Charity Shops: Curse or Crux of the High Street?

Does twenty-first century charity now begin on the High Street?  It is surprising to see a High Street today without any charity shops; they have become ubiquitous to our retail landscape.  The Charity Retail Association estimates that there are currently over ten thousand across the UK.  Dr Nicola Livingstone questions their evolution, considering whether they are a curse or a crux of the High Street.

Charity shops make me curious.  Not just as a shopper after a bargain, an unusual piece of vintage clothing or a first edition novel, but as a reflection of our society and its development.    Who could have predicted that when Oxfam opened their first store in 1947 it was the beginning of a new type of retailing?  They are now familiar sights to us all, as Oxfam, British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK and Shelter to name just a few, each have thriving retail businesses.  I think the key word here is business, as what were once regarded as temporary, basic and inexpert shops have flourished and adapted to constant social changes to become an indelible and specialist retail niche.  In recent years due to their substantial presence they have also become a point of topical discussion and dispute.

Mary Portas charity shops were first regarded as a crux of the High Street – in 2009 she embarked upon revitalising Save the Children charity shops with gusto, creating a ‘different’ sort of charity shop in the form of ‘Mary’s Living and Giving Shop’ (be warned of hyperbole!)  Portas seemingly disregarded what many see as the beauty of the charity shop – its uniqueness.  The stores became diluted and clinical, less individual and more like any other retailer.  ‘Living and Giving’ shops can be found today in suburban gentrified neighbourhoods, with inflated prices where profit is paramount.  So what – as long as they are operating for charity?  Isn’t modernising a positive step to remain competitive?  There is definitely an argument for the cause here, as surely more profit equates to a greater benefit for the parent charity and the greater good?  On the flipside however, by locating in affluent areas, potential customers who could actively benefit from affordable second-hand goods at a local level are excluded. People who really need access to cheap second-hand items are thus priced out of the market by the organisations which are arguably supposed to be there to help them.

An Oxfam charity shop in Beckenham, Kent
An Oxfam charity shop in Beckenham, Kent

From the vast network of charity shops operated across the UK High Streets by Save the Children, so far only 8 have been transformed into ‘Living and Giving’ outlets.  To me, such numbers don’t instil much confidence in this apparently revolutionary type of store format.  Diversity and variety is the beauty of the charity shops, not formalised, identical outlets.  Granted, the stores are branded and representative of their parent charity, but they remain individual and quirky due to the very nature of second-hand shopping.  There is a delicate balance at work.

By 2011 however, Mary Portas had somewhat deserted the charity shop cause, as she was commissioned by the government to consider the future development of UK High Streets.  Charity shops were, by this time, now regarded as something akin to a curse, becoming one of the problematic issues identified in ‘The Portas Review’.  Charity shops receive a mandatory 80% business rate relief (the other 20% is discretionary relief and decided upon by the relevant local authority) as per guidelines set out in The Local Government Finance Act section 64(10)(1988).  The Portas Review suggests that this is problematic for the High Street, as it is preventing other new occupiers from accessing space (and paying full rates), which gives charities a competitive edge and encourages landlords to take on ‘safe’ charity retailers as occupiers.

But what are charity shops competing with?  The mix of merchandise offered is predominantly donated, stock levels are unpredictable and inconsistent and even with some lines of bought-in fair trade goods the second-hand market attracts different customers.  Charity retailers like to locate close to other charity retailers.  It is typical to see a number of charity shops located along one suburban High Street, with many customers now actively going to specific areas only to shop in these retailers.  Edinburgh is quite unique in this respect as it has The Edinburgh Charity Shop & Reuse Map which is published annually and lists all the different charity shops throughout the city, informing shoppers and encouraging the ‘charity tourism’ the city experiences.  Why shouldn’t landlords welcome charity shops? They pay the open market rental value and have strong rental covenants.  Yes, the charity shops don’t pay rates, so they can by default afford to pay higher rents, but surely an occupied shop is preferable to a vacant one?  Where are these ‘new retailers’ as the Portas review calls them who require High Street space?  Why aren’t they occupying one of the many vacant stores on the High Street as it stands?  Currently the vacancy rate is one in eight shops across the UK.  Charity shops seem to be one of the scapegoats of the review.  The charity retail market rather than being a curse has in fact been the crux of the High Street over the last 20 years. With the shift in retailing to out of town units, the influx of charity shops into the resulting vacant space bolstered our High Streets and supported its continued vitality. Charity shops have developed to become a significant part of our retail culture, but it will be interesting to see ‘what happens next’…what will their future hold?

My next blog instalment will consider the developments within the charity shops themselves in recent decades:  How have they changed? How have they have experienced ‘professionalisation’ and how are they developing e-commerce for internet shopping?