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Wednesday, 23 April 2014

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A little bit of give and take

Whereas many outlets selling new goods are struggling to get customers to part with their cash, it seems that their charitable rivals are enjoying a roaring trade.

It’s hardly surprising: as people struggle through financial hardship, it is to this retail sector that they increasingly turn.

The numbers are impressive. According to the Charity Retail Association, there are more than 9,000 charity shops in the UK – a number which is steadily increasing. Sales figures are up by six per cent on last year, and these shops in the UK annually raise over £200m for charitable causes.

However, over recent months, a worrying trend has been developing – one that, ironically, is proving inseparable from the root cause of the sector’s success: the economic downturn.

Moira Bell, who has been a volunteer at the Cancer Research shop on Bank Street, Carlisle, for the past 17 years, explains.

“People are finding that times are hard and they are less willing to give their things away,” she says.

“We don’t get as many donations now as we used to.

“In the past, people would buy new things like duvets and other household goods and then give us their old stuff. But this isn’t happening any more. We’re finding that people are now keeping hold of what they’ve got.”

The problem she is facing is not a lack of sales. As more and more people find themselves struggling financially, more are looking for clothes, entertainment and household goods by picking up bargains in the charity retail sector. The problem is finding things to sell.

“The takings are the same as always and we are not struggling in that respect,” she adds. “But the lack of donations is making things much harder.”

Lucina Barker, 38, is the shop leader at the British Red Cross charity shop on Lowther Street, Carlisle. She has also noticed a serious downward trend concerning the number of people willing to part with their old possessions.

“Donations handed in at the door are definitely declining,” she says.

“It’s down to the recession. Thanks to the state of the economy, things are getting harder for everyone.

“People are not getting rid of their things quite as quickly as they used to. Where, in the past, someone would come in and donate, say, a winter coat, now they keep hold of it because they can’t afford to buy a new one. Now we don’t get a lot handed in at all.”

Lucina originally started out as a volunteer at the shop, but when recently given the opportunity to move into a management position, decided to take on the role.

She is hoping to boost sales by offering clothes at prices of between £1 and £3. This will allow those struggling financially to buy the things they need at a fraction of the cost of high street outlets – a vital community service that she believes only charity shops provide.

“I’m trying to offer people the best quality stuff at the best prices,” she says.

“Just because someone cannot afford to shop in expensive places, why should they be made to feel like a lesser person? Why should they have a lesser shopping experience?

“I come from a poor family of seven, and I’ve raised four children on goods and clothes from charity shops. I’ve seen young mothers coming in to my shop with their wee ones in the pram, looking through the 50 pence basket. They are really pleased when they find something for their children – that’s something that just doesn’t happen in regular shops.”

The debate on the value of the charity retail sector has recently been given fresh impetus by Mary Portas, the retail guru and star of Channel 4’s Mary Queen of Frocks. She suggested that a cap should be placed on the number of charity shops on our high streets.

Speaking at a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Town Centres, Portas also suggested that new retail business start-ups should be offered the 80 per cent rate relief that charity shops receive.

Rodney Branthwaite, 45, from Seaton, is a regular browser of charity shop shelves and strongly disagrees with her proposal.

“Charity shops are the best form of recycling there is,” he says. “You get to use clothes again and again, and you make the most of something because you are using a product until the end of its useful life.

“One man’s junk is another man’s treasure. You can find things in charity shops that you would never get anywhere else.

“And I’d rather see a charity shop in town than just a boarded up empty site.”

Mr Branthwaite believes that the shops should remain a common sight on the high street as they provide an alternative for those who do not want, or cannot afford, to purchase new goods from the bigger stores.

“My partner is quite happy to go out and spend £50 or £60 on a pair of jeans, but I think you can get great stuff in charity shops at a fraction of the cost. They give people another option.”

It is undeniable that the demand for charity shops is there.

But how can they continue to stock their shelves without the donations they so desperately need?

In another ironic twist, the Red Cross’s Lucina Baker believes that those who perhaps need the charity retail sector least are the very people who can ensure its future success.

“Many people who have never had to struggle financially are the ones who don’t know the value of charity shops,” she says.

“You have to have been in position where money is tight to understand how good they are and what a difference they can make to people’s lives. However, these are the very people who are able to donate.

“If you are one of the lucky ones and all of your needs are met, then it is good to give,” she adds.

“By going and donating to charity shops, you are helping others. It helps people to buy quality goods that they maybe couldn’t afford to buy otherwise. Not only that, the money made from selling these goods goes to help others, both in this country and abroad.”

It seems, even in this austere economic climate, that if those who can keep on giving, charity shops will continue to enjoy a roaring trade and remain a popular choice on our high streets.

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