Second-hand, sustainable, here to stay
How the future of second-hand shopping is filled with ‘exciting evolutions and expansions’ in the wake of Covid
The retail market was hit hard in Covid and has been recovering ever since, but the dark horse of the high street competition has turned out to be charity shops. Charity shops have always been a staple of the high street, with the Charity Retail Association reporting the UK has more than 11,000 stores currently. But with charity retail stores being mainly physical, there is concern they can’t compete with other retail competitors.
However, recent financial data has proved quite the opposite, with charity shop retail sales bouncing back from Covid to even surpass pre-Covid figures and continue to look on the up. Oxford based hospice charity organisation, Sobell House, has recorded a 22% increase in retail sales across their stores from 2018 to 2023.
Speaking to Sobell House’s Director of Retail, Becky Sewell, some possible driving factors of this increase were discussed. Becky mentioned the cost-of-living crisis as a catalyst for consumers to turn towards charity retail as an affordable and accessible option. ‘Our retail prices are not dissimilar to other high street brands but there is the realisation of quality, the clothes we sell are not just cheap but are good value.’ In this economy, this is vital.
She also went on to emphasise the strengths of charity shops’ position on the high street. While this was a disadvantage during Covid with physical stores closing, this has been a benefit post Covid. Core high streets don’t have all the big retailers anymore which means charity shops remaining, make them ‘the only available option in some ways’, this accessibility can allow for more shoppers to discover just how good value charity shops can be.
This continual interest in second-hand clothing has been reflected in figures spanning 2018 - 2023 in charity shop retail sales. Looking at financial reports from 6 charity shops around the UK, this bounce back post Covid trend can be seen clearly within the figures. Despite sales being hit hard in lockdowns and going into negative figures for some, they all stabilised and then increased. The charities’ recorded retail sales not only match pre-covid figures, but in most cases exceeding the old figures.
Whilst charity shops retail sales, before Covid-19, are seen to be relatively consistent year on year, it is insightful to see the jump after lockdowns. Despite the cost-of-living-crisis currently, people still have the desire to shop and second-hand is the most affordable and sustainable solution.
Charity shop retail sales surpassing pre-Covid figures across all six stores in 2023 solidifies their place in the market and while consumers found other second-hand options in lockdowns charity shop’s place on the high street is still in demand, with individual’s clearly returning in force, with this expected to continue to increase into the future.
Covid and the subsequent lockdowns saw sales and searches of online second-hand apps such as Vinted, Depop, and eBay soar. With shops closed, it drove consumers to other avenues of sustainable fashion. One of the leading second-hand online marketplaces, Vinted, saw a revenue jump of over €200 million from 2020 to 2022, clearly spurred on by a wave of consumers flocking to online retail outlets in lockdowns but still aiming for the sustainable options.
The main retail demographic is commonly said to be ages 18-44, with young people making up a substantial section of this demographic looking into their shopping habits can also explain the shift seen in trends. With Becky Sewell also mentioning noticing an increase in younger people’s engagement in the Sobell House stores in Oxford, partially due to the high density of students in the area but also fuelled by other factors.
Speaking to some Oxford Brookes university students shed light on the other factors driving young people to shop second-hand.
3rd year Marketing student, Finn aged 22, mentioned how finances are a key factor that influence his shopping habits. ‘As a uni student being able to shop ethically and affordably is really important to me, with the cost-of-living crisis and inflation at the moment it means I can still buy new clothes without feeling guilty or stretching my money too far’.
Another 3rd year student, Laura, 23 who is studying Criminology, gave some reasons in the inspiration behind her shift to focus on second-hand shopping. ‘I find that I can be easily influenced by Tik Tok but recently seeing influencers promoting more of an individual style found from lots of different places and second-hand like Vinted and Depop has made me look into those as shopping options more. Being able to shop in charity shops as well has become such a hobby for me as it is more fun to really look for and find clothes I love instead of just browsing online aimlessly’.
Sobell House’s Becky Sewell also mentioned similar themes when asked about her retail habits after working in the charity sector, she mentioned how having made the transition from high street retail to charities makes her more reluctant to spend her money elsewhere, ‘the things that you find that others have donated are often better than what I would find in high street stores’.
The future of second-hand retail is looking boundless, with the post Covid figures suggesting a continued increase and social factors suggesting continued interest and engagement from shoppers. This future retail income benefits the charities these retail stores represent with more percentages of their overall income being able to come from charity retail sales.
Charity organisations get their income from a few sources, commonly fundraising, donations, and retail sales. Looking at two leading charity organisations, British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research UK, trading income makes up a steady amount of the charities’ total income for the most recent financial year.
Becky Sewell commented on how this is reflected for Sobell House, ‘Retail sales contribute 30%/40% to our overall charities’ income and are a highly sustainable and consistent source of income compared to the fundraising calendar which has more peaks and troughs in income’.
The supportive consistency of retail sales isn’t its only value for charities, Becky goes on to express just how vital retail shops are, ‘Charity shops are the face of that charity to many people, they are the first association people make with that charity and they raise awareness, this is such a hidden value as our main aim is to raise the most income we can for our services, so the right public profile is vital.’
This shift in shopper trends to the sustainable second-hand options is encouraging for the future of the economy and the environment. Clothing consumption and sustainability is an ever-increasing global issue, even on a national scale the House of Commons environmental audit committee reported the UK has been found to buy more clothes per person than any other country in Europe, in their 2019 clothing consumption and sustainability report.
The onus is on us to shape the future of second-hand shopping, and with the current generation’s perspectives on the importance of balancing trends with an environmental conscience we can have faith that the second-hand market can only continue to thrive, without needing another lockdown to inspire this change…