Sunday, September 23, 2012

Lessons Learned Founding Stanford's Free Store

A Drop in the Bucket Has a Ripple Effect: Lessons Learned Founding Stanford's Free Store By Nicole Gaetjens for 09.20.12 Our initial proposal was called the Stanford Re-Use Campaign, but, in hindsight, a more accurate title would have been Baiting People with Free Stuff to Change Their Consumer Behavior. In February 2011, Nicole Greenspan and I were given a class assignment to create a business plan for a social enterprise. We came up with the idea of a campus thrift store and decided that, if we were going to make a plan for it, we might as well try to actually do it. As environmentalists, we hated seeing how many reusables were discarded by students, and, as money-tight students, Palo Alto’s version of Goodwill wasn’t exactly cheap. We e-mailed out a survey to gauge interest in a thrift store, and over 900 students responded with support. This number got us pumped... especially since students basically never answer surveys. We had validation! After validation came a reality check. We needed a space and stuff to put in the space. First, we reached out to anyone and everyone we thought might have insight, such as Stanford student groups and other college’s thrift stores. Then, armed with best practices, statistics, and a growing team, we approached our student government with our plan, and they suggested locating in the basement of the student union, which was, at the time, being used for storage. The catch: Zoning restrictions prohibited financial transactions in the basement. This was a huge blow for us. Shoppers rummage through the goods at the Stanford Free Store's grand opening. Photo credit: Union Underground. Used with permission. Reuse sites were typically messes if they weren’t staffed. But we thought that we needed a staff that was paid, which was impossible without revenue. So we figured, okay, we’ll start with something in the basement, just to get our foot in the door. It would be a “pilot” study, evaluating the supply and demand of reusables on campus. (Stanford’s all about pilot studies. They're a great way to fail gracefully.) Then, after building traction and giving ourselves more search time, we’d find and get a space where we could have a thrift store. We decided to go with a “free store” model, where folks could take donated things regardless of whether they themselves had donated, because it didn't require the extra operational overhead of, for example, a swap system. There were a lot of hoops to jump through between being told of a potential space and actually getting that space. But, luckily for us, we’d been forewarned in our outreach of such bureaucracy and were ready to be flexible with changing meeting times, but stubborn with our request. We also, luckily, had some “friends in the right places.” So we eventually got administrative approval, and scrambled and boot-strapped our way into setting up the store before the school year ended. This involved, among other things, scrounging for shelving, hoarding the excess of others under our beds, and hanging student art in the basement hallway at 2 am. To avoid delirium and increase hilarity, our team took breaks via mini dance parties. Lots of dance parties. Friendship made what appeared to be perseverance largely just having fun. And then, somehow, we had our grand opening on May 20, 2011. Chaos! Over 300 people came through a space made for 10. We lost over half of our inventory. And then one of our team members suggested having a daily item limit per customer. It seemed so simple and obvious once she’d said it. We continued to get brilliant ideas for improvement from our team and our customers. We were rewarded with seeing how happy customers were freely giving and taking from their community, and by how many of them eagerly approached us offering to volunteer at the store. We had people's gratitude -- something more powerful than revenue. We realized that the free store was here to stay. Read the rest of the article here.

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