Unsung Hero: Vision Foundation

Despite lockdown threating thousands of charity shops on UK high streets, Vision Foundation has managed to adapt and expand its online operations to continue its important work. Retail Gazette caught up with director of retail operations Phil Beaven to find out more.

Vision Foundation Phil Beaven ebay charity shop retail community pandemic covid
"I’ve been blown away by the success of the eBay shop since we relaunched." - Vision Foundation's Phil Beaven.

2020 was undoubtedly a tough year for the charity sector, especially its army of high street shops which had to endure lockdown and other Covid restrictions. This was on top of the many cancelled fundraising events that charities often rely on for income.

As current full-scale lockdown continues in all four UK countries, the Vision Foundation has found a way to focus on modernising its online retail offer in an effort to raise funds and still be there for the community.

The charity, which supports blind and partially sighted people in London, decided it relaunch its eBay shop last October – just as the second wave of the pandemic really started to escalate.

Vision Foundation’s director of retail operations, Phil Beaven spoke to Retail Gazette on the importance of modernising operations and why funds were so desperately needed during these uncertain times.

“Since [October], we’ve been able to continue to drive much needed revenue for the Vision Foundation and list items for sale which were available in our shops,” he explained.

“As a charity retailer we rely solely on the kindness and generosity of our donors who donate their pre-loved items – everything from clothing and housewares to furniture, books and board games.

“During this period of closure we’re taking the opportunity to continue to modernise our warehouse facility and thanks to the recent launch of Gift Aid price up all our donated stock ready for when we reopen.”

Phil has only been in his role for less than a year, stepping into it last May with a remit to undertake a strategic review of the charity’s shop portfolio and retail operations. His review revealed that the Vision Foundation was operating a profitable trading division for more than 25 years but over the past year both top line revenue and profitability had been falling.

“Following this review, we took the decision to close four unprofitable shops but invest in increasing staffing hours across the remaining seven shops, modernise our warehouse facility and create a new management position to focus solely on eBay,” Phil said.

“Prior to this role being recruited, our eBay listings were dealt with by each shop with varying degrees of success given their primary role was to drive shop floor sales, along with sorting and pricing donations.”

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic and guidelines that followed relating to quarantining stock for 48 hours accelerated the need to adopt a new way of working.

“We pivoted to all donations coming to our warehouse for sorting, pricing and redistribution,” Phil recalled.

“This has enabled us to have access to a fantastic array of items and select the very best for sale on our eBay shop, therefore maximising profits for our cause.”

Since transforming its online operations, the charity has seen impressive results.

“I’ve been blown away by the success of the eBay shop since we relaunched and in just three months of trading have exceeded the same period last year by 703 per cent,” Phil said.

“We actually exceeded the three months’ worth of sales for last year in just the first month and have now taken more online than we did in a whole of 2019/20.”

Despite the success of expanding its online operations, what has been far more important was the Vision Foundation being able to support those most impacted by the pandemic. This included delivering hot food across Croydon, in south London, to vulnerable members of the community.

“The impact of Covid-19 and ongoing lockdowns and social distancing rules have created physical divisions and multiple challenges for blind and partially sighted people,” Phil said.

“It is our mission to transform the lives of people facing or living with sight loss and we do this by funding projects which inform, empower and include people from the very start.

“Working across London’s diverse communities means we can intervene and provide support when and where it is needed most.”

While non-essential retailers have been forced to close once again, many forget how important sales are to charities.

“Our shops provide an essential source of income to the work of our charity – as are the shops of many other charities across the country,” Phil said.

“During these ongoing periods of lockdown, I would appeal to people to remember the charities they would normally support and think about how they can continue with their donations.

“Sadly, the demands on charity services are only going up and we need the help of our donors and supporters more than ever.”

For the year ahead, Vision Foundation is set to continue with its transformation plans. This includes renovating five of its shops and developing a new accessible concept shop designed with blind and partially sighted people in mind.

“This will not only allow us to create employment and volunteering opportunities for visually impaired people but will play a key part in educating the people of London about preventable sight loss and the projects we fund across the capital,” Phil said.

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