Walk into The Grid, a sleek new electronics store in University City, and you’ll find neatly organized shelves, kids playing games with 3-D goggles, and staffers helping customers try out the latest gadgets.
“It feels like GameStop or Apple Store,” said customer Kaleb Beard, who was buying video games.
A visitor might be surprised to learn who operates the store: Goodwill Industries.
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Goodwill, the nonprofit best known for its retail stores that sell donated goods, started a Computer Works store on Freedom Drive back in 2006. The Grid, which opened in May, takes the idea a step further, mixing new merchandise with the used and aiming for expert customer service. As with other Goodwill retail stores, 90 cents of every dollar a customer spends goes to Goodwill’s job training programs, which served about 15,000 in the Charlotte area last year.
Perhaps in contrast to the typical image of a Goodwill store, The Grid is well-lit and spacious, at 2,800 square feet. Blue fluorescent light is reflected on the floor and from behind the shelves.
Customers linger for hours in the store’s gaming center. Kids rush to the TV screen at the center and put on 3-D goggles. The virtual reality headset takes them for a dizzy roller-coaster run.
Off to the right is a screen connected to a Super Retro Trio, a best-seller at the store, which allows players to play three different kinds of video games – NES, SNES and Genesis. Afficionados can find old retro games from as early as the ’80s, such as Pac-Man.
“We’ve always been a computer store,” said Amy Jordan, director of retail development at Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont, referring to Computer Works. “We just take it to the next level – an electronics and technology store.”
Gone are the big baskets of cords and computer mice that customers had to dig through to find a match at the old store. Gone, too, are the packets of computer chips held together by rubber bands.
Now all the donated components are repackaged with The Grid’s color-coded tags – blue for television, gray for computers and green for games.
Ideas from Las Vegas
To get ideas for the store, a team from Goodwill spent four days in January walking among the booths at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
“What we found,” Jordan said, “is that there are a lot of areas that we haven’t tapped into.”
For instance, the team was surprised to see the industry’s big focus on audio products this year – so they’ve added a bigger selection of headphones. They also tried out the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. It’s not available in the market yet, but The Grid agreed to display a sample product in the store.
About 40 percent of the goods at The Grid are new merchandise, compared with only 5 percent at the old store. Donations, though, remain at the core of Goodwill’s mission.
When you drop off your old computer at a Goodwill donation site, it goes to a recycling center. Workers assess its condition, to determine if it should be recycled or refurbished. For those in the latter group, participants in a Goodwill training program help make the needed repairs.
At The Grid, a tag indicates whether an item was donated by an individual. Alongside those items, customers will find more audio, laptop, gaming machines and accessories – all inspired by the Consumer Electronics Show.
The biggest idea from Vegas might be the mini-computer called Raspberry Pi. It’s a chip that allows people to build their own credit-card-sized computer that can be connected to keyboards, monitors and the Internet.
A product of the British-based Raspberry Pi Foundation, it’s designed to teach programming to young people. Users can attach parts and wires to the chip as though they’re playing with a Lego set. The motherboard itself can be as cheap as $35.
Jeff Bise, Goodwill’s district manager who supervises eight stores, hopes to use Raspberry Pi to attract participants for computer classes and workshops. The goal: “Be a bit more than a retail store.”
‘In touch with tech’
All tables in the store are moveable, to create a central space for events. Besides the computer classes, plans include a technology club for kids, as well as LAN parties – in which game lovers gather in a Local Area Network to play video games together.
“Everybody that works here has to be really in touch with tech,” Bise said. “They have to have that product knowledge, whether it’s the gaming system, the accessories, the computers, to our TVs and monitors.”
On a recent weekday, Grid salesperson Ray Wilson was showing a customer the finer points of various desktop computers and laptops, pointing out differences in screen resolution and processor speed. The night before, he had taught a 67-year-old woman how to play Fight Night 3 on a PlayStation 3.
“The lady said she had only played with a Nintendo before,” he said. “Last night, she would not leave until she beat me once. We didn’t leave until 9:15 p.m.”