Flor Diaz wasn’t expecting much from Corona’s newest home improvement store. The Moreno Valley woman knew it had been opened by a nonprofit organization to subsidize home-building efforts for the poor, and she figured that at best she’d find secondhand items salvaged from the scrap heap.
What she found instead was aisle after aisle of mint-condition merchandise, kitchen fixtures, gardening supplies and other unused items donated to Habitat for Humanity and offered at deep discounts.
“It’s like a Home Depot, only better,” said Diaz, 59, nudging two bathroom cabinets and a vanity toward the checkout line. She and her husband, Jorge, were thinking of driving home to unload their truck and returning for a second load.
“This is a good opportunity for people to save a lot of money,” she said. “And at the same time, it helps build homes for people who need them.”
The Habitat store, launched July 23, is the first to be opened by Habitat for Humanity’s Resource Center, formed two years ago to distribute tools and construction materials donated to Habitat’s home-building efforts across Southern California.
Initially, the Resource Center was meant to serve as a distribution site for Habitat’s 21 Southern California chapters. But as donations poured in and inventory grew, the Resource Center quickly stockpiled enough merchandise to open the Corona outlet.
From a warehouse tucked behind the Corona Auto Mall, Habitat employees now sell shovels and sledgehammers, shower stalls and Jacuzzi tubs. There are windows and water heaters, rugs and hardwood flooring.
Nearly all the merchandise is new, much of it overstocked or discontinued products destined for landfills. All merchandise is priced 50% to 80% below retail, with proceeds furthering the home-building mission of the Southern California chapters.
On opening day, about 150 customers jammed the warehouse, and the pace hasn’t let up.
“Things are flying off the shelves,” said Jason McKinstry, the center’s president and chief executive. “People are responding. Not only are they getting great bargains, but they know every dollar we make actually gets turned into more homes.”
The Habitat store taps a trend among nonprofit organizations to launch business ventures to generate the money they need to carry out their missions.
More than 700 nonprofit groups nationwide maintain income-generating ventures, driven to turn a buck by dwindling government funding and rising competition for philanthropic dollars, said Beth Bubis, president of the 1,100-member Social Enterprise Alliance. The Los Angeles-based group was launched in 2002 to help such organizations sharpen their entrepreneurial skills.
“Any nonprofit organization that gets money from foundations or government agencies is at the whim of them changing their minds about who and how they fund,” Bubis said. Alliance members now generate more than $500 million a year to fund their causes, she said.
“The more earned revenue they have, the more they know they are going to be able to continue doing what they need to do,” she said. “It gives them stability, because they are not always busy chasing down the next dollar.”
Habitat for Humanity is not new to the retail game.
More than 300 Habitat affiliates in the United States and Canada have established the equivalent of building-material thrift stores, selling new and salvaged goods to fund home-building projects.
There are already seven Habitat “ReStores” in Southern California, operated by the regional Habitat affiliates, including outlets in Santa Ana, Pasadena and Oxnard. The ReStores are generally smaller and often sell secondhand items. The new Corona store sells new items almost exclusively and will help stock the shelves at those smaller retail stores.
It also will bolster Habitat’s Southern California chapters by funneling tools and building materials to home-building projects. Habitat officials estimate that the chapters will save up to $2.5 million annually -- money that can be used to expand construction efforts.
“It has already benefited us,” said Karen Jensen, program manager for Habitat’s Ventura County affiliate. The Corona center has supplied building materials for chapter projects and merchandise for the Oxnard store.
“It’s a wonderful program,” Jensen said. “It’s a one-for-all and all-for-one approach.”
In Corona, that approach appears to have plenty of supporters. On a recent busy day, many of those combing the aisles at the home improvement center said they were drawn as much by the bargains as by the opportunity to help out the nonprofit home builder, which this week will celebrate the building of its 200,000th house.
“It’s a very important cause,” said Mary Brooks, 46, of Moreno Valley. She was shopping with her mother, Rosie Bremby, for items to fill a vacation home in Alabama. They bought only a couple of curtain rods and showerheads, but promised to be back.
“The prices are very good,” Brooks said. “It helps us, but it helps other people too.”
David Mehl found his way to the Corona store all the way from Oregon. He had driven to Rancho Penasquitos in San Diego County to help his sister remodel a house she is readying for sale.
The house needed carpet, and Mehl learned of the Habitat store. He hit the road again, driving nearly 100 miles largely to back the homebuilder’s cause.
“We’re big supporters of Habitat back home,” said Mehl, 50. “I really think what they’re doing is great.”