’s success is having high standards for the donated goods that go out on the floor. Thrift stores should be neat and clean, and should feature attractively displayed merchandise in order to ring up steady sales, says Terri Thompson, director of retail for the Blue Ridge Humane Society thrift stores. Terri Thompson (left), director of retail and community outreach at the Blue Ridge Humane Society, and thrift store volunteer Joyce Newhams unpack and sort through boxes of donated dishes. Along with offering cute baubles and bangles, the Pick of the Litter thrift store cross-promotes events that are going on at the Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA. Promotional materials about special offers at the thrift store are placed at the shelter, too.Diane Koenig of Novato, Calif., a longtime volunteer, cuddles 11-year-old adoptable cat Ammee Lynn. The store has adopted out more than 30 cats, each one of whom becomes its temporary mascot.

Customers come to the Blue Ridge Humane Society thrift stores to shop, but they may stay to dance.

“We’re known for our crazy sales,” says Terri Thompson, director of retail and community outreach for the shelter, located in Hendersonville, N.C. One of the most popular sales they’ve had was Dare Day. Customers who wanted a discount had to reach into a basket and draw a slip that might ask them to tap dance for a minute, sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” or recite a tongue twister.

“The best thing of all, this lady drew a slip out, and she was real hesitant … and she said, ‘Oh, God, I’ve got to dance, I’ve gotta tap dance,’” Thompson recalls. “And so she took a step back, and just looked down at the floor. And everybody’s just standing around, the cashier finally goes, ‘Ma’am, are you going to dance?’ And then she looks up, real serious, and says, ‘Wait, wait, hush—I’m choreographing what I’m gonna do.’ And then all the sudden, she broke out in a little dance, and it was wonderful.”

Then there was Thompson’s plan for the grand opening of a new location of one of the shelter’s two thrift stores in Hendersonville. “I did something different every single day, and one day … we had puppies all over the place in little cribs that we had set up, and then people could get free puppy kisses,” she says.

But don’t be fooled—even though Thompson likes to make the stores fun for volunteers and shoppers, the funds that the stores raise for the nonprofit add up to serious cash.In 2012, its Thrift Store No. 1, located in a building that also houses the humane society’s administrative offices, grossed approximately $361,000. Thompson estimates that the store netted about $250,000 for the shelter that year. And that was before Thrift Store No. 2 opened in April in two rented bays in a nearby strip mall.

After the staff salaries and monthly rent and utilities for Store No. 2 are paid, the rest of the funds go directly into the shelter’s general operating fund. “For the most part, we are the No. 1 source of revenue for the shelter,” Thompson says.

Other animal welfare groups around the country are also discovering the hidden value in secondhand goods, raising tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars by operating thrift stores staffed primarily with volunteers. The beautiful part, according to staff, is that it’s not that hard to turn donated goods—everything from gently used clothing and jewelry to artwork, antiques, and knickknacks—into funds that can infuse a lot of black ink into a shelter’s books.

Even smaller amounts help: The Barkin’ Basement, the thrift store of the Allegany County Animal Shelter in Cumberland, Md., opened in May 2012, and consistently rings up sales of $1,500 to $2,000 a month, says Becky McClarran, president of the county’s Animal Shelter Management Foundation.

The money goes into the shelter’s general operating fund, and some is directed toward the foundation’s capital campaign for a much-needed new building. “It may not sound like a lot of money, but when you’re purchasing more dog food and more cat food, and we’re trying to get all our animals chipped and up to date on shots, and hopefully neutered before they go out for adoption—that all costs money, and this does help.”

Taking Care of Business

The Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA (PHS) in Burlingame, Calif., is an old hand when it comes to running a thrift store. Its resale shop, The Pick of the Litter, has been in operation for more than 40 years, relocating four times during that period.

