Thrift shops, called charity shops in many countries, are the best known, most exciting and fascinating social enterprises where everyone wins. They are at least win – win – win situations, and a few more wins could probably be added without argument. The customers win by being able to buy good quality, even designer, clothing etc., for a reasonable price. The people donating the goods win by having the satisfaction of helping those who benefit from the cause, giving pleasure to the people buying the goods and by finding an excellent way of off-loading items too good to throw away. Those working in the shop gain from the companionship, the interaction with customers, the retail experience and the sheer fun these unusual businesses. Whilst, the beneficiaries obviously gain from the programme work of the NFP.
This article will equip you to find, equip and manage successful thrift shops. Despite the free goods, free labour and often reduced shop taxes there are pitfalls; and a highly profitable professionally run shop can easily subside into an unproductive jumble sale. There are golden rules and you break them at your peril. So, do follow the lead of the most successful shops and make sure you are not lead astray by the many misconceptions people have about thrift shops.
How does a thrift shop raise funds?
Thrift shops receive gifts of goods from the public, sort these into sellable and un-sellable items, price and date them, then display them to advantage; and using largely volunteer staff sell these goods to customers usually in a high street shop, preferably in an affluent district.
Let us examine that proposition step by step. The goods accepted by a traditional thrift shop are predominantly clothes (mostly ladies but sometimes men’s and children’s) and bric-a-brac including jewellery, antiques and small household items the size of which depends on the size of the shop and its policy towards donations. Increasingly, NFPs are setting up specialist shops; often book shops in University towns and other appropriate cities, and furniture stores for the larger household items they receive. Funds are maximised when the price of the items on display are highest and this price can be realised in week or two in that shop. The first golden rule is that “like attracts like” and if you display top quality goods you will receive many more; but if you display poor quality items you will find everyone has some of these at home too, and they will not hesitate to bring them in.
Sorting and pricing are the next steps. The best shops discard 80% of the goods they are given as un-saleable. If you look carefully, you will find stains, tears, missing buttons etc cracked or chipped goods and things that no longer work. All these should be discarded and if possible recycled. Many countries have good recycling schemes and some of the larger NFPs run their own clothing recycling operations which welcome additional items.
Pricing should be based on a percentage of the original price say, 25% or 30%. If you are not familiar with current prices for a wide range of good, do collect these from shops and from catalogues then create a wall chart so that those pricing will have a clear idea. Remember the shop is not there to provide cheap clothing for the local community, it should be aiming to attract the well heeled and their bulging wallets.
Shop display should mirror that of other high street shops; that way you attract high quality donated items, affluent customers and knowledgeable helpers who will appreciate an attractive work-place. It is often the practice to pay a modest wage for a shop manager; but for the rest of the staff to be volunteers who receive only expenses of travel and lunch, provided this does not conflict with their income or employment status.
Preparing your shop
If you are starting from scratch it is better to strip out all remaining fittings, unless these are up-market and appropriate for your goods, and to start by dividing the shop into a selling and a sorting area. The sorting area should be out of sight of customers and preferably on a different floor to maximise the selling space. Often the ratio works out at 80% selling space and 20% sorting space. The sorting space should be large enough for a good sized table to sort on, and sets of black-plastic bin bag holders into which discarded clothes or other goods can be placed; plus an area for refreshments and for staff (who are often elderly) to sit down and rest in.
The windows should be large and give a good view of the shop interior. The walls painted frequently and set with brackets on which a variety of display materials can be used. These should be flexible enough to change from clothes to books to other items, as you learn what sells best in your shop – the best goods are attractively displayed at the front of the shop to bring the customers in. The floor should be carpeted with a mat by the door. The doorway should, ideally, be flush with the pavement or goods may be left in the doorway overnight. You should have disabled access wherever possible and where legally required. The shop doorbell and handle should be at an appropriate height.
You will need an electronic till with enough category buttons for the different types of goods you will sell, and a credit-card machine. The read-out will gradually give you a clear idea of where the money is being made, and of those areas need to be expanded as far as possible at the expense of the slower selling items. Behind the counter you will also need a phone and intercom to the sorting area, plus some secure storage. Your staff will need training on all the equipment and a FAQ sheet on the organisation, plus a shop book to record messages for each other (the morning shift may need to tell the afternoon shift to look out for a certain customer); and an accident book to record any mishaps.
