* WARNING: THIS POST IS VERY LONG AND CONTAINS SOME RANTING IN THE MIDDLE SECTION. I APOLOGISE. BUT PLEASE DO KEEP READING. THANK YOU. *
On Saturday, Mary Portas of Mary Queen of (Charity) Shops TV fame opened a charity ’boutique’ for Save the Children, and being a charity shop afficionado, and a good blogger, I went to check it out.
The press coverage of the shop opening had focused heavily on the fact that items had been donated by celebrities and that there was going to be ‘designer bargains’, and maybe because of this there was a massive queue outside on the Saturday – see the photo. I was on my own and couldn’t be bothered to wait, so I just visited some other charity shops in the area and went home. I did return on Sunday though, when all the hoo haa had died down and you could just go in, so I can now report back.
Here’s my reflections, in bullet form, because I love bullet points:
* Its a charity shop. A nice charity shop, but really nothing out of the ordinary.
* Everything is nicely presented, coded by colour and size. The interior of the shop is really very nice, with all the knick knacks arranged around the place without making it too cluttery. The main let down presentation wise is the front window, which does just look messy.
* The quality of the stock is good, nothing worn or smelly.
* Probably because of this, there actually isn’t very much there quantity-wise.
* The designer angle was vastly overstated. There were few designer things, and the bulk was your usual high street cast offs. I even saw a couple of primark things, which every self-respecting charity shopper will ignore if they have any sense. Maybe all the designer stuff had been snapped up on the Saturday, but I actually had a chat with a woman who had been one of the first people in after opening and she said there wasn’t much then either.
* Pricing was fairly high, but reasonable, with a few exceptions – for example, a h&m shirt dress for 10 pounds? I could go to h&m now and get something similar for the same price, new.
* I tried on a couple of things, a Margaret Howell skirt (one of few designer things) for £25 and a new skirt by a brand called Darling for £15. I didn’t get either, but not because of price.
* There was surprisingly little vintage.
* The shop is also meant to be selling local crafty artisan stuff, but that clearly hasn’t got off the ground yet, and there’s little, and nothing nice.
* They only have one changing room, but have somebody standing next to it telling you where to queue and asking you how you got on. He was clearly trying to be helpful, but I don’t like this kind of overinvolved customer service even in proper shops, and what’s he gonna do, get me it in a different size?
If this seems a little negative, that may be because they deserve it for building things up so much. I was really put off by the hyperbloic press release. Consider this quote from Mary Portas on the Save the Children page:
This is a shop for everyone and we want it to be a place that will inspire Edinburgh to give. The designer bargains in our charity shop will be fantastic and the store has the potential to attract people from across the whole of Scotland. We want to create a real buzz around second hand shopping and make the old fashioned charity shop a thing of the past.
There are so many things wrong with this statement it’s quite sad.
Inspire Edinburgh to give? Edinburgh is the single best city for charity shops I know, and they are all clearly able to sustain themselves, so it’s not as if the good people of our fair city are being stingy with their money and donations.
Designer bargains? See above!
Attract people from the whole of Scotland? To a living room sized shop with small, and, by definition, changeable, stock? What do you think Scotland is, some sort of cultural and stylistic wasteland, where we’re all willing to travel hundreds of miles for ‘designer bargains’ and a chance to own something that once belonged to Jamie Oliver?
Make the old fashioned charity shop a thing of the past? Whatever are you talking about? Changes in the charity shop world have been going on for years and even St. Columba’s hospice shops, which are run by lovely old ladies in aprons and as close to an old fashioned shop as I can think of, have recently had a makeover. Interestingly, the only shop I know that still is badly lit and disorganised is actually a Save the Children one, in Dalry, one of central Edinburgh’s poorer areas. But the reason for that is that in this particular shop everything is £1, so it was obviously a conscious decision to go for cheapness over prettiness. So what this mythical old fashioned type charity shop that Ms Portas wants to vanquish is I do not know.
Don’t get me wrong, I really don’t mean to pick on either Mary Portas or anyone else involved in this project, who are all clearly working hard to try and raise money for a good cause. But I do think the project highlight an interesting, and more widely applicable, question: What are charity shops for?
Is it really just about trying to raise as much money as possible for whatever cause or do charity shops not also have a role to play in enabling people on a low income to have fun with clothes and dress stylishly at low costs? I find it quite interesting that charity shops have done so well out of the recession, and that they are always discussed as a way of finding bargains, when at the same time prices have gone up so much over the last year that soon cost-wise they may stop being a cheap alternative at all. I’m happy to pay £10 for a monsoon dress that retails at £80, as I did the other day, but simple tshirts from H&M, Topshop, New Look and the like are now being routinely sold for £5 upwards, and it just doesn’t make sense when these things barely cost that when they were new.
This focus on designer clothes, nice interiors and providing a better shopping experience is all about chasing your more affluent middle class shoppers, who maybe don’t have quite as much money as they used to, and persuading them that charity shops are a cool place to shop at. And that’s fine, as long as it’s not at the expense of the original charity shop customers – people who genuinely rely on charity shops because they don’t have any spare money at all. Better management and nicer shops all cost money, which then gets reflected back in the prices, which as I said above are becoming increasingly ridiculous. Thinking back to myself 5 years ago, when I was a poor student/minimum wage temp, I was able to look ace on hardly any money, and that is simply not possible now.
And at the end of the day, charity shops are still charity shops, they rely on donations, and donations are bound to include a lot of, well, crap. With all the will in the world, you’re never going to filter all that out (or you end up a vintage shop, and then your prices really are through the roof). For me, rummaging through all the stuff is part of the fun, and in a way that’s my point. Thrifting is to some extent a lifestyle choice, as it requires time, dedication, a decent knowledge of clothes and an awareness of what is and isn’t going to work for your style and body shape. Not everyone is in a position to dress mainly from charity shops, and even more people wouldn’t want to. You’re never going to get your cash-rich, time poor yummy mummy type to give over her Saturday morning to browsing through racks and racks of second hand clothes in the hope of finding the elusive gem. It just isn’t going to happen. So maybe, dear charity shop strategists, stop trying and focus on your core customers.
So, if you made it all the way though (and thank you for persevering!), what do you think? Do you share my concern or is it all good? What’s the situation like in your part of the world? Are op shops and thrift stores also becoming more high end or is it just the UK?