‘Upscale Thrift’

UGM to open massive Hayden store

By Colin Anderson

Photo Courtesy of the Union Gospel Mission. Article provided by Coeur d’Alene Living Local.

Over the past 10 months, people have spent a lot of time at home. For many that time has been dedicated to home improvements and decluttering living spaces. Local thrift stores are seeing donations pile in like never before, and for the Union Gospel Mission (UGM), the timing couldn’t be better.

“We’ve been seeing a considerable amount of goods being dropped off at our women’s shelter this year,” explained Executive Director Phil Altmeyer.

With so many boxes and bags of clothing, home goods, jewelry and electronics being dropped off on a daily basis, overflow is making its way to the organization’s two thrift stores in Spokane. Very soon that will change, as construction on UGM’s newest store is scheduled to wrap up early this summer, and donations won’t need to travel nearly as far.

Union Gospel Mission seeks to end the cycle of chronic homelessness by providing several levels of support to those who want to move their life in a new direction. It operates a men’s shelter and women’s crisis center in Spokane and also a large center for women and children in Coeur d’Alene. A good portion of the funding for these programs comes from the operation of the thrift stores, and adding a third in North Idaho will allow UGM to expand on its core missions.

Altmeyer explained the search for a building began more than two years ago, but with the current real estate climate in North Idaho, finding a suitable space was exceptionally challenging. UGM wanted the location to be North of I-90 above Prairie, and either on Highway 95 or Government Way. A parcel of land became available in the 7700 block of North Government, and through a generous foundation gift, UGM was able to build and design from scratch on a brand new location. “The location is excellent, with all of the housing down Prairie, it’s going to be a real asset,” said Altmeyer.

While UGM provides food, shelter, crisis intervention and addiction counseling, one of the primary areas of focus remains job training. Many companies are hesitant to hire those coming out of the prison system or others who are undergoing chemical dependency or alcohol treatment. UGM takes these people and gives them paid jobs within their stores. “If you want to end homelessness you need to get people a job,” Altmeyer said.

With the new store, women who are in the 18-month program at the Coeur d’Alene center will be amongst the first to be able to take advantage of employment opportunities within. There are multiple positions both on the front and back end of the operation, which allows for each individual to be matched with a task that will set them up for success.

Once completed, the thrift store will have a covered drive-through donation center. Workers begin here by greeting those coming to donate and begin the general sort of donations. Items are then taken back to a large scale warehouse where they are broken down into categories like women’s clothing, kitchen, electronics, jewelry, etc. Here UGM employees are put in charge of a category and begin to price the items. Once items have been evaluated and priced correctly, they are sent to the front of the stores, ready to hit the shelves. Here customer service staff and cashiers work with customers to help them find what they need or ring up their purchases. It’s a fast-paced environment, as UGM has learned getting the most product onto the shelves is key to bringing in the most revenue.

“We have customers that come in weekly looking for deals, really on a treasure hunt. The more product you are able to move, the more revenue we can make and ultimately put back into the women’s center,” Altmeyer explained.

UGM uses a color-coded system to track which items are moving quickly and what’s not selling. Always having new products and rotating products is key to keeping people coming back in search of deals. While employees learn skills for a future career in retail, it’s not as if they just come in, punch a clock and collect a paycheck. “Most of our day is spent in a work environment, and that environment can really shape a person—especially someone in recovery. We create an environment of support, will conduct Bible study, and encourage our employees all along the way,” Altmeyer said.

While women from the Coeur d’Alene center will have priority when it comes to employment, UGM also works with those recently released from prison and others undergoing treatment. There are near countless success stories to be told, and Altmeyer fondly remembers one woman who came to work at the store not long ago.

“We had a woman come straight out of the work-release program, and she was initially assigned to work in a tavern where she would be serving alcohol. She came to us and said, ‘I just can’t do that,’ so we gave her a job with us. She eventually worked her way up to store manager and now works at the administrative office.”

Altmeyer says the community has been incredibly supportive of the Coeur d’Alene women’s center, and donations and revenue from the new thrift store will likely make the center completely community funded. Building will likely be completed on the 12,000-plus-square-foot store in late spring, and once the parking lot gets paved it will be ready to accept donations. UGM is calling it an “upscale thrift store” based upon the quality of items they receive in donations. He’s also excited to see those quality items stay in the community in which they are donated. “All the proceeds from this store will go right back into the women’s center, so this really is a win-win for the community,” he said.

Last year UGM employed more than 240 people—and that number will swell once the new location is opened. The organization is ready to help anyone who wants to change their life in a safe, clean and sober environment. Those in the job-training program receive skills that employers are seeking, stable employment, a paycheck for their hard work and a supportive environment for those seeking to re-enter the working world.

While employees run the bulk of the thrift store operations, volunteers also play a key role. Opportunities are available in sorting, pricing or cashiering, and you can commit as much time as you would like. You can find information on those opportunities at UnionGospelMission.org.

As the anticipation continues to build, Altmeyer can reflect on the great impact UGM has had on the communities it serves. “I’ve seen truly unbelievable things happen, and all some people need is just a little bit of support; it’s very rewarding,” he said.