Zoe Amar: What the pandemic digital revolution means for charity shops

Digital platforms can help charity retailers reach more customers but they must build on the unique nature of charity shops as a differentiator

One of my most enduring lockdown memories is the doorbell ringing as yet another parcel arrived.

It might reassure my husband to know that my online deliveries were part of a bigger trend – by February 2021, 75 per cent of UK shoppers said they had been shopping more online, with online retail predicted to grow to £20bn by 2025.

So how are charity shops tackling digital disruption?

I’m a big fan of charity shops and love browsing my local stores to find pre-loved items.

Charity shops play a unique role on the high street, connecting shoppers with causes, providing volunteering opportunities and acting as community hubs.

But charity retail has had to modernise to stay relevant, with digital platforms opening up new income-generating opportunities during the pandemic.

When lockdown forced Yorkshire’s Brain Tumour Charity to close its Leeds store, the charity pivoted, creating an online shop that is still trading successfully, offering new goods and merchandise.

The charity also began selling donated goods online through platforms such as eBay, Depop and Vinted, with income generated through them growing by 180 per cent since 2020.

However, this came with limitations, despite the charity investing time and resources in digital.

“These platforms are only appropriate for higher-priced items and do not enable us to sell day-to-day lower-priced items like books and DVDs, so they cannot replace our physical shop,” says Marie Peacock, chief executive of the charity.

At the same time, donations and shopping at Yorkshire’s Brain Tumour Charity’s physical store have fallen as the cost-of-living crisis bites.

Other charity retailers are feeling bullish. In the 2021/22 financial year, Oxfam sold £2.9m of books online, an increase of 42 per cent on the year before.

Andy Ostcliffe, head of ecommerce and retail innovation at Oxfam, says he and his team strive for customers to have a positive experience of their brand, whether online or offline.

Charities selling online are in competition with every other digital retailer, he acknowledges, many of whom are well-resourced.

Oxfam uses the Shopiago ecommerce platform, where an item can be listed in minutes and exposed simultaneously to websites including eBay and Etsy, tapping into a UK shopper base of 340 million visitors a month compared with Oxfam’s current traffic of one million monthly visitors.

Ostcliffe also encourages his colleagues to keep an eye on the latest trends, as shoppers’ habits evolve further.

“My teams are openly encouraged to be curious and explorative in how customers and markets are interacting now and in the very near future,” he says.

If charity shops are to move with the times and unlock the opportunities that digital retail offers, they will need to meet shoppers’ raised expectations around reliability and customer service.

This takes agility, as well as the ability to stay relevant to customers.

Vicky McGirr, ecommerce manager at British Red Cross, says she has seen great results from seasonal social media content that encourages people to shop online with them – at Halloween, for example.

The capacity that digital offers to scale up excites McGirr and her team. “Selling online is a fantastic opportunity to reach more buyers from all over the world and achieve higher values for donations,” she says.

Digital platforms have huge potential for charity retailers to reach more customers and build relationships with new donors and supporters. Yet we need to do this in a way that builds on the unique nature of charity shops as a differentiator.

Last weekend I found a beautiful animal print skirt in a local charity shop.

The thrill of finding something special alongside the buzz of supporting a cause stayed with me in a way that ordering clothes via a high-street store website never will.

How we replicate this experience online is the next big challenge facing charity shops.

Zoe Amar is founder of Zoe Amar Digital

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