Friday, 24 July 2009

Come Back Sally Ann

I discovered last week that my favourite local charity shop had closed 'indefinitely for refurbishment'. I hadn't visited for a couple of weeks, and knew nothing about it. I was gutted to arrive there half an hour after they closed. They had shut up early on their last day, after having a sale. Gah!

I hope the refurbishment is not some plan to tart it up in a Mary Portas stylee. Did you watch 'Mary, Queen of Charity Shops'? I rather like Mary Portas, although I imagine she would be pretty scary in real life.
(Mary and the reluctant shop volunteers)
But her take on charity shops made me think a lot about the whole thing. If you didn't see it, she transformed a charity shop into a much more upmarket offering, in order to attract customers who wouldn't normally shop there. She doubled the shop's weekly takings, although they had to invest a lot of money in that scary 'refurbishment'.

My first reaction was that she had no idea of her customers. I've shopped in charity shops for years, ever since I was a teenager. I never needed anyone to tell me that vintage was cool. I always knew it was, even when it was just called secondhand. 'I don't want upmarket!' I shouted at the TV.
I don't mind chipped china or one-eyed dolls, and I'll buy odd buttons or an old dress that's coming apart, because I like the fabric, and I'll think of some way of using it. And I expect a lot of you think the same.

But the downside is that we're looking for bargains. 'Look what I got for 50p!' we exclaim joyfully. Well 50p isn't going to do much for a charity that has to pay the overheads on a shop.

This is where Scary Mary's new view of charity shopping started to make sense. She calculated that after overheads, they were making a pitiful amount of money per volunteer. It's all very well to enjoy our rather amateurish, jumbly charity shops, but if the purpose of them is to make money for charity, then anything that improves the bottom line should be welcomed. Shouldn't it? Um...

Mary's first move was to try to get better donations. Her horror at some of the rubbish that gets given to charity shops got me wondering. I must admit, I have donated non-saleable clothes to charity shops. I wouldn't donate anything dirty or broken, but when it comes to clothes, I assume that anything that won't go in the shop can still be sold for rags. Surely that's better than putting them in the bin to go to landfill? I am not aware of any other way of recycling clothes locally. (Obviously I give good clothes too!) It also saves me having to pre-judge what they will think is saleable.

I was more shocked by the people she interviewed who didn't give all their old clothes to charity shops. Do they really just throw them away? Well, she put a stop to that, and went out and got great donations from people in their workplaces. This seemed like a really great idea. Another improvement was to get the shop volunteers to realise how much some of the donations were worth. I think this is really important. I must admit there are some charity shops where I would never donate anything valuable, simply because they would be quite likely to sell a vintage Chanel suit or an antique Wedgwood vase for 50p a time.

Of course, this is where I start to feel uncomfortable. If I bought a lovely antique vase for 50p, I'd be delighted. Oh dear, I seem to be a hypocrite. How did that happen?

The trouble is, much as I applaud any effort to make more money for charity, I feel regretful about losing the old-fashioned charity shop. I like them. I like their randomness. I like the excitement of finding a treasure that others may have overlooked. I love the hilarity of seeing some god-awful monstrosity that was once considered ornamental. I even quite enjoy being served by a doddery old lady, who needs some help counting the change. I like the fact that they are out of step with the modern, homogenised high street.

I suppose this is just nostalgia. Charity shops have to change like everything else. I try not to be the sort of old codger who has an unwarranted belief in 'the good old days'. And yet...


jaboopee said...

Here in dublin , I've been finding you just don't get the "luckyers"in charity shops anymore, the clothes seem to be all primark ,it hasn't stopped me looking though, its my favourite form of retail therapy

Menopausal musing said...

One of those posts that had me nodding in agreement all the way through.... and then the ending with its picture made me smile. Thank you. x

Bumble Bee Cottage said...

I’m with you all the way. I love having a rummage around to see what special little something might be hiding right there at the back, just out of reach, tempting me to grab it only to discover that it is a plastic novelty toilet; but I had to look and be sure didn’t I. I must admit I have been know to pay the lady behind the counter more than she has asked for some items as I know they are worth a bit more and I am happy to pay as the price is still a bargain.

Kitschen Pink said...

Gentrified charity shops might be all very well in cities. But in market towns? A number of our charity shops have poshed up then closed down... presumably because they failed to show a reasonable return for the investment required. Oxfam have been the first to go with their very expensive and well presented offerings... lasted a few months. Hmm. t.x

Kitschen Pink said...

And anther thing- the ones that are gift shops more than charity shops... do they really get preferential business rates? I mean. How can you justify that to the small businesses struggling to make ends meet and pay their staff? hmm.

Kitschen Pink said...

I'm done now. I'll go now. But thank-you so much for such a thoughtful post. t.xx

Cowboys and Custard said...

A thought provoking post there Elaine..
I tend to avoid the charity shops in Bath and there are plenty of them.
I find anything half decent has a ludicrous price put on it by an 'expert' ..usually a local antique dealer who goes in and advises on prices for a china plate or Ming ashtray (if only).
More of a case of sour grapes on my part.. I never seem to find the amazing bargains that others do. I do however give a lot of clothes to charity .. especially Cancer Research.
Michele xx

Country Cottage Chic said...

I always give good clothes to charity shops & worn stuff goes in the recycling bin.
Some charity shops price things way higher than they should - when you can buy a new paperback for £3.50 at the supermarket why would you pay £3.00 for an old one?

Many of the charity shops sell on ebay so nothing decent actually gets through to the shops any more.

I watched Scary Mary too & she does have a point & I wasshocked at the rubbish that people "donate".


Becksini said...

Was a bit worried you were considering donating vintage Chanel suits or Wedgewood vases!!!

Neil said...

Interesting, the best thing I saw recently in a charity shop was a top from Primark, which my daughter pointd out would not have cost that much a month ago in Primark !!! So Scary Mary it looks like they may have watched your prog and got it all wrong.
Neil X