A (shop) window to the world

Many of us missed charity shops as much as M&S during lockdown. And with £300m raised by them every year, the impact on good causes throughout the UK has been stark. I spent time at our Chandler’s Ford shop with happily returning customers and staff to see how they’ve been getting on since reopening.

It’s a crisp, bright morning and a striking new window display of cosy Autumnal clothes catches my eye as I approach our Chandler’s Ford shop.

A warm welcome

Inside, the welcome is just as warm.

“Good morning”, Julia, the shop manager, says cheerily as she greets a customer at the doors of 13-14 The Mall. “If you could just sanitise your hands as you come in. Are you looking for anything in particular today?”

The man, Mike, tells her that he’s looking for jigsaw puzzles, and he’s in luck because there’s quite a choice available. He selects a 1000-piece one of The Beatles, still in its cellophane wrapper. Julia tells me that because it’s brand new, she hasn’t had to check it, but usually, her team has to make up every used puzzle that comes in to make sure all the pieces are there. I’m amazed at the level of customer service, and time this must take, and it doesn’t stop there. Luckily, Julia has a team of dedicated volunteers (pre-lockdown there were well over 20), who make sure everything sold in the shop is of the highest quality. She introduces me to Dain, who’s been volunteering in the shop for the past five years. Her husband services all the donated watches and fits new batteries if they need them. “I absolutely love working here,” she tells me, beaming. “I think I’m a born shop-keeper, and it’s all for such a good cause.”

Covid restrictions

While I’m there, two people come in with donations. Julia explains that she’s really grateful for their contributions and will take them on this occasion, but Covid-19 means there’s a new process, which is to call and book an appointment to drop off, and the next available slot is mid November. Everything is quarantined for 72 hours before being sorted and displayed. As I browse the rails and shelves, it strikes me that there isn’t the musty smell you often find in charity shops. Julie tells me that’s because they use essential oils to create a calm and welcoming atmosphere, sanitise the clothes hangers and steam all the clothes to make sure they’re tip-top. They’ve done a lot on the shop floor, putting in all the necessary safety measures to keep people safe. There’s a six-person limit inside, directional arrows on the floor and protective screens at the till.

Mountains of donations

In the backroom, Assistant Shop Manager, Eleri, is busy sorting through bags of donated clothes, books, pictures, CDs, and in fact pretty much anything from wool to wedding dresses, so I ask her and Julia about the quality of donations. They tell me it’s obvious people have been having a good “Covid clear-out”, sorting through cupboards, wardrobes and lofts for the past few months. “We have beautiful, unworn and designer clothes here all the time,” Eleri tells me. “Recently somebody donated a Burberry coat, and there’s often some Ralph Lauren and Ted Baker, too. On the flip side, though, the new process of having to book at the tip has meant the occasional person will use us to get rid of their rubbish. Some mornings we come to work to find bags left on the street outside the shop, and unfortunately, it’s not all in great condition. We’ve had dog beds, dirty underwear, unwashed cutlery and even a frying pan with egg still on it, and we have to pay to have it all taken away. We’re extremely grateful for donations – we just ask people to think about whether it’s clean and in a saleable condition before they leave it for someone else to buy. Luckily though, the good far outweighs the bad.”

Helen, a physiotherapist, works just around the corner and pops in regularly to browse the latest bargains. “I feel that it’s really important to support such a good cause,” she tells me, “and because I’m a physiotherapist, I refer my clients here because they often have a good range of adaptive bras and swimwear.”

A couple of shoppers enter, and I can hear, ‘Oh that’s a shame, that dress has gone – it was brand new,” and “look at that coat, it’s M&S. It’s in perfect condition!”

A lady called Elizabeth has come in for a browse. She tells me that she’s got a lot going on at the moment. Her daughter has special needs, and she’s being moved by the housing association, but coming here makes her feel good because she can get out and about and see people and grab a bargain at the same time. “I’m moving house, so really I should be getting rid of things and not buying more, but I’ve just popped in today while my husband gets his eyes tested over the road, I’ve managed to pick up some brilliant bargains.”

Margaret has made a special trip from Winchester with her husband, Mike. She mentions that she doesn’t need any more clothes, but sometimes can’t resist. She picks up a pale grey, double-breasted jacket from Planet, holds it up to herself and asks her husband what he thinks. She tells me that she hopes more people will support charity shops in future. “I do think being in lockdown and all the pressures Covid-19 has put on us has made us more conscious of what we do to ourselves and the planet,” she says. “Hopefully, in some ways, it has helped us to reset our minds and think about what we spend. Why spend all that money on new clothes when you can come here and pick up something pre-loved and brilliant?”

The heartbreaking truth

On the subject of resetting, I ask how trade has been since the shop reopened in June because we all know the pandemic has made no allowances for good causes. The chancellor Rishi Sunak’s bailout fund for charities didn’t come close to replacing lost income, not just because of shops being closed but also because of the cancellation of other means of fundraising. A study published found that one in ten charities could face bankruptcy by the end of the year as they struggle with a £10bn shortfall caused by a perfect storm of massive income reduction and rocketing demand for services.

Our retail shops in Freshwater (Isle of Wight), Hythe, Portchester and Weeke, play an important role in generating income for Wessex Cancer Support. In 2019, they raised almost £700,000, but we expect this to be down by around £250,000 this year because of the coronavirus.

A way of life

Julia tells me it was heart-breaking to have to close the shop temporarily because she and her team of staff and volunteers, and all the donors and customers have worked incredibly hard to establish the Chandler’s Ford shop as a much-loved part of the local community. “It’s not just a shop to us,” she explains, “It’s a way of life. We get to know everyone, and we all love Wessex Cancer Support and the work it does to support local people living with cancer. Before lockdown, we would provide a styling service, and everyone in the shop would get involved and give people advice on what clothes would suit them. We pride ourselves on that personal service. I can’t wait to do that again when social distancing restrictions ease, and we can reopen the fitting room.” Julia and her team are doing everything they can to keep sales high – just like a normal business. Christmas cards have just come in, there’s 20% off clothes for October, and a buy-one-get-one-free offer on jewellery.

They’re hot on asking for Gift Aid, too. Did you know that if you donate a bag of clothes and fill in our Gift Aid form, Wessex Cancer Support can claim back 25% of the sale price on all your items from the Government? Also, together with our other shops, they’re going to be selling online through a brand new easy-to-use online charity shop. We’re expecting the shop to go live on our website in November, so keep an eye on our social media channels.

Winter donations

Julia tells me that they would love to have some donations of winter clothes and Christmas gifts, so if you’re planning on having a good clear-out this weekend or want to grab yourself a bargain in the run-up to the festive period, please remember Wessex Cancer Support’s Chandler’s Ford shop.

With its bright, welcoming and calming atmosphere and high-quality stock, it’s easy to forget I’m in a charity shop. In fact, I’ve seen so much of life in the couple of hours I’ve been here that it feels like a window to the world. Our shops are incredibly important to the lives of local people living with cancer – please support them if you can.

For more information on how to find your local Wessex Cancer Support charity shop, opening times and how to donate, please visit our shop pages.