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Charity Shops: Does every little really help?

Continuing on from her first piece ‘Charity Shops:  Curse or Crux of the High Street?’, Dr. Nicola Livingstone reflects on the retail character of these shops in the twenty-first century.  Are charity shops and their drive towards profit maximisation proving effective in achieving increased income for their relative causes, or are they caught-up in the quagmire of competition, constantly changing to remain relevant? Does, to adopt a well known corporate mantra, ‘every little help’ on the part of the charity, their customers, donors and volunteers? 

Charity shops have undoubtedly experienced something of a renaissance in recent decades.  My last blog considered their continued presence on the High Streets of Britain, questioning whether they were a benefit or a hindrance to retailing today.  That is up to you to decide.  However, if you are hovering on this subject, hopefully this piece will help offer some perspective on the significant transformation with the shops themselves since the 1980s.  Many of the notions that people relate with charity shops are rendered anachronistic today: they are now professional and competitive rather than chaotic stores run by socialising elderly ladies who rifle through junk day after day.  An extreme and somewhat general example, but the premise is clear – as the location of charity shops has altered so too has their overall business profile (of course, there are still some elderly volunteers!)

Display in the window of a well-established charity shop in Epping, Essex UK

Charity shop window display in Epping, Essex, 2005. Most charity shops have now become more professional.
© ProfDEH at Wikimedia Commons

Twenty-first century charity shopping is predominantly about profit maximisation and redistributing profits out of the local community, with decision making guided by a top-down management hierarchy.  So does this financial redistribution really even matter?  In a word, no.  Typically today it is not those in socio economic need who typically shop in charity shops and custom has shifted across social classes, representing a diverse consumer base.  To some people this may not be a move in the right direction – what about supporting those in need?  Whichever perspective you choose to take, it seems that benevolence has become entrenched as an almost explicit expectation in society.  Charity has become very ‘obvious’ in the twenty-first century, it is everywhere.  The basic relationship of donor-charity-customer still applies to charity retailing, but this is now mediated in a myriad of different ways, with charity shops now providing specialist outlets, online merchandising and an environmentally friendly way of consumption, raising in the region of £220m annually.  How has this happened?

‘Professionalisation’ in the charity shop sector began in the 1980s, as stores expanded and the move towards commercialisation began.  Paid staff were introduced with the recruitment of qualified and experienced retail managers, in a move away from being volunteer led.  Charities became more aware of marketing, actively creating easily recognisable charity logos and ‘brands’.  Today many shops have become thematically standardised and those of us familiar with charity shopping would be able to identify a specific charity’s store in the absence of any branding.  Of course such branding also increases the visibility of the charities and their relevant causes.  The shops are advocates for the charities themselves.  The state legislated favourably with respect to the charity retailer, although the effect of the controversial ‘Portas Review’ on policy-making is yet to be qualified.  Today many charity retailers will have at least one paid member of staff (in some cases significantly more), but volunteers remain central to the business model. Would we work for free for any other retailers?  The weight of charity rests heavy on those wanting to be involved in volunteering as well as those who don’t.  With the growth of Neoliberalism in Britain, charities have been interwoven into government policies, like those of the New Deal for Communities (early 2000s) and Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, as the unemployed are drafted into charity shops on placements to gain experience.  Whether this is empowering or degrading to those ushered into such relationships is a matter of opinion, but either way the stream of volunteers into charity retailers continues to support their commercial organisation.  With respect to volunteering, every little does help, as it actively determines whether the store successfully operates.

Charity shops on King Street, Saffron Walden  © Sebastian Ballard

Charity shops on King Street, Saffron Walden
© Sebastian Ballard

As the texture of the High Street altered with the shift to out of town shopping centres and corporate occupiers demanding larger premises, the charity retailer fluidly moved into newly vacant premises in line with expansion and ‘professionalisation’.  Parallel to (or as a result of?) the development of a more corporate approach charity retailers experienced ‘destigmatisation’, and bought-in goods were introduced representing fair trade practices in the 1990s.   Today, most charity retailers are a mixture of bought-in and donated merchandise (approximately 87%) .  Vintage fashion became increasingly popular and there was a new impetus to reuse and recycle as ‘green’ and ‘ethical’ initiatives became infused into society.  Charity retailers have dynamically responded to these social changes, capitalising on associations with established retailers, such as Marks & Spencer with whom they operate their M&S Clothes Exchange.  Charities have been able to benefit from corporate social responsibility policies which have filtered into commercial companies.  In my mind, such relationships indicates how far charities have evolved to remain relevant and modern, whilst ensuring the brand raises as much money as possible for their particular cause.  This flexibility extends to online shopping, where consumers can purchase directly from charities (such as Oxfam Online), or indirectly through a mediator such as EBay:  Another move by charities to stay competitive.  By ‘going live’ online our most recognisable (or indeed dominant) charities continue to evolve with the increase in online retailing overall, so it is difficult to see how such a move could be considered detrimental to rising profits, unless it detracts from High Street charity shop profits?  Time will tell in this case.

Has this evolution come at a cost to the charities themselves, with profit being diverted to costs relating to staffing, modernising and expanding?  At Oxfam, 84p out of every £1 raised goes directly to their causes, at Save the Children 88% of money raised is dedicated to charitable purposes, with 2% being redirected back into retailing. For some, this 2% might be 2% too much, but charity retailers are something of a success, albeit an antagonistic one.  The overwhelming majority of the money raised is directed towards the principal cause of the charity themselves.  Provided the charity shops remain profitable and viable, surely in the long term it is essential they remain relevant, even if it is somewhat costly in the short term?  Charities are not afraid to cease trading in their stores if they prove unsuccessful.  In addition to this, charities are a lot more transparent and accountable for their business practices than other retailers that could be mentioned – surely the fact that we know this very information about their profit structure and financial redistribution is positive?  The charity retailers we have today would not have been possible without investment into their structure, therefore ensuring that they continue to make profits and attract benefactors, volunteers and staff.  Every little does help in many ways, but there is a need for constant awareness of social changes and global needs.  Charity retailers today must reassess and re-evaluate to stay relevant in order to ensure their effectiveness at both driving up profits and remaining competitive in our difficult retail market today.  It is not an either or scenario, but a fragile symmetry between the commercial and the charitable.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. nice post

    January 1, 2015

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