An Open Letter To Charity Shops And Those Who Manage Them

Posted by Mike Eley on

An Open Letter To Charity Shops And Those Who Manage Them from our Managing Director

Dear Sirs

As a retailer of discontinued tableware, you will appreciate that we are only able to source our goods from the second hand/pre-loved market. For us this includes private individuals, car boot sales, antique fairs, flea markets, auctions and of course, the high street charity shops and the more recent addition of out of town charity warehouses. 

Every year we spend thousands of pounds across a variety of charity shops, some local to us, and many more around the UK as our procurement team travel the length and breadth of the country. 

On the whole we enjoy great relationships with the shops and their staff, and we like to think that our purchases are a not an insignificant contribution to the causes they support. 

We do not expect gratitude for our patronage. We are after all benefiting our own business by sourcing stock from these shops. Although, as an aside, I would point out that in every other retail environment, gratitude is a pre-requisite to customer service, something often lacking in the charity shop where, staffed by volunteers, the view seems to be that they are doing the customer the favour rather than the other way around. 

What we do expect however, is to be allowed to be patrons; to be allowed to purchase an item, or more often as not, multiple items, paying the price advertised, and leave the shop with our treasures. 

Reading this, your reaction may well be, "Well of course. Why wouldn't you be allowed to?"

Well mostly we are. However, increasingly we come across charity shop staff (both volunteers and paid), and more alarmingly management who are adopting a policy of not selling to dealers. The moment they suspect that we are buying something to sell on, a change of attitude occurs in the server. 

"So are you a dealer then?"

"You seem to be buying a lot. Are you selling it on?

These are the typical questions we get asked. We don't advertise we are dealers, but when you approach the till and fill up the counter with one and half dinner services, a couple of teapots and a few other items all from different potteries, it's rather obvious. Charity shops who don't care, rarely ask. 

At this point we have the choice between a creative white lie or telling the truth. When we tell the truth and respond, "Why, yes we are, my good shop person", the attitude shifts another gear from inquisition to hostility. 

"Well I don't know if I can sell it to you."

"We don't like to encourage dealers."

"I'll sell it to you this time, but perhaps shop elsewhere in the future."

And my personal favourite and the inspiration behind this article, which confirmed what I have suspected for some time...

"We have a policy not to sell to 'wheeler dealers'".

I'll come back to that one. 

Often, a quick word with the shop manager, supervisor or at the very least a paid member of staff, will resolve the problem, and we will walk away satisfied that it was personal 'policy' rather than a charity one. But that is not always the case. 

Of late, we are finding that that attitude extends beyond the volunteers; and in the final example above extended all the way to the CEO, who when told of our coming to the shop left instructions for his staff to make it clear to us that we were not welcome, because it was the charity's "policy not to sell to 'wheeler dealers'."

Excuse me, what?! 

Why is our money not as good as a 'non-wheeler dealer'? Why actively seek out support and patronage of not just private people but often local business, if you are going to do a complete 180 degrees the moment you discover that they are selling their purchases on? How does that benefit anyone? How does that benefit your cause(s)? Do your trustees know that you have adopted this policy? 

After all, the trustees role is to ensure that the charity activities are always carried out in the best interest of the causes they support. Can you honestly say that such a policy supports that goal?

We never haggle on price with charity shops, so that can't be it. In fact, for charity shops that have been proactive in working with us, offering us goods before they hit the shelves, we often pay more than they would have priced them for. Everyone's happy. 

Perhaps it's a resentment that we sell the same items for so much more than a charity shop can. Well, sorry, but that's business. Our costs are higher, we have a far greater knowledge base and we have a very specific target market who are willing to pay more because we have done the hard work for them (e.g. trawling the charity shops, quality checking, cleaning, cataloguing, grading etc.) Also, the charity shop mark up will always be a higher percentage than ours, because charity shops get their goods donated!

At car boot sales, antique fairs and flea markets, mentioning you are a dealer will often get you a discount - because these entrepreneurs recognise that in the long run, 'dealers' spend more money than the average punter. So why are we regarded with such contempt in the charity shop world?

I write this article for four reasons. The first is I get angry when my team are treated unfairly. The second is to raise awareness of the complete insanity of this scenario. The third is to make charities and their trustees aware that this goes on, as I suspect that many are not aware of the policies being laid down by those who we have affectionately termed "the clipboard brigade", in their own shops. 

And the fourth is an invitation, to any charity representatives who are behind or involved in the decision making process which has led to such a policy, to reach out to me (via our email) to answer the questions above and explain the thought process, because I'm genuinely interested.  

Incidentally, I have chosen not to name and shame those charities and their staff that have adopted this attitude, but I'm seriously thinking about it, because quite frankly, it's ridiculous.

Yours faithfully

Mike Eley
Managing Director
MrPottery Ltd

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