Like many businesses, Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore has been hit hard during the pandemic.
The outlet primarily sold used furniture, household items and building materials to help support its nonprofit parent organization, New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity, and relied on donated merchandise to stock its shelves.
This led to a double struggle: Not only did customers stay away from ReStores in Gentilly and Kenner, but donations dwindled because donors were more cautious about in-person contact.
So, store management began to explore other ways to attract customers and merchandise. He launched an online shopping platform to help boost sales and began supplementing his inventory of donated goods with new merchandise – carpets, flooring, paint – to ensure hard-to-buy items get would still be available.
Together, the strategies paid off, increasing sales at local stores by more than 37%, according to Kieran Bulger, ReStore site manager at Elysian Fields. Sales at its 16,000 square foot store alone topped $1.5 million in fiscal 2021-22, up from just under $1 million pre-pandemic.
“It’s one of those silver linings,” Bulger said. “COVID has been a tragedy, but it has forced us to find new ways of doing business that have proven to be really beneficial.”
Support a mission
The Habitat for Humanity ReStore concept exists nationwide and was launched in the early 1990s, at a time when nonprofits were becoming increasingly sophisticated at finding stable revenue to support their missions.
At local Habitat ReStores, more than 90% of the money they raise goes to support Habitat for Humanity’s mission to build affordable homes. Each store generates enough revenue to build about five new homes a year, according to Leo Marsh, advocacy and community engagement manager at New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity.
The ReStore stocks full lines of furniture and home accessories from restaurants, hotels, college dorms, film sets, and convention exhibits. People moving or redecorating can also donate gently used sofas, end tables and other household items.
It also resells construction goods used in home construction and renovation projects. The selection varies from day to day, week to week, depending on the types of donations received.
The Elysian Fields Avenue location has become a staple in the community, attracting a variety of buyers, who are united in their quest to find a bargain.
“We’re right across from Lowe’s and we have builders coming here first every day just to see what we have,” Bulger said.
But during the pandemic, the store has been forced to find new ways of doing business. Early on, it closed to protect its workers, volunteers and customers. Even when it reopened in the summer of 2020, sales were slow as many shoppers continued to stay away.
So, the store invested in an e-commerce platform and started posting photos of its merchandise on the site. The platform includes a user-friendly way for customers to view and purchase merchandise remotely, as well as a point-of-sale system to help the store track online sales. Social media is used to drive customers to the site.
“We’ve had great success with our pricing tiers,” Bulger said. “It was totally worth it.”
To meet the need for more merchandise, Bulger identified multiple vendors, including wholesalers and online discount sites like Wayfair. The ReStore buys entire shipments of its clearance items and then resells them at a slight markup.
“It’s probably 20 or 30% more than what our customers are used to paying, so we need to do a little customer education,” he said. “But it gives customers that confidence and the feeling that we’ll always have something.”
Although the new systems have been a boon to the store, only about 20% of ReStore’s inventory comes from purchased sources. The other 80% still comes from donors, who, along with Habitat volunteers, are essential to keeping the organization afloat, according to Marsh.
“We couldn’t do this without volunteers,” he said. “They are extremely important to the model and the mix.”