It’s Not Your Grandma’s Goodwill Store


A group of young people ride bicycles around a huge orange dinner plate, an older couple tangos around a gigantic shoe and children exuberantly turn somersaults on a gargantuan chair.

These television ads are fun, musical, colorful and hip. They don’t offer a hint as to what they are for--until the very end, when the words “Need Something?” pop up on the screen, followed by the Goodwill logo.

The same Goodwill that used to be associated with dingy stores, musty clothing and knickknacks now has ads that look like they could be for the Gap or Target stores.

The ads are part of an innovative marketing strategy used by Goodwill Industries of the Columbia Willamette--the most successful Goodwill retail chain in North America--as it seeks to compete with not just other thrift stores, but other retailers as well.


“We wanted to create a campaign that will surprise people,” said Titus Herman, director of marketing for the Portland-area stores. “We have decided we need to take a new approach and cause people to rethink us.

“This is not your grandma’s Goodwill.”

It’s a strategy that has other Goodwills paying attention.

About half the 182 Goodwill systems in the country are clients of the Portland system’s seven-person in-house marketing department, Herman said. Some buy existing posters and signs, while others have hired the department to create television and print advertisements for them.


Christine Nyirjesy Bragale, a spokeswoman for Goodwill Industries International, said the organization has seen an upgrading nationwide in the retail stores’ merchandise, appearance and advertising. She said the Portland stores are considered a leader in marketing.

“Lots look to them for advice and use them as a good role model,” she said.

Most of the stores in northwest Oregon and southwest Washington got a face lift 13 years ago, but the marketing efforts designed to improve sales and revamp Goodwill’s image began about five years ago.

Retail sales at the 24 stores jumped from $25 million in 1996 to a projected $42 million in 2000, making it the most successful system of Goodwill stores in terms of revenues in North America.

There is now a Club Goodwill for loyal shoppers, consisting of postcards offering special discounts on birthdays and at other times of year. A supercenter store has a donation drive-through lane and a cafe serving gourmet coffee and sandwiches.

And everything in the large, clean store is neatly organized--from clothes divided by color and size to a box of napkin holders to books alphabetically arranged in topics as specific as “mystery,” “spy/intrigue” and “true crime.”

Having bright, large stores and putting out clean, quality merchandise are a vital part of Goodwill’s success, according to Don Dickinson, the director of advertising management at Portland State University.

“Their ads are every bit as flashy as Target or the Gap,” he said. “But if you go to the store and it is the same old store, there is a major gap between image and reality. That’s one of the biggest challenges.”


In 1999, the Portland-area Goodwill system collected 84 million pounds of donated goods--more than other Goodwill worldwide. It has a 2000 operating budget of $48.3 million, and average sales per square foot were $166 in 1999--almost $100 above the national average.

Goodwill employees repeatedly stress that while they strive to make the stores successful, their motive is not to make money. It’s all about using the donated goods and stores to support the nonprofit organization’s longtime mission: providing opportunities to people with disabilities and other barriers to employment.

The Portland-area system’s payroll includes nearly $20 million in wages and benefits to people with disabilities and special needs. Some work in the stores, others process donations and others do simpler piece work.

“We don’t deal with net profits. What’s important to us is: How many people with disabilities are being helped?” said Tom Young, chair of the Portland-area Goodwill board.

Michael Miller, president and chief executive officer, is the one most Goodwill employees credit for the Portland-area system’s rise. They use terms like “marketing genius” and “visionary” when they talk about him.

He is also well-rewarded. He receives a fixed salary and benefit package of about $225,000 a year, but can double that if certain performance incentives are met, according to Young.

Young said Miller is worth the big salary because of the success he has fostered. The board also wants to keep him from being wooed away from private industry.

Miller said some may worry that Goodwill’s “buildings are too nice or ads are too slick.”


“But I think anyone judging us by results we’ve achieved quickly gets past those concerns when they see the level of benefits we bring to the community,” he said.

Dickinson, the advertising professor, said he is not surprised at how successful Portland-area Goodwills are.

Their advertisements are modern and inviting, he said. Environmentally friendly Oregon residents put a premium on reusing clothes and appliances. Struggling families benefit from shopping at thrift stores. And there are always people who love bargains.

“I know a number of wealthy women who don’t have a problem going to Goodwill and finding a Nordstrom item with the tag still on it and buying it for 12 cents on the dollar,” Dickinson said.

Joel Linker said he stops by Goodwill maybe once a week, browsing through the collectible case, computer section and clothing racks. He believes the prices have risen a bit lately, but he said he appreciates the stores’ organized approach to thrift store shopping.

“When I can get shoes for $10 or $15 that normally cost $150 or $200, it doesn’t seem like a bad deal,” he said. “I’m sure able to dress better than I normally would.”