Better and brighter
Spread throughout Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee, America’s Thrift Stores prides itself on a welcoming retail experience that is ‘not your mama’s thrift shop’. Customers who walk into any of its stores can expect a bright and fresh atmosphere that is unique to the thrifting business. “If you are a thrift shopper and you have been spending your life shopping in the classic dark, dank, dusty, musty thrift store and you come into ours, you are not going to go back to other thrift stores. Firstly because of the shopping experience, and secondly because of our variety and selection. Our tagline is ‘Where it’s a New Store Every Day’ and in our largest store, which is a $6 million sales store, we put out 18,000 new items every single day, while a typical store is stocked with 10,000 to 12,000 new items daily,” says Ken Sobaski, President and CEO of the company. “On top of that, every time we open a new store, we fill it with 70-80 new employees from that community and they’re always excited to be part of a company that cares for more than its business,” he highlights. Part of the stand-out qualities that embed America’s Thrift Stores so deeply into its communities is its ethos to give back to the community. “We contribute nearly $3 million to our charity partners like Make-A-Wish of Alabama and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. On top of that, we’re keeping about 45 million to 50 million pounds out of landfills annually and our stores provide great values for families that need to clothe their children or outfit their home,” Ken shares.
Since we last featured the business in 2018, there have been impressive developments that have helped the company COMgrow from strength to strength. We learned from Ken about how the business faired against the hardships of the pandemic and the upscale of donations, and despite the difficulties of the past 14 months, America’s Thrift Stores (aka ATS) has taken on the challenges put before it to provide the best for its thrifters.
In September of 2019, the business transformed what used to be a Toys R Us into its first new store in over six years. “We have been generating consistent same store sales growth, which has allowed us to pay off our debts so we could begin to use our cash to open up new stores. We have now opened five additional stores and are on track to open another two or three in the next 12 months,” Ken says. The business achieved this through implementing a plan to create an ongoing ever-changing store; ‘A New Store Every Day!’. This vision helped deliver 11 quarters in a row of existing store sales growth which guaranteed excess cash, and that along with an increase in the donation network and a larger management bench to support the new stores, created the opportunities for new stores to be opened.
This achievement occurred before the challenges brought on by Covid-19. However, America’s Thrift Stores was undeterred by the pandemic and was determined to make the most of the time in which its stores were closed. “Having that time allowed us to identify a handful of projects that we thought made sense to tackle even though we were not open, and three of those are set to have long term benefits, that became our ‘Phoenix Program’, pushing the theme of rising from the ashes. It was great because it brought together leaders from across our departments to work on things that were outside the norm with day-to-day running of stores,” Ken elaborates.
He continues to add that one such initiative is the Bright and Fresh Program, which is a complete refurbishment of each store and would not have been possible had the stores remained opened. “A second is online thrift, where we saw what was going on in the world of online thrifting with our competition, and decided to move in the same direction. It’s in the start-up phase still, but will launch sometime in the third quarter of this year. The third initiative had to do with our recruiting and retention practices. Covid-19 gave us a chance to step back and see why some stores were doing very well at finding and recruiting, while other stores weren’t. We identified some best practices to put in place across all stores,” he notes.
Although the team continuously strives to create a culture that is supportive and passionate about its employees, it has been undergoing extensive measures to curate an environment with which its staff are proud to be involved. Even before regulations required the wearing of masks to be mandatory, ATS ensured that they were distributed across all stores and handed out to customers. “We made a conscious decision that what mattered most was the safety of our employees, so we were especially strict on mask requirements. We handed out over 300,000 masks to customers in that first couple of months before wearing masks became the social norm and communicated constantly with our employees with a weekly newsletter that would go out through Day Force, our human capital management system tool to let our employees knew about what’s going on and what can they expect for us,” Ken iterates.
Another way in which ATS has upped the ante on company culture is by instilling as much enjoyment as possible into everyday incentives. A recent example that Ken shares with us concerns Earth Week, which happened towards the end of April. “About three weeks before Earth Day, each store was split into two teams for a contest to see who could collect the most donations. Our employees were getting their friends, family members and neighbors to donate and they then brought the donations to the store during earth week. The winning teams each received a gift card, and the first and second place store, were awarded additional cards as well as a lunch served by me,” Ken informs us and chuckles.
With these creative injections of energy and pride, the business is set to soar into new developments in the coming years. “As I mentioned, we are looking to dominate the online territory as well. We think we have the opportunity to create a 30-million-dollar business, so we partnered with a firm that has ample experience with other thrift retailers in ecommerce. We believe that the younger Gen Z customer is more likely to shop online, which is why this will be a way for us to get a greater share of their purchasing power and obviously increase our customer base. We are in the midst of putting a facility together here in Birmingham that will serve as the customer service hub and the fulfillment center and coupled with that, we are in the midst of hiring someone to run this unit. We plan to have it bringing in significant revenue by the end of the year,” he discusses.
Looking further ahead, we ask Ken what he has in store for the business in the coming years, a question that was apparently coincidental given that he was about to walk the board through the long-range plan of the company. “Of course, we have developments on our infrastructure side. Our company fleet consists of 55 trucks running 165-to-170 routes over any given week, and they collect donations from over 2500 locations. While we plan to continue to optimize this network, we also plan to double its size and enter new markets so we can more than double donations collected to support our new store growth. Over the next five years, we will grow to more than 40 stores within the five states in which we currently occupy. In Nashville, for example, we have been collecting donations for over two years. Sometime in the next three or five-year period, we will be opening additional stores in Nashville and there are markets like that in the five states we are in. I think our existing stores will continue to be strong and growing. We will probably be getting ready to do Bright and Fresh phase two again at the tail end of that five years; you want to keep your stores fresh every four-to-five years. I think the younger millennial group will become a greater portion of our business,” shares Ken.
Passion, optimism and unshaking ambition are clearly what set America’s Thrift Stores a part from its competition. Ken’s infectious pride and joy in his work has filtered through the rest of his company to create thrift stores that have grown to be an integral part of the communities in which they are found. “We’re a really fun company. On top of the donation networks, the fleet, and our in-store processing plants, we are also incredibly blessed to have people work with us who are passionate to be more involved, so I think it’s a pretty neat business and what makes us successful is how much fun we’re having while providing for our charities and communities and the future is looking really exciting for us,” Ken concludes.