“The Pick” is now less than a mile from the shelter, in a freestanding building of about 6,000 square feet, in a commercial district. One full-time manager and three part-time employees staff the store, and a team of about 75 volunteers helps sort, price, and display donations. The store also has a virtual auction site on eBay, where volunteers post items that could bring in more than thrift-store prices, such as cameras, collectible figurines, and designer clothing.Every third Tuesday of the month is Shop Adopt Tuesday, so customers can meet adoptable animals and take advantage of a 50 percent discount on everything in the store. That regular event started four or five years ago, according to Brian Probst, director of the shelter’s volunteer and retail services, to promote the lifesaving work of PHS, and highlight the relationship between the shelter and the store.

The store raises a significant amount of money, Probst says—in the six figures each year.

After overhead is paid, the rest of the funds go to the shelter’s Hope Program, which helps animals who need extra medical care or behavioral training before adoption.

The important thing to remember about running a thrift store, according to Probst, is that “it’s like any other business—a retail clothing store, or a gift shop, or a card store. A thrift store is all those types of stores, all rolled up into one, and you have to constantly stay ahead. … Our direct competitors are other thrift stores.”

Of course, it helps that The Pick of the Litter has earned a reputation in Burlingame, as well as several decades of goodwill in the city.

And, as with any business, location is key to success. The PAWS Resale Shoppe, a thrift store that benefits the Humane Society Calumet Area in Munster, Ind., opened in 2003 in a roughly 3,000-square-foot space in the downtown area of Highland, less than a 10-minute drive from Munster. Since then, the store has raised more than $500,000 for the shelter.The only problem was that after a few years, the store was outgrowing its space; when two storage lockers had to be rented to contain excess inventory, it was clear that PAWS needed to move. After about three years of looking for a bigger space that was still in the same community, but not too expensive, officials chose a site that’s less than 10 blocks from the original location. “It is about 7,000 square feet, so it’s much bigger. It’s a giant, open space, they have a room in the back as a sorting room for when donations come in, they have a loading dock, we built a ramp in the back for easy access for people to donate, and there are also small work rooms, so [volunteers] can do eBay research, they can fix items that come in,” says the shelter’s executive director, Rachel Delaney.

The store also has great visibility, located on a busy street right by an expressway, and near Purdue University’s Calumet campus in Hammond. And that’s all added up to great sales figures, according to Delaney. The store opened for business over Labor Day weekend, and made $1,900 on its first day; since then, the store has averaged $700 a day.

That amounts to a healthy source of cash for the shelter. The store’s gross profit in 2012 was $143,782, and its net was $68,825, according to Delaney. “It’s so important for us, because it’s pretty much a guaranteed income,” she says. “We really depend on that store to be successful, and taking that draw every month to help pay the utilities here, and feed the animals, and just really keep our shelter going.”

Outfitting Your Pooch

Choosing a good location for its thrift store was never an issue for Dakin Humane Society in Springfield, Mass.—the space for its Diamonds in the Ruff Thrift Shoppe was inherited when the shelter purchased and moved into its building in 2009.Formerly occupied by the Massachusetts SPCA, a majority of the 46,000-square-foot facility was devoted to an emergency and specialty animal hospital, and the rest was its adoption center. The building also featured a gift shop associated with the pet hospital, but the shop didn’t pan out, and the space was given to the MSCPA adoption center. It was used for behavioral evaluations and other purposes, before it was turned into a thrift store benefiting the organization.

When Dakin Humane Society moved in, it not only found itself with a thriving thrift store on its hands, but also the hardworking, mother-and-daughter duo of volunteers, Pearl and Karen Patino. “Karen and Pearl were still game, and we were like, ‘Well, let’s not fix what isn’t broken. We’ve got a lot of other things we’re going to have to figure out, let’s just leave this alone,’ and it has been really terrific for us,” says Leslie Harris, the shelter’s executive director.In 2012, the store raised $32,468; and as of early September, it had made $20,406 for 2013, according to Harris. Overhead is minimal, since the Patinos volunteer their time, there’s no rent to pay, and the store’s located in the adoption center, so the lights and other utilities would be on anyway.

