Outfitting or Off-Putting – The Great Charity Shop Debate Continued…

The exorbitant sums that some charity shops now charge… Is it right? I’m beginning to think not. And not for the reasons previously touted elsewhere.

To put this into some context I frequent six to eight charity shops around two or three times a week. I estimate that I spend somewhere in the region of £300 a month in charity shops. According to my tax returns I have done this for years. It’s a nice feeling that 90% of what we need to live and run a business we can find second hand. I would not change it for a second. No one in their right mind would want a charity to make anything less than the value of their items. I have given a few of my favourites copies of my books to help them look out for brands and styles. I want them to keep going.

Yet sometimes I am put off by charity shops. I will admit it. I find some of them greedy and I sometimes find them unethical. Looking past the fact that some charity shop workers do not know that Atmosphere is Primark and that no item should be priced above a pound or two (EVERYWHERE) and that sparkly New Look shoes cannot be priced at £10.99 when they are in the sale in the actual shop for £7.99 (you should know better, Oxfam). Regardless of the fact that you cannot price something as ‘new’ just because it still has a price tag attached (where has it been?). There are some things I find unforgivable. There are two examples I wish to share. These happened in big brand high street chains.

1)      Last year I saw a stunning 50s tiara with attached wedding veil in a second hand shop. The shop in question had a ‘vintage section’ – more on that later. The veil was priced at £45. The tiara had spokes of aurora borealis and the netting, although not fine, was in good condition. It was not a particularly sophisticated piece but it was immaculate. I would have said a fair price would have been £25 – £30 (unless you are putting it in a West London wedding dress shop, but that’s a whole new blog – one I will explore at a later date.) They would not budge on the price and over time it went through a very sorry decline. First a spoke was pulled off. The next time the netting had a tear. By my third visit a second row of beads made an escape across the floor, I just could not witness the destruction anymore. I picked it up and pointed out to the manager that it was a shame that it was getting ruined ‘at least try and fix it?’ I reasoned, ‘before you have nothing less to sell. Or maybe reduce the price to reflect its condition’. It was removed from the shop floor, never to been seen again. Had it been priced a bit better the charity would have made a sale and a happy bride could have looked after it.

2)      Three days ago I went to another well-known charity shop with branches nationwide and witnessed another careless act. Volunteers were being ordered to remove the bric-a-brac that had been on the shelves for over a week…and bin it. Yes, throw it in the bin. It all went in an industrial waste bin on the pavement outside. Some of that stuff was perfectly usable and sellable. Here is an idea: why not reduce it a bit? Sell it for a pound or two instead of trying to get £3.99? I wouldn’t want my donations to end up in landfill. That’s not right in my book. This was done in front of customers. How is that going to encourage people to donate?

I’m going to touch on another contentious issue. The ‘vintage section’. The shop that had the aforementioned wedding tiara is full of 70s crimplene priced between £19.99 and £29.99 (actual value £10-15 TOPS) Yet in the non-vintage section I pulled out a silk 60s Norman Hartnell for far less. In the shop across the road the manageress was proudly showing me the Polly Peck dress she has priced at £20 yet elsewhere in the shop was a 1950s cotton novelty print St Michael skirt for £7.50. The problem is, good vintage looks timeless, whilst terrible ‘vintage’ that is  more obviously old and outdated seems to be priced higher. I guess my beef with charity shops that have a vintage section is that they seem to be running on guesswork.  In my humble, those pricing the products are not looking close enough at the items. They are seeing old, pricing high and ignoring quality and aesthetic. My other half has a similar issue with records. Little attention to condition and pricing based on one instance of an eBay Buy-It-Now.

We do have one chain down here who get it right most of the time: The Rowan’s Hospice – 1980’s Laura Ashleys for £10 and simple 1950s dresses for £20. More than happy to pay that. They obviously have someone on board who knows their stuff but, crucially, they also recognise that they need to balance their pricing if they want their items to actually sell. No wonder they have expanded across Hampshire at a rate of knots.

