How to Start a Non Profit Thrift Store

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You serve on the board of a local non-profit organization, and the group has explored ways of raising funds for its charitable work. You’ve tried one-time events such as silent auctions, flea markets, and book sales. Although each event has been successful, there’s a need for consistent income to match ongoing needs for services. When someone suggests that the group open a non-profit thrift store, the response is overwhelmingly positive. However, careful planning is needed to give the store the best chance of success.

Establish the store’s framework. Meet with board members, business owners, and other key parties to create the best operating structure. Issues discussed should include: Relationship to the parent non-profit, legal and financial structure, location and leasing arrangements, and staffing plans.

Decide on the product mix. Although many non-profit stores don’t put restrictions on donated goods, many others successfully focus on only a few categories. For example, product mixes might include ladies’ and childrens' clothing, home furnishings and décor, and antiques and collectibles.

In one successful example, the Habitat for Humanity ReStores traditionally accept furniture, home accessories, building materials, and appliances. This product mix fits well with the Habitat for Humanity homebuilding mission: To eliminate poverty housing and homelessness by building simple, decent houses in partnership with families in need.

To determine your store’s best mix, conduct some market research to discover what’s available in your area. To gauge the traffic level, have volunteers visit the stores regularly for several weeks. Compare notes to identify any unfilled niches, or products for which there is high demand.

Establish a store operating structure. Determine how donations will be picked up and processed, and train staff and volunteers in customer service techniques. Besides promoting smoother store operation, store personnel will be more effective ambassadors for the parent non-profit organization.

Make the store attractive. No one likes to visit a store with crowded aisles and merchandise piled high. In contrast, a well merchandised store with spacious aisles, colorful displays and appealing signage will easily draw in customers. Enlist the free services of a retail expert and/or interior designer to make full use of floor space, color, and signage. Finally, ensure that customers can move freely without getting ensnared in “bottlenecks” resulting from poor traffic flow.

Open the store for business. There are two formats for store opening: (1) A “soft” opening, in which business is conducted while initial operating problems are resolved. A Grand Opening is scheduled for a future date. Many retail stores prefer this option; or (2) A Grand Opening with a big splash on the first day of business. Regardless of the Grand Opening date, make it a huge media event. Remember that non-profit stores can often entice television and radio stations to provide free coverage. Request a reporter and photographer from the local newspaper, and invite local elected officials and business leaders. Establish the store as a partner with the larger community.

Take every opportunity to bring in customers. In the author’s former role as a Habitat ReStore Manager, she formed a partnership with a local television station. Once a month, the store’s upcoming events would be highlighted in a community service interview with a station personality. Other free promotional options include: (1) News releases in daily and weekly newspapers; (2) In-store events featuring local experts on popular topics; (3) Special shopping days for community groups; and (4) Weekly sales featuring a rotating list of products.