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Calgary-Based Women In Need Society Expanding WINS Thrift Retail Store Concept [Interview]

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Calgary-based thrift store WINS (Women In Need Society) continues to use innovation and creativity in its business model to thrive in the post pandemic period.

Founded in 1992, WINS is a thrift charity, providing basic needs resources and support to women and their families. It started with one thrift store location then and today has six across Calgary in addition to its Donation Centre. In 2020 it launched a bulk thrift store, MORE! along with an online thrift box service, TwiceNEW

The revenue from the thrift operations supports programs, like House to Home, Retail Ready, Warehouse Ready and its four Community Resource Hubs.

Today, people from all walks of life frequent the thrift stores knowing that their purchases and donations make a difference.

Image: WINS (Women In Need Society)

Karen Ramchuk, President and CEO of WINS who has been in the role for almost five years, has seen the tremendous growth of the concept in recent years with more growth to come.

Karen Ramchuk

“One of the things that is super interesting for me is actually the fact that I came from corporate retail. I worked at Loblaw for over 20 years and I learned a lot. I was 10 years in operations, 10 years in merchandising at Loblaw Companies,” said Ramchuk.

“They taught me so much and I’m so thankful for everything they taught me because when it came to WINS, I really stumbled upon that social enterprise model and I could see how WINS could become something that was totally sustainable, that really could impact the community. And it gave me a passion to take my retail learnings and do more than just generate profit for an organization.

“I got, almost for lack of a better word, addicted to the social good. At WINS through my course of five years we’ve been able to double our budget and we’ve been able to introduce new types of ways of selling donated goods. We’re locked in by CRA (Canada Revenue Agency) to selling donated goods because we’re actually a charity run as a business and the CRA defines business for charity only in selling donated goods.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, WINS launched Twice New by WINS, a nationwide online thrift shopping enterprise that brings thrifted clothing to Canadians in a safe and convenient way.

WINS also recently celebrated the second anniversary of the More Store, a unique bin-style thrift store that was launched in June 2020. An extension of WINS’ existing thrift store enterprise, the More Store offers a wide variety of gently-used clothing at discounted prices where every item is sold for one dollar or less – the more someone buys the less it costs them.

“When I look at the business model WINS has in Calgary, you can take this business model and pop it into any location. You could do it in a small town, you could do it in a city,” said Ramchuk. “You could do it from one end of Canada to the other end of Canada and have something that would really be able to help support more Canadians in a more wholesome way.”

In 2021, WINS provided 22,255 services to more than 14,000 Calgarians and diverted 4.1 million pounds of clothing, household items and furniture from Calgary landfills.

“Between what we sell, what we give away and what we recycle, this year we will keep over five million pounds out of the Calgary landfill,” said Ramchuk.

“We’re also a low cost, sustainable shopping option for all Calgarians. For our social impact, this year we’re going to probably help 15,000 Calgarians in their fight against poverty and we do it through a wholistic wraparound approach which is really unique in the area that we’re in. We help first off with basic needs support and in that way we’re a lot like the food bank, although we do emergency food, we also do hygiene items, we do clothing, we do furniture, we do household.

“We supply all of that for free for women and their families. We also supply through our community resource hubs emotional support and navigation of the system of care so helping her to build her confidence and giving her all the tools and the resources to help her to stay sustainable on her journey. And we have an employment training program which is very different and very supportive and caring to prepare women for careers in retail and wholesale warehousing through our employment service that we do.”

Ramchuk said WINS also works with many for-profit retail companies around diverting goods from the landfill. WINS is able to take some items that those retailers could potentially put on clearance at stores but they don’t want to use the sales floor space, saving them from ending up in the landfill.

“It gives them an option to repurpose that in a way that does community good,” she said. “We have some really great partners. TJX Canada is one of our major partners and we also have a partnership with Endy Mattress . . . We also have a great partnership with Amazon that’s fairly new where items that they’re overstocked on, they give to us to give away to our families in need as well.”

Ramchuk said one of WINS’ goals is “a great place to be for everybody.” Whether that’s a customer, an employee, a volunteer, someone coming for help, the organization wants everyone to leave WINS “feeling fabulous.”

“The thrift market is absolutely growing. Obviously I think everyone’s aware of the inflation and the cost of living across Canada. So thrift is great low cost, sustainable shopping. And it’s not just only about the inflation, it’s about being kind to the environment as well. That’s a big part of the work that we do. We believe in being kind to people and being kind to the environment. So everything we’re doing is to make Calgary a better place whether we’re helping women, whether we’re diverting stuff from the landfill, whether we’re offering Calgarians a fabulous place to shop at low prices, whether it’s someone from Ontario shopping our online. Everything we do is to help,” said Ramchuk.

She said the WINS’ strategy is to continue opening more locations in Calgary.

“My personal goal is one day to move beyond Calgary but that’s a personal goal that’s not approved by the board yet or anything. But I would love to take this model and have it grow,” said Ramchuk, adding that WINS could easily have a total of 12 stores in Calgary.

Article Author

Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has more than 40 years experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist, and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, faith, city and breaking news, and business. He is the Senior News Editor with Retail Insider in addition to working as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training.

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