In a clothes shop a changing room with a mirror outside is essential, but do not allow more than two or three goods in at a time. Never price goods at the till and return all ‘un-priced’ goods to the back to be priced professionally later. This will stop customer taking the price tag off and haggling. Similarly, never reduce a price in the shop. If you really think it is wrong put it to one side to be re-priced later.
Use printed price labels, a tag gun to put them on and a date code. Recycle all clothes not sold in two weeks – they will begin to smell.
Establish good relations with the local council to facilitate removal of your rubbish – you will have more than most shops. Also talk to the local press and any local celebrities it is good to have your shop well-known, and a celebrity at the opening, buying goods there or volunteering for the morning will ensure some extra column inches and probably a photo too.
One of the most important elements, if not the most important, is the shop leader or manager. They will set the atmosphere and tone of the shop, determine the kind of volunteers are work in the shop, its look and therefore the clothes etc. that are brought in. All this directly affects the profits that the shop can make.
A volunteer shop manager is obviously much cheaper than a volunteer, and so increases the shops profits dramatically; but finding, training and managing a volunteer put a heavy burden on the area manager or whichever paid staff member is ultimately in charge of the shop. A paid shop manager often needs less training (but never none) and is far easier to recruit. One of their most important tasks is then to recruit the volunteer staff.
This is done through word of mouth by current shop staff and other NFP workers, adverts in the shop window, an article in your local newspaper (most effective) and small ads anywhere that will take them. Do accept a variety of ages and create as diverse a shop team as possible, otherwise the small clique that runs the shop will attract an equally small clique of customers.
I would advise, only taking volunteers who will work for a minimum of half a day per week and work to fill a rota built around half days. This will give you stability and make it easier to find replacements when people go on holiday or if people leave. Do create a short list, give volunteers a job description and training. Do treat them like paid-staff and like staff ensure they leave if they cannot do the work or create problems. Many people find it difficult to ask volunteers to leave, but they do not have the same rights as staff and must be removed before their ‘eccentricities’ become accepted, or they bring the organisation into disrepute.
In time you will build up a varied a knowledgeable team who can sort, price and sell almost anything. This is intensely rewarding and it is a joy to be a member of a good team. Customers will be welcomed into the shop with the volunteer speaking first and smiling, they will be thanked for their purchase which will be wrapped and receipted.
The shops policies will be displayed prominently and staff will know the reasons for the policies as well as their implementation.
It is best to approach working with volunteers by treating them as staff working for a limited time each week. They need to know what they will be undertaking, how to carry this out effectively and the working rules of the shop and organisation. This can be done through a job description, and instruction and policy manuals, but liked staff it is best also to have a rigorous training programme.
New volunteers should be shown and verbally taken through the health and safety procedures, including the fire escape route and assembly point. Naturally, they should be introduced to the other staff and to the work of the organisation they will be assisting, so that they can explain this to customers etc.
More specifically they will need to know the area or areas of work they will be undertaking. It is best for a volunteer to master one task thoroughly before being introduced to the next. This is either done by the shop manager or an experienced volunteer. Most tasks require instruction, inspections after a while and correction or praise for the result. They cycle needs to continue on a session and weekly basis until you are confident they have mastered the procedures. It is easy to forget how to operate an electronic till, or the precise criteria for sorting clothes, from one week to the next. The capability of volunteers varies enormously and it should quickly become apparent how much a volunteer can manage.
A regular shop meeting can also be a good time to introduce staff to new developments in the shop or the organisation. Do not assume information is passed on automatically. Do also use notice boards, signs by the till or other areas and the message book to keep people up to date with changes or projected changes.
Of course, your organisation may have a routine training programme for volunteers, which will establish a high standard of work; but do talk through the programme with anyone who has been through it, whilst it is still fresh in their minds to ensure they realise that it does apply to them and their shop.
Do train your staff who meet customers to behave professionally. They should smile, greet the customer, introduce themselves, initiate conversation, be polite and don’t forget to say, “Thank you”.
At the heart of the enterprise is the selection of goods to go on display in the shop. Clothing is usually the staple ingredient of a thrift shop and each donated item requires careful inspection. People will not buy anything with stains, buttons missing, rips or which is out of fashion. Cheap clothing is so cheap in some countries it is not worth taking up rail space, and only goods from a recognised label are worth displaying. It is not surprising that designer goods and high priced items sell really well.
