At Just-A-Buck, tucked away in the Wrigley Marketplace at Willow Street and Long Beach Boulevard, patrons can browse through a wide selection of seasonal and everyday-use items, all of which are priced at just a dollar apiece.
Upon closer inspection, however, customers may also find that it’s not your typical bargain retail outlet.
Atop isles packed with cleaning products, party favors and novelty merchandise, signs indicate that the owner is The Arc of Los Angeles and Orange Counties, a nonprofit organization located in Downey that has provided services to individuals with disabilities since 1956.
Unlike some nonprofit thrift stores that primarily rely on goods from donations, such as Goodwill, Value Village and The Salvation Army, the twist with Just-A-Buck is that the store runs like a franchise business and purchases its own products like any other retailer. All proceeds from sales then go to The Arc to benefit people with physical and developmental disabilities.
What also makes the store unique is that the 3,900-square-foot retail establishment, purchased as a franchise by The Arc last year, also serves as a job-training ground to employ people with disabilities and help them enter the labor force.
Typically known as a “social enterprise,” in which a nonprofit and a for-profit become partners, the venture, however, is considered the first of its kind, according to Arc representatives.
There are other locations of Just-A-Buck, which first started in New York, owned and operated by government agencies that employ people with disabilities. For instance, Solutions at Work, a county-operated organization in Cleveland, Ohio, first purchased a franchise as a test project to employ people with disabilities and now operates three locations.
The Long Beach store, however, is the first in the nation to be owned and operated by an independent nonprofit agency, said Jeffrey Stephens, director of the The Arc’s employment center. “It’s never been tried before,” he said. “It’s never been done anywhere in the nation [in which you] have an independent nonprofit go after a for-profit retail store that’s not a thrift store.”
The advantage of venturing with a for-profit business is that employees who come from The Arc looking for general retail experience are able to gain skills needed in a regular for-profit business environment and are able to take home a paycheck. All employees start out earning $8.05 an hour, which is just above minimum wage, Stephens said.
“The important part of the store is that we’re able to help adults with intellectual disabilities get employment training and eventually go off and find bigger and better jobs,” he said. “This is where you can really get those cashiering skills… develop your social voice and learn how to greet a customer, handle customer service and problem-solve on the spot. For someone with an intellectual disability, those are challenging things.”
Howard Morck, store manager, said there are about four to five people from the employment training program who work at the store, while he and two assistant store managers, hired outside of The Arc, open and close the shop and take care of day-to-day operations.
He said associates work a minimum of 12 hours and a maximum of 24 hours a week. Since the store opened in July 2012, employees have learned “responsibility,” such as stocking a mixture of brand-name products and California-specific items, Morck said. He added that three associates now know how to run the cash register, including handling credit-card purchases.
“You and I would take stuff like that for granted, but it’s those little things that kind of get you going,” he said. “We’re doing some good things here… Every other week they get to take home a paycheck just like their mother or father… and it gives them a sense of pride. All around, it’s a help.”
Being located in a strip mall has brought in customers from nearby anchor stores, though Morck said he hopes to attract even more patrons by sending out mailers to residents and local businesses within the store’s four- to five-mile radius market area.
For many people with disabilities, the retail job is considered a “résumé builder,” in which employees may work at the store for a year or two with the intention of eventually moving on to other employers, Stephens said. “It’s a really good platform to show that they’ve consistently worked somewhere, but it’s also to say, ‘Hey, I survived,’” he said.
Natali Hernandez, who was one of the first associates employed at Just-A-Buck after receiving months of training, said she has learned how to use the cash register and greet customers on a regular basis.
“I didn’t know how to work the register until somebody showed me,” said the 22-year-old employee who takes the Metro rail system from Downey to Long Beach each workday. She said she hopes to someday take her cash-register skills to another store or possibly a restaurant.
Stephens said the job market for people with disabilities, especially during the economic downturn, has been tough. He said in Los Angeles County alone the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is above 80 percent versus the jobless rate for people without disabilities, which is about 9 percent.
The Arc’s employment, training and coaching programs, however, have helped open doors for job opportunities that otherwise might not exist. Besides Just-A-Buck, The Arc’s employment program works with other employers, as an “advocate” for disabled persons, he said. There are many people with disabilities who often want to work and are capable of working, but are relegated to at-home or day programs out of fear of rejection, Stephens said.
Still, he said the retail store runs as a business and doesn’t tolerate “laziness, bad behavior” and not showing up for work, regardless of disabilities.
Since first opening last year, The Arc has had to let go of two employees, Stephens said. Unlike big-box retailers, however, the organization continues to work with the employees after they are let go to develop their skills in other areas.
“When we let somebody go, they come back to our program, and we can still do training with them,” he said. “They’re not just left out in the cold. Target fires you, and they don’t do any follow-up. There’s a different mindset and a different culture here.”
Although most nonprofit thrift stores only have to pay rent, transportation and labor costs since products come in for free, Stephens said the structure doesn’t always allow for employees to be fully compensated. He said Just-A-Buck, on the other hand, runs more like a business, competing with other retailers in the area, but with a bottom line of benefiting people with disabilities.
“We really want to make sure that this is a real job… because this is what they’re going to go into in the community,” he said. “This isn’t pretend. This isn’t make-believe. This is an actual store. We market it to a lot of people with the nonprofit piece on there, but we really have to sell our products and goods as a store to compete with any other store.”
Just-A-Buck is located at 141 E. Willow St., Unit G, in Long Beach and is open from 9am to 9pm from Monday through Saturday and from 11am to 6pm on Sunday.
This is part one of a two-part series on The Arc’s program to employ individuals with intellectual disabilities.