In 2018, the Austin Pets Alive! thrift store hit the $1 million mark in gross sales, just 18 months since its May 2017 opening. But while its rapid success came as a happy surprise to the APA! team, perhaps no one was more surprised than Oliver Jolis, its retail operations manager. That’s because Jolis had pitched the opportunity to APA! just six months before it opened.
Jolis moved to Austin from Charleston, South Carolina, where he had worked part-time at another animal-charity thrift store. “It was my first glimpse into this whole other world,” he said. He wanted to pitch the idea of a thrift store to Austin animal charities, and was directed to APA! “I was just knocking on doors at that point,” he said, “Just a guy off the street with an idea.”
His inquiring with APA! was a welcome coincidence, says APA! board member and software engineering director, Alex Devine. “The board had been doing some preliminary research into running a thrift store as an additional source of revenue,” said Devine. “Then we just really lucked out with Oliver. His timing was perfect.”
“From day one I figured this was going to be a go,” said Jolis. “APA! is a well respected organization in the community and I figured it we put the word out, we’d get donations.” But while he was confident the store would be successful, he was less sure about how to launch it. “To be honest,”he said, “I was really just kind of winging it.”
The first order of business was finding a location. Though it worried about competition, APA! chose to rent near the corner of Burnet and Anderson, just a few blocks away from other charity thrift stores. It turned out to be a smart decision. “I learned that people literally come from all parts of Texas to spend the day shopping up and down Burnet Road,” said Jolis. “It’s been a win for us.”
His experience in Charleston led him to believe smaller items like clothing would be more successful than large items like furniture. “It doesn’t take up a lot of space and it moves more quickly,” he said. And Jolis also reached out to a connection at an animal-charity thrift store in California and to his former employer in Charleston for advice before opening in May 2017.
It took off immediately, with donations and customers coming from across Austin, said Jolis. In April 2018, APA! opened a second location near Oltorf and S. Lamar. Considering most clothing items are priced at $3, the volume in donations and sales has been huge. Jolis is quick to add that the success of the thrift stores would not be possible without the team of volunteers staffing the stores. “Our full-time staff is kind of a skeleton crew, so we rely big-time on volunteers,” he said, and they’re always looking for more.
Devine is not only a board member but also a volunteer. “We make sure donors and customers know that 100 percent of the net proceeds goes to saving animals, and I think that really resonates with them.”
“It started out as a kind of romantic idea,” said Jolis. “Open a thrift store to raise money for the shelter. It’s been incredible how generous people have been.”