“…and of course you will be volunteering with our members…” It was my first sit down with my new boss, Robin Osterley, and he was explaining how my induction in to the Charity Retail Association would run over the coming weeks. After eight years championing local infrastructure organisations, most recently as head of membership at NAVCA, up until lately my knowledge of charity retail was limited to what I spent at my local charity shops. But already, from researching the sector to support my new role as Partnership Lead at CRA, I had become fascinated by the charity retail sector and all it had to offer. Reading CRA’s Strategic Plan really brought to life the essential role – as a place of employment and volunteering, as supporters of environmental sustainability, as a community hub or accessible online resource – charity retail has in the UK.
I had never volunteered in a charity shop. My stint working in a stationary shop during my student days was decades in the rear-view mirror. My most recent volunteering experience was as an elf at a charity run Santa’s grotto and somehow I didn’t think “bring your own pointy ears” would be a requirement for this next gig – there is an “elf and safety” joke in there somewhere…
I chose the two shops nearest to my home in Sheffield, a branch of Barnardo’s and a branch of St Luke’s, a local hospice known and respected throughout the local Sheffield community. In terms of size and style they couldn’t have been more different. Barnardo’s is a large store with a huge sorting department, selling everything and everything you could think of – a real treasure trove. St Luke’s is a small, ‘boutique’ style outlet, with a gorgeous floral window display and where each beautiful item of clothing on offer has been carefully curated for maximum visual impact. It really hit home for me that no two charity shops are the same, all have their own unique offer.
But here is what they had in common
- Amazing people. Sophie at Barnardo’s and Chloe at St Luke’s are both phenomenal store managers. They supported staff and volunteers, never took their eye of the ball and created a welcoming environment to all who entered. I felt in safe hands and part of the team from the moment I entered.
- The fun never stopped! I was blown away at just how BUSY it was behind the scenes. Sorting, steaming, restocking, pricing, tidying; everyone working together to make the best of the space and every inch of that space was put to good use.
- Above and beyond customer service. Barnardo’s is a large shop with a constant flow of customers and people coming in with donations, but there was nothing brusque about the service from the team. Everyone was treated with kindness, and where it was obvious someone had come in not for just a browse but a bit of a chat too, they were made to feel especially welcome. St Luke’s excelled in friendly, tailored customer service. The team helped customers find the right item, gave fitting room feedback and I saw many people leave with a bag full of purchases having had the benefit of a ‘personal shopper’ experience like nowhere else on the high street.
I am so grateful I got to volunteer; I felt useful and I learned so much. As I find my feet in my new role, I can’t wait to visit our corporate members, and my time at Barnardo’s and St Luke’s will really help me put in to context how the services they offer support charity retailers and the vital role of charity shops in the community. I hope to visit more of our charity retail members too, as both a volunteer and customer, as not only did I gain new insight from volunteering, I also got some cracking bargains!