Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Mary Queen of Charity Shops?

I have just finished watching the final instalment of BBC2's series on charity shops. Mary Portas, whose last series sprucing up independent high street fashion retailers inspired me for my little charity shop, takes on a Save the Children shop in Orpington - one of their lowest performers at £900 a week. I take that in two days.

When I heard about this project I was really pleased, as I'd thought when watching the last series that she ought to take on charity shops. Finally the series aired, and there I was, perched eagerly on the edge of the sofa, notepad in hand, ready for the pearls of wisdom to start falling from her magisterial lips... But alas! It seemed as the first episode unravelled, that she had no idea what she was doing. It was hilarious in a way, watching my life on television - she was horrified, confused, frustrated and frequently totally stumped by problems I encounter every day. Disgusting donations, elderly volunteers unwilling to change the habits of 40 years, and the terrible attitude of customers and the public.

Fortunately, as the series went on, she got the idea - the shop was refitted, a manager was brought in, she came up with new campaigns to canvas for decent stock. At least she understood that the key was the stock! It took a while for the penny to drop with the volunteers though.

Now, a lot of people have complained that she expected too much of the staff; and too much for the stock. Treating volunteers like paid staff is contentious but frankly, I agree. Whilst I do try to be diplomatic with mine, they are still there to do a job, and if they aren't doing it properly what's the point?! It is selfish, a she pointed out in the last episode, to ignore what is asked of you for the benefit of the shop in order to just carry on your own sweet way because that's how you like it. And as far as the stock pricing goes - well, we could be here all day if I get on my soap box about that, needless to say so many people just want something for nothing and that's not fair on the charity either. Why is it that it's seen as somehow unacceptable for a charity to make money? No one quibbles about paying £15 in Gap for a t-shirt made by small children, which goes straight into the pockets of people who don't need it, to continue the exploitation of those who do.

Moving on to my next point. What has vexed me about this series, as I was discussing with my manager earlier today, is the way she has portrayed charity shops. She may be trying to lift their reputation but in doing so she has only shown the bottom of the barrel. The programme is basically tarring us all with the same brush (apologies for the cliches), and she trolls out some ideas, branded as innovative Mary originals, which have been going on in charity shops for years! Getting students to flog their hand-made designs in the shop and splitting the profits is not only happening in several large charity retailers, but is in fact the whole basis of one chain of shops in particular. Canvassing big businesses has also been tried, with varying levels of success.

She's making out that no one in their right mind would ever shop in a charity shop unless they've taken on board what she's got to say about them; and that the idea of getting a fresh young crowd in by promoting second-hand shopping in the fashion press is a totally new one. Charity shopping has been cool in many circles for some time. It was cool when I was at school and it's still cool now. A large portion of my customers are students buying up hideous old lady dresses (I don't know what it is about floral crimplene, but it's gold dust) in huge sizes to drape over their tiny frames and glam up with tacky gold belts and plastic earrings. Bandwagon, anyone?

I think the programme could at least have had a five-minute focus on a successful shop and demonstrated that it can be, and is, done! But I suppose that would have taken the gloss off her own miraculous achievement. Ok, it makes better television, I get it (one more reason why I don't watch tv) - at least it's put us in the public eye a little more. And if it means people will think twice before dumping a big pile of children's underwear and a broken food processor on my doorstep of a morning, I will be very pleased indeed!


fizfuller said...

a really balanced view of the TV programme - i work for a charity myself - do not have any shops but do rely on vollies for so much but it is always hard to get them to change their ways!

Retro Chick said...

I completely agree with every word you've said!

From the other side of the counter (I shop in Charity Shops a lot, in fact almost exclusively!) I think that most of the shops I frequent are clean, fairly priced (by which I mean priced to sell, but not stupidly low) and have polite and switched on staff.

I've just reviewed the series myself on my blog as well.

Pasty Muncher said...

Why has it taken so long for charity shops to refrain from being dumping grounds. Donations should be given as individual unwrapped items so at least two people can accept or politely reject items - no stuffing black bags black bags = bin liners.

You ask why the programme didn't take the opportunity to feature successfull charity shops - good point - it would have helped encourage more consideration when offering doantions.

I notice that some charities are upping their game online - Oxfam for example are developing an online shop for donated clothes and second hand books.

I was particularly interested to see a range of charity gifts that go directly to those who need them most.

You can give presents such as clean water, seeds even a goat!

Interestting to see that Oxfam are exploring the generosity of wedding gifts with their own version of an online wedding list

Charity shops are at at last moving forward and full marks for those crusading for change.

The Charity Shop Fairy said...

Thanks for your comments, it's very gratifying to know that my audience extends beyond my immediate family...

mindsplurge said...

Thanks for this. I'm doing a bit of research before going to help out at a charity shop that raises money for lots of local charities. I'm going to do some development work/helping them with fresh ideas. I'm sure I will be visiting your blog lots!