A Beacon Of A C-Store

The Chicago Lighthouse Convenience Store is seamlessly run by employees who are visually impaired

As its name implies, there is a special light on at The Chicago Lighthouse Convenience Store, but it has nothing to do with store fixtures. The 750-squarefoot single convenience store, which recently opened inside Mid west Orthopedics in the city's Rush University Medical Center, is staffed entirely by visually impaired — that often goes undetected by non-regular customers who don't know the situation, thanks to the efficient way in which the store is run.

Members of the staff have become "so good at their jobs"—the checkout process "moves so seamlessly and — come in and some of them never know," said Rob Cancilla, program director for The Chicago Lighthouse, referring to the not-so-evident visual handicap of the convenience store's staff, which includes Cancilla himself.

The store's "retail associates," as they are called, are visually impaired to varying degrees, Cancilla explained. The "legally blind" associate with the strongest vision of the group only works part-time for the store; Cancilla and the store manager have "low — have to hold something up really close to our face to see it, but we can see five to 10 feet away," he said. Meanwhile, the fourth employee, a fulltime cashier named Patricia Maloney, has "no visual acuity whatsoever. She can't see the register screen," Cancilla said.

She relies partly on special in-store technology to do her job. "Our registers are not — are computer stations, full integrated computers with full-screen monitors," Cancilla said. Magnification software allows operators to zoom in and out at very rapid speeds. One station, the one Maloney uses, also has Jaws reading software installed, as well as a separate bill reader.

"We had to design shortcuts," Cancilla said. "We brought in an IT team to write shortcuts for Jaws to work with the point-of-sale system. It was challenging in the beginning, but now everything works very smoothly."

An everyday transaction for Maloney works something like this: She scans items through the system in the standard fashion, but then Jaws reads her what she scanned through a headphone in her left ear, according to Cancilla. She presses the "total" keystroke and again, that is relayed to her through Jaws. When the customer hands her a bill, she puts it through the bill identifier, and in three seconds, it tells her what it is. She types in that amount and again hits the total keystroke and Jaws reads her the change she owes the customer.

At that point, Maloney's organizational skills for making change come into play to complete the seamless transaction. "She set up her drawer a little differently," Cancilla explained. "The normal way is to have singles, fives, tens and twenties all next to each other, but she put spaces in between, with pennies in the space between the singles and the fives, for instance." She keeps her $20 bills underneath because "she's rarely giving them out as change," according to Cancilla.

This method of organizing her drawer is just something Maloney came up with. "She came to us and said: 'This is what I want to do.' It's just one way in which we've accommodated," Cancilla said. "We've learned those ways for each person."

The Chicago Lighthouse Convenience Store's goal is to make it as smooth as possible for customers to get in and out, while projecting the store and The Chicago Lighthouse in a positive light, according to Cancilla. The customer base is split just about 50/ — center staff to visitors/patients.

With credit card transactions, which are much easier for the staff, customers don't have to sign for the purchase if it's under $20, which "in our case, is 99 percent of the time," Cancilla said. It's again, something the store did to become more efficient. "We can move customers through the line a lot quicker, which our orthopedic staff really appreciates," he added. "Busy doctors only have a minute or two in here, so the more efficient we are, the better we can serve them."

Beyond the register operations, Maloney and other Chicago Lighthouse associates utilize a handheld bar scanner to keep an efficiently merchandised store, helping them to find items for customers, as well as to put items away. "It has more than 300,000 barcodes in it and allows the staff to be as efficient as possible within the entire store," Cancilla maintained.


The Chicago Lighthouse gives credit to its building partner for the store being "visually stunning," Cancilla said. As partners go, Midwest Orthopedics (which opened in November 2009) is not only very supportive and a good fit for The Chicago Lighthouse Convenience Store, according to Cancilla, the group was also very inspirational, design-wise.

Working with "great designers," The Chicago Light house Convenience Store "tried to keep the new, modern look that Midwest Orthopedics had in their building," Cancilla said. "We wanted to make sure we didn't fall below what they had done. We wanted to keep the aesthetics up from their building and inside our store."

That visual appeal includes handmade cabinetry, high-end heavy metal fixtures and gondolas, and a modern, metallic look throughout, according to Cancilla. "We didn't cut any corners."

The Chicago Lighthouse c-store is certainly not the only convenience store on the Rush University campus, but it prides itself on being one with a "higher-end feel," Cancilla noted.

Typical items are sold within the store, including: candy, salty and sweet snacks, beverages, fresh sand wiches/salads, fresh baked goods, magazines, and to cater to a patient-visiting crowd: cards and gifts. An ATM is also available.

With its baked goods such as cookies, muffins, breads, pastries and brownies, The Chicago Lighthouse Convenience Store partnered with Sweet Miss Giving's Bakery, which donates more than 50 percent of its profits to help the formerly homeless and HIV/AIDS-affected men, women, and children of the Chicago House organization.

"They are a natural fit for us, but even without the nonprofit element, we would have gone with them anyway," Cancilla explained. "They provide great products. They have amazing baked goods that are definitely a favorite among the Midwest Orthopedics staff, as well as our own staff."

The store gets its sandwiches, salads, yogurt parfaits, subs, wraps and other fresh food items from another well-known local — Evolution. "They're best known for their O'Hare Airport sandwich kiosks. We went with a well-known brand in Illinois," Cancilla said.

Miss Giving's Bakery and Food Evolution both make deliveries to the store roughly two to three times a week.


Perhaps the most obvious potential setback for a convenience store that employees only visually impaired employees is theft. Cancilla admitted that "when we first went to the executive board with the store idea, it was their biggest concern."

Still, they got past it with a little convincing and some strategizing.

"For one thing, we have no direct street — customers have to come through Midwest Orthopedics to get to us, so it weeds out a lot of the riffraff," Cancilla explained. "Also, by the time they get to our store, they've already walked by three or four cameras, whether they know it or not. Then, once inside our store, we have a five-camera system, too." A door chime also rings when anyone enters.

Beyond that, Cancilla mentioned that because 50 percent of the clientele is the Midwest Orthopedics staff, everyone is like family and looks out for one another. "Still, I'm not naive," he said. "I recognize there is greater opportunity for theft in here, so that's why we are proactive with things like the door chime and camera system."

The convenience store is not The Chicago Lighthouse's first foray into retail. In 2005, the progressive social service agency partnered with the city's Midway Airport concessions. And since then, "we've managed several retail stores," said Cancilla. "So we had a taste for it, but this is the first one we got to put our personal stamp on."

Could this be the start of a chain for The Chicago Lighthouse? "We're only three months in, but if it continues to grow in the fashion it has, I don't know any reason why not," Cancilla stated, although he admitted Midwest Orthopedics is "not even at full capacity, so sales are less than we'd like them to be, but we're not looking at a full equation yet."

Nevertheless, "in an effort to be proactive, we're already looking for other opportunities in Chicago. We find this model does work in the type of environment we're — relationships with others like Midwest — we're definitely on the lookout."

For comments, please contact Renée M. Covino, Contributing Editor, at [email protected].

"I'm not naive. I recognize there is a greater opportunity for theft in here, so that's why we we're proactive with things like the door chime and camera system."


Bottom Line

  • Four visually handicapped employees smoothly run a Chicago c-store.
  • Sleek and uncluttered, the store is big on visual appeal.
  • Three months in, and it's already on the lookout for other store partnership opportunities.
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