The Charity Retail Association has begun tracking the extent to which charities are using their retail operations as a way of marketing their brands and delivering their services, in addition to generating income.
In response to a recommendation from Giving Something Back, a report by the think tank Demos published in 2013, the CRA has asked the British Heart Foundation, the veterinary charity PDSA and the welfare-to-work charity the Shaw Trust to record the activities their shops carry out that are beyond their primary purpose of generating revenue, as part of the CRA’s work to develop a social value toolkit.
As well as monitoring what each retail division is doing to promote its parent charity’s brand, signpost to services and disseminate information, the CRA said that over the coming months it would also look at the positive impact of volunteering in each organisation, the employment opportunities their shops create, the environmental benefits and the contribution of the shops to the high street and the local economy.
"We’re piloting this until about spring, which is when we hope we’ll have lots of different data on what worked and what didn’t," said Dan Rattigan, senior public policy officer at the CRA. "Then we hope to develop a toolkit our members can use from the summer onwards."
Asked whether the charities were more often using their shops as tools for conveying their work, a CRA spokesman said: "We’re seeing more and more of our members doing it, although some are using a bit of a scattergun approach – at area-manager level rather than as a national initiative."
The BHF, which runs the UK’s largest charity retail chain, started using some of its 736 shops as awareness-raising platforms almost three years ago. Its stores are the location for activities such as the delivery of CPR training and campaigning – for example, it blanked out the store windows of some shops with posters for its Bag It Beat It campaign. The charity also invites university professors and heart disease researchers to open its stores and drive home the connection with the cause.
"Charities should use their shops more as a platform for getting across the work that they do," said Mike Taylor, retail director at the BHF. "An issue for a lot of them is that their retail divisions are too disconnected from the wider organisation. Many of them either get their communications right or selling stuff right, but struggle to do both. If more retail outlets can tell stories better, it will help to address the under-appreciation of what the sector does."
The older people’s charity Age UK said that it was using digital displays to highlight the charity’s services and activities in 150 of its shops, and the charity’s radio station, the Wireless; posters and leaflets perform this function across all stores. For the charity’s Spread the Warmth campaign, supporters could pick up a knitting pattern – enabling them to knit a "mini-warm home" – in shops, as well as information brochures.
"Most large charities with shops offer information regarding their work in-store," said Hugh Forde, managing director of Age UK Retail. "However, we see a future that uses new technology to allow our customers to access all of the charity’s products, services and information through a kiosk-style screen and printer, bringing the resources of Age UK into the heart of the communities we serve."