Choices for Youth (CFY) receives a fair amount of donated clothing at its various operations throughout the St. John’s metro region and, while staff are grateful that the community keeps the organization top of mind, not all the goods end up on the backs of the youth the group serves.
So, what to do with all the leftovers?
“When we get some of these donations, we know we can turn it in to good employment, an opportunity for skills development, and solid insurable hours for young people to be able to gain those experiences,” explains Chelsey MacNeil, Choices’ director of social enterprise.
CFY is doing so through a new social enterprise they’ve dubbed the Neighbourhood, a second-hand clothing retail store that opened on the corner of Person Street and Torbay Road in the east of St. John’s last week. CFY had already executed a test run, dubbed Your Turn Boutique, out of its Duckworth Street office.
MacNeil says the used clothing store model is an ideal training ground for young people to gain experience in sales and customer service, but also in acquiring life skills.
“Understanding when to put something in the dryer, when to hang it… sewing on a button, even the act of separating whites and colours, working with specialty fabrics — Those are all learning life skills and personal development for young people.”
Like all youth that go to work for a CFY social enterprise, they also have access to a support network within the organization’s centralized employment program, which brings together staff working on the business end of things and staff focused on the social development component in what MacNeil says need to be a symbiotic relationship.
“We all have to be in sync and be connected to that mandate of assisting young people at all times,” she says. “But the benefits for young people are huge because we have stability of the business functioning and running with that support side that is there dedicated for them.”
The shop is staffed by at least two youth clients — one on the floor, one in the donation centre — and overseen by a supervisor. Over the course of a week, it equates to 125 hours of employment.
“That's partly why the thrift store or a store model works well, because young people are getting hands on experience and it's different every day and we're able to provide a significant amount of employment, which results in getting closer to that independence that a lot of young people are looking for,” MacNeil suggests.
It helps that MacNeil comes from a second-hand retail background, having started Model Citizens in downtown St. John’s 10 years ago. So, she’s comfortable with the model, branding, marketing, positioning second-hand goods.
The same goes for Neighborhood’s manager, current Model Citizens owner and CFY retail director Mary-Lynn Taylor.
“We've got a wealth of knowledge on staff on how to make second hand retail work,” boasts MacNeil.
Standing out in the crowd
There is no shortage of other thrift or second-hand shops operated by non-profit and not-for-profit organizations throughout the city. As such, CFY knew it had to find a way to stand out.
In addition to opting for a home in the east of the city, mostly removed from competition, they’ve adopted a blanket pricing model. That means a summer dress, whether the tag on the collar says Dolce & Gabbana or Old Navy, costs the same price.
But the inside of the store comes with its own little touches that set it apart from the competition, specifically around inclusivity.
“We have paid attention to what is important to youth — that we have created a fun, unique, inclusive customer-driven store where all walks of life are welcome,” MacNeil says.
There’s a kids’ play area at the back of the store. Nnone of the clothing racks are labelled as men’s or women’s clothing and there’s nary a mannequin in sight. Instead, clothing is displayed on moveable wooden units covered in chalkboard paint that were crafted by members of Impact Construction, another CFY social enterprise that generated $1.2 million in earned revenue in 2017.
In fact, the Impact crew did all of the renovations at Neighbourhood, right down to folding the few dozen paper cranes that hang from the ceiling.
“We really want to encourage a body positive mentality for our young people and our customers, so we decided not to embrace the kind of typical mannequins that are not necessarily a realistic depiction of the human body,” MacNeil says.
Balanced approach to business
Like Impact and its production facility for building SucSeed’s hydroponic growing systems, the goal is always to break event and any profits generated are re-invested in CFY programs and services.
“We're able to do more, we're able to provide more training, we're able to start new businesses that employ more young people,” says MacNeil.
Unlike a traditional business model, however, CFY likes to think of their social enterprises as having a double bottom line.
“What are the financial returns and what are the social returns, how do we capture those and are they in balance,” asks MacNeil. “As an organization and as a staff, we're always asking ourselves 'how do we do that, how do we balance those things."
The store’s been open for a little more than a week, but the true grand opening is happening Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. with a block party.
“We're doing a little barbecue, some things for the kids, and we're throwing the doors wide open and welcoming the whole community to come shop and get to know us.”