Force Charity Shop in Fore Street, Heavitree, Exeter is where I buy almost all of my second-hand clothes. So I was not surprised to learn that is has won an award for the most profitable charity shop in the UK Charity Retail Awards for eleven years running. This week I chatted with one of the Managers, Wendy Syme, about the secrets behind this success.
Force Charity Shop Manager, Wendy Syme
Wendy gave me a tour of the Force shop, and explained how it had expanded over the years, adding sections as materials became available. ‘We don’t buy anything new,’ Wendy told me, ‘all our shop fittings come from donations, and this keeps our costs down. It also makes the shop more interesting, people like exploring in all the different sections to see what they can find.’ It is indeed like a rabbit warren, with a yard, a linen room, bric a brac area, furniture room, children’s room, book room, dressing up section, and – my favourite – clothes and jewellery.
Force can boast average weekly sales of over £5,000, according to the UK Charity Shops survey of 2011 – very impressive if you consider prices start at 2p! I asked Wendy about the pricing policy: ‘Everything is in round figures, we don’t do prices ending in 99p or 49p. Our prices have not changed in ten years.’ I thought this was remarkable, but Wendy told me that they are autonomous, and do not anyone above them telling them what to do or what prices to charge. ‘We listen to our customers, and if we charge too much for an item, they’ll soon tell us.’
The shop is always heaving with customers, and sometimes the queue to pay snakes a long way back through the shop. Wendy told me that there are always people waiting outside for it to open, and some regular customers come in three times a day. (I thought I was bad with my twice weekly visits!). I asked Wendy how she felt about dealers, as I had donated an item to Force that they sold for 50p, then I saw it in a nearby vintage shop a few days later priced at £5. Wendy said, ‘We welcome dealers. Sometimes they’ll get a bargain and we’ll think we were silly for letting it go so cheaply, but they’ll come back for more. It’s all about fast turnover of stock, it makes the shop more interesting for our customers, there is always something new. Someone may pay £5 for something we sold for 50p, but how long will it be in the shop until it does? Customers get bored seeing the same things each visit.’
All the proceeds from the sales at Force go directly to the Force Cancer Charity in Exeter. Wendy told me that one of the reasons for the shop’s success is that people know Force will do something with their donations. ‘There is very little waste. People can see their donations out for sale within minutes of them coming in.’ All this is thanks to a wonderful team of volunteers. Statistics show that Force has the highest number of volunteers per charity shop in the UK. ‘Some have been with us ten years, we are like a family. Everyone has their own special jobs that they like to do. For example we have a wonderful librarian – how many charity shops have you been in where the books are shelved in alphabetical order?’ I did not need to answer that, and having worked as a library assistant at university, I know what a hard job that is.
I asked Wendy if she had seen any changes over the last ten years, and if she thought the recession was having an impact on her sales. ‘Our reputation has grown over the years, people are donating and visiting from further and further afield. I don’t think it’s to do with economics – there are charity shop people, and there are non-charity shop people, that doesn’t change.’ I asked about stealing. ‘That hasn’t changed either, we lose about £50-£100 a week through theft, but there will always be people with that mind-set. Someone actually said to me once “You get it for free, so why shouldn’t we?”’ One of the things that struck me most about Wendy was her wonderfully charitable nature. She did not knock the dealers or the stealers, as I would have done. I came away humbled.
It was wonderful chatting with Wendy and getting the inside story on the shop’s success. As a customer, I like shopping there as the stock is constantly changing, the prices reasonable, and the staff always busy and friendly. If only more charity shops in the UK followed this example, it might encourage a whole new generation to be ‘charity shop people’.