Three months ago, the UK’s 12,000 charity shops closed their doors.
They closed for the same reason as nearly every other shop on our high streets. The threat of coronavirus – and the attendant risk that ill people would overwhelm the NHS if the public carried on travelling, working and mingling as usual – meant that businesses had no choice but to stop trading. Charity shops were shuttered along with everyone else.
It soon became clear that charities were going to take a huge financial hit as a result.
The chief executive of the Children’s Society wrote in The Sun that closing charity shops was contributing to his charity losing £1m every month. Oxfam GB bosses told staff that they were losing £5m a month. Scope said that its chain of shops, now lying empty, normally made around £1.6m a month.
Today, after so many weeks of lost revenue, charity shops are opening up again, in line with other businesses. But they are doing so slowly and cautiously. The road ahead is likely to be very tough indeed.
Today’s the day
Civil Society News has been in touch with several of the largest charity shop chains in the country to check on their plans.
Scope said that they are starting to reopen shops today. So too is Barnardo’s, which will open 70 shops, around one in 10 of all its stores. DEBRA said some of its shops will open tomorrow.
The British Heart Foundation – which has more shops than any other charity – confirmed that it is re-opening stores “in mid-June”, and Sue Ryder said “a small number” of its stores will reopen at some point this month.
Sense and Sense International shops start to reopen in a week, from 22 June, while Cancer Research UK is reopening some stores a fortnight from today on 29 June.
The Children’s Society says that it plans a “slow and staggered re-opening” from July 1, while Save the Children will also look at re-opening shops next month.
Everything has changed
The situation in which shops are operating has changed dramatically since March.
Voluntary organisations are adapting their services to keep everyone safe, and this means that charity shops are going to look and feel very different.
All the organisations contacted by Civil Society News say they will reopen their shops in phases, rather than rushing back into business. Eighty per cent of Charity Retail Association members also said this was their plan.
As a spokesperson for Scope put it, reopening shops over a longer period is “an opportunity to test and learn”, as people adjust to new rules and risks.
Those new rules will affect customers. Anyone entering a Sense or Sense International shop next week, for example, is likely to find perspex screens at the till, and floor markers to help enforce social distancing. Shoppers at Barnardo’s will be encouraged to use hand-sanitiser at the entrance, and will find that the changing rooms have been closed.
DEBRA charity shops will ask shoppers to use contactless payments wherever possible and discourage the use of cash. Scope will ask shoppers to enter one at a time.
Many charities have also asked people with donations to call ahead, to ensure both that shops have capacity to take goods and that the number of people on the premises is controlled.
It is likely those goods will then be left in isolation for three days before being distributed, to decrease the chance of the stock being contaminated when it reaches the shop floor.
These changes largely follow guidance issued last month by the Charity Retail Association (CRA), which explains how the new rules will affect charity shop managers, staff and volunteers.
After such a long period away, the CRA says that charities might even need to hire private waste removal companies to get rid of donations dumped outside their store. It also said that there are “many unknowns” for managers as the country emerges from lockdown, including the possibility that staff and volunteers will need bereavement and wellbeing support.
And the Textile Recycling Association (TRA) has identified another potential problem. It says that as coronavirus has caused the global recycling industry to seize up, there will be no market for charity shops to sell on their excess stock.
Resold stock – known as rag – can be a serious business. The British Heart Foundation made £17m last year selling rag through its charity shops. Even as shops start to reopen and sell again, that income might be at risk.
What help is on hand?
Older people have been especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, and the CRA recognises that this could reduce volunteer numbers at a time when they are most needed.
In response, it has launched two schemes for getting help to charity shop staff.
Firstly, it has teamed up with the National Citizen Service to recruit 16 and 17-year-olds as volunteers, who will then provide a million hours of free support as the stores get back on their feet.
And secondly, it has partnered with the web developer Wil-U to match potential volunteers with shops. Individuals simply enter their details into a website, and they will be directed to a shop where they can help out.
Wait and see
Both these schemes are still in their infancy. We will need to wait and see how successful they prove.
The coronavirus crisis has been frightening, and it is not over. But there is always a glimmer of hope in life returning to normal. And, starting today, we will see that normality again. Charity shops are back.
Editor's note: This article was updated to amend information about Save the Children charity shops.