A year ago, some local Salvation Army thrift stores were in danger of being closed. Now, thanks in part to the work of Capt. Alex Velasquez, and his wife, Capt. Jennifer Velasquez, there is new hope for the success of the stores.
That, in turn, helps the River Valley Adult Rehabilitation Center on North Brady Street in Davenport, which is funded by proceeds from the stores.
“Some, we were looking at closing,” Alex Velasquez said of the stores. “We were underproducing and we kind of changed the process of things.”
The Velasquezes are administrators of the 10 regional thrift stores in an area that includes the Quad-Cities, in addition to being administrators of the rehab center. They were brought in from Salvation Army operations in Fort Wayne, Ind., where they had similar success in turning around programs.
They also serve as ordained pastors of the Salvation Army church at the rehabilitation center.
The couple said the stores were not the only part of the organization’s services that needed a boost.
The rehab center, which offers counseling and training in the trades, was operating at about half of its capacity of 91 people, he said. Today, it is at full capacity.
“We have 91 people in the rehab program with different types of addictions, from drugs to alcohol, pornography. But also (it is for) those who have been in prison for a long time,” Alex Velasquez said. “They get released from prison with a limited amount of money. And when you are talking about convicted felons and finding a job, that can’t go very far.”
But, a new operating model for the thrift stores was a big priority.
“We have been focusing on the appearance of the stores, also increasing our production,” Jennifer Velasquez said. “We sell about 30 percent of the stuff we put out. Every week, we remove items that have been on our floor a certain amount of time.”
She said 30 percent is about the national average of items actually sold in all thrift stores.
Alex Velasquez said moving merchandise off the shelves in a timely manner is a key element in the success of the stores. Each week, Salvation Army staff price articles of clothing with a different color tag to help determine their shelf life. By the fifth week, if the articles has not been sold, its price is cut in half. By the sixth week, unsold items are taken off the floor.
“If people come into your store and see the same thing every time, they will stop coming,” he said. “We want people to constantly come into the stores because they do not want to miss a bargain.”
“We are getting a little more creative as to how we do sales,” Jennifer Velasquez said. “Before, we changed from day to day. Now, we are a little more creative, like advertising sales in the newspaper, passing out fliers to really build up excitement for that sale.”
Alex Velasquez said one area of change was the method of putting items on sale. Which items would be on sale at any given time had been up to individual store managers. Now, that process is uniform across the board.
Since they were transferred here in July 2011, the Velasquezes said sales have climbed 18.7 percent in Quad-City regional thrift stores. The number of recyclable items sold also is up 15 percent, he said.
Sales have turned around so dramatically that talk of shutting down stores have stopped.
“About every store in the region is talking about expanding the store or opening a new one. Our focus is expansion,” Alex Velasquez said.
Expansion could be on the table for the Moline retail store at 19th Avenue and 7th Street. “We are looking for a new spot in Moline and an additional spot,” he said. “We are looking for a more practical building and larger and better parking. We feel we are an anchor store and people are now looking at us as such.”
He said they also want to move the store on 11th Street in Rock Island to a location with a higher traffic count. And, he said, they are searching for a location in Bettendorf, where there is no Salvation Army Thrift Store.
Salvation Army Maj. Robert Buttrey is general secretary of the rehab centers for the upper Midwest region. Headquartered in Des Plaines, Ill., Buttrey also is assistant commander for an 11-state district.
He likes what is happening in the Quad-City region and beyond.
“The Velasquezes were assigned there with increased responsibility,” he said. “They came from a smaller center and a smaller sales territory. We thought they could handle this in a larger area, and they have.”
The Velasquezes measure success in more than increased sales at the thrift stores.
“As the sales turn around, we are able to help more people with addiction and create more jobs for our economy as well,” Alex Velasquez said.
Jennifer Velasquez would like to eventually see a rehab program for women in the Quad-City area. But for now, what she sees is fulfilling.
“What I enjoy most about the job is I see the transformation of the men from when they start the program until when they graduate or complete the program,” she said. “Seeing that change in the men as time goes by is really the best thing of the whole appointment that we have.”