Thriving Ennis charity shop provides the perfect example of sustainable social enterprise supporting a vital service
COVID-19 brought many challenges to the voluntary retail sector, however an Ennis “charity superstore” is not just surviving, it is thriving.
Since opening eight years ago in Munster House in the Gort Road Business Park the Clare Haven Horizons Charity Shop has rapidly expanded.
It is now made up of seven units including fashion, furniture and homeware sales, a specific donation drop-off point and an upcoming pop-up Christmas shop.
According to manager Mairead Mannion the store’s location and business model allowed it to respond to the pandemic in a way that facilitated its growing success.
The shop’s expansion hasn’t just been confined to the physical store however, with Clare Haven Horizons Charity Shop making the move online during the pandemic, attracting a brand new set of customers.
Its profile also continues to grow not just locally, but nationally. The shop was recently awarded three out of five national titles at the Irish Charity Shop Association awards.
The store scooped Best Online Presence, Best Shop Team and Best Shop Window Display with Mairead saying they were “thrilled” with the recognition.
All proceeds from the charity shop support both the front-line domestic abuse services of Clare Haven Services and the research and development of education and prevention programmes by Haven Horizons, which administers the shop, aimed at ending relationship abuse.
The name of the shop reflects the funding relationship between both charities which mutually support an end to relationship abuse.
Mairead tells us that the store has gone from “strength to strength” since opening its doors eight years ago.
She admits though when they first opened, some questioned whether the back of an industrial estate with little footfall was the best place to set up.
She recalls, “There was no through traffic, and I was told I’d be outside of Lidl pleading with people to come to our charity shop. But it never happened that way.
“From the minute we opened the doors the level of goodwill within the community has been amazing. We got an avalanche of donations from day one and that hasn’t stopped, we have spent the last eight years catching up with ourselves really.”
With empty premises surrounding the shop unit in the early days, Mairead decided to take a chance on expanding into another after seeing a market for second hand furniture in the county. That was just the beginning.
“We expanded, and expanded and expanded. We started with one store and now we have seven units in total, most of the ground floor of this building.
“Even though I was flying by the seat of my pants, taking calculated risks, it turned out that our business model is now the model for charity shops going forward.”
The decision to open in the industrial estate proved key when it came to tackling the challenges of Covid-19, she explains.
“Many charity shops are based in town centres with small square footage and donors couldn’t access them with pedestrianisation.
“We have a huge advantage in that people can just drive to the door, and everything is on the flat. And we had the space to allow for more social distancing.
“It’s all very well set up here. And we’re very close to the recycling centre which is convenient for people. People say to me why aren’t there more of these kinds of charity superstores around the country.
“I say to them it’s because it’s very hard work. It takes a lot to run but we have a really great team.”
That team used lockdown to carry out a number of improvements at the store including setting up a separate unit for donations and renovating the clothing store.
Another initiative was the introduction of online selling with Clare Haven Horizons Charity Shop partnering with online charity shop thriftify.ie as well as launching itself across a number of social media platforms.
Mairead believes the charity shop is “kind of ahead of the game” when it comes to venturing online, and the move has opened up a brand new customer base.
“We can sell furniture items taking payments over the phone and delivering them, and we have a free collection service within the Mid-West region.
“We’re also using the Marketplace on Facebook. This has opened us up not just geographically, but it’s also expanded our reach demographically.
“Through Haven Horizons Charity Shop on Instagram we are tapping into the 18 to 25-year-old age group, who wouldn’t traditionally have thought about buying clothes from a charity shop.”
She tells us that many designer brands have been sold on the online shop raising vital funds for both causes.
There is no typical charity shop customer, she says, though she has seen increase in the number of people choosing charity shops because they want to live more sustainably.
“We have a huge diversity of customers, that’s the beauty of it. You might have some people who can’t afford to purchase new.
“There are others who chose to be sustainable in their retail choices, and there is a growing cohort of those people.
“There are those who are interested in upcycling, they come in and spot a piece. It’s become hip and trendy to shop in charity shops, supporting the environment by re-using or upcycling and getting into slow fashion as opposed to fast fashion.
“We’ve also had film crews, drama societies, landlords and students decking out their accommodation.
“Charity retail has changed quite dramatically, it’s become mainstream. And what we’re about is making it mainstream and competing with the high street.
“We screen our donations extremely well to make sure what we are putting on the shop floor is really highly saleable. What we want is for our customers to have a good experience, for them to get a good bargain and for our donors to have an outlet to support good charitable causes.”
The shop promotes the circular economy and sustainable retail not just in their sales and donations, they have also been involved in running courses on reusing, upcycling and craft work.
As well as being a place for people to pick up a bargain, the store has also developed into an important community hub.
“We have customers who come in to us every single day. They are coming in for a chat and we may be the only people that they meet in the day and we’re very aware of that so I put a huge emphasis on friendliness.
“I’m also very aware that when donors arrive they could be bereaved and clearing out the home of a loved one. There’s often a lot of sadness attached to that, it’s difficult.
“Also, when we first opened our doors I had the distinct sense that we were opening our doors to those affected by domestic abuse.
“We have had women come into the shop who wouldn’t necessarily have picked up the phone to make an appointment with Clare Haven. But if they came into the shop and realised that it’s friendly then maybe they might ask where to go for support.
“We’ve had several people come to us enquiring about support services and we would refer them to Clare Haven.”
An integral part of the ongoing success of the charity shop has been their volunteers, Mairead insists.
There are usually around 25 active volunteers at any any time and the store is always room for more.
“We could not run this place without our volunteers, we never have enough of them. We are all here working as a team, everybody bringing their own skills to the table and their own interests and we try and match that to the roles that are taken on.
“We have a huge diversity of roles here for volunteers. We have LCA students, TY students, we’ve had corporate groups get involved.
“I’ve had students come in here who were so quiet in the beginning, but they are skipping out of here they have gained so much confidence.”
Mairead describes the Clare Haven Horizons Charity Shop model as a “win – win” for everyone.
“Our business model is a very good example of a social enterprise which depends on the goodwill of the local community to supply donations to our charity shop which also depends on our wonderful team of volunteers to run the shop while customers can buy items at bargain prices while the proceeds supports a great charitable cause. It’s essentially a win-win for everyone involved.
“It’s also sustainable. The donor is preventing items from going to landfill, the customer is reusing an item and breathing new life into it.
“The volunteer is giving up their time and energy for a community and charitable cause, with the money raised supporting the work of the charities. It’s a winning formula for everybody really.”
For details on volunteering contact Clare Haven Horizons Charity Fashion & Furniture Home-Store, Munster House, Gort Road Business Pk, Ennis on 065 6849450. The online store is at https://www.thriftify.ie/seller/clare-haven-horizons-charity-fashion-furniture-home-store/ or check Haven Horizons Charity Shop on Instagram and Clare Haven Horizons Charity Shop on Facebook.