Community buy-in

by Gayle Wilson

  • <p>GAYLE WILSON PHOTO</p><p>Cheryl Lamerson (centre) with volunteers at the Lunenburg Community Consignment store on Pelham Street. Also pictured, Faune Creaser, Sue Kelly, Susan MacMillan and Hazel Oliver.</p>
  • <p>GAYLE WILSON PHOTO</p><p>The Lunenburg Community Consignment store, now on Pelham Street, has donated $65,000 to charitable groups since it started in 2014.</p>

Cheryl Lamerson has a retail outlet in the heart of Lunenburg, an active contingent of more than 40 workers, and sells up to 600 items a week in the busy season. But the owner of Lunenburg Community Consignment sees herself less as a thriving business and more as a successful social enterprise.

"You probably couldn't do this for profit. And that's where I like the definition of social enterprise, where you're doing something, you're selling something, but you're doing it to help your community," said Lamerson.

This hasn't stopped Lamerson from approaching the Pelham Street shop with a targeted marketing and operational strategy befitting the senior roles she held in the Canadian Forces.

When Lamerson and her husband retired from the forces - she as the chief psychologist - she found herself looking for something completely different to do. So she decided to focus on her passion for antiques and second-hand treasures.

"My family calls me the yard sale queen of the East," said Lamerson.

But rather than a typical thrift shop or antique business, her idea was to have a store, "where we can sell second-hand items and where we can turn some money back to local charities at the same time."

She also had a number of "competing priorities." She didn't want to have to work at it full time, nor deal with the bureaucracy and cost of employees, and it was important to her to keep prices affordable.

"I thought if I had volunteers, I wouldn't have to worry about salaries and could keep the prices down." But she still had to answer the question, "How would we convince volunteers to participate?"

Lamerson speculated that if each volunteer could determine what charity a donation was made to, "then they would be happy."

She started canvassing different community groups and asking,"'Would you come and shop? Would you come and consign? And would you come and volunteer?'"

"And I got enough yeses to all of those questions, that I felt I could do it," said Lamerson.

She also got the sense that it wasn't something "I could ask other people to put money into." So she talked it over with her husband, and they decided to establish the operation on a private, for-profit basis, where they'd be the ones taking the monetary risk.

The plan was to have 50 per cent of the revenue go to the consignors, 30 per cent to business expenses and 20 per cent to charities selected by the volunteers who help run the store.

Knowing the enterprise couldn't afford rent right from the beginning, Lamerson approached building owners in Lunenburg to see if they might consider an arrangement, whereby they received rent, in arrears, calculated on a percentage of the shop's gross revenue.

Lamerson says commercial property owner Scott Sherman was the only one willing to make a deal. Sherman agreed to rent a six-foot by 60-foot space on Lincoln Street, rent free.

"I think Scott likes to be known as a tough business man. But there's a heart of gold underneath that ... Really, he's part of the solution that we have here," said Lamerson.

Lunenburg Community Consignment opened there in August, 2012. And when it outgrew that space by the following April, Sherman let it move into the 1,575-square-foot of prime commercial space he held on Pelham Street. This time it was for 15 per cent of the gross revenue.

In October 2014, the enterprise took on an additional 1,600 square feet next door and in January, 2016, the rent increased to 18 per cent.

Since opening, Lamerson says she's attracted more than 80 volunteers, half of whom currently work on a regular basis. She estimates each earns approximately $10 an hour for the charities they choose to represent, and a total of $65,000 has gone to different charities throughout the four-and-a-half years the Lunenburg Community Consignment has been in business.

For example, SHAID received $5,000 last December, while St. John's Anglican Church and St. Norbert's Roman Catholic Church each received $800, and the auxiliaries at the Fishermen's Memorial Hospital and South Shore Regional Hospital each received $700.

It hasn't all been smooth sailing, however. Lamerson says she and her husband are just now digging themselves out of the $2,500 cost overrun they incurred in the winter of 2014, when the huge amount of snow piled up a snow clearing bill of more than $2,000.

Lamerson has been tenacious in reaching out to the community. She attends yard and church sales and encourages the organizers to consider placing whatever doesn't sell at the store for sale on consignment.

"I would just keep working with people and partnering with everybody because, to me, that's what this is," she said.

"We partner with the consignors to help them downsize and make a little bit of money. We partner with volunteers to have a meaningful activity. We partner with the charity groups to help them have a little bit of money. And we partner with the buyer to get them a good purchase."

Lamerson also secured a federal grant last summer to hire a student and will pursue one again this year. She says just having one young person helped broaden the customer base with more youthful shoppers, which is one of her long-term goals.

Once an item has been in the store for four months, it goes on sale for half price. And if it still doesn't sell, it's donated to other thrift shops such as The Daisy in Bridgewater.

"So there's nothing in the building longer than four months, which I think, for a lot of people that's refreshing to know," said Sue Kelly, one of the volunteers.

Kelly describes the turnover in the store as "amazing."

"It's telling you the community has bought into this big time," she said.

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