“Abandoned.” The word is used again and again by victims of Hurricane Katrina. While they adjust to the new normal of having no home and few possessions, they struggle to comprehend the government’s slow response and their own insurance companies’ rationalizations for rejecting claims.
It’s here where support from the private sector — including retailers — makes an incredible impact. This year, five exceptional retailers stepped forward to bring hope where it seemed lost. For some, that means hurricane relief. For others, it means funding groundbreaking breast cancer research that doesn’t attract conventional support. This year’s heroes respond to overlooked needs, as well. Take Mervyns: The Hayward, Calif., department store chain treats needy children to a back-to-school shopping spree.
Mervyns is among the 2005 WWDExecTech Retail Community Service Award winners. Other companies to be feted at the Jan. 16 dinner, where former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw will deliver a keynote address, include QVC, Sheetz, LilyAnn’s Lingerie and The Sak.
MERVYNS: DRESSED FOR LESS STRESS
Some 10,000 children reveled in a special moment at the start of this school year: clipping hangtags from new clothes.
For those who wear nothing but hand-me-downs, removing the tag was a first-time experience that signified “mine.” For Mervyns employees, escorting these needy children on a shopping spree through its department stores is a 13-year tradition.
The program is called ChildSpree and each year, the $3.5 billion retailer works with nonprofit agencies and schools to identify economically disadvantaged children in need of back-to-school garb. In August, each of those children was given a shopping chaperone, a $100 spending allowance and the chance to pick out their own clothes and shoes during the private event in 255 Mervyns stores.
“For these children, it’s probably the only new clothes they have had in their lives,” said India Chumney, director of resource development at Communities in Schools of San Antonio. Her organization points Mervyns toward the children in greatest need.
On top of the $100 spending spree, Mervyns offers kids a 10 percent discount, allowing the amount to cover a few pairs of pants, shirts, socks and shoes. To sweeten the deal, some vendors donate school supplies, snacks and other items.
Mervyns president Rick Leto said the ChildSpree program satisfies a basic need and helps out children who often are overlooked. “Clothes matter very much to children today,” he said. “There is a lot of status that revolves around what you wear and how you present yourself.”
Chumney agreed and said a boy forced to wear his older sister’s hand-me-down khakis can get bullied, and then he’s more likely to act out and be disruptive in class. “It sounds shallow to say clothes make a difference, but it helps if the children don’t stand out in a negative way,” she said. “That self-esteem starts in the first grade. If it is not stoked, those are the kids who join gangs,” she added.
One employee, who escorted six-year-old Rebecca, recalls how the very timid girl’s eyes lit up when she spotted a pair of shiny pink Skechers shoes. “She was so thrilled and I will never forget that moment,” said Wendy Fukamaki, Mervyns community relations manager.
Aside from the community-oriented program, in 2005, Mervyns matched donations for tsunami relief and also aid to hurricane victims. Though ChildSpree was created for schoolchildren, Mervyns expanded the program last year to include Gulf region college students who were displaced by the storm and relocated to Cal State East Bay in Hayward, Calif.
QVC: AGILITY, INNOVATION
QVC is a longtime supporter of causes including the United Way, Habitat for Humanity and breast cancer research. But its shining moment comes when dire need arises suddenly, such as with natural disasters.
The $4.9 billion home shopping channel can adapt live programming almost instantly and has done so to facilitate relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami that hit Asia in late 2004.
“No matter how big we get, there is always this ability to react quickly and I think it has to do with this 24-7 show,” said Holly Rutkowski, vice president of information services for QVC Inc. “The dynamic of the live show sort of permeates the whole atmosphere,” she said. “Everybody is always into that kind of environment that lets you react very quickly.”
Following Katrina, QVC’s broadcast immediately added American Red Cross graphics to encourage cash donations and guide viewers through the process. One day after the storm, a fund-matching program was set up for employees and customers that would generate $265,000 in relief support. Meanwhile, merchandise vendors agreed to donate a portion of their sales revenue — and West Chester, Pa.-based QVC offered to match those funds — exceeding $3 million in just a week’s time.
