Money for old robes

Britain's charity shops are big business, and could get bigger. But despite their multi-million pound turnover, Ben West finds they are still a haven for the sharp-eyed bargain hunter

"Thieving. That's what annoys me most working here," says Beverley Smith at the Save the Children charity shop in south-east London. "A lot of thieving goes on here. You put a good suit out for pounds 7.50 and someone steals the trousers the very same day. No one wants a suit jacket without the trousers."

It seems quite unbelievable that people should steal from charity shops, especially since the prices for most goods are embarrassingly cheap already. Then again, talk to many people about charity shops and they'll often venture the suggestion that all the best stuff is hived off by the staff.

I must admit, I have donated loads of black plastic bags to charity shops over the years, and I've never seen my stuff in the window. But Mrs Smith laughed when I suggested she might be pilfering my donated 1983 road atlas or murky beige Farah slacks created from a cocktail of man-made fibres that weren't even fashionable on the day of manufacture.

"Us taking things? We're sick of the sight of it all to be honest. If we do see something we like we pay for it just like a customer does," she says, waist-high in black dustbin bags stuffed with donated goods that she sorts through and prices daily. She concedes that sorting the goods is the hardest part, selling them is easy.

There are a number of reasons why a donor's goods may not be on display in the shop. Some charities have a policy to hold goods back for a few days in case the donor has second thoughts, some move stock to stores that get few donations. Clothes tend to be given at the end of a season, such as sweaters in the spring, and these are stored until a more appropriate time to sell. Obviously, some items are unsellable, but most charities manage to make money from almost everything, either by recycling textiles (Oxfam even has its own textile recycling plant) or offloading consignments to a scrap merchant.

"Charity shops are very environmentally friendly," says John Tough, head of the retail division at the British Red Cross. "Fewer new clothes have to be made so there are savings on imports, raw materials, and fossil fuels to drive the machinery. And we serve a need in the community, providing low-income families with clothing at low prices.

"In this area we get exceedingly good donations. We've got a lot of wealthy people in Henley," says Mary Hoskins, manager of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund's shop in that Thames-side Oxfordshire town. Despite the local wealth, this shop also suffers from shoplifting. "Absolutely disgusting, it's like stealing from your own mother," says Hoskins. The shop has a turnover of around pounds 115,000 a year, and unlike her 41 volunteers, Hoskins receives a salary.

The Henley shop has far less trouble obtaining good quality donations and big buyers than does Beverley Smith's shop in south London. "We received six bags this morning, including eight immaculate designer dresses, perfect for Henley Week. I can get at least pounds 60 for a good dress,'' Hoskins beams. By contrast, Mrs Smith had received no donated goods that day, only someone arguing over a button falling off a pounds 2 dress she'd just bought.

So what would a dream list of donated items be for your average charity shop? Unanimously, they ask for good-quality clothes, especially women's clothes. "That's what makes the most income, that's where the competition is fiercest," says Linda Arnold, operations manager at Save the Children. "Also good quality bric-a-brac and books. We often find people buy a book and then bring it back, we're like a mini-library. In university towns we do well with household items. The new students buy it to get through the next few years, and often donate it all back when they leave university. For summer balls they'll buy things like evening gowns. Often we find a garment like that doing two or three trips through the shop."

Things most charity shops don't want, especially in these litigious times, include anything that could fall foul of health and safety laws or that is bulky: perishables, gas appliances, children's car seats and shoes, riding hats, crash helmets, nursery equipment and cosmetics. Many stores won't accept electrical appliances unless they have access to someone qualified to test them. Few, except Oxfam, accept furniture.

Many shops have to pay to dispose of things they can't sell. The council charges 35p for each bag it takes away from Mrs Smith's shop. Even so, such costs are often easily absorbed. The public face of charity shops may be a couple of old dears grappling with such new technology as decimal coinage, but a survey last year by NGO Finance unearthed trade figures that would make any captain of industry proud: 4,542 UK shops contributed pounds 67m in annual profits on a turnover of pounds 247m. The biggest earners were Britain's 850 Oxfam shops - very few chain stores have more outlets - and each shop nets an average profit of pounds 418 a week.

Such success has increasingly led, despite the philanthropic intentions of charity shops, to widespread resentment from many small businesses, jealous of the mandatory 80 per cent cut in business rates that charity shops enjoy. A number of businesses are even mean-spirited enough to complain that charity shops steal their trade.

But it's not just local businessmen that today's charity shops have to contend with - it's themselves. In the last few years, such shops have been opening at a ferocious rate, which has led to extremely fierce competition for donated goods and volunteers.

"Boot sales have also really affected donated goods," explains Mrs Smith, rashly putting 25p price stickers on some James Last, Richard Clayderman and Chris de Burgh cassettes. "We used to get stuff good enough to go to auction, but not now."

Some staff simply don't know the cream from the dross: many charities don't give their staff much or any training in valuing items correctly, apart from a handful of basic guidelines. It's no surprise, then, that treasure slips through the net.

"These people don't know what they're selling, they haven't got a clue," says male model Phil Anderson, 30, on a regular shopping trip to his local Greenwich charity stores. "I've just been to Mencap and bought a Dunhill denim blouson, which retails for about 150 quid. They're selling it for six quid. I buy Marks and Spencer shirts for pounds 2.75 all the time, all washed and ironed for you. At that price you could wear them once and then throw them away."

Anderson is surprised at how stock can vary so considerably from area to area. "I found Kensington was bad, while Brighton and Bromley are good. At a Chiswick shop it looked like a wife had had an argument and dumped all her husband's clothes. I paid pounds 20 for about a thousand pounds' worth of stuff," he says.

Despite such problems, the underpricing of goods and increased competition for customers, donations and volunteers, the Red Cross's John Tough is very optimistic about the future. "Only 51 per cent of the adult shopping population has ever bought anything from a charity shop, so 49 per cent haven't used them. There's a vast untapped market out there," he says, with undisguised gleen

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

Ashdown Group: Analyst Programmer (Filemaker Pro/ SQL) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days, pension, private medical : Ashdown Group: A highly...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chessington

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Service Desk Analyst - Chessington, Surrey...

Charter Selection: Graphic Designer, Guildford

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Charter Selection: This renowned and well establish...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick