Coeur d’Alene’s Midtown neighborhood is known for a cluster of thrift stores operated as nonprofits that benefit a variety of causes, from animals to children to battered women.
The new kid on the block also works on behalf of a worthy cause, but its business model is unique.
The Coeur d’Alene Exchange is a for-profit, family-owned-and-operated store that pledges a share of revenues to Coeur d’Alene public schools. In its first year, the store on Fourth Street has donated more than $20,000 to local schools for expenses such as classroom supplies that teachers often end up paying for out of their own pockets.
Debbie and Steve Thompson, married 37 years with seven children, own the store. Their son Luke, a graphic designer, is manager, and other family members are involved as well.
Donations cannot be counted as charitable giving because the store is not operated as a nonprofit business. But that hasn’t deterred people from keeping the store shelves stocked, especially when they want a share of proceeds to benefit a specific school.
The store – clean and well-organized – sells clothes, collectibles, toys and games, craft supplies, household items and books. In a basement – the man cave, as Steve Thompson calls it – shoppers can find furniture, sporting goods and hardware.
S-R: How did you come up with the concept for your store?
Debbie Thompson: We wanted to start a thrift store and knew that we wanted to benefit something in our community. As a family, we sat down and asked what is not being supported in our community that we’d have a passion for? Our son Jesse, a senior at Coeur d’Alene High School at the time, said, ‘What about the schools?’ He said the teachers and the classrooms are in a terrible situation. Their books are falling apart; they’re having to buy their own supplies. And it was like, that’s it!
S-R: How did you establish the relationship with the schools?
Debbie Thompson: Originally we went to Hayden Meadows Elementary and Canfield Middle School and Coeur d’Alene High and told them we want to give back to the teachers directly in the classrooms, because those are the schools our children had gone to the last several years. We were told it would be an individual choice for each school to participate and that we would need to work through the PTAs. Six schools got on board last spring. This year we have 11 schools, and we’re working to bring the rest on board.
S-R: How do the school donations work?
Luke Thompson: We issue checks three times a year directly to the PTAs, and they distribute the money directly into the classroom. Our real passion is to directly affect those classrooms and teachers. Even the schools that are not participating receive some benefit. If someone donates to one of those other schools, we’ll give a gift card directly to an art teacher, for example. Donors are asked what school they want their donation to benefit, and if they don’t choose a school, we divide it equally among all the participating schools.
S-R: What do participating PTAs need to do?
Luke Thompson: We like to see a partnership in their advertising to encourage donations, and we ask them to help coordinate donation drives at each school in the fall and the spring. We just want to see a school putting out an effort.
S-R: What percent of proceeds from a sale goes to schools?
Debbie Thompson: It’s fiduciary information between us and the PTAs, but I will tell you they are thrilled. We’ve given about $20,000 in one year. As our business grows and our sales grow, that will increase. But that’s our starting year. Hayden Meadows and Winton have been two of our biggest contributors. And Hayden Meadows I believe will have earned about $3,000 in one year from our store. The schools that aren’t participating are really missing out.
Luke Thompson: My mother and father haven’t made any money in our first year. We’re succeeding, and that’s going to change. A lot of people who aren’t in business don’t understand what it takes to run a business like this.
S-R: What’s your annual donation goal?
Luke Thompson: Our target is within four years to be giving back $75,000 a year to the schools. From the sales figures we’re seeing, it’s absolutely doable. Eventually we’re going to need a bigger space. We see a lot of potential for growth.
S-R: Why did you go with a for-profit model?
Luke Thompson: One of the reasons is maneuverability. We’d never be able to go out and buy out estate sales if we were a not-for-profit. So we have an extreme amount of mobility and capabilities.
Debbie Thompson: This is our store, this is a family business. And if you work for a nonprofit, then you’re working for a company. You’re not the one controlling what you want to do and what your dreams and visions are for it.
S-R: Are people surprised when they learn they can’t claim donations to you as a deduction on their taxes?
Debbie Thompson: We have to be real careful to tell people that we are not a nonprofit. And then we say in our appreciation we have store coupons for you for shopping here.
Luke Thompson: So we’re converting donors into shoppers. As far as donations go, we have a few storage units and another vacant commercial space that we’re using. We’re packed out and we’re acquiring more all the time, so the community is really responding with donations. It’s amazing.
S-R: Has it been challenging to establish yourself among all the other thrift stores in the area?
Luke Thompson: Not at all. We get the most amazing donations. We’ve done a lot of research into our competition. My mom has been a thrift store shopper for years. I learn from her. And we have by far the most high-quality stuff here. That sets us apart, our use of technology and marketing strategies set us apart. And we just get compliments all the time.
Debbie Thompson: Customer service can be so lacking, so to have that friendly atmosphere – ‘Hi, how are you? Have a great day!’ – walking a customer to what they’re looking for, we wanted to make sure we had the excellent customer service. I know people appreciate that.
S-R: Midtown has experienced a renaissance in recent years. Are you finding people are rediscovering this neighborhood?
Luke Thompson: It’s the thrift store destination. People will come from Spokane and make it be a weekend trip. People come from Montana and as far as Canada. And we’re right in the heart of it. My dad and I completely went through this building and remodeled it. We take a lot of pride in ownership in our little community. And we’re working on developing a business association for Midtown.