A licence to level retail playing field

SO, what’s the only type of outfit that’s still expanding on our High Streets?

By The Newsroom
Monday, 23rd April 2012, 8:08 am

The fish spa craze appears to have come and gone, the coffee bar boom seems to have slowed down, new nail stylists are still popping up here and there, but there’s only one retail sector that still seems to be in booming health. Charity shops.

Now I’m not going to start moaning about the proliferation of charity shops in our town centres – they’re a key part of the retail mix, and my mother-in-law isn’t the only keen shopper I know who will make her destination decisions based on how many chances she will have to ferret around for a bargain.

Most of the books and CDs piled up around Dee Towers waiting for eyes and ears to become available were snapped up from charity shop shelves, and I’ve bagged plenty of other bargains in my time.

But if I was trying to make a living in a conventional town centre shop, I reckon I would feel pretty aggrieved.

Bona fide businesses have to pay rent, council tax, wages and all sorts of other overheads – and buy in the stock they sell.

Charity shops, on the other hand, get all sorts of breaks, rely on willing volunteers to man the tills and are always begging for your cast-offs to stick on the rails.

Nothing wrong with that, I’m all for recycling, I’d rather give my money to a good cause than a faceless corporate giant – but you have to ask yourself whether they’re not getting too many advantages when compared to hard-pressed retailers up and down the country.

Let’s be honest, the charity shop model has moved on.

Once upon a time, you’d only find shambolic, slightly smelly, outlets on the edge of the town centre, supporting obscure and often local causes.

But while there are still a few examples of that sort of Aladdin’s Cave emporium in operation, most of the charity shops – even those supporting local causes – are slick retail operations.

When you step over the threshold and see shiny wood floors, colour coded racks of clothes, books filed in alphabetical order and mission control till systems, you don’t really know whether it’s a charity chain or a mainstream business.

Nothing wrong with that, either – good causes ought to be using every means at their disposal to raise as much cash as they can.

But let’s level the playing field. How? By introducing a charity shop licence, with a grading system that takes into account the different level of organisations involved.

So a corner shop on a back street in aid of distressed ferrets, run by a few locals with a pet project to support, get all the breaks going.

A chain in support of a local good cause should be at the next level, paying an agreed rate for the privilege of trading on the High Street.

And national charities should pay top whack, to recognise their clout.

But the money from all those licences could only be used to support the area in which the shops operate – either for general improvements, or to help other retailers who are up against it and don’t get so many breaks.

As they always say, charity begins at home...