FAQs: Charity shops

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What is a charity shop?

Charity shops are largely a British institution. They are retail outlets selling mainly second-hand donated goods to raise funds for their parent charities. Every year charity shops raise around £290m for a range of causes in the UK. They also function as a way of raising awareness of the parent charity.

Traditionally, charity shops used to occupy unlet or unpopular premises but the majority are now not permanent. The recession has meant that more than 1 in 10 town centre shops are now empty (BRC research as of Jan 2013). Charity shops are able to fill some of these premises. They also often work with local businesses to increase footfall on high streets.

Charity shops can only be set up by charities. An individual cannot set up a charity shop.

>> Learn more about how charity shops work

When was the first charity shop opened?

In the 19th century the Salvation Army ran second hand clothing shops to provide the urban poor with cheap clothing. At the outbreak of World War Two, other charities such as British Red Cross started to also operated shops as a way raise money for the war effort and relieve hardship. However, modern charity shops as we understand them - retail units selling overwhelmingly donated goods to raise as much cash as possible for the parent charity - did not appear until after WWII. The first of these was opened by Oxfam in 1947 and is still in operation today. Oxfam had been swamped by donations from the public (mostly blankets and clothing) following its appeal for aid to alleviate the post-war situation in Greece. The success of this appeal yielded so many donations that it was decided to set up a shop in Oxford to sell a portion of these and to use the profits to further fund aid in Greece.

How many charity shops are there in the UK and Republic of Ireland?

Our current estimate is over 10,200. Charity shops can be found on high streets throughout the country.

Within those 10,200 shops we estimate that there are:
8,200 in England
900 in Scotland
500 in Wales
300 in Northern Ireland
300 in the Republic of Ireland

While some charity shops have closed in recent years, overall the numbers are increasing, as charities seek to increase their fundraising profile while also preventing sale-able goods from going into landfill.

Who works in charity shops?

Although there has been an increase in the number of paid staff in recent years, the majority of people working in charity shops are volunteers. There are more than 213,000 volunteers nationwide, and some shops are run entirely by volunteers.

Why do people shop in charity shops?

Many people shop in charity shops because they want to support the activities of the parent charity. A growing number of people use charity shops because of the environmental and ethical benefits of the reuse of goods, rather than buying completely new goods, or simply dumping used goods. Other people shop in charity shops because they like the range of goods available - many charity shops stock clothes, furnishings, crockery, CDs and videos which are no longer available in other stores. Many people visit charity shops to pick up retro clothing in particular. Charity shops are also popular because the prices charged for items are often lower than other shops, even commercial second-hand shops.

Where do the goods in charity shops come from?

85% of the goods sold in charity shops are donated by the public; however, some shops do sell what are termed ‘bought-in’ goods. These are new goods which are bought and sold for profit. From our surveys, we know that the average charity shop sells 3% new goods. Many shops - especially smaller hospice shops - sell only donated goods, but others sell both bought-in and ethically produced ‘fair trade’ goods. However, a shop must sell wholly or mainly donated goods in order to retain its status as serving a "charitable purpose". Donations of goods and their sale in charity shops are environmentally friendly actions, as goods are reused, rather than being discarded or simply recycled.

What do charity shops sell?

Most charity shops sell ladies', men’s and children’s clothing, books, toys, ornaments, kitchenware, videos, music, computer games, furnishings and bric-a-brac. Some charity shops also sell furniture and electrical appliances, and some are specialist shops, such as charity bookshops, bridal wear or music shops. As most of the items sold are donated and much of the work is voluntary, charity shops have relatively low costs.

What tax concessions do charity shops get?

Charity shops benefit from tax concessions under UK tax law because all the profits from a charity shop go to fund the work of the charity, which provides public benefit. Charity shops, therefore, serve a "charitable purpose". Charity shops benefit from exemption from corporation tax on profits, a zero VAT rating on the sale of donated goods and 80% mandatory non-domestic rate relief, on property taxes. This 80% relief is funded by central Government. A further 20% rate relief is available at the discretion of local authorities. Other types of business are eligible for different sorts of relief from full business rates liability; these include small business rate relief, and relief for small shops in rural settlements.

What happens to the money that is raised?

Money that has been raised goes towards the parent charity, to further their charitable work. Last year charity shops raise more than £220 million, funding medical research, overseas aid, environmental initiatives, supporting sick and deprived children, homeless people, mentally and physically disabled people, for animal welfare and for many other causes.

How can I complain to a charity shop?

The Association does not deal with complaints about individual charity shops but expects their members to have a proper complaints procedure in place to deal with concerns from the public and to comply with the Code of Charity Retailing. The best way to deal with a complaint is to raise the issues with either the charity shop manager or the charity’s head office. The charity will want to be made aware of your complaint. You can telephone the Charity Commission if you want to find out the contact details for a particular charity on 0845 300 0218.


Updated: 7 October 2013