“Without the close working relationship that we have with our vendor community, we wouldn’t ever have been able to raise more than $3 million for the American Red Cross in such a short amount of time,” said Darlene Daggett, president of U.S. commerce, QVC.
Brainstorming relief ideas did not stop there. The creative services department quickly worked up a design for a special enamel Katrina pin and in six days, a sample was ready and orders were taken over the air. In the first 10 minutes, nearly 20,000 pins were sold, generating more than $157,000 in relief. Ultimately, proceeds from Katrina pin sales would net a half-million dollars in donations to the American Red Cross Relief Fund for Hurricanes in 2005.
The blue enamel pin pays tribute to the state flowers of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, as a reminder that Katrina’s devastation extended beyond New Orleans, which has garnered so much media coverage. Inscribed on the back are the words, “hope,” “help” and “heal.”
Aside from its ability to nimbly respond to disaster relief, Daggett said QVC’s “finest hour” may be its Shoes on Sale annual event. In partnership with the Fashion Footwear Association of New York, the fund-raiser generated nearly $20 million for breast cancer research and education over the past 11 years. Rutkowski said funds reach some “cutting-edge” research initiatives that don’t attract traditional funding and QVC monitors those efforts closely to ensure progress is being made.
Proceeds from the 2005 FFANY Shoes on Sale event went to seven cancer organizations.
LILYANN’S: LINGERIE FOR THE NEEDY
Often the best things start small.
What began as a two-person e-mail campaign operating out of a little lingerie shop on the West Coast snowballed into a massive national network of apparel companies donating their goods to victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Stunned by news footage of the devastation only days after having visited New Orleans, Carol DiSalvi, owner of LilyAnn’s Lingerie in Pleasanton, Calif., pulled out her market book from a recent industry show. DiSalvi and her staff contacted hundreds of peers and organized donations of lingerie, sleepwear and undergarments to be sent to Zonta International, an 87-year-old service organization.
Had DiSalvi not “started the ball rolling,” an important need would not have been met, said Maggie Warren, governor of the Lafayette, La., chapter of Zonta International. Warren said DiSalvi’s e-mail appeal generated shipments from stores and manufacturers including Knickers, Lucy B Lingerie, Alla Prima, Treesha and G Boutique, among others.
In three months, the Zonta group received nearly eight tons of donated goods, and shipments continue to flow into Zonta’s warehouse from around the country.
One of the relief effort’s unique challenges is furnishing special sizes for larger women who lost all their possessions, including undergarments. Among the apparel Zonta accepted were brassieres whose sizes run halfway through the alphabet. “Eilia sent a shipment of 1,453 pounds — 53 cartons — of Goddess bras,” Warren said. “These were in sizes of 40E to 56M, some of which were actual sizes that had been requested by the evacuees.”
DiSalvi, whose own lingerie shop specializes in large sizes, knew that displaced plus-sized women would have a tough time replacing their undergarments.
“I know Wal-Mart doesn’t have bras like that. They can’t just go to the local Penneys and pick up a bra,” DiSalvi said. “They are getting handed used garments. I don’t care how clean they are. Nobody wants to put on a used bra. I don’t care how poor they are. They don’t deserve that.” DiSalvi’s own shop, LilyAnn’s Lingerie, sent Zonta a shipment of new panties, camisoles, robes, nightgowns and bras in various sizes up to 52I — valued at nearly $11,000.
Warren said she and other volunteers distributing the donated apparel were often moved to tears by the dire need, and profound appreciation, of hurricane victims. “I would imagine that many, if not most, of the affected women would never have spent money on expensive lingerie, hurricane or not,” she said. “Many of the women giggled when thongs were offered, but most of the younger women gleefully accepted them.”
THE SAK: DESIGNS ON RELIEF
Exposure to his neighbors’ poverty left an impression on seven-year-old Mark Talucci, who 18 years later would co-found The Sak with his friend, Todd Elliott. Elliott, who spends half his time in Indonesia today, sees the face of hardship on his daily commute, when Balinese residents tap on his car window asking for handouts.
Elliott and Talucci’s front-row view of destitution led them to build philanthropy into the business model of the $50 million San Francisco handbag company they started in 1989. “When you give to others and recognize how much you have, it creates a sense of context and the little bad things that happen every day don’t get to you,” said Talucci, chief executive officer.
“Give” is the name of a handbag collection The Sak designed to help victims of the 2004 tsunami in Asia. All sales revenue of Give bag and cosmetic cases go directly to Operation USA, a Los Angeles nonprofit organization that aids recovery in Indonesia, where The Sak’s manufacturing facilities are based. To date, the GIVE initiative has raised more than $30,000.
The Sak’s giving campaign includes relief in the U.S., as well. Ten days after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf region, the company staged a one-day warehouse sale that raised $51,000 in seven hours, all donated to the American Red Cross.
The Sak also created a special product line to benefit breast cancer research. The Pink Ribbon Collection features bags in several colors and 20 percent of sales proceeds go to The Breast Cancer Research Foundation and the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.
“Usually, manufacturers make one pink bag and they make their donation [with proceeds] from that one bag,” said Robbie Finke, director of marketing and corporate sponsorships at The Breast Cancer Research Foundation in New York. “The Sak’s promotion demonstrated their commitment to breast cancer by understanding that not every customer needs a pink bag.”
“Need” is something Talucci first observed as a little boy growing up in Mexico. A 10-foot stone wall separated the yard of his family’s large home from the mud huts where his impoverished neighbors lived on the other side. Lacking running water, his neighbors would trek two to three miles to retrieve it. “I had a simpler solution,” he said. “Throw the [garden] hose over the wall.”
SHEETZ: PERSONAL TOUCH
She didn’t wield the dreaded ruler when she did it, but Sister Paula taught the chairman of $2.7 billion Sheetz a good lesson.
Moved by the sorry physical condition of a community soup kitchen, Stephen Sheetz offered to replace the building. No thanks, came the reply from Sister Paula, who runs the facility with the sisters of St. Vincent DePaul in Altoona, Pa. A brand new shiny building would only intimidate the regulars and make them feel unwelcome.
The chairman chuckles as he recalls his faux pas. “We are always asking what the customer wants” at Sheetz, a privately held convenience store chain. “And yet, here I was making an assumption about what the soup kitchen needed.” Instead, the retailer renovated the existing structure and upgraded food preparation and storage equipment inside, he said.
Understanding the nuances of a particular need through personal involvement, rather than throwing money at a problem, is the tenet behind philanthropic efforts at the 300-store Sheetz Inc. of Altoona. Maybe that’s because Stephen Sheetz and his nephew, Stanton Sheetz, president and chief executive officer, had an early introduction to giving. As boys, both spent their Sundays filling paper bags with groceries from their family’s corner store and delivering them to neighbors who were homebound.
Sheetz’s other charitable programs emphasize personal involvement of employees through youth sports programs, Special Olympics, disaster relief, fund-raising for cancer research and treating needy children to a holiday shopping spree.
Some 3,000 Sheetz workers volunteer to escort a child on a daylong shopping trip for goodies on their wish lists. The program is the brainchild of Dan McMahon, Sheetz executive vice president of operations, and Charlie Campbell, director of store services.
To raise money for the program, Sheetz hosts a celebrity golf outing that’s attracted famous sports figures such as football greats Johnny Unitas and Deion Sanders to NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon. Launched in 1992, the program has raised more than $2 million and reached 16,500 children in six states.
Sheetz’s giving program extends outside its local market area to reach victims of natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. The company matched employee and customer donations and sent $468,000 to the American Red Cross for hurricane relief. That’s on top of the five distribution trucks it dispatched in early September to Baton Rouge, La., loaded with $250,000 in food and water for displaced families.