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What are charity shops for? Thoughts sparked by Mary Portas’ new Save the Children shop


Mary Portas' Save the Children Shop

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?

Mary Portas' Save the Children Shop

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.

Mary Portas' Save the Children Shop

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?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Intrinsically Florrie 23 November 2009, 6:03 pm

    I love charity shops but am concerned for them- there are getting fewer and fewer in my home town.
    Like you I have an issue with pricing- on the same day in the same shop there was a DKNY (yes that's Donna Karen) Jeans really well made and in good condition for a complete bargain at £6 if it had been my size I would have given so much much, and a Primark day dress with the belt missing for £5!
    Well I hope Mary's work will go some way to helping things, such as people not giving the absolute gardbage donations which take the charity's time and money to sort out but these grand openings and influxes of designer items cannot be relied on.

    Florrie x

  • Sal 23 November 2009, 6:05 pm

    Fascinating stuff, lady!

    Ya know, I've never been panicked by some of the more savvy marketing tactics that charity shops have adopted lately. I can't imagine a world where low-priced secondhand goods will NOT be available, both to low income shoppers in need and to dyed-in-the-wool bargain hunters. It's a marketplace like any other, and there's bound to be a gamut of options. Sure, it's annoying that some of the high quality stuff is getting sucked into shops that price it up, and definitely annoying that fast fashion items are being sold secondhand for near retail prices. But I imagine that once the recession dies down, people who aren't naturally inclined to shop thrift will STOP shopping thrift. As you pointed out, you're either wired for thrifting or you aren't.

    Curious to hear what other think!

  • Make Do Style 23 November 2009, 6:36 pm

    I did laugh about your all of Scotland coming to Edinburgh bit!!

    I have a favourite charity shop because you do get designer bargains there although £50 is my threshold as I think charity two fold – pulling people in and giving back.

    I'd shop more at charity shops but certainly there is over pricing going on. One has to factor in depreciation and the second hand nature so £10 for a H&M dress is ridiculous.

    It was a great review!

  • La Historiadora de Moda 23 November 2009, 6:49 pm

    I'm in the US – the midwest to be more specific. I used to go to thrift stores all the time, but I have to admit that in the past year I've been pretty disappointed most of the times that I've gone. While I still have managed to score a great find here and there, I have found that most of the items that I might consider buying are being priced more than I would pay for them (H&M or Old Navy sweaters for $10). As you mentioned in your post, I could find something similar at these stores for about that price on clearance and unused. I am also finding less selection because more people are shopping at thrift stores than previously and/or being more selective and careful about their initial retail purchases, so there's less buyers' remorse and thus, fewer things end up in charity shops. I still think shopping thrift is worthwhile. It's good for the environment, and it can be good for the wallet. It's just that many of these shops aren't the treasure troves they used to be.

  • Missa 24 November 2009, 8:20 am

    Give me a grimey old fashioned thriftstore to dig around in any day!

    Prices have definitely risen in certain thriftstores, especially Goodwill, but nothing has gone high end where I live yet.

  • Jacqueline 24 November 2009, 12:14 pm

    Very interesting post and one which I wholeheartedly agree with. We have three charity shops where I am (the windy wilds of Bedfordshire) and two, whilst set out nicely, are full of secondhand primark often priced up for more or less what you can buy it new. The other one is a very small independent charity which does smell very old charity shop but, you can actually get some lovely stuff in there. Mainly because (I presume) the donations are from older people who've finally decided to let go of that fabulous 50s cocktail dress and is almost criminally cheap. And there is a particularly good Scope in a neighboroughing town that I visit regularly because they have some very good quality stuff that they sell priced above the average (I've seen a Betsey Johnson day dress in there before now) but I don't mind that because they're not trying to sell me a George at Asda top for 10 quid.

    I think the mistake that a lot of charity shops make is to assume that just because something is second hand people will buy it for an inflated price, ergo, even if it's from H&M, they price it up from a standard list. And I do think it's counterproductive. Even people who don't normally shop in charity shops are not daft enough to pay 10 quid for something second hand when you can buy it new for much the same price.

  • JOWY 24 November 2009, 12:54 pm


    One Love,

  • Helen 24 November 2009, 4:38 pm

    I started charity shopping when I was still in high school, before it got all 'trendy', and I have noticed a great increase in prices but not a great increase in quality. However, i don't like charity shops pretending to be 'real' shops, like you said, the rummaging is the best bit! The best charity shops I've been to are the ones with loads of shabby stock, not very organised, but very low prices. This encourages me to rummage and find the gems and it doesn't mean I end up paying more for it. It annoys me when charity shops try to be trendy and put things in colour order – size or garment order makes much more sense to me!

    Like you said, charity shops shouldn't just aim to make money for the charity, but also to help people who can't afford new clothes all the time. This is why they should keep the prices lower, otherwise only trendy, richer people can afford them. I mean £15 for a skirt?!

  • Teenysparkles 25 November 2009, 12:03 am

    Agree agree! The largest Charity shop I go to, still looks and smells like a charity shop (this one in particular smells like pee and B.O), but the prices have risen to online auction prices. Which is nuts!

  • Diana 25 November 2009, 6:18 am

    This sounds a lot like American shops. Although we don't call them charity shops- if it's a thrift store, most likely the sales are being donated to a charity, but if it's more designer, vintage, we call them antique shops, or just vintage stores and somehow that allows them to charge thrice as much as what it originally was.
    Knowing how the charity shops are in your area, I can see your frustration!

