Millions watched retail expert Mary Portas transform a Save the Children charity shop in Orpington in a recent television series, but what happened after the camera crew left? Lucy Harvey reports.

Conventionally, a charity shop is not the final destination for a tour bus. Day-trippers might pop-in as they search for a high street cuppa en route to an attraction, but they don't tend to be the focus of a trip. Until now that is.

Literally bus-loads of people are being ferried to the Orpington branch of Save the Children each week, following its starring role in the BBC series Mary, Queen of Charity Shops which saw no-nonsense retail expert Mary Portas transform the branch.

The shop's volunteers and the charity are all, quite rightly, basking in their fifteen minutes of fame and enjoying the profile-raising properties of prime time television. But, in a business sense, they are celebrating the results: weekly profits have more than quadrupled - from £700 to consistently more than £3,000 - meaning the branch has gone from among the organisation's worst-performing shops, to one of its best.

Risky business

The charity was approached for the project by Portas, whose research team had scoured the south east for a suitable project, but the intervention was not without risk says Save The Children's head of retail Jayne Cartwright, who has overseen the project from the start.

"They liked Orpington because they liked the location, they thought there was a changing population with a lot more younger people living in Orpington and there was a need to really shift the shop up a few gears," explained Cartwright, who has been at the charity for four years and led the retail team for 18 months.

"They could see there was great potential and there was great potential for us too because we were about to do something with the Orpington shop anyway. We had just renewed the lease after deliberating about whether to stay in that location or whether to move along the high street, and had budgeted to refit the shop in this financial year.

"Obviously there were reputational risks. We didn't know how we were going to be portrayed," she explained. "Clearly it is an entertainment programme and if you look at the formula for Mary's previous programmes she goes into a failing business and she turns it around and it becomes a thriving business, and we didn't want to look like a failing business.

"At the same time we knew that if Mary Portas was going to put her name behind this it was going to be a massive success. She wouldn't have done it if she didn't think she could do it."

Cartwright added: "She was committed to working one day a week for over five months in this shop and to us that was a great opportunity. With her reputation she was not going to fail so we were going to come out of this, I thought, in a positive light."

Ultimately, it seems fair to say Save The Children has done just that. The shop has continued to thrive since Portas left at the end of February, and the programme has provoked plenty of public debate on websites, blogs and on twitter, mostly positive.

Changes carry criticism
But there has been some criticism, and a few casualties.

The £15,000 refit prompted criticism from volunteers and general supporters, and Portas' harsh style proved too much for some, with five volunteers leaving during filming.

Cartwright does not seem phased. "You are talking about people who have been working with the charity for five, ten, twenty, thirty and in once case even 40 years and suddenly you are introducing radical change with someone who is not part of the Save the Children team. That is again another risk," she explained. "We did put a lot of time and effort into making sure that there was support available to them, and the vast majority have loved the experience.

"Through the process we did lose a small number of volunteers but I actually believe that was okay to do that. We didn't want to, and we supported them through that but whenever you do a project like this - in terms of having a re-fit or employing a new manager - people see it as an opportunity to step down.

"There was only one that was very angry about it. The rest saw it as an opportunity for them to step aside and somebody else to take their place."

She added: "There are people who have said you shouldn't spend £15,000 on re-fitting a shop and they are not happy about that, but actually it is the first time we have ever spent any money in that shop for 20 years. It has never had any investment so it is a tiny amount of money, and standard retailers would spend £100,000 on a refit like that. We got the refit at no cost from Conran and Partners, we just paid for materials and contractors, and it has really changed the look of the shop and its customers.

"For us it was a cheap refit really. That is what we would have spent anyway on the shop and we wouldn't have hidden that because we want people to understand that we are making this investment to improve the shop, to improve sales and to increase the number of donors, customers and volunteers for Save the Children."

The design has proved so popular the charity plans to roll it out at ten other shops in the next 12 months, including a new branch in Edinburgh which will open in time for the Edinburgh Festival in August.

Paid staff
Although new branches of Save The Children are being opened, the organisation has also closed ten of its worst-performing shops in the last two years, as part of a wider income-raising strategy which started before the cameras arrived.

Three years ago the retail arm of Save the Children relied solely on volunteers. There are now 18 paid managers across the network of 125 shops, and there could be as many as 25 by the end of this year.

Cartwright said managers have been introduce to specific shops for a variety of reasons including falling sales, a lack of volunteers, an opportunity to maximise potential and so that potential volunteers from NVQ schemes, government New Deal programmes and the probation service can be used - all of whom require paid supervision.

"Volunteers are absolutely at the heart of what we do in our retail operation and across all of our community fundraising work," Cartwright said. "But we had a number of shops where we were starting to see the growth really tailing off and we didn't have enough volunteers or sufficient volunteers to take the responsibility needed to grow those shops."

Again, the results look good. Nationally, income from shops has risen 20 per cent in the last two years - from £6.1m to £7.1m. Targets for this year are slightly difficult to calculate as the organisation changes its financial year to fit the calendar year, but early indications are good.

Cartwright said: "It has made a big difference. I still don't think we are quite there yet, I think we need to squeeze more out of it. We are not content with just them covering their costs, we really want to push people further to deliver better results for the organisation and we have got to make sure that the volunteers can see that these people are worth their weight in gold really."

In Orpington, the success is likely to continue. Trials of '50/50 selling', where local design students sell their creations in the shop and take half of the profit, have continued and more of the community continues to get involved with donations now including home grown jams, locally-made peg bags and items from a knitting group that now meets in the shop of an evening.

"In the show viewers saw Mary reach her £2,000 a week target, but since she left at the end of February it has continued to thrive - taking up to £4,000 every seven days," said Cartwright.

"They have got lots of new customers and it is exciting and vibrant place to be."

She added: "The other reason the income has really grown is because we have been generating a lot more stock ourselves.

"Certainly in the last year or so we have not been getting as much stock - the same as other charity retailers. People don't move house as often, their jobs are on the line, so they are not shopping as often so they are not donating to charity shops as much. So that is something we have had to invest in and we have seen great returns.

"Mostly we have used volunteers to do stock collections for us, but we have also paid local people to do stock collections on our behalf using the house-to-house bags and that has really boosted our income.

"And at the same time we are making sure we are always getting the best price for our rag income."

A new era in charity shops?
For her personally, Cartwright hopes the series has an impact on the wider sector: "It was a great opportunity for our charity to raise its profile, but also I'm committed to charity retailing and I really feel this is an opportunity for other charity retailers to raise their profiles as well," she said.

"It's an opportunity for us to tell the customers, and the donors, and possible volunteers that we are not those smelly shops on the high street that people have joked about in sitcoms for 20 or 30 years. Actually we have upped our game and in a lot of our shops across charity retail we have got a good place on the high street and we are raising many, many millions of pounds for worthwhile charities.

"I'd like people to think about charity shops in a more positive way. To donate, to buy from or to volunteer in. The signs so far are good, but obviously it is very early days.

Lucy Harvey
July 2009