When you hear the words ‘charity shop’ – what do you think? That run down shop on the corner of your street? A sweet old lady putting out second hand clothes? Well, charity shops are changing. Welcome to the new breed of charity shops.
Words: Hayley Warren Subeditor: Tamara Hutchinson
Charity shops, or originally second hand clothing shops, have a past life well beyond the Red Cross and Oxfam stores we know well, today. In fact, according to Sarah Dunant, the selling of second hand items was the only way to survive in Europe for the Jewish community for centuries.
As they were banned from any profession regulated by guilds, they constructed an industry buying old clothes from wealthy families, repairing them and then re-selling for profit.
However, it was the Salvation Army that first sold second hand clothes in the name of charity. A system which quickly progressed during the First and Second World Wars, as people offered their belongings to help the poverty which followed.
Fast forward to 2015 and it’s hard to find a High Street without a charity shop. Yet, in a recent survey by the British Shops and Stores Association, over half of people resented their town’s loss of character and identity due to a “disproportionate amount of charity shops.”
And, despite the ethical calling of charity shops and campaigns such as ‘Keep Trade Local’ from the Federation of Small Businesses, ethical spending still remains a small proportion of the total annual consumer spend.
Retail consultant Jamie Oliver suggests that “consumers are not as ethically superior as we are led to think. People are aware that clothes this cheap come at a cost for someone, but don’t care. If the price is right, they’re happy.” It’s clear from this that there is a public attitude and social change developing towards charity shops followed by a loud call to up their game.
With this in mind, Mary’s Living and Giving Shops, gifted to Save The Children from Mart Portas, offer a powerful antidote to this growing ill-feeling of charity shops. The brand identifies that shopping centres and the Internet play a large role within our lives and matching this with a revolutionary attitude, will ultimately lead to a great human and ethical shopping experience.
The brand has 20 boutiques across London, each one establishing its own distinct style and presence based on the location. It aims to be a place you can come to find inspiration, share local news and collaborate local people’s ideas, values and beliefs, whilst providing luxury pieces donated from the community, brands and retailers. They really are, as their mantra declares, living and giving.
But to really get an understanding of how dynamic and unique Mary’s Living and Giving Shops are, we explored the Hampstead branch. From the design, the visual merchandising and the exquisite clothes, just walking into the store really is an experience in itself.
Now, meet charity shop game changer and Store Manager, Rosanna Heather. In fact, the title ‘Store Manager’ simply doesn’t do her justice as the enthusiasm and warmth she exudes as we talk business strategies, consumer trends and the new breed of charity shops beams through.
After leaving university, Rosanna dabbled in retail in between teaching English in Japan and being abroad for three years, even doing a stint working her way up a store in France. She eventually moved back to England and accepted a role as Assistant Manager at Superdry.
Soon learning that ticking boxes and retail targets weren’t for her, she fell out of love with her job. Moving to a customer service based role, Rosanna’s ideal opportunity came up during a career break. This would be the start of Rosanna’s career at Mary’s Living and Giving shops, first in Highgate and a year later Store Manager at Hampstead.
Commenting on the success of Mary’s Living and Giving shops, Rosanna identified how each shop is very different and they certainly don’t stick to a uniformed branding. This is also reflected in that each store has their own Twitter account, rather than a blanket social media covering all of the stores.
Rosanna lights up as she describes the internet interactions, “It’s amazing. The business side is brilliant and to be able to say ‘Happy Friday’ to all the local businesses and get them to say it back, it’s such a small thing but so special. There is a lot of love and it’s one of those situations where you don’t know what you really did before.”
With e-commerce growing every year, Rosanna is very intrigued to see what the possibilities are for Mary’s Living and Giving stores online, especially when bearing in mind the personal level they like to operate with in store.
“Once, a lady came in and asked if I’d be interested in vintage dresses. They were her 96 year old grandmother’s and were in immaculate condition. Being able to re-tell that story to future customers is really special and I don’t know how you would tell those stories online in the same way.”
To represent the local community in the best way possible, the Hampstead branch is designed by Central Saint Martin’s graduate and ex-Save The Children volunteer, Delia Covezzi. With features including a vintage globe, wooden benches and mini-milk bottle lighting to fit the ‘Old School’ theme.
But, pop down to the Primrose Hill shop and you’ll find a completely different scene. “The joy is that the other shops aren’t competition, so I can send them to the other stores when I think they’d like it.”
“The design is key to winning hearts and minds of the community and showing people we’re not trying to be flashy, we’re trying to be what you want and we always ask exactly that – what do you want it to be?”
Walking down the High Street, you’ll find big stores filled with products but in reality, how different are the stores to one another? Agreeing with Rosanna that the consumer is bored as the High street becomes “very samey and predictable”, her store offers a refreshing visual merchandising take which emphasise and embrace every product.
“People are excited when they come into our shops wondering what they’ll find this time.”
During the interview, the word which crops up over and over again is community. With the challenges of keeping each store local but still surviving in the City of London, it was important when the Hampstead branch opened to “make it clear it was going to be a part of the community and reflect their feelings.”
The “winning formula” as Rosanna describes is taking the visual impact of some of the bigger businesses and social media strategies and personalising them to each community hub, meaning the customer is excited and connected.
It’s important to remember that customers are not “aimless, robotic bodies” but are much more “demanding and imaginative about what’s possible in terms of shopping in terms of concepts and environments.”
“Mary’s Living and Giving works because it acknowledges that and successfully meets the customer, donor and volunteer somewhere pleasantly surprising on their spectrum of expectations.”
Despite being under the weather, by the end of the interview, Rosanna is clearly glowing as she talks Mary’s Living and Giving. Going beyond the physicality’s of the store, it’s always the people that make each store what it is. And, if every Mary’s Living and Giving store comes with a Manager as impassioned and driven as Rosanna, we know this new breed of charity shops is here to stay.
If you would like to donate to Save the Children, or visit one of Mary’s Living and Giving stores, please find all the information you need to know here: http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/get-involved/charity-shopping/marys-living-and-giving.