House-hold items should not be cracked, chipped or broken, must be spotlessly clean and in perfect working order. Electrical goods may have local legislation concerning their condition before sale, of which you must be aware and conform to, as will all edible goods. Many shops exclude both electrical and edible goods to avoid any chance of liability if things go wrong. Do put safety first. Do not sell crash helmets, children’s car seats, fireworks, knives etc.
Antiques and ‘collectables’ including paintings, stamps and coins should be looked at by a specialist. Here poor condition may not be a barrier to sale, though it will inevitably lower the price. It is often a good idea to seek a valuation from a local or national auction house prior to selling these goods by auction. If they are expensive it is unlikely the best price will be received in the shop, because they require a specialist market. You may also be able to sell certain goods over the Internet.
There is often a volunteer who will take a great interest in books; but do be clear that it is books the public wants to buy that need to go on the shelves not necessarily great ‘literature’. Cracked spines, torn pages and scribble all make books un-saleable, though your sorter should acquire an understanding of the collectable books, such as early first editions and certain signed copies.
Furniture is a bugbear of many small shops, who cannot cope with the room it takes up for the low return it brings, and I would advise that it should only be sold by specialist furniture shops. Indeed, many social enterprises are built on recycling furniture. Again, dirty, cracked or broken furniture cannot be sold – do not think, “Oh, it only needs a bit of glue, or care and attention, and it will be fine”. So, many homes have items like this you will be inundated with un-saleable goods if you put any out for sale. It is better to take them straight to the local dump.
There are two key elements to pricing goods correctly. One is to be able to make an accurate assessment of the original price (or current price), so that you can set the price at a percentage of that, often one quarter to one third; and the other is to know your market i.e. how much your customers will pay for that type of good. The latter is where most mistakes are made, as it is easy to underestimate the capacity of customers to pay for good quality items. It is also a mistake to listen to customers who say, “Oh, that is overpriced no one will buy it”. Customers say this as a matter of course no matter what the price.
With clothing it is a good idea to have a large wall chart with the various makes and types of garment listed with their new prices and your shops price for these goods. Getting rigour into the pricing system means your customers will also understand the level of charges and are less likely to complain.
Always price goods away from the customers, and return any goods brought to the till for pricing to the back to be re-priced. Otherwise customers will pull the tickets off and haggle with whoever is behind the counter. When mirrors in changing rooms are taken off the wall dozens of price tickets fall out from behind – it is, of course, better to have the mirror in the shop. Don’t bring out un-priced gods from the back of the shop to show customers or the same thing will happen. Customers have a profound belief that the back of the shop contain mountains of bargains being hidden from them. Do not start getting them out or you will reinforce this belief and they will expect you to rummage round for them every time they come in.
Antiques and collectables need a specialist valuation and a specialist volunteer is invaluable. The trick is to know when to call in the experts. If you do have something of great value it is often better to auction it than to try and sell it in the shop, because you will attract people who are really interested and unlikely to make their way to your shop; but don’t forget to let your local newspaper know about it. Good quality antiques will, however, certainly attract more of the same.
Volunteers should only buy from the shop like ordinary customers and the goods they buy should be priced by someone else. Some shops have a rule about the amount of time something should be in the shop before it is sold to a volunteer or staff member. It is good to avoid giving the impression that all the best stuff is bought by staff, and indeed if it only remains on the rails a few minutes it can hardly do its job of attracting other good; however, it is also motivating for staff to have the ability to buy items at a reasonable price. More difficult is the purchase of goods not fit for sale in the shop, and a good shop leader will evolve a system for this; usually where all staff purchases are recorded including the item bought, and who priced it, so it is clear what is happening. Some shops have a no staff purchase rule, but then the situation of staff coming in on days off, or relatives buying goods for them, needs to be considered.
A key member of the shop team is the Hon Treasurer or book-keeper. This is the person who will open the bank account, ensure the sums banked and paid out match the account statement (bank reconciliation), set the policy for handling money (two people count up at the end of the day etc), pay the bills for rates, window cleaner etc., and any expenses or wages (unless they are paid centrally). The book-keeper is usually responsible for keeping the cash book (money in) and record of payments (money out). This is then either incorporated into the yearly accounts or sent to head-office to be processed, usually weekly.
