Some see them as the scourge of the high street, while for others the charity shop is a treasure trove stuffed with vintage gems and bargains. 

Packed to the rafters with “pre-loved”  outfits, quirky ornaments, old tea sets and well-thumbed books, they’ve been a feature of our high streets for decades.

And as familiar names have faded from town centres, charity shops have become among the few retailers still found on our high streets.

Now, however, there is mounting concern that Scotland’s charity shops may become unlikely pandemic victims, with too few of their older volunteers able to safely man them, and a drop in income leaving them facing the choice of whether to re-open or just close them down. 

It raises the possibility of Scotland’s high streets, already struggling with years of decline, falling even further into a shopping black hole. 

Legal expert David Dunsire, a charity trustee and consultant at Lindsays legal firm, says many charities will be considering the financial implications of keeping their shops open. 

Mr Dunsire, who works with several Scottish charities, says: “The majority of shops will be leased because charities, generally, do not have the money to buy.
“The current situation means that these are effectively being mothballed. There’s no income coming in, but they’re expected to pay rent.

“Charities will undoubtedly be looking at their portfolio going forward and asking if they’re going to re-open these shops post-lockdown and assessing the benefits they bring versus the rental charges. 

“It will focus the mind on whether they should be keeping these.”

As well as the challenges of finding volunteers able to run their shops, charities may also face additional costs of handling a glut of donations from people who have spent lockdown clearing out cupboards, and the possibility that some wary customers may opt to avoid buying second-hand clothes and goods.

Jon Heggie, director of fundraising at St Columba’s Hospice in Edinburgh, says it may mean a shift towards selling online while plans are put in place to re-open shops.

“It’s a shame because sometimes when you walk down the high street, you do think that if charity shops closed as well there wouldn’t be very much left,” he says.

“We have a workforce with a lot of volunteers, some of them in the older age bracket which brings extra complications. It’s unlikely we would be able to staff our shops as it stands. But we’re starting to think about if and when we might re-open and what changes might have to take place and how we can run with less volunteers.”

Running the hospice services and its 30-bed in-patient unit at Granton last year cost £10.2 million and involved support from its 600 volunteers. Its eight charity shops achieved a turnover of £600,000, while fundraising and support from people taking part in events such as its Celtic Challenge, a 200-mile cycle from Edinburgh to Iona which was due to take place next week, typically boosts the charity by a further £1.2 million. 

“Our April figures for donated income now look to be about 74 per cent down against budget for the first month of 2020-21,” adds Jon.

Meanwhile, Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland says it is losing £500,000 a month, with a drop in income from its 45 shops, donations and voluntary support just as demand for its Advice Line and one to one Community Support Services is 80% higher than this time last year. The charity says it may have to close some essential services within months, putting a question mark over its advice line, one-to-one community support services and peer support groups.

Jane-Claire Judson, chief executive at CHSS, says: “The jobs of our lifeline nurses and support workers are under serious threat. Without donations, some services could close in a matter of months.”

According to the Charity Retail Association, Scotland has 934 charity shops which help to generate millions of pounds for everything from dog and cat homes to cancer research. 

Down the years they have shed their “second hand” image, with some re-styled into smart boutiques selling designer outfits, prom dresses and wedding gowns or specialist bookshops. 

Some in upmarket areas, such as the Red Cross shop in Perth, have gained reputations for the high-quality stock donated by well-heeled locals. While Mary’s Living and Giving charity shop in Edinburgh’s fashionable Stockbridge was designed by shop guru Mary Portas to raise funds for Save the Children, and has been named by Vogue as one of the UK’s best charity shops. 

Its rails often feature Vivienne Westwood, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren outfits donated by the New Town’s better-off citizens. 

Jonathan Mail of the Charity Retail Association says: “Charity retailers are not going to suddenly re-open on the day they are allowed to. Their volunteer workforce means they are unique compared to commercial retailers.

“It is likely that re-openings will be on a phased basis to allow time to put in place new measures to keep people safe and to ensure sufficient staff and volunteers are available.

“Prior to the lockdown, charity shops were performing strongly with an 11% year-on-year growth in the amount raised for charities. Our expectation is that over time charity shops will be able to regain the level of trade prior to the lockdown and then continue growing as a sector.”

Charity shops may first have to put in place plans to manage an expected increase in donations of stock which people have not been able to donate whilst shops are close. 

“An increase in stock donations will certainly help assist the sector through a tough period,” he adds. 

Alastair Keatinge, partner and head of charities at Lindsays says the pandemic has raised the possibility of the charity sector never fully returning to normal, with many having to take drastic steps to balance their books.

“The prospect of there being no volunteers for the foreseeable future raises problems in terms of financial liability and risk,” he says.

“There are significant issues for trustees to contend with - some of them at a time when they’re being called upon to support the national response to the crisis. How they react to this will shape the future for many.

“It’s undeniable that costs are going to need to be tighter,” he adds.

“It may be that some smaller charities have to speak to larger ones to see if they can work together to get through this.”