Age NI: 'Our stores are like fashion outlets, not charity shops'
The man behind Belfast's Victoria Square has taken over as commercial director with Age NI. Now Hugh Black intends to use his retail experience coupled with Mary Portas-style panache to revamp all the charity's premises. He sets out his stall to John Mulgrew.
The queen of retail Mary Portas knew traditional charity shops would need to evolve if they were to survive on the increasingly competitive high streets.
Now, one of Northern Ireland's own retail stalwarts - and the man behind Belfast's Victoria Square - is doing the same, launching a series of new 'boutique' Age NI shops across the province.
And seven years ago to the day after the ribbon was cut on the glitz and glam of Belfast's now flagship centre, Hugh Black and his Age NI team have opened the first of eight new modern shops in Banbridge.
He joined Age NI - the charity representing older people - as commercial director in 2013, and up until recently, had never even been in a charity shop.
"It's been called the future of charity retail, and we are very much in the style of Mary Portas on this," he said.
"I'd never been in a charity shop in my life - I'd been so much in the high street world for so long.
"After many years, the opportunity then came along to take over the small commercial end of the business and begin to grow it.
"With these new stores, you don't feel you are in a charity shop - that's my goal. I spent time walking around the competition, and they are much of a muchness. This has the feel of a fashion boutique, and I don't think anyone has achieved that so far."
It's already a very different environment inside - evocative of big name high-street retailers as opposed to the traditional charity shop vein.
And it's also selling new products - with plans to attract designers to begin flogging their wares in the new-look outlets.
"We took a few ideas from other high street retailers and adapted that for us," he said.
"The selection of things on offer, and the quality of clothes is important.
"There are also homeware products such as candles, as well as jewellery.
"People love that sort of thing - at this stage it's a small percentage, but I hope we do well out of that.
"I also want to talk to young designers who could make products like handbags or jewellery for our Age NI stores."
In 2009 - right in the middle of the recession - Mary Portas turned her hand towards helping overhaul Save the Children charity shops.
It formed the basis of a three-part BBC2 series called Mary Queen of Charity Shops - with the retail expert helping to revamp one under-performing branch, helping to turn its fortunes around.
While Age NI has run four traditional charity shops for many years, Mr Black is now using his retail skills to revamp the old fashioned model.
After managing a Dunnes Stores at just 19, Mr Black moved in to shopping centres - running the Flagship Centre in Bangor.
He then took over at Junction One, before being brought in at the helm of Victoria Square back in 2008.
And Mr Black now says he's expecting a significant boost in income for the charity on the back of the new shops.
"All the profits go back to do the work the charity is doing," he said.
"The key is getting good donated stock, and we are using the marketing of 'please donate, let your clothes be loved again'.
"The charity shop role in the high street is peaking and with the competition it's becoming so hard for them to thrive."
He said feedback for the Banbridge flagship store had been "amazing". "What you see when you walk in is impressive - it looks so well and looks so much like a high street branded shop," he said.
"And we have plans to modernise the look and feel of our existing stores in Bangor, Ballymena, Coleraine and Carrickfergus in line with our Banbridge model.
"What we have delivered, any major shopping centre owner would have to seriously consider."
Age NI's chief executive Linda Robinson said that it was important for Age NI to respond effectively to a changing charity landscape.
"The recession has had a direct impact on many charities and indeed their supporters too," she said.
"As a result, it has been important for us to identify new prospects to build upon the existing sustainability of our services and activities."
"We identified a clear opportunity within our retail offer to help us achieve this vision, and with the appointment of Hugh Black, we are confident that we have the drive, passion and expert retail knowledge to increase the economic and social value contribution of the charity in the long term."
Helping launch the first store in Banbridge, Belfast Fashionweek director Cathy Martin said: "I am delighted to support Age NI and wish the charity well with its new flagship store in Banbridge.
"It's wonderful to see Age NI generating invaluable income for charity services while meeting the needs of a changing consumer base which wants style on a budget as well as a unique high street experience."
And Dame Mary Peters - who also attended the launch - said the new store "will be a welcome and vibrant addition".