Leader interview: How BHF is top of the charity shops
The UK’s charity shops are a shining example of successful charitable enterprise. Mike Taylor is commercial director at the country’s biggest charity retailer, BHF. He says constant innovation plus great people help make it work.
The growth of our charity shops division has been focused and consistent
“The British Heart Foundation (BHF) came later to charity retailing than some other charities, but, to date, we have opened more shops than anyone else. Through a focused and consistent growth programme, we’ve opened an average of one new store every fortnight for the past 32 years and now there are 732. The average BHF shop takes more money than the average charity sector shop.”
We think we’ve got the magic formula for our charity shop staff and volunteers
“We employ more staff per shop and in total than any other charity retailer. We think 3,000 paid staff and 18,000 volunteers is the magic formula to maximise our return from donations. The alchemy is a combination of great volunteers and paid team members.”
Innovation is key
“We always try to innovate. We have embraced eBay in the last five years and our dedicated centre in Leeds, where 90 people work, generated £6m in sales this year. We sold a Boer War medal for £3,000 recently. eBay is a brilliant way of getting the best value for high value items where shops would struggle.
“Our partnership with Gumtree, where we list 1,000 furniture items a week, is unique; the website shows what is for sale in your local area.
“And we have partnerships with big retailers. For example, a challenge for furniture retailers is the hassle for customers of getting rid of the old furniture – we will come into your house and remove it for free. We’ve had £20m-worth of sofas donated from DFS customers in the last six years, which is a brilliant solution for all concerned.”
We’ve diversified our offer
“Around 17 years ago we got into selling furniture and electricals. Now this operation is equal in size in turnover to the other parts of our retail activity. We’ve also moved into some much larger shops, and we now have around 180 furniture shops as well as some that are full department stores with sections for books, clothing, etc – these are typically 20 times larger than the average high street charity shop.”
We’re big, but small charities can be successful too
“I don’t buy into the “if you’re small you’re competitively disadvantaged” theory. Hospices and air ambulance charities that we collaborate with, for example, with ten or 20 local shops really know their local markets and have passionate, engaged supporters. Their retail standards are fantastic and will be as profitable per shop as ours.”
We test and prove our ideas
“Through our governance process, we will look at the return on investment rather than absolute cost of a new idea. The chances are once we have trialled it and proved it, we will roll it out. If we can demonstrate there’s an activity that brings in three times as much money as it costs to develop it then why wouldn’t we do it? That drives our progress. Anything that can bring in new additional funding is good.”
Retail is harder than it looks
“I have seen charities switch into retail, seeing it as a panacea when fundraising gets harder because it’s unrestricted income. But setting up a physical retail business from scratch is harder than it looks.
“In the 20th century, if you had stuff to sell, shops were the only way to do it. But nowadays there are lots of different ways to do it. We are huge fans of eBay. No matter how big or small you are, there’s a route to market and you can get maximum return for minimum cost. It’s a very democratic platform, some really small charities are doing really well selling online.”
I’ve got the best job in British retailing
“I think this is probably the best job in British retailing because of the passion of the volunteers and the staff, and the direct connection between the money we raise and the positive impact we have on millions of people. The £30m profits a year from retail funds nearly one-third of all BHF’s research into heart disease, so it’s massively important.”