Charity shops as we know them today have been around since 1948 when Oxfam opened the UK’s first charity shop at 17 Broad Street in Oxford.

According to the Charity Retail Association, there are today an estimated 11,200 shops around the country, with many of them located on the high street.

The latest report by Demos reveals that the charity retail sector continues to grow but it also notes that there are “some signs [that] the growth may be slowing slightly”. Despite that, the report also reveals that as many as 50% of people think there should be fewer charity shops on the high street. Furthermore, many Brits who were surveyed by Demos associate charity shops with high street decline. British online retailer OnBuy therefore decided to investigate whether charity shops are really taking over the high street or is it perhaps just the fashion shops, especially women's clothing stores, that are abandoning it.

Charity Shop Count: Results not Yielding Unusually High Numbers

Walking the high streets of London as well as using Google maps and Google street view to count the charity shops, OnBuy noticed that they are omni-present as they can be found in both affluent communities and poor neighbourhoods as well as popular shopping destinations. However, no unusually high numbers were observed.

For example, there are just 5 charity shops on Camden Town High Street. Considering that there are 100 plus shops excluding coffee shops, restaurants, banks, hairstylists and similar service businesses, it means that charity shops account for fewer than 5% of all high street shops in this northwest London district. Similar numbers were also observed on the high streets of Woolwich (5), Central Hackney (4), Fulham (5) and other inner London boroughs. The total number of shops on many high streets was closer to 50 rather than 100 but despite that, it means that charity shops account only up to about 10% of all high street shops.

Chairty shops

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No significant difference was found in outer London boroughs. What is more, the number of charity shops on some high streets such as those of Ealing (3) and Wembley (2) was even lower than in inner London boroughs. There were also exceptions such as Chipping Barnet where counted as many as 10 charity shops. Compared to the total number of shops (+50) on the high street, that’s almost 20%. Nevertheless, we cannot speak of charity shops dominating the high street. The ratio, however, changes dramatically when the number of charity shops is compared to the number of high street apparel brands.

"For millions of people, charity shops are an extremely important part of the High Street..."

Allison Swaine-Hughes, Retail Operations Director, British Heart Foundation

Charity Shops Vs High Street Apparel Brands: Fashion Retailers Extremely Outnumbered

To find out what could be fuelling the widespread perception that there are too many charity shops on the high street, decided to compare their numbers with the traditional high street apparel shops. When excluding stores other than apparel, the ratio changes dramatically in favour of charity shops as in some places, there are almost no high street favourites left.

One of such places is also Borehamwood, a commuter town in southern Hertfordshire. Out of a total 36 shops as many were counted on the high street, as many as 9 are charity shops with most of them selling second-hand clothing. Shockingly, shoppers looking to buy new clothing on the high street can do so only in two apparel shops – Peacocks and a small youth clothing shop on the end of the high street. This means that charity shops account for over 80% of all apparel shops on the high street. Despite that, the observed predominance compared to the traditional high street apparel shops can mainly be attributed to the absence of the latter.

Street sign

Credit: Lucie Lang/Shutterstock

What is Really Happening in the High Street?

The latest reports reveal that high street apparel shops are continuing to close at a rapid rate, with the popular fashion brand New Look considering closing as many 60 stores around the country. Other high street favourites that are also considering closing or have already closed a significant number of stores include Marks & Spencer, Debenhams and East, to mention just a few, while many more are expected to follow their example in near future.

This confirms OnBuy's findings, that the high street is being abandoned by popular fashion brands rather than taken over by charity shops. As a result, charity shops suffering a major injustice by being accused to be responsible for the decline of the high street.

Allison Swaine-Hughes, Retail Operations Director from the British Heart Foundation (BHF), which has around 730 shops on the high street, commented:

Chairty shop

Credit: Martin Good/Shutterstock

"For millions of people, charity shops are an extremely important part of the High Street. We are occupying a retail space that might have otherwise been left empty, and we’re raising vital funds for BHF research to improve treatments for heart disease.

But our impact is greater than that. Our shops are community hubs, offering health information to millions of people. We offer ample volunteering roles, which gives the local community the chance to develop new skills, build confidence and the ability to enhance their CV.

Our BHF shops also prevent thousands of tonnes of unwanted goods going to landfill every year. Last year alone, we turned 65, 000 tonnes of generously donated items into £25 million for our research.

In an age where shoppers are looking to the High Street for affordable, good quality and environmentally friendly items, charity shops like the BHF can cater for these needs while raising funds for pioneering research that transforms the lives of people living with heart and circulatory conditions."