The till reading will usually be taken at lunch-time and after the shop has closed – never cash-up in front of customers. These till readings are reconciled with the actual money and any discrepancy corrected or noted. Minor discrepancies are commonplace. The takings should ideally be banked each day or soon after, but do vary the route to the bank and time of day this is done; and ensure two people go together. It is a good idea to draw cash for the till float unless there is a lot left at the end of the day. A lockable petty cash tin can be used to house a float for purchasing small items and for paying volunteer expenses. All payments must be receipted and signed for.
A retired accountant or trainee may be ideal for this position.
Given a shop in an up-market location you cannot but succeed in raising funds for your charity.
You will, however, need to acquire and train a large team of volunteers and run a high quality shop that is as indistinguishable as possible from other high street shops in your locality.
Profitability then hinges on the quality of goods brought in, which is highly influenced by both the quality of existing stock and the interaction with the staff. If your potential donors are comfortable in their interactions with the staff, they will return again and again!
Location, location, location are as usual the three key words to maximising your income. Providing other things are equal an up-market location always beats a poor district. You cannot locate in a too up-market venue. Rich people will proudly display their expensive Prada outfit brought in the thrift shop and exclaim to their friends how cheap it was; but poor people won’t buy second-hand goods, and much prefer to buy new cheap clothing. If they do buy second-hand goods they are unlikely to advertise the fact to anyone. It is not hard to think why that might be true.
Dropping off last year’s designer clothes to an attractive local shop where they will be recognised for what they are and priced accordingly is easily done. Taking them round to a district not usually frequented and putting them into a shop where the staff obviously don’t dress well is unlikely to happen.
Along with location goes the appearance of the shop, the appearance of the staff and the accessibility of the shop to cars. The ability to park and drop off donated items is crucial, as people will not carry goods far, but only encourage donations when the shop is open as goods left outside will be pilfered or strewn about the street.
Secondary locations are to be avoided if at all possible. The footfall in these locations is usually a hugh reduction on the high street. You can test this by standing outside a shop in each location at the same time of the day, and the same day of the week, counting the passers by. Indeed, this should be done outside each shop you have in mind as part of your comparability study.
By the way, the existence of other thrift shops in the same area or even in the same street is a positive advantage. People will often go specifically to an area and “do the rounds” of the thrift shops. Remember that people do not shop with you to support your cause they shop to buy great goods at reasonable prices.
The look of your shop window determines how people view your enterprise – first impressions count and are hard to shift. Ensure your frontage is clean, that the name of your shop on the facia board is easy to read and you have a cleaner to clean your windows regularly. Do not bother with a canopy as they become dirty and torn quite quickly.
Be careful in setting in setting up any window display to stand firmly, use only very stable steps if any and never put two plastic sacks on top of each other. The consequences of falling through the window do not bear thinking about.
The window display should visibly change frequently, at least every week and any items sold should be replaced at once. It is your chance to be creative and attract people into your premises. Put in the window the things that sell best and people will enter. Do not be tempted to display items you have not sold, but do not want to throw away, or your window will be full of things people do not want and they will not come into the shop; worse still they will offload on you many more of these un-saleable things.
Think of colour, height and theme. A good window display is bright in both colour (without being garish) and well lit – a spotlight rack with adjustable spotlights is very useful for this. You can gain height through using models (shop-dummies) to display cloths, or you can try hanging ropes with cross poles from the ceiling but the best ideas often come from commercial shop displays. Choose a theme such as winter, green, holidays, sports etc and keep the items on display in that theme. It is a good idea to hoard things that can be used in themes or as display props and keep them away from the pricers! Think of your display as a triangle with the base at the bottom of the window, so that it does not appear to topple.
Walk across the street to look at the finish effect – is it clear, simple not cluttered and are you drawn into the shop? Does it stand out against the other shops next door? If so, your shop will be full tomorrow.
Lastly, please do not clutter the shop window with posters and notices, and never use handwritten notices.
The shop window is your best recruitment area. If you are opening a new shop then place a very large poster in the window a month or two before you open, asking for volunteers, giving a description of the work and a phone number and email address where they can reach the organiser.
