Charity shops could be the answer our high streets are looking for – but only with a little innovation
veryone loves a boom story. The art boom of the Nineties galvanized British culture. The mobile technology boom over the last decade transformed the way we live and work. So why is there so little enthusiasm for the charity shop boom on the high street? The answer is because it’s a boom without innovation.
Recent news that annual income for UK charity shops has reached an all time high of almost £1billion was greeted by deafening silence. I know of not one single commentator hailing the phenomenal growth of charity shops on UK high streets as something to celebrate. On the contrary, their success has attracted plenty of criticism. High streets with an over reliance of charity shops are portrayed on regional news programmes as failed shopping areas. MPs complain about the unfair subsidies they get towards business rates. Property agents see them as a sign that investor confidence has gone.
Charity shops have been on our high streets for as long as I can remember. But unlike the best retail brands they have failed to win a place in the nation’s hearts. That in itself is quite remarkable considering the amazing good work that charities carry out.
But it needn’t be this way. The boom for charity shops gives them an opportunity to genuinely re-shape the high street and take a radical departure from their tried, tested and often tatty model to embrace real innovation.
In London’s E1 there are already signs of this alternative approach, which breaks free from the old fundraising model, to make the high street a frontline for creative service delivery.
A diverse neighbourhood featuring the gentrified Spitalfields, the gloriously unreconstructed Petticoat Lane and Toynbee Hall, a Victorian settlement house, which has pioneered new ways of working with communities since it was founded, is arguably the perfect environment for Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people, and their Skylight Café project.
The area moves from fast food takeaways and greasy spoons to hipster hangouts, and the Skylight Café is in the middle of the market, with some bare brick, scattered furniture and a huddle of people working on laptops. There’s a warm smile when you walk in, and prompt, polite service. There’s also a pot of decent tea for a quid which is rare in London.
It’s in this unassuming, relaxed café atmosphere that a quiet revolution is taking place. The Skylight Café is not just a café, it’s a training centre, with a clear, well-trodden path to take people back to work and it’s been doing that since 2004. There are around a dozen trainees running the cafe, working 2-3 shifts a week, and each trainee is with the café for four months. Every month, at least two trainees leave the café to go back to work. They’re helped by a job coach, working alongside them during their four month training.
The Skylight Café is a social enterprise, and is about to become more sustainable as external catering contracts pick up and increase the café’s income – and it’s a model Crisis have already replicated in Oxford and Newcastle.
This is surely the kind of project Mary Portas had in mind when she said that high streets of the future would need to incorporate a stronger social dimension. It’s also the kind of approach that wins hearts and minds because local communities see the benefits being delivered and not just money being raised.
Instead of town centres being used by charities purely to fundraise to achieve their aims elsewhere, wouldn’t it be better for local communities if the high street was seen as a place for dynamic delivery too?
There are already over 5,500 charity shops on our high streets and while fundraising has to underpin their existence, burgeoning profits must mean there is some flexibility to try out new models instead of rolling out the same shop everywhere. If more charities were to adopt this approach, it could herald a vibrant era of social enterprise on the high street with health clinics, literacy and technology classes and community centres just some of the ventures we could expect to see springing up.
Bringing back vibrancy and relevance to the high street remains a monumental task requiring all interested parties to step up to the plate and play their part. Riding the crest of a boom, charity shops are in a strong position to do this. By varying their offer with new, creative models they could start to be seen as saviours of the high street rather than symbols of its decline.
Dan Thompson will be speaking at High Street Revival in Manchester on June 15.
Source: The Independent : 6th June 2012go back to the news page