#amthinking: Are Charity Shops the Cuckoos of the High Street?

6666975941_36c18ea55c_zThe appearance of another charity shop in town this week was greeted by local social media users with cries of ‘Enough already,’ ‘Not another one,’ and, ‘Just what the town needs – not!’ The general consensus seems to be that we have too many charity shops and that they’re killing off the high street.

We do have lot of charity shops in Waterlooville. We’ve got national charities including British Heart Foundation, Sue Ryder, Marie Curie and Barnardos, plus local charities including The Rowans Hospice, ASAP Cat Rescue, Headway, Naomi House, Wessex Cancer Trust and Smile. The newest one to open was Stella’s Voice whose slogan is: protecting the world’s most vulnerable from traffickers. I’m pretty sure than none of the people who complained this week have a problem with charities in principle, just the sheer number of their shops. I understand that, but I’m not convinced that charity shops make our town ‘dismal’ or that they’ve ‘killed all the small businesses’.

I confess: I’m biased toward charity shops – my mum’s been working in and running them for 30 years, and my first ‘job’ as a teenager was in a Save the Children shop. I go into town most weeks specifically to do a trawl of the charity outlets, and I’ve picked up plenty of bargains over the years. But it’s not just me who thinks they’re a boon; a study carried out a couple of years ago, concluded that instead of being a blight on the high street, charity shops are actually a benefit.

The growth and continued presence of charity shops may have maintained footfall to high streets, which are suffering from the downturn. [There is] no evidence [charity shops are having an] adverse economic impact. Charity shops do not increase rents for other shops on the high street and do not prevent small and medium-sized businesses from opening on the high street.

I believe charity shops are healthy for town centres. They bring people, like me, into town and those people then go to other shops and use other facilities like the library. They act as little community centres for those looking for company and those looking to volunteer their services. They provide work experience for young people and those looking to return to work after a period of unemployment. They play an important role in reusing and recycling goods that might otherwise end up in landfill. They also occupy shop units that would otherwise be empty. One of the myths I come across regarding charity shops is that they pay reduced rents. They do pay reduced business rates, but their landlords are rightly out to make a profit and charge the charities accordingly. My mum’s shop (which, admittedly, is in a town closer to London) has to make at least £40,000 a year just to pay its rent. Charity shops pay full price on their utilities too. They don’t just use volunteers either; many pay their managers a wage.

The so-called decline of the high street should not be blamed on charity shops. It’s more likely due to the rise of online shopping, super-supermarkets and out-of-town shopping centres – all of which, of course, have their place too, but more on that next time …

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