Talk to your local newspaper and arrange a feature stressing your need for volunteers, and the nature of the work they will be doing. If you already have a shop manager ensure their picture is in the article by arranging a photo opportunity at the shop; for example, by featuring an unusual item for sale. If you have other shops ask their staff if they know someone in the district who might be interested. Advertise in the local library and with any local societies. Try postcards in other shop windows and writing to any former volunteers who now live in the area.
Once the shop is up and running you will attract people like those who already work there, so pick your ‘front of house’ staff with care. Ask existing volunteers if they know anyone – they will be your best recruitment officers.
You can ‘carry’ one volunteer who is there more for their own good than for the shop, but two or more will only interfere with the work and can be seriously disruptive. Always ask for references from volunteers and always take them up – do not go against a bad reference.
In time you will get to know your customers and a discrete question about their availability to help out for half a day a week can bring great rewards. Many people have just not thought about applying, but are used to the shop and standards of sorting, pricing and how to help customers buy.
‘Like attracts like’ is the mantra behind securing the kind of top quality goods that you will find it easy to sell for a reasonable price. When you open your shop the window should show exactly what you want in terms of quality goods and the customers should find the same quality in your shop. If you let this slip over time you will be inundated with poor quality, poor condition goods that do not sell. Your customers will teach you what they want by buying those goods; but you in turn must learn to put out what they want, not what you or your staff think is attractive.
‘Sales per square foot’ is the criteria by which one shop is often judged against another. Given each shop has a limited size, the way to maximise income is to have each square foot containing as high a value of goods as possible and for these to turn over quickly. Simply put, expensive items should be out in the shop as quickly as possible and low price poor quality goods should never be out when they can be replaced by better goods. Unsold goods should be recycled or binned quite quickly rather than being reduced in price and clogging up the shelves. You are aiming not to sell everything, but to sell the best.
Notices in the shop window will attract donations – do state good quality and good condition or nearly new as the required criteria. Publicity in the local paper or radio helps, particularly when you first open, refit or re-launch the shop; but these media are less easy to control and may not stress the quality of goods require.
Collections of goods made by a volunteer with a van are very useful. If this can be combined with regular leafleting and collection it can generate large amounts of saleable goods. It will also, however, generate large amounts of complete junk and your driver should know how to dispose of these goods. They should also be quite clear about not taking away things that cannot be sold if that is evident.
Donations are seasonal, as people change their clothes with the weather or fashion. This tends to generate alternating lulls and busy times. Some things can be kept to one side such as winter coats being handed in during warm weather, though you should check these for fashion and for smell. Most clothes have not been washed and cannot be kept for long.
Some shops buy-in new goods for sale, and these can often be used to create professional displays; but do test the idea by buying small quantities before buying a large stock as unsold stock will reduce your profit or give you a loss, which is not the case with second-hand goods.
Recycling and disposing of unwanted goods
To bring together the previous comments, it is good to have a clear policy on disposal of goods. Talk to your local council about the collection of waste to ensure you will have adequate support for the volume of waste you will generate.
Naturally, you should recycle as much as possible, either through a local recycling project or your own organisations efforts; the latter may contain a central depot for repair, sale of bulky items and/or a clothing depot where clothing is turned into rags for industrial use and therefore raises some profit. You may also be able to use another organisations system for your goods as a way of disposing of unwanted stuff.
Do not sell any goods to people ‘out of the back of the shop’. This is a slippery slope to all kinds of problems. People who buy like this, often for resale, quickly get to know on which days they can get the best bargains; and are often quite ruthless in putting pressure on the milder volunteers. Only give refunds to customers with a receipt and good reason for the return; but do establish a clear refund policy.
A volunteer with a van can be very useful in taking goods to the local rubbish tip. If you have a back-yard do dispose of goods quickly before they become a problem. I have seen back yards stacked higher than the first floor with unwanted goods, and rifled through at weekends by unsavoury but optimistic characters. Of course, such a state is a fire risk as well as providing a home for rodents.
Much of this has been covered earlier:
The window is your primary attractor, keep it looking inviting, elegantly laid out bright and attractive giving a glimpse of what the shop holds. Do not clutter it with posters or messages.
Use the local media, develop a relationship with reporters and editors, get to know your local radio and TV station staff. A retired reporter makes an excellent press officer for a shop.
