Sweet charity: What really happens to your cast-offs?
The St Vincent de Paul stores not only provide a vital service to those in need, they also stock some amazing finds. Katie Byrne pays one of their busiest outlets a visit - and bags a few bargains
'You wouldn't believe the stuff that people have tucked away in their houses that they're not using," says SVP volunteer Noeleen Blake, as she leads me into the staff area of the charity's Sean MacDermott Street retail shop.
"Garden furniture, musical instruments... did you see the surf board?" she asks as she takes a seat amidst the organised chaos of the back room.
It's midday on a Friday and Noeleen is one of the many volunteers giving me a behind-the-scenes tour of the sprawling Dublin 1 shop.
It's one of the busiest charity shops in Ireland - and today is no different. Out front a couple dozen customers - from every walk of life - are riffling through rails of clothes, examining shoes and handbags and perusing the vast selection of crockery and glassware.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
At the back of the shop, there's a blue bin full of donation bags that need to be opened and sorted. This particular shop can receive up to 50 bags a day. "Maybe even more," adds Noeleen.
"When donations come in, our volunteers go through them bag by bag, item by item," she explains. "They take [an item] out, examine it, make sure it's clean, with no holes. They check that it's sellable and someone would buy it."
The items that won't sell go into the recycling bin. The items that will sell are put on a hanger, tagged and dated. Some of the shops steam-clean the items before they go on shelves; others have volunteer seamstresses who mend clothes that might otherwise be destined for landfill.
They don't take mattresses, duvets, pillows or electrical items, she explains, and they ask that larger items of furniture are donated to their dedicated furniture shops.
Noeleen says certain items are more popular than others. "A good shoe, a good leather bag and household stuff - stuff that people genuinely need for their house."
This particular shop has regular customers, she adds. And some of them come in two or three times a day.
"They know we get great stuff in and they come in to see what's coming out now," she explains. "They know the routine of the shop."
It doesn't take much rummaging to unearth a treasure here. There's a pair of nearly-new Fendi sandals with their original box, priced at €200, and locked behind a glass case on the shop floor. "They won't be there long," says Noeleen. "Two days max."
Another volunteer shows me a black faux fur Benneton coat (€40) but I'm more interested in a fitted Pinko blazer that I'd buy if it was a size bigger.
My jaw drops when she tells me it costs just €6. "Too much or too little?" she asks. "Too little," I reply.
"But look," she points out. "It's very worn."
I keep looking and, before long, my eye alights upon a large geometric ceramic vase that would easily cost €80 in an upmarket homewares shop and two hand-painted plates by a well established South African potter called Clementina Van Der Walt (thank you, Google). Somebody's holiday trash has become my treasure - and the entire haul costs €10.50.
Most of us have donated items to charity shops and wondered - even just for a moment - where those items will end up.
If it's a local, standalone charity shop, your donations will more than likely end up in a home in the same community. Donate to SVP, however, and your items could end up in a different county - or country.
Behind the shop on Sean MacDermott Street is a central warehouse for the east region and an 'order fulfillment centre'. Surplus stock from 44 shops around the east are picked up by a fleet of seven vans and brought here. The items pass through a conveyor belt and a team of volunteers sort them into categories. These items are then sent back out to shops where they have a better chance of being sold.
"In the bad old days the stock that the shops were sending in was going out to the same shops again," says SVP's National Retail Development Manger Dermot McGilloway.
Nowadays, they use a barcoding system to make sure this doesn't happen. They're also beginning to use technology that tracks sales activity in local shops.
"If a shop in Drogheda has a big demand for kids' clothes and somebody else has a surplus of them, we can move that stock around based on what customers are buying," he explains.
The system is designed to "extract the maximum value from the donation" but some items simply don't sell, no matter how many shops they go through.
"The stuff we can't sell ends up in Eastern Europe or Africa. All charity retailers end up sending stuff on to the same exporters."
We walk past another area where there are hundreds of bags stacked on top of each other.
"There are 700 or 800 bags picked up from mobile collection banks outside churches in the Dublin area each week, and we always know that this is top-grade stuff because people going to mass on Sunday aren't going to give us their rubbish," Dermot explains.
"It's always cleaned, ironed and pressed. The type of stuff people would wear to mass on Sunday we get on Monday morning."
We continue our tour, passing a rail of sequin-strewn vintage clothing. ("Vintage sells really well - when we get it") and a consignment of stylish rattan and fringing lighting pendants that were donated by Avoca. The price tags (€395.95) are still on them.
Our last stop is the Treasury, which is where high-worth items are kept under lock and key. There's artwork, collectibles, stamps, first-edition books and pre-Euro coins and banknotes.
I spot a stiff yellow gift bag that has the whiff of luxury about it. My instincts prove correct when I discover at least €2,000 worth of designer clothing - tags still on - inside.
Dermot doesn't know where this donation of Balenciaga joggers, Burberry shirt, Whistles top and more, came from. Maybe it was donated? Maybe it came from Parcel Motel? (Parcels that aren't collected from the lockers after 90 days are donated to SVP.)
Either way, these designer clothes - and the rest of the items in the Treasury - probably won't make it onto the shop floor. A team of volunteers will establish their value and they'll be sold through the SVP eBay page.
Dermot says the SVP customer base is broadening. "Certainly, when I started, people came to SVP shops because they needed to," he explains. Nowadays, they get more "treasure hunters and bargain hunters" and people whose circumstances don't necessarily require them to buy from charity shops.
The SVP shopping experience is changing too. People in need are still their main priority - they have an emergency assistance programme whereby homeless people are dressed for free - but their other priority is providing a bona fide retail experience.
The days of charity shops selling sub-standard items are long gone. So too are the days when you could get lucky and pick up a nearly-new, high-worth item for next-to-nothing.
Charity shops like SVP know the worth of the items that they're selling - and they're determined to extract every last cent of value from them.