These Days, Charity Is a Sweet Business


At last, impulse buying with a clean conscience.

Before they can enter the room where a charity lunch is being served, guests must run a gantlet of fabulous merchandise. And knowing that a cut of each sale--20% to 25%--will go to a good cause makes it very tough to just pass on by. Unlike such fund-raiser fixtures as the silent auction, in which a winning bidder may not see his prize for weeks, charity boutiques let shoppers walk away with the goods.

Here's how the increasingly popular moneymakers work: Event organizers invite stores, designers or independent salespeople to set up boutiques--a fancy word for tables covered with things--to sell their wares before the main event. It's rarely done at benefit dinners, observers say, because dinners attract men, and men typically don't like to shop.

The people behind the booths happily give up a percentage--and perhaps also a booth fee or raffle item--because they're getting a chunk of fast business too.

"I can do in an hour and a half what I do in a day in the store," says Patricia Meder, owner of Lanciani, an Italian costume jewelry shop, which had a table at a recent Westside Women's Health Center luncheon. "The first week we opened our store, we did three charities. I'd do one every week if I could."

Such "outside sales," or business beyond the confines of her Beverly Hills shop, also includes hitting schools, churches, temples, even office buildings before the major guilt holidays, like Mother's Day and Valentine's Day. If people can't get to the store, the store comes to them.

"For small shops, that's where it's at," Meder says. "This isn't New York, where people walk down Madison Avenue and see your shop. People don't walk here. This is the way to get the word out about your store."

Most charities also give people without shops a forum. "All my sales are done at fund-raising boutiques," says Toba Burg, who sells robes and PJs. "One thousand dollars is a good day."

The seasonal nature of the charity circuit means Burg might work five events a week in November and not one during July or August, "when charities hibernate."

A typical boutique setup features a mix of easily tried-on items: costume jewelry, sweaters, hats and handbags. Household goods, picture frames and gifts are sprinkled in. The personality of the items might be ethnic, handmade or store-oriented, with prices in the $15 to $150 range.

Observers say the boutique concept has flourished in the wake of silent-auction burnout. While it doesn't have the pure profit of an auction, a boutique brings a different kind of energy.

"Fund-raising is like a business," says Nancy Koven, boutique organizer for the Westside Women's Health Center luncheon. "Anywhere you can find a profit center, using the business analogy, has got to be used."

This was the group's first stab at a charity boutiques, and the dozen or so tables netted $2,000.

"Think about it. For an auction, you, the charity, have to collect X number of things. It's hard to do because you're asking people who give a lot to give again. People are hit up every day and you're asking, asking, asking," Koven says.

City of Hope's shopping-as-fund-raising route dates from as far back as 1970, says Herb Cowan, head cashier from the start. What began with swap-meet dishes, baked goods and a handful of sellers, netting $2,500, he recalls, is now a three-day event every November that produces many times that figure.

Cowan's wife, Ruth Ann, co-chair of this year's boutiques, estimates they'll draw 1,800 people, 50 vendors and net $125,000.

"Items have to be fairly sophisticated, and we try to have a lot of small things they can carry into the luncheon and then to their cars," she says.

Cowan agrees that these events are geared to women. "What we've found," she says plainly, "is that women are there to buy for themselves and for their grandchildren."

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