With redesigned stores, a blog and user-driven social media marketing, Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids has just about shaken its image as a dusty old charity case.
Now with the opening of Blue Boutique stores in and around downtown Grand Rapids on April 21 — one in the recently renovated MoDiv space and the other in East Hills — Goodwill has opened its doors to a brand new market segment: women ages 25 to 40 who want luxe looks for less but don’t want to spend a day hunting for them.
“Blue is kind of a one-stop shopping experience for women looking for high-end merchandise,” said Jill Wallace, chief marketing officer at Goodwill of Greater Grand Rapids. “Instead of going to that traditional store and digging, it’s right there.”
So far, Blue Boutiques have gotten an enthusiastic response from shoppers — except those who happen to like the thrill of the hunt.
“We’ve had a lot of great reaction. The only negative is that people are afraid that they are not going to be able to find the diamond in the rough (at traditional stores),” said Wallace.
But she’s quick to assuage these fears: “You’ll still be able to go to our traditional stores and find those high-end brands. I really don’t think that a regular Goodwill customer will notice the difference.”
This news should please seasoned Goodwill veterans like East Hills resident Michelle Swift.
Swift’s wardrobe features an eclectic mix of vintage and designer pieces, many of which she unearthed while plowing through outlet stores and secondhand shops. Though Swift is normally friendly and vivacious, at Goodwill, it’s another story. A long-time runner, she doesn’t just compete on the track.
“I’m all about the hunt,” said Swift, 31. “I’m a little competitive that way.”
Swift’s shopping savvy has paid off. Her prize find to date is a decorative bedroom mosquito net. Typically retailing at $20 and up, Swift scored the net for pennies at Goodwill’s Outlet where items are priced per-pound. The store is somewhat of a Holy Grail for so-called thrifters, people who regularly shop for bargains at stores like Goodwill.
Purchased for less than $10 at the 29th Street Goodwill in Kentwood, a fishtail Banana Republic skirt suit was Swift’s second-best score.
Despite her love of the game, Swift is excited for Blue to open around the corner from her home, if only as a gateway for people like her sister, Jessica, who haven’t yet caught the secondhand buying bug.
“I’ve been hip to thrift stores for a while,” Swift said. “But I think it’s great that they’re making it hip to the masses.”
Green, people-centered machine
Of course, the cream of the crop at Blue Boutiques will come at a cost. Merchandise at Blue Boutiques will be priced higher than most selections at Goodwill’s other 15 traditional locations.
Though price tags may be higher, it’s still for the same good cause. The revenue generated by the boutiques and Goodwill’s other stores will continue to benefit the company’s job training program.
In 2010, Goodwill grossed $16 million in retail sales from stores spread over eight counties in the Greater Grand Rapids area to support this work. And last year, said Wallace, more than 3,000 people participated in job training and 991 were placed into local jobs.
To keep their own business booming, Goodwill employs a holistic approach to brand management — one that offers takeaways for other nonprofits and local businesses.
First, at Goodwill, the customer is always right — and not just at the counter, which means the company spends a lot of time talking to current and prospective customers.
Wallace says that Goodwill has used feedback from college students on how, where and why they shop at the designer stores they want to shop in. The Goodwill store in Standale, for instance, couldn’t be more different from the thrift stores Wallace recalled from her childhood.
“The stores have changed dramatically. I remember going and donating to Goodwill in Muskegon and not even wanting to go to those stores,” said Wallace, 37. “Now you walk into a store and it’s bright, it’s airy. It’s not your grandma’s goodwill.”
Goodwill also works hard to stay on top of market trends, especially those that underscore their brand proposition, like the regional and national gravitation toward Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability, the LOHAS market segment.
LOHAS consumers are most likely to be middle-income women who want to reduce their environmental impact, exactly the clientele Blue Boutiques are expected to attract.
“People are making that choice to purchase and wear an item from Goodwill and upcycle it,” Wallace said. “Goodwill is the world’s largest recycler in terms of clothing.”
The medium is the message
What Goodwill markets is just as important as how it markets it, another nugget for nonprofit marketeers looking to better connect with their constituencies.
“We do a lot with social media … because it’s the green way to go, and … it’s the audience we’re targeting,” Wallace said.
While some nonprofits and businesses are still trying to make sense of Facebook, Goodwill has leapt ahead of the pack, not only adopting (free) social media marketing early, but also creating innovative ways to use it to boost Goodwill’s bottom line.
“If you do a Foursquare check-in, you’re going to get a coupon. We have blogs. We have a Pinterest site,” Wallace said. “It’s cost-effective, it’s green [and] it’s another way for us to engage our shoppers.”
Goodwill’s sustainability message plays especially well in West Michigan, a region becoming known for businesses committed to the triple bottom line — so well, in fact, that the organization has elected to open LEED-certified stores in both Rockford and Cascade.
“It’s about trying to engage with the community and put in place with what they want out of their Goodwill,” Wallace said. “Grand Rapids is one of the greener cities in the country. We’re going to see how responsive the community is to this.”
Ruth Terry is a freelance writer and consultant who curates content for magazines and corporate clients. Find her at www.ruthwrites.org.