Stock your shop with good quality attractive good without defects.
Train your staff to be pro active and polite.
Try leafleting the affluent areas of town giving examples of your best donations.
Encourage customers and staff to be ambassadors for your shop. Offer a discount for bringing in a new customer. Put leaflets in each bag in which you pack purchases.
Give your shop wheelchair access and train your staff in disability awareness as well as establishing a diversity or equal opportunities policy and offer training in carrying it out.
Attracting customers, stock and staff moves on an upward path as you improve your shop and your practices. It will run down if you neglect to run the shop properly.
Raising your shops public profile
The news media needs stories and they love local stories to be brought to their attention. Holding events and inviting celebrities – the local actress and / or the local Bishop are good crowd pullers – are a first start in creating a profile, but those events should be themed in an appropriate way relevant to your cause.
Unusual items brought into the shop or exciting things your volunteers have done can also be newsworthy. Local papers cannot always send a photographer to your event, but if you send in your own good quality pictures they stand a great chance of being used and enhancing any coverage you might obtain.
Do appoint a press officer and ask them to cultivate the right people. Know what day your newspaper is printed, and when relevant programmes are aired on radio and local TV. Keep up a steady flow of information on activities and events you may hold in your shop or any forms of outreach you do in your community. Feature the organisations actions as well as your shops and try to tie them in together.
Starting a chain of shops
If you have one shop – why not two? Or three? Or more? A chain of shops gives an organisation stability, a opportunity to share knowledge across the chain and to maximise the effect of any publicity.
Experienced staff can be used to locate, acquire, fit out and open new shops. Volunteers can often be drafted across to help and some stock given to get the new enterprise off to a flying start. Each shop becomes easier to acquire and set up and a chain is much greater than the sum of its parts.
As always, open in the best locations, set high standards and keep them going.
Customer care starts the moment they enter the shop. The cheerful shop assistant who smiles and asks if they can help, and then really is helpful and knowledgeable, will greatly increase sales and customer retention.
A genuine conversation about the item in hand, especially clothing is respected. It is usually very obvious when something that doesn’t fit is put forward as suitable. Helpful advice leading to a purchase makes the customer feel good, but something purchased which is not quite right will rankle when it is tried on at home and may be brought back (and if the customer has the receipt should lead to an exchange or refunded). The shops policy on refunds etc should be clearly stated near the till. Do take all the major credit cards, despite the charges, as so much is now bought with them.
Those two words ‘thank you’ mean a lot to customers who make a purchase or give a donation. It is good to have a counter can for donations securely attached to the counter, and clearly sealed. Always give a receipt which should come automatically from the till.
You may need to ask some people to leave the shop if they are being unruly. You can usually ask a policeman to be present when you do this. Each shop should have a telephone front and back to communicate and to reach the emergency services. If the shop is on two levels an emergency button downstairs, which sounds an alarm upstairs, can be invaluable. Set a policy for handling violent or abusive customers and ensure all staff are aware of it.
Refitting an existing shop
There is nothing like a refit to give new life to a shop. It is also a great time to establish good policies, and to remove any obstreperous volunteers who have been there far too long.
Use an architect to draw up the plans and ensure they instruct the builder and stay around to make sure the work is done on time to a high standard. At the end go round with the architect and the builder ‘snagging’. This is where you point out to the builder all the little jobs that still need doing or the small mistakes that need correcting. This will transform the refit from one that leaves annoying problems that everyone will enjoy pointing out to you, into a refit that will impress everyone.
Refits are a chance to maximise the use of your shops square footage by fitting appropriate fixtures. It is also naturally a time to brighten up the shop with a new coat of paint, but there are more serious consequences that that.
The two key points are the chance to upgrade the shop by receiving and selling better quality goods, and the chance to transform the policies and staff practices. Naturally the two go together. A staff meeting before and after the refit are a good idea. Before you can talk through the changes, the new or now-to-be-enforced policies and that the rota may change. After the refit you can repeat the same process having, in the meantime, explained to certain staff that the rota is being reorganised and the reasons they may not be called on after the refit.
Good management keeps these changes going and the shop on an ever improving pathway. It is all too easy to let thrift shops slid into jumble sales but there is no excuse for it given the right leadership.