Martin Blackwell will be busy volunteering in a charity shop in the weeks running up to Christmas. According to Ben Merrett, the chair of the Charity Retail Association, Blackwell brings a wealth of retail and membership experience to the role of chief executive, which he starts in January, but he is also keen to gain an insight into what it's like on the front line – "what the challenges are of running and working in a charity shop".
Blackwell's experience encompasses having been chief executive of two membership organisations – the Association of Town Centre Management and Action for Market Towns – and 20 years working for the retail chain WHSmith. He's also seen the struggling side of retail, having followed his passion and opened an independent book shop while he still worked at the ATCM. It closed after four years.
"It just wasn't the time to open a bookshop, what with Amazon starting to come into its own," he says. But it's an experience he doesn't regret: "I know now that it was never going to make money, and it gave me an insight into all the red tape involved in running a small store and complying with the regulations of the retail world."
The CRA has a diverse membership of 375, whom Blackwell regards as "customers". They run more than 7,500 charity shops, ranging from large chains to small independents. Blackwell is looking forward to offering support to the smaller businesses so that they can make the biggest possible contribution to their charities.
He regards charity shops as being in good health. But he warns: "That is not to say that there are not challenges on the horizon, particularly decisions that the government might make, such as tinkering with Gift Aid or changing or removing the 80 per cent business rate discount that charity shops currently enjoy."
During his career, Blackwell has heard many arguments about charity shops and acknowledges there has been "a lot of vociferousness about the number". But he believes there's been a sea change recently – cash converter shops, pound shops and gambling establishments are now regarded as the new bad boys, he says, and there is the growing realisation that charity shops have an important role to play in the reinvention of the high street.
"People like to go into town and browse in charity shops, looking for a bargain," he says. "If charity shops were taken out of the high streets, it would leave a devastated landscape."
2015: Chief executive, Charity Retail Association
2010: Chief executive, Association of Town Centre Management
2006: Owner, BooksInside, Great Yarmouth, to 2010
2004: Development director, Association of Town Centre Management
2002: Chief executive, Action for Market Towns
1997: Town centre manager, Town Centre Partnership Great Yarmouth
1973: General manager, WHSmith.