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Charity shops of the future?

Think of a charity shop and you’d probably imagine a space overrun with bric-a-brac, old toys, and rails stuffed with second-hand clothing. Whilst charity shops provide lifelines to both their customers and their relevant good causes, they can appear tired and chaotic from an aesthetic point of view. This can be down to a multitude of reasons—a lack of storage space; the quality of, and the types of, donations the shop receives; staff/volunteer resources; its location within its community. These things can limit the ‘merchandising’ of the retail space.

woman leaning on shirt rack at a charity shop

It has become acceptable—a trend for some people, even—to rummage through charity shops in search of treasure. In terms of clothing, vintage pieces can be found amongst second-hand donations. Those conscious of their environmental impact actively seek out pre-worn pieces, and in this cost-of-living crisis, charity shops help struggling individuals and families to replace worn-out clothing at a fraction of the price the high street would charge. Those living to a strict budget may also visit charity shops for second-hand-but-still-usable household items, e.g. bedding, furniture, cooking utensils, crockery, etc.

The revenue charity shops saw during the pandemic was up from that of previous years, and this trend has continued.

The appeal of pre-used and pre-worn items has reached the middle classes and more affluent households, and as a result, some charity shops have put their prices up—well beyond their loyal customers’ budgets in some cases. Whilst I understand that charity retail must maximise its takings as much as it can, I fear that the people they’re aiming to help may be priced out of their shops.

It’s clear that charity shops have a much wider appeal than they used to. For instance, at one store in Melton, reinventing what a charity shop looks like and constitutes has reaped them a turnover of a million pounds in their first year of trading.

So, what has made this charity shop so successful?

It’s clear that The Hangar superstore, which raises money for its local air ambulance service, has been modelled on the huge out-of-town retail outlets typically occupied by brands such as The Range, B&M, Dunelm, etc. Merchandise is arranged within its own distinct section of the store, and categorised as ‘Home’, ‘Lifestyle’ and ‘Fashion’, in the same way TK Maxx or Next may organise its stock. As well as clothing and crockery, etc., The Hangar sells household appliances—some of these brand-new—and furniture. The store has its own coffee shop, The Launchpad, which gives people even more reason to come in.

Says Gemma Ingram, its Head of Retail, ‘The success of our store is vital, as the Derbyshire, Leicestershire & Rutland Air Ambulance (DLRAA) receives no government funding and relies solely on donations from the public and retail income to keep saving lives. Shopping in a charity shop is experience shopping. Customers love the thrill of not knowing what they will find, and we want to make that experience last longer by offering a wider choice within a fantastic, safe, and friendly environment.’

Some years ago, Mary Portas, the retail guru, took this same approach and reinvented a number of Save The Children charity shops in her area. Relaunching them as ‘Living and Giving’ shops, she spent time designing the interiors of these outlets, likening them to a fashion boutique or trendy high street shop. Like Gemma, she also believes that shopping in a charity shop should be a unique experience. Mary’s battle at that time was in response to the rise of online shopping, and a fear that charity retail outlets would not be able to compete with the convenience of ecommerce.

It was thirteen years ago when Mary spotted the upwards shift towards upcycling and recycling. The focus on how people could give back whilst shopping for items of value helped her widen the appeal of charity shops to people with bigger budgets.

woman holding recycling boxes for a charity shop while smiling.

Mary has expanded her charity shop project to a whole new philosophy—the Kindness Economy, which aims to put people and the planet before profit. I’d say that perfectly sums up charity shops. Mary believes this ethos could also benefit commercial retailers on the High Street, too, and prove an effective way of attracting footfall back to town centres once again.

One of the principles behind the Kindness Economy could help underpin the future of charity retail. She thinks consumers should stop seeing charity shops as places that sell ‘cheap’ products—instead, viewing them as retailers that sell merchandise of value whilst also allowing consumers to give back to a good cause. If there’s still life in a pre-worn dress or a piece of furniture, enough for it to appear in a charity shop for sale, it surely still holds value for the right person.

When I think of the charity shops near me, they can often resemble jumble sales. They still enjoy some footfall, granted, but I think they could attract even more customers with a Mary Portas-style makeover—concerning both their ethos and their aesthetics.

Mary is a busy person. However, there’s no reason why any volunteer or staff member in these shops couldn’t engineer a completely different shopping experience with enough time and the right support.


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