The Hillcrest Thrift Store in Lee’s Summit needed a higher profile. Some students at the Henry Bloch School of Management needed some real-life marketing to practice. And Katrina Lapine needed a public service project for her student group.
By ROXIE HAMMILL
Special to The Star
When priorities like that merge in the business world, it’s called synergy, and there was plenty to go around as students volunteered their business skills to help the struggling families who rely on Hillcrest Transitional Housing.
The end product was a marketing plan, a newly designed website, new volunteer training videos and a hefty binder full of ideas on social media marketing and search engine optimization.
Understanding and implementing the myriad ideas in the class plan was “slightly terrifying,” said Anna Marie Colfescu, who had just begun her job helping the thrift store through AmeriCorps VISTA when the marketing plan was presented in December.
“It could have cost up to $10,000 for a for-profit organization and we got it absolutely free,” she said, holding up the three-inch thick binder.
The thrift store, a 24,000-square-foot space in a former bowling alley on East Third Street, has been open only since May, said Cotton Sivils, director of the Hillcrest operation in eastern Jackson County. It was started with the goal of providing income for the transitional housing program, which provides places to stay and other support for displaced families.
Inspired by the success of a Hillcrest-run thrift store in Platte County, Sivils began to look for a building big enough for the merchandise plus room for the 180 regular monthly volunteers to sort and process it. The former bowling alley fit the bill. The organization remodeled it and added a covered loading dock in back.
But Sivils needed a way to advertise the store and bring in the shoppers. And he needed an efficient and informative way to train all those volunteers.
Enter Lapine, Sivils’ second cousin and a Lee’s Summit native.
Lapine is president of the University of Missouri-Kansas City chapter of Enactus, a 100-member international student service group. Every year, the group takes on projects in which students use their business skills to support sustainability.
Since the thrift store management makes it a point to recycle or reuse donations rather than throwing them out, and since it is for a charitable cause, Hillcrest was a good fit, Lapine said.
About 15 of the Enactus members agreed to help. The project got another boost when students in Phillip Gonsher’s graduate-level entrepreneurship and marketing class of 18 signed on.
The class spent 16 weeks of the fall semester researching the average shopper and volunteers and coming up with a plan, which Lapine’s group is putting into motion.
The graduate students retooled the store’s online presence, making it easier to donate and schedule volunteer time, Gonsher said. But they also did some innovative things with social media that are intended to get more people in the door.
The store is now linked to Pinterest, a website in which do-it-yourselfers share their projects, Lapine said. People working on these types of projects are likely to seek bargain materials at thrift stores, she said.
The students also have put together a training video that lets volunteers see exactly how they are helping people as they sort through bags of donated shoes, clothes and small appliances, she said.
So far, their efforts have had the desired effect, Sivils said.
“It’s been fantastic,” he said. “Volunteer numbers have been trending up.”
Other digital strategies also are beginning to work, Sivils said. For example, the shop is more likely to pop up when someone Googles “thrift store.”
“With Pinterest, we’re going to be touching crafting and blogging, too,” he said.
The Hillcrest project is one of several that Enactus will do this year, Lapine said. “But it’s the neatest one. It lets us apply all our business knowledge to develop a plan and execute it.”
Lapine hopes the project can continue. She’d like to get some Lee’s Summit high schoolers in need of service hours involved, perhaps with art work on the vans used to pick up donations.