Mary Queen of Charity Shops – Final Thoughts

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


After the first part of this 3 part series I wrote a post in which I hoped Mary Portas wasn’t going to make Charity Shopping a bland and unexciting experience.

Last night I saw the final installment of this, and, unsurprisingly, Mary achieved her stated aim of getting the Orpington shop to take £2000 a week. She also encouraged more people through the doors and got them to spend more per transaction. Apparently this increase has been sustained since Mary handed back the keys and Save the Children are rolling Marys ideas out to all it’s stores.

I have to admit to mixed feelings about the whole process and the show in general, which intensified after my original post. In one scene Mary claims people will buy a £150 designer jumper at 70% off the original price. In another she is selling £400 dresses for £40 (90% off, if your maths is as bad as mine). I have heard her ask for no donations that can’t be sold for at least £5 to her Living & Giving store, but also stating that they still sold things for £1-£2 in Orpington.

As I saw it there were 3 parts to her campaign.


Part of the campaign was to change the perception of Charity shops and the treasures you can find. This is a part where I felt Mary was invaluable. Her contacts made a Charity Shop stall at London Fashion week possible, something that may have not been achievable for a Charity working alone.

The TV series on it’s own has given much needed publicity to Charity Shops, though a commenter on my previous post expressed concern that it was also reinforcing the belief that Charity Shops were full of rubbish.

It is worth bearing in mind that Charity shops have showed a steady increase in their profits in 2007 and 2008.

Whilst all publicity is good publicity the economic situation in the UK was already contributing to a rise in the popularity of Charity Shops well before Mary Portas arrived on the scene.


In my first review I mentioned that Charity Shops themselves weren’t being  very dynamic in chasing down the decent donations they so desperately need.

In the series Mary instigated a D Day “Donate, Don’t Dump” campaign where volunteers went into large businesses and took donations from staff. I think this is an amazing idea and it’s one I’d love to see being taken further.

People often DON’T think about giving their clothing to charity, and that’s a real shame.

Instead of hiring people to stand around in tabards harassing me to sign up to Direct Debits it would be fantastic to see charities setting up D Day stalls in shopping centres, colleges and other high traffic places frequented by people with money and wardrobes full of clothes they don’t wear.

It would be interesting, however, to see if donations from these sources continue to be as productive on the second or third visit, once the TV cameras have gone. Call me cynical, because I probably am!


I think this is the area where I had my biggest issues.

Spending significant amounts of money on a shop redesign was as worrying to me as it evidently was to some of the volunteers and I found the new shop layout a little intimidating. Not only that, but I thought it had the potential to look dated quite quickly, requiring yet more outlay.

Most of the Charity Shops I visit have laminate wood flooring, bright lighting and off white walls. It’s simple, won’t date badly, easy to maintain and easy to shop in. The fact that Mary had to sweep the floor herself in the Orpington store even AFTER a Manager was hired indicates to me that one of my major concerns, the sustainability and transferability, of the ideas may have been justified.

I also felt that designating perfectly clean, serviceably donations as rubbish and refusing to allow them on the shop floor as they don’t fit in with the shops image seems to me to be rude to the person who took the trouble to donate and makes me a little sad.

Obviously you don’t keep your Wedgwood china in the back so you can keep your tiny china hedgehog on the shelf, but if there’s space, why not display it?

I’ve bought some terrible “tat” from Charity Shops in the past, as “window dressing” for photographs, as a joke gift or just because I, personally, thought it was cute. I’m unsure who made Mary Portas the arbiter of all that is tasteful and stylish.

I absolutely loved the idea of getting young local designers to sell their wares in store, but, as a profit share venture, I have to hope that the floor space is making as much profit for the store as it would if it were filled with donations. I also feel that transferability of this idea to other stores around the country may be limited ( I certainly know that my local Save the Children store barely has enough room for staff and customers, let alone a manned stall selling designer goods!)


Overall the series has left me a little confused and wishing I had more information about certain things. Some of the costings don’t add up in my tiny muddled little brain as it seems on the surface that the Orpington shop has more than doubled it’s takings, but the costs involved in the shop refit and hiring of a Manager (which in my opinion may not have been necessary if the Area Manager wasn’t so wet, there, I said it!) haven’t really been taken into account in these figures. So it seems to the ultimate increase in profits may not be so impressive.

I’ve always sent clothing beyond repair to Charity Shops without a care in the world, knowing that they can still earn some money from selling it for rags.

I’ve had this confirmed by people who work in Charity Shops, but it seems Mary Portas wants me to stop doing this and put it in a recycling bin instead. The only bin near me is run by Oxfam, and whilst I support them, I personally have other Charities further up my list to donate to.


I’d also like to have seen what Mary intended to do with donations that she just didn’t think were cool enough for her shop. I don’t like to think they were thrown away.

Always remember “One Persons Trash is Another’s Treasure”

I think there is without a shadow of a doubt a market for a more upscale style of the Charity Shop, like Mary’s “Living and Giving” shop in Westfield Mall. I just can’t see it being a sustainable business model for ALL Charity Shops, staffed by volunteers and without Marys contacts to get donations from Grazia and upscale designers.