In addition to a wide variety of household items, the store carries both new and gently used pet supplies, such as crates, beds, dog coats, leashes, and collars. The used items are quickly snapped up by people visiting the shelter to adopt an animal, take their pets in for a vaccine clinic, or bring them to the high-volume spay/neuter clinic. Most shelters, Harris points out, get donations of “more used pet supplies that you ever use inside your facility. We have more dog collars and crates than we will ever need. So turning them around, and reselling them, after cleaning them and disinfecting them, is a huge boon,” Harris says.

Used doggie clothes are another hot-selling item. “We have two main populations of dogs here, pit bulls and Chihuahuas … and no matter what time of year, they’ve all got outfits on … and this is the best place to shop for outfits for your dog,” she says, laughing. “We are the Chihuahua outfitter, yes.”

Anna Dyche, manager of The Barkin’ Basement for Allegany County Animal Shelter, says that one of the keys to thrift store success is being discriminating about the items put out for sale. “We don’t keep things that are too worn or have holes or stains; they’re very nice-looking things,” she says. “We get a lot of [leftovers from] yard sales, and we always say it has to be clean and gently used, because we don’t have a facility for a lot of cleaning.”McClarran calls the thrift store “three blessings in one” because it supports the shelter financially, builds a good reputation for the organization in the community, and serves as a place where people who don’t have a lot of money can buy things they need.

And she credits its success to those who give their time and effort to make it run smoothly. “Everybody’s a volunteer, which is phenomenal,” she says. “They work their tails off, keeping it clean and straight, and getting everything organized, and working with the public.”

Tips from the Pros

Ingredients for creating a successful thrift store

Starting a resale shop to raise money for your organization poses certain challenges, but if you do your homework, it can be worth the trouble. Check out these tips from some of the folks who have been making these models work!

  • Tie the lifesaving work of the shelter to the operation of the thrift store, so that customers and donors understand how their support contributes to your mission. Cross-promote the shelter’s programs and events at the thrift store, and vice versa; if there’s an adoption promotion for Chihuahuas, for instance, announce a sale on gently used outfits for little dogs at the store.
  • Educate donors about what types of items your thrift store accepts and those that it can’t take, such as large appliances (if you lack storage space), damaged goods that won’t sell, or clothes that require cleaning or repair.
  • Train volunteers to sort donations, and put aside items that won’t sell; some of these could be passed along to a company that can recycle them, or another charity that would be glad to have them.
  • Find staff or volunteers who have retail experience, and involve them where their knowledge will be a big help. Those who know how to evaluate and price certain goods (antiques, clothes, collectibles), or arrange store windows, should be assigned those jobs.
  • Establish a clear management structure for the store; this will avoid a lot of chaos.
  • Research potential locations for the store, considering easy access, visibility, and rent. Mentioning your organization’s mission and nonprofit status in negotiations with a potential landlord can help you get a better deal.
  • Maintain consistent communication with store staff and volunteers about what’s going on at the shelter. Keep them in the loop, so they feel they’re all part of one organization, and they understand that their efforts contribute to the welfare of the animals. Encourage volunteers to feel “pride of ownership” in the store.
  • Set up a Facebook page, or a page on your shelter’s website, that gives basic information about the store (directions, hours, kinds of goods accepted), as well as a few pictures. Have a volunteer set up a virtual auction site on eBay, and post items that might bring a higher price than they would in the store.
  • Work with your local jurisdiction, so that you understand any laws that might apply to a thrift store, or permits that could be required. Also, you’ll need to find out if your state requires you to collect sales tax.
  • Research the financial structure for the store that will make the most sense for your organization. Will it need its own set of books, or be considered another department of the shelter? Will you need to file a separate Form 990 for the store at tax time, or will it be included in the organization’s filing?

About the Author

Jim Baker is a former staff writer for the Humane Society of the United States.