Tuesday, June 23, 2009

An Insider Look at the Queen of Charity Shops

As a charity shop part time employee, I have been watching Mary Portas on BBC2 with great interest. The series finished last week, and the results have been very interesting.

Dastardly Donations
Firstly, the donation problem. Anyone who has worked or volunteered in a charity shop can tell you hair-raising stories of the vile things they have found while sorting donations. I don't even want to go there, but let me just tell you - you always wear gloves. What possesses people to donate their unwashed underwear or their mud covered trainers is beyond me, but it happens day in day out. It isn't even restricted to the anonymous bags donated via door to door collections - people make a special trip to the shop to give their rubbish.

Ebay has had a big impact on donations over the years. It has provided a way for people to make a bit of money out of their cast-offs, and why not? But as discontent about Ebay's fees and policies grows, and as people find it more and more of a faff to list their items, charity shops have seen a small recovery in donations. The challenge is always getting quality stuff.

Mary's idea of D Day - donation days at businesses - is clever, but fails to recognise the staffing challenge faced by most shops. Honestly, most days it is a struggle to do the basics of sorting, steaming, pricing, displaying, selling & cashing up! Volunteers are unlikely to want to take on the project and transport for the collected items is not readily available.

So here's my challenge to you all - next time you sort out a load of things to sell on Ebay, give 10% to your local charity shop. If it is good enough to sell online, it is good enough to make some money for a good cause.

Capital Punishment

The next thing that struck me was Mary's redesign of the shop. Now in her terms, it was done on a shoestring budget of just £15k, and whilst opinion on the result seems to be split, I do think it gave the shop a funky and flexible look. But the reality of charity shop refurbishments? Buy some cheap paint & get some volunteers to do it on a Sunday! Charities are very unlikely to invest money in interior design, especially as they do not own their own premises. The arguments about increased takings are fine, but capital investment is a difficult one to justify.

The Troops
The big thing that struck me about the programme though, were the volunteers. Now, I have worked with volunteers in many contexts, and they are a fantastic breed of people. At out shop we have people who give up several days a week - for no pay, remember - and they make the shop run. Without them, we would be nothing.

However, volunteers have great power. Unlike paid staff, they can withdraw their labour with no notice period - upset them and they are gone! And unlike paid staff, their motivations for being there are as varied as their shoe sizes - some do it purely to support the work of the charity, while others do it for kudos in the community. Many do it for company and for stimulation. To keep them all onside you need to recognise what makes them tick and give them what they are looking for.

By making so many changes so quickly, Mary struggled to keep all the volunteers with her on the journey. It is a cliche to say that volunteers are all elderly ladies, but like most cliches, there is truth in it. Where someone has volunteered for many years, they are bound to feel personally criticised when everything is changed around them. "What was wrong with what I was doing before?" they ask themselves. It is a big challenge.

Don't cheat yourself
Finally, the customers. Some people shop in charity shops because they can't afford new. For them the 50p T shirts and and £5 winter coats are vital. But there truly is a second market - label lovers who want the names and the looks but don't have the bank balances. There is no reason why a designer label T shirt should sell at the same price as a supermarket one. Mary was right - pay a fair price and everybody wins. I believe in karma - cheat a charity shop and you cheat your own soul.

Takings in the charity retail sector have been up about 23% since Mary's programme. Let's just hope that the increase is here to stay.

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