With the successful Sept. 5 opening of the Blue boutique in downtown Olympia, Tacoma Goodwill now has two of its upscale offshoot stores in the South Sound region.

“The opening was great,” said Mark Holcomb, senior vice president of business operations at Tacoma Goodwill. “The Proctor Street (Blue location) opened last November, and they opened at the peak of the beginning of the Christmas holiday season. We were a little apprehensive about whether the opening in Olympia would be as good, and it has been almost dollar for dollar.”

The Blue format, which offers higher-end, used designer apparel, accessories and home decor in a boutique setting, is a bit of a departure from the familiar Goodwill retail thrift store model, conceded Holcomb. Borrowed from affiliated Goodwill organizations in areas such as Denver and Grand Rapids, Mich., he first observed the boutique format in action at a Goodwill convention in Rochester, N.Y., and thought that, with a few tweaks, similar stores could find success in this region.

Indeed, the introduction of the Blue brand to this market represents a calculated strategic move on Tacoma Goodwill's part to diversify its South Sound image. But does the move toward a more upscale atmosphere signal a shift in Goodwill's focus demographic? Furthermore, is there any apprehension within Goodwill that removing higher end merchandise from its midlevel retail stores could alienate its established shopper base?

The answer to both questions, according to Holcomb, is an emphatic no.

“There was a concern, but it was unfounded,” Holcomb said. “We knew so, and we subsequently kind of validated that with some focus group work.

“We had a focus group where we brought in two different groups of ladies from our demographic — our primary customer is 35 to 60 — so they started talking about the boutiques. When they revealed it was Goodwill, they talked about that they could be uncomfortable with the fact that the treasure hunt is over, that those items are not in the store anymore. It was interesting to listen to them talk themselves into, 'Yeah, but now I don't have to sort through the racks. I can go to one rack. And that's worth the extra 20 percent that I might pay at the boutique. And it's a different environment.'”

Holcomb added that, while the Blue boutiques are designed to move specific higher-end brands, those brands won't completely disappear from Goodwill's regular midlevel thrift stores.

“When we're bringing in just under 100 million pounds of product, and you're gleaning out a minute fraction of that for these boutiques, you never remove all of the high end label,” Holcomb said. “We're hanging probably about 2,500 to 3,000 pieces in a boutique, and we will hang in a regular store 1,200 to 1,400 pieces a day.

“The big label that's so popular right now is Chicos, because we serve a demographic that is in alignment with Chicos. If we took all the Chicos label out of all of our stores, it would fill 10 boutiques. There's always going to be that Chicos in our other stores, so the treasure hunt is still on, so to speak.”

With reviews and returns so positive, Holcomb said that Tacoma Goodwill is already moving forward with plans to launch another Blue in the South Sound.

“I would say that our boutique brand has the opportunity in the 15 markets we serve for about six storefronts,” Holcomb said. “We've got two open and another one scheduled for this year.”

The site for that future store, according to Holcomb is still up in the air, although there are certain conditions Goodwill has identified for success.

“The siting is real interesting,” said Holcomb. “They have to be in a neighborhood corridor. It needs to be a walking neighborhood. Proctor is real eclectic, like the Hawthorne district in Portland. Downtown Olympia is sort of the same way, one of the last of the old downtown areas.

“I would see Sumner, DuPont, Pacific Avenue in downtown Tacoma — those types of areas would support a boutique.”