Future proofing your charity retail operation
I’ve been working with and talking to many charities with retail operations recently, and there’s quite a list of challenges they’re facing. These include:
- Falling profits
- Rising costs
- A slump on the high street
- Customers’ falling disposable income
- Post-Brexit drop in confidence
But it’s not all doom and gloom – In 2025 brick-and-mortar stores are still projected to deliver 85% of UK sales. But if you want to ensure that your charity is still generating a strong profit and profile from its high street presence, you must think differently. If you can adapt to the changing environment, this can be a very exciting moment in retail history. Here’s my 5 tips to stay ahead of the curve in charity retail:
- Online development
There’s no denying that if you’re going to stay ahead of the pack, you need a strong digital presence. A strong digital presence enhances the traditional shop experience, and vice versa. Look at Cancer Research UK – all shops are encouraged to have a social media presence. And about half of Oxfam’s 620 stores sell clothes online. As a result, these sales were up 33% at Christmas and it hopes to double its online sales to reach 5% of the business in just 3 years.
2. In store experience
Even the online giant Amazon is opening bricks and mortar stores because they know that a unique store experience gives shoppers a compelling reason to engage with and revisit the brand. John Lewis has a Customer Experience director and Waitrose is hosting yoga classes in some of its stores. It’s essential that charity retailers design and use the sales areas for experiences as well as for displaying products. Build stories not just stores!
Charities have some incredible brands and identities, so get these into your sales areas and bring the shopping experience to life. Martin House Children’s Hospice has done this brilliantly by adding the artwork used in the hospice onto the shop walls. Customers love the stronger association and will be increasingly buying into a brand as well as just purchasing a product.
3. Personalisation and the Retail Revolution
Three-quarters of customers want personalized shopping experiences as a more personalised experience makes customers feel good and keeps them coming back. Some commercial retailers use data-driven insights from customers’ purchases to deliver bespoke and unique customer experiences. Click2Fit is an American online fashion retailer that uses thousands of rules developed by personal shoppers to select each customer’s perfect items. After a few minutes creating a profile, the virtual personal shopper picks out clothing to fit and flatter you from styles that suit your lifestyle and budget.
The Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence are creating a Retail Revolution to support this further. This might involve robots picking and packing to reduce customer costs, automated till points to speed up shopping (debatable!) or door counters that connect and predict footfall to your phone along with weather apps to decide the number of staff needed to give customers the best service.
4. Environmental impact
Charity retailers reuse or recycle 95% of items donated to their shops, making the sector the greenest on the High Street. But this is not a well-known fact. In recent weeks, the grocer Iceland captured media headlines by declaring it will be the first UK retailer to abolish plastic packaging, and Wagamama announced it is ditching plastic straws. Charity retailers must seize the moment and start making the headlines – come on, who’s going to be the first to abolish plastic carrier bags?
5. Community: Growing loyalty
Retailers know that they must nurture customer loyalty and inject heart and soul into their business. Sonos studios in London is doing this by creating “a unique, acoustically tunable space where anyone can go to hear music as it should sound; where artists can experiment and share new ideas; a connecting point for a global network of musicians and makers.” It’s not a shop and you can’t buy Sonos products. It’s all about developing the brand’s relationship with its customers. When I developed the youth-led charity retail brand Goodstock, we knew it needed a unique identity and had to directly appeal to its customer base, so we added events and experiences such as a popup nail bar, stylists, a DJ spot, youth markets and a yoga class –hey Waitrose, charity retail got there first!
Two weeks ago I presented a plenary session to the Hospice UK retail conference on youth volunteering. Statistics recently released show that only 13% of the volunteers are under 25, lower than it was five years ago. But according to the BBC, there’s been a 52% increase in youth volunteering in that time. So why are young people choosing not to volunteer in charity shops?
Working with a youth charity, we commissioned some research into why young people don’t volunteer in charity shops and we had some interesting responses. A key one was that it’s not cool to shop or volunteer in a charity shop – the look and feel of the shop, the stock and the people don’t reflect young people and the shops they prefer. This is connected to a fear of rejection – some young people don’t feel they will be welcomed or accepted. On top of this, they may feel they can’t commit the hours the shop might want them to work, and they think they won’t get anything back, such as formal recognition for their work.
So how do we change this?
- Firstly, you need to create roles that young people will be interested in, such as visual merchandising volunteer, events planner and social media champion.
- Make sure you reflect young people in your publications, newsletters and any imagery in volunteer materials.
- Start holding joining and exit interviews to find out why young people come and go so you can identify ways to improve recruitment and retention.
- Think about where you advertise volunteer vacancies. Do you use colleges and universities, and social media?
- If you don’t offer training for your shop managers on equality and diversity, then start doing this now. All of your team need to understand why it’s important to recruit and retain volunteers from diverse backgrounds, so it’s essential they value young volunteers as much as you do.
- Get involved in youth volunteering campaigns – join in BBC Radio 1’s pledge to get young people volunteering 1 million hours http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0387cft
And why should you do all of this? Young people will safeguard your charity’s future, they have a vast amount to give – time and skills, they’re experts in new technology, video creation, social media, they bring a fresh and youthful dynamic to your shop and like attracts like – they bring more young volunteers, young customers and young donors to further increase the reach and value of your charity.
I’ll quote you from every woman.com’s account of this year’s everywoman in Retail Awards: ‘The evening ended in a standing ovation for Woman of the Year Award winner Jayne Cartwright of Save the Children UK. As they heard Jayne’s story in more detail, the audience were moved to rise from their chairs and toast their glasses to a woman who has made a phenomenal impact on the charity retail sector, creating a whole new landscape for the industry.’ to read more click here.
Jayne Cartwright inspires audiences locally and nationally, here, Jayne was addressing the audience when she won ‘Woman of the Year Award’.
Jayne championed the opportunity to work with Mary Portas, and project managed Save the Children’s significant role in the “Mary, queen of charity shops” BBC television series. She continued to work with Portas, then Grazia magazine, and headed up the biggest ever charity pop-up shop, raising £109,000 in three weeks.