LELAND – Despite years of modest success, the Communities in Schools thrift stores are still facing a major hurdle: many people have some serious negative preconceptions about discount and second-hand stores.
The thrift stores fund Communities in Schools (CIS) efforts to provide counseling, tutoring and mentoring as part of its partnership with Brunswick County schools. The ultimate goal is to reduce student drop-out. Todd Beane, operations manager for the thrift store program, explained the program’s struggle against public perception.
“People think of thrift stores as dirty, they think of bad lighting, poor selection, off brands.” Beanie said. He added that negative stereotypes surrounding thrift stores can be dispelled as soon as people walk through the door. “I think people will be pleasantly surprised at the quality they find here,” Beane said.
Beane said the unique demographic make-up of Brunswick County has a lot to do with the store’s high quality selection.
“We’re really blessed, in that Brunswick County has a lot of retired residents, and residents with disposable income,” Beane said. “We’ve had a lot of people who are happy to donate their clothes. I mean, these are nice clothes, worn once or not at all. We have mostly name brands, Land’s End, J. Crew. They have more than they need and, again, we’ve been blessed that they donate to us.”
Beane added that while the store accepts most donations – which are eligible for tax write-offs – CIS is highly selective.
“We’re not just throwing used clothes in the washer and putting them on hangers. If there’s loose threads, holes, stains, we’ll find other homes for those donations. We won’t put them out there in our stores,” he said.
“I sound like a salesman, and I suppose I kind of am, but these are incredible deals for people who give us a chance. A good pair of paints is $4. A really nice pair – whoa – they might be 6. A whole outfit for $20.”
The layout and management of the store were also concerns for CIS. Beane said Jennifer Murrill, assistant manager at the Leland location, was hired for her keen aesthetic sense.
“How the store looks is important, too,” he said. “We’ve tried to lay things out and organize them like a department store. Jennifer has a really excellent sense of layout and organization. That makes a difference to how people react when they walk in.”
Founded in 1995, CIS opened its first thrift stores in 2008. The latest, the Leland CIS, opened last summer. Beane said opening the stores was a proactive move to declining grant availability and decreases in donations from community groups.
Beane said, “we understood, especially after the financial problems in 2008, that people might have less to give. So, the thrift store program offers really high-end clothing, often worn once, sometimes never worn, for really low prices. This way, people can help themselves and help at-risk students at the same time.”
CIS has been successful at playing a real role in reducing the drop-out rate in Brunswick County, Beane said. In the last year, the rate dropped a half-percent, from 158 drop-outs to 137 in Brunswick County, according to a report from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.
The overall CIS program continues to depend in part on getting people to give the thrift stores a chance, Beane said, adding, “We’ve done everything we can to make this a lean, efficient operation, to direct as much of our proceeds as we can back to CIS. Right now, it’s about 86 cents on every dollar spent.”
While the CIS program may be well run, the stereotypical thrift store that Beane described is a hard image to shake.
“We face that every day,” he said. “We can’t avoid it, it’s in our name.”
Beane was optimistic though, that word of mouth would begin to erode the negative connotations of “thrift shop.” He said once people experienced the CIS thrift store, they would be happy to return.
CIS has thrift shop locations in Boiling Springs, Southport, Sunset Beach and its latest in Leland. For locations and hours of business, or for more information on mission and programs, visit the CIS website.