Give and get back - IWA charity shops are popular hunting grounds for frugal fashion-hunters & furniture up-cyclers, and with one man's trash another man's treasure, they enable you to use your unwanted possessions to support others in your local community. Joanna Marsden reports in the Dungarven Leader, Waterford Press

"These days it's not just people who need to save money who shop in charity shops," says Agatha O'Connor, manager of IWA's long-established shop in Dungarvan, Co Waterford. "Customers appreciate the variety of stock on offer and enjoy rooting around. Sometimes they get lucky and find a real bargain, like recently one lady bought the most stunning cashmere coat for €30. When that happens, they keep coming back!"

The secret of a successful charity shop, says Agatha, is good value and a quick turnover of goods. "When I started this job five years ago, I'd worked in the hotel sector for many years and I had the impression that charity shops were dingy places filled with musty old clothes. But nothing could be further from the truth. Our shops are very well kept and we get in lots of fashionable brands - with stock usually selling within 2-3 days of being put on the shelf."

As well as a strong base of regular customers, Agatha relies on window displays to draw in passers-by, especially younger people. "We are in a great central location so we make the most of our two huge windows. And, if it's in the window, then it's for sale immediately. We're not one of those charity shops that only changes the display every few weeks - I believe in refreshing the window all the time, and I'll never turn a sale away! One lady said to me the other day, 'I nearly crashed the car passing your window!' Another day, we had a fantastic display of four cocktail dresses and a man came in and bought all four for his wife!"

Agatha adds, "Charity shops like ours can be particularly good for designer dresses and wedding two-pieces from labels like Karen Millen or Coast, because people tend to only wear those pieces once. I mean, where else could you get a wedding outfit for ten euro?"

If an item is not sold within a month, Agatha moves it on to the shop's 'euro rail', where it stays for a short period before being sent on for recycling. Agatha's colleague, National Retail Development Co-Ordinator Tomás McCluskey explains that there is no wastage in any of IWA's 12 charity shops. "Anything we don't sell is sold on to recycling companies."

In addition to clothing, IWA charity shops do a strong trade in books (three for a euro in Dungarvan), bric-a-brac and furniture. Agatha says, "The recession has helped because it's become hip to shop for second-hand furniture and then up-cycle it. We only accept quality pieces that we consider saleable. We've had incredible suites of furniture from upmarket brands like Casey's in Cork, and we have a regular supply of beds, chests of drawers, tables and chairs."

"Recently," adds Agatha, "A young lady came in and paid 20 euro for a pine dining table. She came back a week later and showed me a photo of it; she'd sanded it and painted it a lovely soft cream and it looked fantastic!"

Dungarvan is not the only IWA shop that is flourishing, says Tomás. "IWA is still a relatively small player in the sector but we are expanding our network of shops - last year we opened shops in Ennis and Gorey. We have our eye on a couple of other locations, but we want shops to be located as close as possible to local services. In Ennis for example, the new shop is actually part of the Resource and Outreach Centre. This works well because it encourages members and their families to bring in unwanted goods, and it raises awareness of what IWA does because customers can see where the money is going. We also find that volunteers in the shops get to know local members and often start supporting other initiatives - like in Cobh where the volunteers are going along to a fashion show organised by local people in aid of IWA this December."

Tomás and his team have been working hard over the past year to upgrade the interiors and exteriors of IWA's charity shops. "We've re-painted all the shop fronts in our corporate colours and made the signage consistent," he says. "We're also using the shops to promote information on local services."

Last but not least, Tomás's team is improving the accessibility of each shop for wheelchair users. "Obviously many of the high street-type buildings are quite old but as we carry out improvement works we are installing wheelchair accessible toilets for staff and volunteers."

Each IWA shop relies on two core staff members and a large team of volunteers. "Our staff are fantastic but without the volunteers, they just wouldn't be able to run our shops," says Tomás. In the case of Dungarvan, about 20 volunteers do shifts varying from two to ten hours a week.

One challenge facing the growing charity shop sector is local council rates. "Charity shops were traditionally exempt from paying commercial rates on high streets," explains Tomás. "But recently county councils in some areas are considering raising revenue by removing this exemption. This would seriously affect profitability, so we are doing everything we can to challenge it."

As Christmas approaches, IWA charity shops enter a busy season. "Clothing does well at this time of year, and items that are in new or nearly new condition - like good watches - sell well as gifts," says Agatha. "And then of course we get a lot of unwanted gifts in early January - so New Year can be a great time to come in and grab a bargain."

Agatha is set to retire in early 2015 and she says she will miss the camaraderie of the Dungarvan shop. "The place is always full with all types of interesting local characters. Sometimes there will be a quiet moment and we get a chance to boil the kettle, but usually, no sooner than the tea is poured, the door opens and a new customer arrives! People just can't resist popping in for a chat and a look around our treasure trove."

Tomás adds, "The wonderful thing about our charity shops is that it doesn't matter whether you've got one euro or one hundred euro in your wallet, everybody is welcome and will be greeted with a smile."

All proceeds from IWA's charity shops go directly to support delivery of services. Your local IWA charity shop would appreciate your unwanted goods or your custom!