By Claudia Heywood
It’s August 2020, we’re heading into probably the worst recession any of us will live through and the Covid-19 cloud still hangs heavy overhead. As Faversham’s non-essential outlets gradually awaken from their induced coma and we take our first tentative consumer steps, charity shops are among the last to splutter back into life.
Lockdown rang the death knell for many an independent retailer, while incarceration brought about a preoccupation with all things domestic. We had reason, and certainly time, for indiscriminate online shopping. We couldn’t support our local shops so comforted ourselves by buying lots of stuff from faceless multinationals. We now have an overstock of things we don’t need. Charity shops are very much a part of the deep clean that we are forced to consider.
These days the merits of a town can be judged in part on its charity shops. As a 70s child I was mortified to be seen in ‘jumble clothes’; now I’m more than happy to admit that much of my wardrobe is made up of recycled items. If I am a shopper, I am at least a green one. Anyone commenting kindly on my ‘vintage style’ will usually then observe, somewhat ruefully, that Faversham is home to a particularly high standard of charity shops.
Shopping behaviours have changed. Once upon a time people would choose to visit a town for its clutch of antique shops; today they are just as likely to make a similar pilgrimage to scour charity shops. They smell of steam now, not mildew. They are managed, tidied and styled, and have a hierarchy all their own. I can embrace rainy Saturday afternoons trawling around the eight we have here in Faversham, depositing unwanted items in one and, minutes later, discovering items I never knew I wanted or needed in another!
It’s a highly evolved and refined sort of consumerism.
Reports of the economic havoc wreaked by the pandemic suggest charities are among those hardest hit. In June, Cancer Research suggested a 25% decline in fundraising income, with Oxfam claiming a £5m loss in revenue. This is incredibly saddening – after all, charities only exist to supplement inadequate government provision. They fully deserve the 80% business rates relief that allows them to trade in the first place.
But is their growing number and (usually) thriving trade actually contributing to a continued decline of the local economy? Faversham has an impressive range of necessary shops and services – doctors, dentists, chemists, banks and several supermarkets – and the town retains a variety of independent retailers. There always seems to be a new business willing to risk the outlay on exorbitant rent, and we always pray they will succeed. Many don’t, of course, and an empty unit isn’t a good look for a pretty town. Charity shop managers are aware, and indeed proud, of the fact that, invariably, a landlord will see the sense of renting the space to them.
This is great for the charity and for the volunteers who staff the shop, but it reduces our ability to support independent retailers. Surely the conscientious, principled consumers who visit charity shops are the same people who, where possible, shop locally, celebrating small businesses and bypassing the multinationals. Does the prevalence of charity shops mean we are actually being denied the choice we claim to cherish? And, a tragedy greater than compromised choice, will there even be such a thing as paid work for future generations in the home town we so believe should accommodate them.
What do other shopkeepers think
Local proprietors, while conceding that success is a struggle for small businesses, seem fairly philosophical. They clearly don’t see charity shops as a threat and several of them benefit from rates relief. National research into the failure of independent high-street establishments points instead to the age-old problem of supply and demand. Businesses that fail in their first year may sometimes be inadequately researched, but, more pertinently, they are simply prohibited from delivering their product for the low price we have come to expect from chains Bar the annual occasions that draw visitors to Faversham, all would agree footfall is a problem.
It is widely thought that local council controls the variety of shops in our town. In reality, the private landlords have this power. A charity shop is a low-risk concern: it fills a gap and pays the rent. We can probably anticipate many more of them.