From the outside, the Planet Access Co. Store in Chicago looks like any number of boutique retailers that have popped up in the Lincoln Square neighborhood. Same thing when you go inside the well-designed space, which includes beautiful displays of apparel from some of the top active-lifestyle brands around.
But that’s only half the reason why the Planet Access Co. Store is finding so much success on the Chicago’s north side.
The store is a unique “social enterprise” of the nonprofit Search, Inc., whose mission is to empower individuals with intellectual disabilities to achieve their full potential.
“Basically, our store is a profit center for a social services agency,” says Catherine Stigler, the store manager. “The money we make goes back into Search programs.”
In 1997 Search, Inc., in partnership with the Toad & Co. clothing company (then called Horny Toad), created the Planet Access Company to provide state-of-the-art warehousing, inventory management, and packaging services. Based in Waukegan, Ill., the Planet Access Company ships hundreds of thousands of products every year while furthering its mission to employ individuals with disabilities. More than 70 people with disabilities are currently employed by the Planet Access Company—and all the profits are invested back into Search, Inc., programs.
The Planet Access Co. Store serves as a retail outlet for many of the companies that use the warehouse’s logistical services, as well as other high-end outdoor brands.
“We describe ourselves as an outdoor-lifestyle inspired store,” Stigler says. Toad & Co. apparel is prominently featured, in addition to outdoor brands like Nau, Lole, Timbuk2, Woolrich and Izola.
“These are all premium, socially responsible brands,” she says. “They all support our message of community, shopping locally and helping adults with intellectual disabilities.”
The idea of creating a retail outlet to go along with the warehouse came about to help offer another training environment for Search, Inc., programs, as well as an outlet for Toad & Co. goods.
“This was a big idea to create training for the people that we serve that we hadn’t explored,” says Greg Petersen, the chief administrative officer of the store, who started working at the warehouse for Search, Inc., in 2004. “There are lots of retail jobs out there. Let’s open up a retail store to serve as a launching pad. And if we’re doing it right, it can help provide us with another means of income.”
Toad & Co. was supportive of the proposal from the start.
“We’d been their warehouse partner for the better part of 15 years,” Petersen said. “They were incredibly supportive of getting this off the ground, including giving us
a grant and very good early terms to get inventory. We had a lot of support that your average start-up doesn’t get.”
The Lincoln Square neighborhood has been a big part of the success of the store as well.
“It’s been a perfect neighborhood for us,” Petersen says. “It’s very focused on local and sustainable. We have an adult learning center just down the street, so this also is a way to put a public face on what we are doing.”
Of course, the project doesn’t work if people aren’t buying the products. But in the four years of business, the store has tripled its revenues and provided a steady source of income for Search, Inc., programs.
“It’s truly been an amazing experience for me,” Stigler says. “To be able to do so much good in a retail environment.”