Sustainable fashion: Boutique by Shelter

Welcome to a monthly column within our broader sustainability section which is going to focus on what fashion is doing to address the issues in its industry.

Boutique by Shelter – brought to you by Retail Insider with Clipper and Give Back Box

We all think we know the deal with charity shops. Lots of them on a high street means that particular area is not doing well. It’s mainly students who go shopping in them. And they all smell weird. Well, it could be time to change your mind on all the above as Retail Insider talks fast fashion and boutique charity shops with Shelter’s head of retail David Cryer.

In case you missed it, during the recent London Fashion Week Oxfam put on a show featuring the likes of Laura Bailey, Lottie Moss and Stella Tennant where all the models were styled in clothes taken from Oxfam’s 600-strong national chain of stores. It was a very visible indication that charity shops have a distinct role to play in the sustainability sector and one which is going to be increasing over time as fast fashion gets a rougher and rougher ride from tastemakers, politicians and consumers alike.

Shelter’s Boutique in Coal Drops Yard, London (picture credits French+Tye)

But away from the glitz of LFW, a quietly growing collection of high streets in London are home to a chain of high-end, boutique, designer-led charity shops from homeless charity Shelter.  According to David Cryer the original idea came after Shelter decided that it needed a game-changer for its shops so that they contributed more to charity finances. As London’s units were already performing well it was decided to concentrate efforts on a redesign in the capital and Cryer approached designer and long-term supporter Wayne Hemingway. He chose to launch his boutique idea in two stores – Hampstead, which was a new store, and Swiss Cottage, which was an existing site.

Move forward to 2019 and there are 12 boutiques spread across some of the most affluent village centres in London with new sites planned in Highgate Village and Clapham Common as well as the King’s Cross Coal Drops Yard project. Many according to Cryer are brand new sites because the cost of converting existing units to the Hemingway specification is too expensive. And it should be remembered that, contrary to public opinion, charity shops pay the same rent as any other retailer, although they do get a reduction in their rates.

But what exactly is the Hemingway specification? In a nutshell it is more minimalist with white spaces. They are not crammed with racks as most charity shops are but laid out much more sparsely. Because of where they are, they attract more upmarket donation, which in turn, of course attract higher prices and drive up average spend. The one exception to the minimalist rule is the Coal Drops Yard unit where the fixtures and fittings were so unique (the site is part of the old train goods yards behind Kings Cross station) that Shelter kept them and made them an integral part of the shop.

Not your average charity shop

We asked if people shop differently in these boutique charity shops. And the answer from Cryer seems to be yes – partly because the demographic in the immediate catchment area is more likely to donate and then buy more designer clothes and partly because these village centres are often also tourist areas (whether that is international or domestic tourism) and these visiting consumers are also more designer-led than the average charity shopper.

But it is clear that the logistical supply of garments for a boutique charity shop needs to be very carefully managed. The shop managers at Shelter are trained to look out for donations which can be maximised elsewhere, either in the charity’s eBay shop or at the boutique destinations. However, as Cryer points out – a donation which stays in the shop that it was donated to has incurred no extra costs at all and it consists completely of profit. The moment you start moving it around costs are added so you need to be sure that the uplift in transport costs from taking a vintage item across London is replicated in the higher price it can achieve at the new location. This is probably why there are no boutique Shelter shops outside London.

Ninety nine per cent of what the shops sell is donated and second hand but is there a limit to what people will pay in a charity shop? Cryer argues that the tourist element to the shops means that a lot of people, especially overseas visitors who do not have a culture of second hand buying, have no idea at all that they are actually in a charity shop because of the way the spaces are visually laid out and what stock is in there. But generally with the local residents the price flex in a boutique is much greater.

The core customer in a boutique varies greatly but relative youth is of course a given, partly because of finances and partly because of a rejection of fast fashion towards a more ethical and sustainable source of clothing. But these repeat customers do expect something good to be in every time they shop and this is why the job title of the boutique shop manager is so important.

They are called Community Shop Managers because they are expected to be out in the local community harvesting repeat donations and constantly building links with the local donating residents/workers. Cryer notes that in Coal Drops Yard, for instance, there is a local community of 50,000 people including Central Saint Martin’s fashion students and the narrow boat community, both of which could have high turnover on clothing as they are unlikely to have large amounts of storage.

So where next for the Shelter boutique? Well, Cryer concedes that quite a lot of the low-hanging ‘London village’ fruit has gone already. He cites more challenging areas such as the East End of London as a possible next phase. The biggest hurdles to charity retailing, as he sees it, is that there is no regulated supply chain of stock and the labour is mainly voluntary and therefore can be unstable.

But on the plus side for the first time ever, in Coal Drops Yard the developer Argent approached Shelter instead of the charity having to seek out a suitable unit and contact them. Cryer applauds its forward thinking in making a charity shop part of a sustainable future in a dynamic way and hopes that shopping centre operators all over the country will consider including charities for tenants as Shelter’s boutique stores continue to prosper.

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