There are an estimated 11,000 -12,000 Charity shops located across the UK according to the Charity Retail Association. They play a hugely important part in many of our High Streets but for several years have received widespread criticism as somehow ‘taking over’ our local High Streets and as a result damaging the shopping appeal and vibrancy of these shopping areas.

The reality is quite different. Charity shops account for only around 5% of all retail outlets in the UK – and according to the latest data from LDC over 350 closed for good in 2020. So, the impression that charity shops are expanding hugely in numbers and swamping local retail locations is clearly not true.

However, I believe this impression may have been created because most charity shops are located in local High Streets and residential areas – only 5% are in shopping centres or retail parks.

Because charity shops also need to be located close to residential areas and have nearby parking facilities (so helping members of the public bring donated clothes and other household goods) it’s also not unusual to have two or three charity shops grouped together in adjacent retail units.

This all just means they are more visible to many of us daily and so perhaps leading to this widespread misunderstanding that Charity shops account for many more than just 1 in 20 retail outlets!

It’s also interesting that the largest ten national charities (Oxfam, Barnardo’s, THF, Cancer Research UK, Age UK etc.) together account for just 37% of all charity shops, and so the vast majority are smaller and less well-known charities which are often closely linked to local communities and operate without the infrastructure and full-time paid employees of some of the major charities.

In total, charity shops provide a total of almost £400m income for charities every year but rely on local public donated clothes and other household goods for 90% of this total.

Over the past year and since the first COVID-19 lockdown, almost all the 166,00 registered charities and voluntary organisations across the UK, and not just those with shops, have been hit by several unpredicted challenges.

This has involved not only the cancellation of almost all their regular fund-raising activities such as street or door-to-door collections, as well as a range of charity sponsored sporting events, ranging from marathons runs to parachute jumps, but the enforced closure (as ‘non-essential’ retailers) of all their shops.

Charity shops across the UK rely on an army of over 230,000 volunteers to keep operating, but because many are retired and so older, they have not all been able to continue because of shielding or other health concerns related to COVID-19.

This slump in charity shop income has happened at the same time as services provided by many charities have been in greatest demand. With unemployment rising above 5%, over 700,000 jobs lost since COVID-19 began last year and with 5 million employees still supported by Government furlough schemes which will inevitably have to be wound down this year.

According to the Resolution Foundation, the poorest 20% of UK households have seen their savings deteriorate over the past 12 months and in a recent survey conducted by Pro Bono Economics 72% of those charities which responded said they expect to see an increase in demand for their services over the next sis months, compared to pre-COVID expectations.

Meanwhile many of us have taken the opportunity to clear out wardrobes and cupboards at home during lockdown and so there are huge volumes of clothing and household goods just waiting to be taken to local charity shops once lockdown eases.

However, COVID-19 rules mean donated goods now need to be ‘quarantined’ for at least 48 hours before being checked, sorted, and displayed for sale which will present yet another logistical and operational challenge for the volunteers involved, often working is relatively small retail units with limited storage space.

So, the reopening of many charity shops next week is very welcome, but still not without challenges for a sector which, as a friend recently reminded me, plays such an important role at both ends of the value chain (‘people want to donate, and people want to buy’) and so is an established and valuable part of our retail landscape.


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Clarence Choe