Retail manager says charity shops are creating healthy town centres in East Anglia rather than causing their decline

Ian Nicholson ( far right) with other retail staff and volunteers at EACH

Ian Nicholson ( far right) with other retail staff and volunteers at EACH - Credit: Archant

Charity shops have become an increasingly common sight on our high streets but, it seems, not everyone is happy about their proliferation.

Zoe Martin (L to R) Izzy Cave, Ann Mayhew and Angela Attmere celebrate the first birthday of the eac

Zoe Martin (L to R) Izzy Cave, Ann Mayhew and Angela Attmere celebrate the first birthday of the each charity shop in Framlingham.

A report published last year by think tank Demos and commissioned by the Charity Retail Association found that most members of the public associate charity shops with high street decline, and 50% think a “healthy” high street should contain fewer charity shops.

The issue has caused many to question a system that offers charity shops 80% business rate relief, which some claim creates an imbalance in towns where standard traders are struggling to stay in business.

But while the arguments against charity shops are well-known, the case for the charity sector to have a sizeable presence on the high street is less often heard.

Step forward Ian Nicolson, head of retail for EACH (East Anglia’s Children’s Hospices), a charity which operates three hospices in Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, and cares for and supports children and young people across the region.

Ian oversees a retail operation that takes in 29 outlets throughout East Anglia, which together turn over £2.8m each year, of which £1.2m goes directly to EACH’s important work.

Engaging to give back

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Ian firmly believes that it isn’t charity shops that are responsible for the decline in high street stores but the internet that has caused traditional retailers to struggle.

“It is the exponential rise in the popularity of online shopping that has reduced high street activity,” he said

“And the increase in the number of charity shops is down to the fact that they have filled in gaps that have come about from this decline in high street shopping.”

A key element of the charity shop model is the use of volunteers - EACH has 900 volunteers signed up across its estate of shops - which enables the organisation to keep its overheads down. But, Ian insists, it isn’t all one-way traffic. Many of the people who give their time to help out in EACH’s stores gain something from the experience.

“What we offer is something quite unique – we aren’t just taking money out of our community, we are engaging to give back,” he continued.

Army of volunteers

For many, volunteering in a charity shop, Ian says, provides an opportunity to get out of the house and do something valuable with their time, and as EACH has looked for volunteers, so it has investigated various avenues.

Some have come from job centres to gain work experience en route to hopefully securing paid employment while others give their time to develop their skills with a view to working in retail - a point not lost on EACH, which is looking into developing an NVQ in retail for volunteers in conjunction with Derby College.

Other types of people who volunteer at EACH include those who may be getting back into work after being released from prison or as part of their probation conditions, while younger workers volunteer for their Duke of Edinburgh Award or as an element of a work experience assignment with school.

“We rely on volunteers to run our organisation but we offer something in return,” added Ian, who says alongside this army of volunteers, EACH also employs over 70 paid staff as part of its retail operation from shop managers and assistants to drivers.

Value beyond business rates

Talking to Ian, it’s clear that the value charity shops offer society can’t just be measured in terms of the business rates they pay to central Government - they also offer many services to society that are more difficult to quantify but nevertheless most people would say are important.

Primary among these is the provision of clothes and other goods for people who can’t afford high street prices, and then there’s the recycling element of EACH’s operation, which seeks to minimise waste and reduce the amount of stuff that gets sent to landfill.

Any textiles that aren’t sold in EACH shops go to merchants who buy by weight and send them to developing countries. Books are pulped and re-used, metal objects sold to specialist recyclers.

Shoppers’ expectations

But as charity shops have become more established, so they have changed to meet the expectations of the modern shopper.

Ian continued: “Charity shops were once like jumble sales or thrift shops but today’s shops are different - some have kid’s play corners or areas of the shop where people can read books in comfortable chairs. There’s better lighting and better access.

“The experience of the charity shopper has changed, as we are trying to fill the hole that is has been left by shops closing.”

With this in mind, in recent years EACH has launched three boutique shops in Holt and Norwich in Norfolk and Framlingham in Suffolk - locations where there are a high proportion of affluent shoppers.

These stores are less obviously EACH charity shops with the organisation’s name placed discreetly above the shop door.

A proportion of the high value stock that is donated at other shops - designer wear labels, such as Super Dry and Louis Vuitton - ends up here, so the charity can maximise its income from these pieces.

However, in low income areas, EACH has maintained its traditional type of charity shops for people looking for a bargain.

Ian added: “Less and less are we seeing charity shops all looking the same; Oxfam, for example, has opened shops dedicated to books, while we recently opened a store in Clacton that has a focus on furniture.

“Rather than holding back the high street, we feel we are part of the dynamic that is helping the high street to thrive.

“A healthy high street creates a win-win for us – we make money and in turn help the charity with its work.”