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Are entrepreneurs harming charity shops?

The premise of a charity shop is thus: the general public donates their unwanted items and the shop sells them at a low/affordable price. The profits from the sale go to the good cause the shop represents, to fund that charity’s services and projects.

It’s a simple premise, and one that’s worked for many years. People donating can feel good that their old stuff isn’t going to landfill when it could still be of use to someone, and the people who can’t afford to shop for new items on the high street, because they’re on a very strict budget, get what they need without becoming destitute.

I’ve seen a few articles recently that show how much charity shop prices have risen during this cost-of-living crisis, particularly where designer or sought after items have been donated.

If we look at this issue, there are a few things to consider…

Firstly, the price of everything has gone up. That charity shop will still have to heat and light its retail space, and though volunteers help to run charity shops, the day-to-day, consistent back office/management tasks usually fall to a paid staff member, whose wages will also rise with inflation, just like every other employee’s. So, if running costs have escalated, prices of the items sold in that shop must rise too, to ensure the charity can still afford to deliver its normal services and meet its bills.

The flipside of this, of course, is that the less well-off in our society, who traditionally have been the people charity shops have supported, through the provision of cheaper clothing and household items, for example, risk being priced out of the charity shop’s consumer base. That doesn’t look too good for the third sector, does it, if a shop aiming to help those in need in its local community no longer supports them?

Another reason charity shops have raised their prices is because they’re becoming much more savvy as to how much things are worth. These items aren’t likely to be the ones those in dire financial need would buy; however, it used to be a way that people on a budget could afford to purchase nice things, such as designer clothes, that would have otherwise been completely beyond their reach.

In recent years, people who perhaps aren’t completely broke, have been scouring charity shops for unrecognised treasures to resell. Designer clothes and accessories, precious jewellery innocently passed on in a house clearance, antiques shipped off to a good cause because the owners have no idea of their value…all the these things have been making entrepreneurs a mint in recent years. Some people have even packed in their jobs to go charity shop trawling full-time.

Of course, there’s nothing to say they can’t do this—they’re not breaking the law if they spot a bargain in a charity shop and sell it for a profit on such as eBay or Vinted. Morally, however, it may sit with other people easier than others. This seems to be what charity shops have cottoned on to—if someone is going to profit from a charity shop treasure, why shouldn’t it be them, which, in turn, benefits people who genuinely need help?

There isn’t a straightforward answer to this, as you could argue that people on a very low income could be just as entrepreneurial as the side hustlers and reap the profit of a bargain themselves. However, most of these people suffer from debilitating illnesses and they don’t have the physical capability or perhaps the understanding to create a sales listing online, nor the funds to sink into an item in readiness of its sale—because, what if it doesn’t sell? They’ve tied their money up in that item, which might represent their food budget for the day/week. It’s too much of a risk.

It's a worrying thought, that charity shops may no longer be able to price their products low enough for those at the poorer end of the fiscal chart to afford. They’re not looking for designer clothes…they may just need school uniform for their child or an outdoor coat for the winter. If prices have risen across the shop, though, even these things may be out of their reach. The increase may only be a pound here or there, but if you’ve never lived on a strict budget, you’ll have no idea how this can still be out of reach for some people. So, what do they do then? Charity shops have been the last bastion of support for years now.

I spoke recently about how a charity shop in Melton had cranked things up a gear and created a space you’d expect to see from a well-known brand on the high street.

Aesthetically-pleasing, with the appearance of a TK Maxx, this shop is clearly aiming for a different class of shopper—those who can afford to spend more. This is great in one way, as more and more households, who perhaps wouldn’t have shopped in a charity shop before, are turning away from fast fashion and overspending in the current cost-of-living crisis in favour of charity shops as they also feel the pinch. However, as I’ve already mentioned, if every charity shop did this, where would that leave the vulnerable in our society who absolutely rely on them?


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