It’s not just online shops offering up the bargains. Charity shops cater for the more ethical shopper, as Heloise Wood discovers.
Bob Geldof has attacked charity shops in the UK, claiming that their ‘ubiquitous sprouting’ signalled the ‘first sign of decline’. When asked what inspired such hatred, Geldof replied: “Shite clothes.” Now, Geldof may be famous for many things but style is simply not one of them. He is also gravely in the minority where charity shops are concerned. The public continues to embrace ‘conscience shopping’. Equally, charity shops have shown extraordinary innovation, their rising profits in contrast to the recession looming over the high street. Retail insiders agree that it is online shopping that is largely keeping the high street afloat. So how are charity shops ‘sprouting’ in such a harsh retail environment?
Charity shops have shown extraordinary innovation in raising profits
The charity shop is a relatively recent invention; it was only in 1947 that an Oxfam shop was opened in Oxford with profits going directly to charity. There are now over 7,000 charity shops in the UK.
Oxfam continues to set the bar for innovation and has branched into many imaginative outlets. They now have many different types of shop, selling everything from books and music to bridal garments and homeware. York boasts one of the only five Originals shops and the only hospital Oxfam shop resides in York District Hospital. Oxfam has also been present at the music festivals for the last three years, stocking items that would be ‘unsaleable in a high street’ such as fairy wings, stick-on ears, ball gowns and of course wellies. (Next time you donate your old stick-on ears, you’ll know where they’ll be going.)
So how are the other charity shops competing? Beyond Ourselves Charity Shop, a church-sponsored shop in Durham, opened an adjoining café four years ago. It’s oddly comforting to have tea and cake surrounded by clothes and bric-a-brac, almost like sitting in your friend’s bedroom (it was also a bargainous £3.60 for 2 pots of tea and 2 toasties.) Meanwhile, St Leonard’s Hospice is a York-based charity whose shops started life as a monthly garage sale. As the queues stretched longer and longer down Tadcaster road, they decided to start an actual shop: the first opened seventeen years ago, there are now seven. I talked to Helen Moreton, the organisation’s retail manager. “We opened the first one, not really knowing what was going to happen and it’s gone from strength to strength. Everyone talks about our modern, throwaway society but we are able to utilise that in a positive way.”
Donations have suffered in recent years with the growth of eBay. However, like Oxfam, St
Leonard’s have used eBay to sell highly priced goods. Another threat is supermarket clothing which is now cheap enough to compete with charity shops: “We used to sell t-shirts for a few pounds but now by the time an Asda T-shirt becomes second hand we can’t sell it for much.” The charitable aspect is almost taken for granted: charity shops appeal to the fashion brigade because of their unique collectables at bargain prices – the fact that the money goes to those in need is almost an afterthought.
However, the industry is blessed with creativity and innovation: St Leonard’s Hospice shops hold a prestigious annual fashion show, showcasing the best items from the shop and creations from local artists and designers, and tickets always sell out in advance. A sense of palpable anticipation was in the air as the manager took to the stage to announce the models as they sashayed down the makeshift catwalk. Many were elderly volunteers and bantered the compere, angrily correcting their supposed sizes (‘I’ve lost weight, remember!’). There is a chance to buy the featured clothes afterwards but such is the flurried excitement of the masses, it is not for the faint hearted. As well as tickets and clothes sold, the fashion show is important because it raises the shops’ profile. “People who normally say ‘I wouldn’t set foot in a charity shop, I’d never buy second hand clothes’, get to see some of the amazing stuff we get in.”
So what next for charity shops? Well, Oxfam recently announced it was going into second-hand car dealership (the accompanying headline on the press release: ‘Now there’s a second-hand car dealer you can trust!’). They aim to sell a car a month as part of their Valued at Oxfam campaign, a new bespoke service that specialises in high-priced goods, encouraging people to think more creatively about donations. The latest car to be sold is a 1965 Mercedes 190C Fintail, for £7600, providing clean drinking water for 9000 people.
The British Heart Foundation on Bridge Street is offering the chance to write a message in the shop window for Valentines Day, for the princely sum of a pound. It may sound corny but many are refreshingly frank, such as: ‘Wow, I can’t believe we made it forty years together!’ The bar is continually being raised for innovative working practise and it will be interesting to see how they develop. Perhaps the next step forward is an in-house dating agency where militant old dears can grill potential candidates whilst steaming clothes? Stranger things have happened.