OK, so there are costly overheads and targets to meet. Fine, I understand that. I work in two shops. However the busiest ones I know are the no-nonsense indies that price everything equally and put it all out on the shop floor. If shops skim off all the interesting bits to sell to dealers, the internet or worse, or let them get damaged beyond any real use due to over pricing, what do they think is going to attract people into their shop? A £4 Primark top? I think not.

So what is the answer? I am genuinely interested. Do you work for a well-known chain of charity shop? I can only comment on what I know as a consumer. Or have you experienced something similar. Do you have a completely different view? Please comment below.

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Comments ( 5 )

My mum ran a Bernardo’s CS for twenty odd years and the worst culprits for skimming were the staff (volunteers) but of course the shop relied on them to operate but the whole ‘dealer, internet’ problem arose from head office who issued an edit that anything which had a potential high value had to be assessed first. My mum refused to send clothes for assessment but had a ‘designer’ rail rather than a vintage one because she could spot a designer name but not vintage clothing

Jools commented on Feb 20 15 at 1:23 pm

Hi Naomi, many moons ago you helped me out with some great advice on the best vintage places to shop in London and I follow your exploits with interest.

This article is absolutely spot on. I buy vintage to re-use in my designs and more recently have set up another business in my other home in Girona, hiring Vintage for weddings (the trend is just starting to take off here!)

I split my time between the UK and here and when I am in England I always do a trawl of the charity shops. Many of the staff know me well and if there are certain things I am looking for they will save them for me. However, many of the shops skim off for sale on ebay or overprice. I still go but I buy less and there are some that I don’t even bother going in any more. Like you I appreciate that they are there to raise funds for the charity but where there was always a buzz and a queue at the till now they are very quiet and full of browsers not buyers. There must be a happy medium.

I find car boot sales much more useful as a source. Here in and around Girona/Barcelona the Brocanters markets are where I pick up my best stuff, Spanish, lots of French, Dutch and German vintage products from furniture to french knickers!

Wishing you well in your searching!

Anne-Marie commented on Feb 20 15 at 1:52 pm

I totally agree Naomi. I’ve been second-hand shopping since I was a teen and the majority of my wardrobe is from charity shops. I think it’s completely changed over the past 20 or so years, some are worse than others but the two things you’ve mentioned – a ‘vintage’ rail and over-priced Primark and H&M shoddy clothing – drive me mad. My local charity shops are pretty reasonable, Save the Children being the best, but when I was living in London so many of them were a joke, full of over-priced crap. Perhaps the people looking after the ‘vintage’ rails should visit a few vintage shops sometime and get a feel for the value of 70’s polyester?! I’m also absolutely horrified at the shop throwing stuff out, they could at least donate it to a children’s centre, nursery or to less well-off families. Chucking it is pretty despicable really.

Laura commented on Feb 20 15 at 7:36 pm

Hi I agree about charity shops charging the earth for junk vintage. Oxfam are one of the worst. They are upping their prices so much I am surprised no one is now questioning about being rates free. Their vintage prices can often be the same or more than vintage shops that pay rates!

Vanessa howard commented on Feb 21 15 at 10:29 am

I understand that some charity shops take more time and care over their items and the premises than others – they may be centrally sorted, then individual items steam-cleaned, prices checked online etc, so it’s not always a quick job getting items on to shop floors, and the shops organise items beautifully and obviously dust the bric-a-brac. I’ll be honest – I tend not to shop in those ones. I’m more interested in the ones where all adult clothing is £1, it’s piled high, they don’t sort it or arrange it or clean it – I’ve had my best finds from those places! Any of the big chains like Oxfam or Tenovus aren’t worth going in anymore for me, I might give them a cursory glance but I don’t find nice pieces, and if I do, they’re overpriced. Car boot sale and community shops for me now! x

Porcelina commented on Mar 11 15 at 2:43 pm

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