It is a year since retail guru Mary Portas said charity shops needed to be less smelly and more beautiful. So are they changing? Catherine Scott reports.
Walking along the Queen’s Arcade in Leeds you are surrounded by trendy independent shops.
The newest addition to the Victorian glass-roofed arcade, however, is not a designer boutique or a cool jewellery shop – it is in fact a charity shop.
At a first glance you wouldn’t know it to look at it, as from the outside there is very little to suggest the Farrow and Ball-coloured shop front is Cancer Research UK’s newest charity shop. Look a little harder and there is subtle branding on the windows , but the external signage is nothing more than a brightly coloured ‘C’ hanging next to similar signs for Levis.
The differences aren’t reserved entirely for the outside either. As soon as you step over the threshold the shop feels different from other charity shops. There isn’t the telltale smell for starters. and the music is up to date. Clothes are colour-ordinated, fashionable and it is clear that thought has gone into the layout and design of the store.
Although there is the Cancer Research UK branding and advice, ad the odd nod to second hand toys, this shop defintley feels more retail than charity.
The fact the manager is a 26 year old fashion conscious charismatic character who defected from nearby high end Louis Vuitton to head up the shop is a clear indication of its intent. Mary Portas would be proud.
Just 12 months ago the retail guru warned that charity shops had to change or risked causing the demise of the High Street. She said they should become ‘beautiful, respectful’ places rather than being the ‘sad face’ in a parade of shops.
There are now 10,000 charity shops. Portas herself runs 15 stores for Save the Children following her three- part television series Mary Queen of Charity Shops which saw her overhaul their Orpington, shop.
“Mary Portas is something of a retail hero of mine,” says Luke Barker, manager of the Queen’s Arcade CRUK shop who is clearly taking something of gamble with his career. Not long ago he was attending the likes of Paris fashion week and travel ling Europe with his then employer Luis Vuitton, but has given it all up to manage this new concept charity story in Leeds.
Barker grew up in Thirsk, studied design at York College before doing a foundation degree in retail and design at Huddersfield University. His first job was working for Starbucks where he stayed for two years, but it is clear that his main passion is for fashion.
“I was interested in working for a global brand,” he explains. During his time there he wrote an article for Elle magazine about the different style tribes he witnessed throughout his working day. “Not only was it published in British Elle, it was published in Australia and South Korea.” After Starbucks he moved into fashion, ending up at Louis Vuitton in the Victoria Quarter, selling luxury high end goods to some of the area’s wealthiest people. It is all a far cry from running a charity shop, but the decision is not something Barker intends to regret.
“It is exciting for me to take that sort of risk, I like to push myself. I loved working for Louis Vuitton and it really helped to give me brand awareness.
“I love that Cancer Research UK has the bravery and daring to open up in the city centre.
“I’m going from one fashion extreme to the other, from high-end luxury to charity shop chic, but I want to show our customers that they really aren’t that far apart in terms of style. We’re not going to be all about vintage, shoppers will be able to pick up items that are bang on trend too.
“We hope it will bring the charity’s shopping experience to lots of new customers in Leeds and hope it will soon become a must on the fashion map of the city.”
The Queen’s Arcade store will cherry pick some of the best stock from it’s town centre charity shop, in order to maintain its quality.
He also plans to be proactive in encouraging his former customers to hand over their unwanted items, very much along the advice given by Mary Portas on how to give charity shops a make-over.
And it seems to be working. When Emmerdale actress Gaynor Faye openned the shop three weeks ago she managed to bag herself some designer bargains, including some Dolce and Gabbana. “People have a preconceived idea of what a charoty shop is and we are determined to show them that they are wrong,” says Barker.Many will see CRUK decision as brave at a time when some charity shops are moving out of the High Street altogether, The Alzheimer’s Society closed its last charity shop a couple of years ago as it was no longer financially viable. It now retails solely online, as other charities are now doing.
However NPC, which advises charities on how to maximise their impact, says having a charity shop can be about more than just raising funds.
“Primarily a charity shop is about making a profit,” says Iona Joy head of NPC’s charity unit. “Although they are important for awareness and brand identity. CRUK they must continue to monitor whether it is effective both in terms of making money and also in the supply of donated items.”
For now CRUK is happy with its decision, and so it appears are the shoppers of Leeds,