Friday, 22 January 2010

Profile: Charity Chic

Not even Mary Portas or a bag of dirty nappies can stand in the way of Bournemouth charity shop assistant manager Tracey Conner, as Joanna Stass discovers...

It’s a very wet day in Boscombe and 46-year-old Tracey has ventured into the Age Concern shop from her home in Ferndown, to cover for the manager, Linda Love, who is off sick. She makes this journey every day, collecting one of the shop volunteers on route.

The shop is unexpectedly busy for such an awful day and is filled with everything you would expect to find in a charity shop. Everything is neatly displayed on shelves and hangers. “We always receive compliments about how clean the shop is. How it smells nice and looks clean and tidy” says Tracey.

It’s hard to imagine that just four years ago, this mother of two was almost paralysed in a car accident. “My car skidded on black ice into a barrier and then fell down a steep drop. My two boys were in the car at the time but thankfully they were okay”. Originally misdiagnosed by her doctor, Tracey spent several months in agony before going back into hospital, where it was revealed that she had a ‘misaligned spine’. “They said that it was likely I would be disabled for the rest of my life if I didn’t keep active, but then they told me to stop working. I wasn’t going to give up though”.

In March 2007, two years after the accident, Tracey began working for Age Concern as a volunteer. “Linda was a good friend of mine and she recommended I volunteer in the shop, so I decided to give it a go”. Just a year later, Tracey was offered a paid job and this June, was promoted to assistant manager.

Tracey’s selfless nature is inspiring. As well as working in the charity shop, she is a part-time IT teacher who also volunteers to teach people to use their computers in her spare time. “I used to work with people who had special needs and they had this computer room. I had always loved computers and it really interested me, so I decided I wanted to teach other people to use them”.

In the shop, Tracey’s office - which is no bigger than your average wardrobe - is plastered with calendars, posters and post-it notes of all the colours of the rainbow. Her job is very involved and includes looking after the staff, banking and paperwork, sorting and selling as well as being in charge of health and safety. And she is always willing to go out of her way for customers. “If someone comes in and asks for a particular item, we will ring them and let them know if it comes in. It’s all about knowing what the customers want, talking to them, making them feel welcome. That way they are more likely to return.”

Tracey is extremely dedicated to her job and this hasn’t gone unnoticed. “Tracey is an asset to the staff” said Linda Love. “I can always count on her, even outside of work she is such a loyal friend”.

Tracey likes to travel round different charity shops. “I focus on what prices they are charging, I focus on their displays. It’s a bit of competition isn’t it?” she grins. The shop isn’t short of competition, as there are seven charity shops on Boscombe High Street and many more spread across Bournemouth. “We all have our own price guides and targets but we do all talk to each other. We go into each other’s shops to see how they are doing.”

The job also throws up a few surprises. “There was once a mix up with a delivery. Someone delivered a bag of somebody’s grass cuttings and some dirty nappies. Sadly someone had to open that. That was the worst ever!” However, the store has also been lucky, once receiving a rocking horse which they managed to sell for £200.

Tracey wasn’t impressed with the recent BBC documentary ‘Mary Queen of Charity Shops’, in which retail adviser Mary Portas took over the running of a charity shop in an attempt to make it more successful. After rolling her eyes she says “I thought it was interesting in parts, but I was sad about the negativity towards the volunteers and the way in which they were spoken to. I think they deserved more credit for their ideas.”

Tracey’s motto is “Happy staff means a happy shop”. “June is one of our longest serving volunteers” she says, putting her arm around the shoulders of 84-year-old June Dempsey, who is working behind the till. “She has been here well over 20 years”

The two get along like old friends and when asked what she thinks of Tracey, June jokes “Not a lot!” before adding “No, she is one of the best” once they have finished laughing hysterically. She picks up an alarmingly large pair of pants from the display, drops them onto the counter and exclaims ‘knickers!’ to which Tracey replies ‘knickers to you too!’ and the laughter erupts again.

It seems that not even the recession can hold Tracey back, as she admits that the only noticeable effect of the credit crunch is the increase in volunteers since more and more people are out of work. “We are more affected by the weather really. If it’s poring with rain, there are fewer elderly people out and about.”

There are eighteen branches of Age Concern shops in the south of the UK and the Boscombe shop alone raises approximately £1500 each week for Age Concern. In the spring of next year, Age Concern will be merging with Help The Aged to form Age UK, something which Tracey seems very enthusiastic about. “I’m excited!” she says, “it will make the charity bigger and at the end of the day it’s all about charity isn’t it.”

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