Association of Charity Shops

Run your own D Day Donate

Donate to Living & Giving Shop

Living & Giving Shop Events

Professional Fundraising

Charity Finance


Mary Queen of Charity Shops – The Retro Chick Review

4 Bargain Hunting Essentials

Can Cheap Fashion be Ethical Fashion?

London Fashion Week – The Global Cool Swishing Party

Photos by libbyrosof, David Boyle, Hamed Saber
19 Responses
  • Catwalk Creative Vintage
    June 17, 2009

    Yes, very thought provoking. I watched the final episode last night too, and feel pretty much the same as you do. Slightly concerned about some aspects but completely in agreement with others. Personally, I love Mary Portas. She’s a great inspiration and has done some mind-blowing work with high-street boutiques. Loved her first series! However, I think banishing all the ‘twee’ little nick-nacks from the Orpington store was a mistake. Surely they could have made room somewhere for these tacky pieces, even if it’s restricted to a couple of shelves at the back of the shop? There’s no accounting for taste and the money would go to the charity after all. Great post!!

    • Retro Chick
      June 17, 2009

      My thoughts exactly.

      I have to say I loved Mary Portas in her earlier series, but I feel less keen on her following this one, but I think it was a bit of a learning curve for her too dealing with volunteers.

  • Cassie
    June 17, 2009

    Rest assured, the ‘innovative’ way of collecting donations from workplaces (and schools, gyms, supermarkets etc) has already been done for many many years in the charity retail sector.

    I think the series was good at raising awareness on some general issues, but was showing the sector in a very bad light and made viewers assume that the shop that she ‘took over’ was indicative of ALL charity shops. it may be quite similar to many Save the Children stores (who don’t tend to employ paid managers I believe) but it was in no way indicative of many of the national chains.

    And as for telling people not to donate unless they think it’s worth a fiver – with an average selling price of about £3-£4 per item (area dependent), that would just about put the sector out of business!

    • Retro Chick
      June 17, 2009

      Well, that’s very interesting!

      I did notice she used the word “I” instead of “We” a lot, which was starting to infuriate me by the end of last nights show as the team in the store obviously worked very hard!

      I go in a lot of Charity Shops and I have noticed that Save the Children is one of the less “upmarket” ones. Others I see are clean, well organised and busy already!

  • Amy V
    June 17, 2009

    I love your blog! Love the look- your content and delivery…

    I will be back for sure:)

  • The Charity Shop Fairy
    June 18, 2009

    Thanks for your comment on my blog about this! As a shop manager I have to say whilst we do make money out of rags it isn’t pleasant having to wade through them all… Sometime people are kind enough to label the bags ‘rag’ so that isn’t an issue! Also I just though I’d point out (I think a lot of people don’t realise this) that the contents of ‘recycling bins’ actually get taken directly to the shops for sorting. I have two clothing banks and the stuff that comes out of it ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous.

    As far as ‘granny’ clothes go – well, they do go! I sell them (within reason) because people buy them – not just the core little-old-lady customer, but young people in search of something different.

    Nice to find your blog, I’ll be keeping watch…

  • Emily
    June 18, 2009

    You raise some good points. I believe charity shops are there to serve a dual purpose – the first being the charity they represent and the second is the community to which the shop belongs. Though there are budget clothing shops out there, it’s rare if you find good quality clothing at a low price, and for those on a low wage a charity shop is the only option.
    Chucking out perfectly good items because they won’t bring the charity shop more than a fiver isn’t a good reason to bin them, and like you say – sometimes it’s the uber-kitsch tat that you’re after!
    It will be a shame if this idea is taken up fully by a lot of charity shops – finding the odd, if mis-priced, piece of treasure is what keeps me going back to buy from and donate to them.

  • Phoebe
    July 4, 2009

    I think that the whole point of charity shops has been missed in this series. I know people who have no choice but to shop in charity shops. If they had £5 to spend on an item of clothing they would spend it on something new rather than something that someone else has worn. Charity shops serve 3 main purposes. 1. to raise money for charities and worthy causes 2. enable the poorest people in society to furnish their homes and clothe their families. 3. Give volunteers a sense of purpose.
    I was in a charity shop the other day with a friend and they have put their prices right up since this series was shown. For example, second hand paperback books that used to cost around 25p each were now priced up at £1.99 and a child’s video board game was priced at £3.00. It’s reminiscent of the problem with celebrity chefs promoting cheaper cuts of meat to ‘middle England’, you then you see the price of these cuts of meat rise significantly as a result of the increased demand by people who can afford to pay more.

    Re the issue of her trying to raise the ‘calibre’ of staff at charity shops. These kind of jobs give people who would otherwise be isolated, either through age, ill health or disability an opportunity to get out of their homes, raise their own self esteem and feel like they are contributing something to society. So it not only appears to be the case of throwing charitable donations on the scrap heap, Mary also wants to further isolate disempower the individuals who give up their time to work in these shops.

    It is not a case of people ‘wanting to buy cheap, cheap, cheap’as Mary states, it is more a case of people NEEDING to buy cheap cheap cheap…. Charity shops are for the needy not the greedy. If she has any sense of social responsibility she should rethink her latest project and leave well alone. If she wants to raise more money for charities I’m sure she has plenty of wealthy contacts who can put their hands into their pockets.