  • Isabelle 25 November 2009, 10:38 am

    Thankyou for this: the question of what charity shops are actually FOR, and how they are perceived, is one of obvious interest to me (as someone who both shops in and works for charity shops). And some of your musings really chimed with me. I’m going to suggest to our charity members that they read this: it’s feedback they should be aware of.

  • Retro Chick 25 November 2009, 11:45 am

    I wrote a series of posts on this very topic when the TV show was on over the Summer!

    If Mary Portas wants to open a chain of charity shops aimed at middle class slightly more affluent customers then that's a great way to raise money for Charity, but I don't think it's a sustainable model for ALL charity shops.

    I think she's barking up the wrong tree completely!

  • Kb 26 November 2009, 8:57 pm

    A great post, I'm not really a seasoned charity shopper, but I have definitely noticed prices starting to rise because of the show. I guess I prefer vintage-type shops as I'm not generally a rummager, but I'd like the option of the cheaper charitable alternative. Charity shops may soon start to match vintage shops in their pricing, which isn't really the way to go and will end up alienating a lot of people. Can't believe that they said the whole of Scotland would go to that one shop, it's as if they've likened Scotland to the whole of London!

  • InnyVinny 28 November 2009, 2:17 am

    I've seen prices skyrocket over the past year and am seeing more and more high street items being sold at those high prices. There's still plenty of great things to be found, but you have to pass over quite a bit to find any of it.

    I can't believe the press surrounding the one Mary opened, though. Seems a bit over-involved to me.

  • Claire 28 November 2009, 10:13 pm

    I've had to train myself to not mind the slightly higher prices in my local Cancer Research, and honestly I can't imagine a non-dedicated charity shopper making the effort to do so. For which reason I think that the "all proceed towards" aspect of charity shops is being done wrong by upward-drifting prices, as well as those who shop charity by necessity.

    It is, after all, still a saving even if the same or similar garments are being sold new for a couple of extra pounds. "We" tend to think of charity shops as *bargain* shops, I think. I can't imagine that changing fast, and so I can't imagine charity shops in general doing well out of these upmarket make-overs.

  • Pearl Westwood 29 November 2009, 6:56 pm

    What a great post and some interesting comments. A recent local 'outrage' was that one shop is refusing any Primark! If they have so muchPrimark unsold, surely if they had a 50p box for it then people would snap it up, rather than trying to charge more than the RRP! I agree to with your question 'what is the point of charity shops?' as to me lately all I see is overpriced high street. No bargain designer or vintage ;-(

  • Rebecca 30 November 2009, 5:51 pm

    Very interesting! I agreed with all that you said about charity shops. There are only 2 charity thrift stores in the small town where I live now (probably because a lot of rich country music people live here). One is a regular Goodwill, full of junk that is sometimes overpriced — but it's fun to look through. The other is an independent shop that is actually a lot nicer (or seems to be because they arrange things nicely) and the prices are often lower! So I don't really know… but I agree that many people will never get into shopping at these places. I know some people who think it's gross to wear used clothing. 🙁

  • Margaret 1 December 2009, 5:02 pm

    Great post, I have been saying the same thing for years. I don't even look in my local charity shop any more as the prices are so silly (much cheaper to buy online). When I was a student most of what I wore came from charity shops – I simply could not do the same thing nowadays. And I agree about Primark – people still snap up Primark clothes on ebay, simply because they are not overpriced. Charity shops should serve a dual purpose, but one of these seems to be completely ignored nowadays. I do also wonder how much money they make nowadays by alienating so many…

  • Anonymous 10 December 2009, 10:15 pm

    Had to comment on your post. Agree on your comments on charity shops, esp in Edinburgh. I think they are great and the variety you get differs from one area to another, as does the pricing. However…..Dalry being one of the poorer areas in the city centre?? I think poor is the wrong word to use and potrays a very very different picture from what its actually like (I live in Gorgie and in no way is it poor!)

  • Oranges And Apples 10 December 2009, 10:35 pm

    Hi anonymous, unfortunately you didn't give your email address, so I have to respond via comment. I didn't mean to do down Dalry (or Gorgie for that matter) at all, I have many friends who live there who like it a lot, but I do think it is less gentrified/more working class/whatever you want to call it than most other parts of central Edinburgh and I was using poorer as a shorthand for that for simplicity's sake. The point I was trying to make is simply that the various charities seem to be perfectly happy with the fact that in certain areas the charity shops are less nice and therefore cheaper.

  • Emma 30 April 2011, 4:45 pm

    I think pricing can be horrendous too, but I was just looking at the books and CDs! In one charity shop in Durham, a book usually sold for £4.99; was £3! In another books that are £5 new, were tatty and torn and still £2 🙁 In the end, I went to a charity shop for a hospice and found 6 brand new books (some I had actually been wanting to read and was going to buy anyway) for £3.
    Sorted 🙂

  • T.M 21 May 2012, 5:27 pm

    oh wow, i could not have put this better myself. Have been saying ever since that prog came out that Mary Portas really is deluded! She probably has a couple of 100K in the bank & unlike the rest of us doesnt mind forking out silly amounts for old peoples tat! It really really irritates me when i see a tatty, worn, ugly old thing from about 10 years ago with “versace” on it & suddenly a £20 price tag is slapped on! do people really think ALL clothes from a few years ago are the “vintage” masterpiece that everyone wants?
    Charity shops really are just putting stupid prices on most things now.. primark tops for £6-8, new look dresses for £10… do these people not shop on the high street? its a shame beacuse there are plenty of people that want to look good without a huge budget & this is driving them away….