A browser’s paradise for these hard times

DURING the last recession, we all knew about charity shops.

Everyone bought their narrow ties, pre-owned suits and 1940s dresses from shops in Walkley or Woodseats or Abbeydale.

Many of those Sheffield coats and jackets went on to star in music videos when their owners became famous and we all had some money again.

Back in the day, we were not familiar with terms like faux vintage, designer distress or Mary Portas.

But a year or two ago, Mary and fellow retail gurus officially recognised what Sheffielders have known for generations: charity shops are worth a visit, even if you do have enough money to shop in the High Street too.

People in Hillsborough don’t need telling. When the new St Luke’s Hospice shop opened a few weeks ago, there was a big queue.

“We beat all our targets for the first week,” said shop manager Emma Haunt.

Clothing, glassware, kitchen utensils and assorted bric-a-brac were all selling well. “People may not have got as much money but they can come here and still get something new they like, something fresh. They can still update their wardrobe but at less cost than if they went into a non-charity shop.”

Sheffield folk like a bargain, said St Luke’s spokesman John Highfield. “It’s that simple. You might pay £50 for a skirt in the High Street or come in here and spend £5.”

Post Portas, charity shops are busily brand realigning. St Luke’s is very upfront about the fact that the charity needs £4m a year from public support in order to provide its free ‘end of life’ care to the people of Sheffield, via its hospice, day care, therapy and nursing.

And it takes the money-raising role of its eight (soon to be nine) Sheffield shops very seriously.

They have to be run as a business, so each shop has professional managers as well as the essential volunteers who help behind the counter or upstairs, where the daily donations are sorted, valued, priced and tagged. Last year, the shops made the charity a record £800,000.

St Luke’s takes its ‘brand’ very seriously too. “We want to develop brand loyalty,” said John Highfield, fully aware of how controversial that might sound to those who prefer a more knitted tea cosy image of charity retailing.

“People go into a St Luke’s shop and it reminds people of the hospice. I think we actually want people to think of the charity as a brand, which people know and trust and depend upon, and I think the shops reflect that.”

So the St Luke’s shops are intended to look like shops, not charity shops. Emma and deputy manager Francesca Bradshaw check the value of donated items and ensure they’re priced and displayed appropriately.

They respond to customers and to market demand: students and young people want ‘vintage’ clothes and houseware, Hillsborough shoppers have asked for (new) wool for knitting and staff are already preparing royal ware for the wedding.

But there are still surprises for the discerning charity shopper. “The shops are a browser’s paradise. People come in for a good old nosey and a good old root around,” said John.

Versace trousers and Cardin shirts have been in evidence already in Hillsborough, he noted, as well as collectable household ephemera from the 1950s to 80s.

Last week the Hillsborough St Luke’s shop was as busy as any greengrocers or butchers on Middlewood Road. The shop has already signed up 20 volunteers to help in its first four weeks and the local population has quickly moved in to support by buying and donating stock: 30 or 40 bags of goods a day have been arriving, said Francesca Bradshaw.

Everything is welcome: even worn out clothes or books are useful as they can be recycled in bulk to make a bit of money for the charity.

The clothing is steam cleaned before being sold but please give it a bit of wash before donating, said Emma. Also, please bring your donations during working hours as bags left outside overnight can be vandalised or stolen.

In the past, the charity shop has sometimes been seen rather negatively by other retailers trying to gauge the health of regional shopping centres. But it’s clear the Hillsborough St Luke’s is helping bring shoppers into the area.

“This is a shop, you can take the ‘charity’ out of the equation,” said John. “We are making money for our employer and that’s what it’s all about.”

Charity shops are the original recyclers, particularly in a recession where there’s a growing demand for secondhand goods.

Kate Pickin is already a regular St Luke’s customer. “When I want something new to wear I often come here and I often bring back things I’ve already bought and worn, so they can be used again, and to benefit the charity.”

Emma Haunt worked for a major high street retailer for 15 years before coming to St Luke’s. “I worked hard there but here I know my hard work is going to a good cause. It feels so different to go home and think that the money we took today is going to change lives and help people, whereas before it was just going to a company that pays your wages.”