An opportunity not to be wasted?

A guest post from Liz Hughes writing in a personal capacity on charity shops and the possible ‘new normal’. You can follow Liz on LinkedIn

As charity shops prepare to re-open I am wondering when I will next visit one. Pre COVID-19 I was a regular charity shop browser. I loved this green and frugal form of consumerism – a purchase meeting a need or desire, while also offering the warm glow you get from supporting a charity. It wasn’t that I was looking for a particular book or item, it was speculative shopping for me, purchases were the product of happy happenstance. Any discovery being even more of a prize for having been unexpected. But have shopping habits changed in the last twelve weeks?

Charities have been missing the income from their shops (valued at £295 million a year by Charity Retail), and I imagine the community has also been missing the wider good these high street stores do for both donors and buyers. If we didn’t have this glorious cycle of giving and getting things, then arguably we would need to invent it. But in the aftermath of COVID 19 is there an opportunity to look to see if we can reinvent buying from charity shops?

As charity shops reopen in the coming weeks it remains to be seen if we all assume old buying habits. During the lockdown it seemed strange to think that we crowded into small stores to pick through items, when we knew nothing about where they had come from or who had handled them. For a while I have wondered why charity shops have not changed more in response to technological, community and consumer changes over recent years. As we all take steps to move forward in the shadow of COVID 19 is there an opportunity for a creative discussion about how we might reimagine charity shops?

Many former charity shop volunteers have been shielding or isolating and there has been an appeal for new and younger volunteers, as many charity shops have an older volunteer base.  But could we need more than to try and replicate what we had before with a younger workforce?

Many charity shops are small and will find it hard to effectively accommodate social distancing. This could be compounded by the long-time trend for people to shop online more, which has also been accelerated by the crisis. There will also be an issue of trust and safety as people will wonder how they ensure the items in store are not contaminated with the virus.

From my perspective browsing in charity shops was a pastime rather than an efficient way to shop, where purchases were often luck and happenstance rather than a way of reliably finding new clothes for rapidly growing children, or for locating a particular book I was looking for. Are there other ways to deliver the benefits of charity shops, perhaps using technological platforms and partnership working? Could charities work together, to make searching through their combined stock easier to find what you might be looking for? Is anyone interested in having a conversation about what charity shops could become in the future?

In a community the size of Cambridge is there a real opportunity to collectively create a smarter way of operating the stores which could in turn create more benefit and perhaps also have a smaller environmental footprint?

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