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At some stores, bell ringers need not apply

Gail Bennett of Bremerton, a Salvation Army employee, solicits donations in front of JC Penney at Kitsap Mall. Citing fairness issues and the proliferation of groups which want to conduct similar fund-raisers, many stores are restricting bell ringers’ access this year. - Rogerick Anas
Gail Bennett of Bremerton, a Salvation Army employee, solicits donations in front of JC Penney at Kitsap Mall. Citing fairness issues and the proliferation of groups which want to conduct similar fund-raisers, many stores are restricting bell ringers’ access this year.
— image credit: Rogerick Anas

The bell ringers who stand in front of stores during the holidays are a hallmark of the Salvation Army.

They also raise 10 percent of the annual budget for the Bremerton agency, which operates at a deficit all but three months out of the year.

The charity relies heavily on holiday revenues to stay afloat. If seasonal earnings are cut, so are services, said Maj. Jim Baker of the Bremerton Salvation Army.

“Over the last three years our funding level has remained the same but our need has gone up and our overhead has gone up,” Baker said. “It’s gotten tighter and tighter.”

To make matters worse, bell ringers’ donations have been cut in recent years as stores have clamped down on how many days collectors can solicit, restricted where they can stand and limited use of the hand bells.

The reason: Firms are balancing increased requests from non-profit agencies to solicit in front of their properties.

While individual franchises decide which groups may solicit, late last year Wal-Mart started to limit the amount of time charitable organizations could spend outside stores. The Salvation Army was one of the groups affected.

“Our reason behind that was a fairness issue,” said Sharon Weber, spokeswoman for Wal-Mart. “We’re trying to be fair to as many organizations as possible. As you can imagine we get quite a few requests from non-profits to use the space outside our doors for fund-raising efforts.”

Now, no group may spend more than 14 days per year in front of a Wal-Mart store, and they are limited to fewer than three consecutive days. Charitable agencies must remain 15 feet away from the entrances, a rule which has been in place for years, according the Weber.

Preventing bell ringers from standing close to the entrance can cut daily profits in half, Baker said.

Central Market in Poulsbo also has limited the number of days Salvation Army workers or volunteers may stand in front of the store, but the store director could not be reached for comment.

The Safeway on Callow Avenue in Bremerton no longer allows the Salvation Army representative to ring a bell, and the Silverdale Safeway does not permit bell ringers at all due to restrictions by the property owner.

“We are a leased facility, and it hinges on whether the owner wants it or not,” said Duane Vickery, manager of the Silverdale Safeway. “That is the only reason in years past we haven’t (had bell ringers). The landlord didn’t want it. The whole Silverdale Plaza is owned by a private owner, and I haven’t seen bell ringers at any of the stores.”

School organizations are allowed at the Silverdale Safeway because they can operate from the store’s lobby, Vickery said.

On the other hand, there are firms with guidelines that favor the Salvation Army. Target allows only the Salvation Army to collect money. No other groups are allowed, according to Tom O’Neal, a Target executive. The charity may only solicit at the exit door, however.

“The problems always is that when you open the doors, you get people selling dogs and cats out front and it becomes a hinderance,” O’Neal said. “We get multiple requests every day.”

The locally-owned Garguile’s Red Apple Market chain makes few restrictions on which groups can solicit.

“We try to do local groups, community service types,” said Steve Meigs, manager of the Red Apple on Perry Avenue. “(With the Salvation Army) the money stays here and it provides jobs to people who don’t have them. Sometimes it’s even our customers out there ringing the bell ... As long as it doesn’t impede the business, we don’t mind,” he said.

To compensate for the reduction in funds, Baker is seeking volunteers to replace some paid bell ringers. This year there are 61 bell ringers, 10 of whom are volunteers.

For more information on becoming a volunteer bell ringer, call 373-5550.

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