Across Plymouth, South West Devon and East Cornwall, our network of charity shops is supported by a legion of customers snapping up bargains, generating vital income to support our service. But did you know that while many of the items they buy have been donated directly to the shops by our kind-hearted community, a large proportion of stock comes via the hive of activity that is our Distribution Centre at Plympton?

This centralised support centre run by an industrious team of staff and volunteers is crucial to the smooth-running of St Luke’s retail operation, which – as well as 33 charity shops – includes our eBay and Amazon stores that enable us to sell far beyond our surrounding area. Mark Kendall, Logistics and Warehouse Manager, explains what it takes to deliver a distribution service that ensures our customers are never short of quality and choice.

Mark said: “While some of St Luke’s shops are ‘self-sufficient’, receiving a steady stream of goods directly from supporters, the Distribution Centre provides an alternative drop-off point. It’s where our team sifts through thousands of donated items and decides which shops to send them to.

“These not random decisions though – they’re informed by regular information we receive from Area Managers John Saunders and Kerry Hearn and shop managers, who have expert knowledge of what sells best at each store. They know that what’s popular at Modbury, for example, doesn’t necessarily fly off the shelves in Plymouth city centre. We also have portfolios with details of each shop, its location and community demographics, to which the team can refer when they’re sorting donations. This is important because we have a duty to our donors who give us goods, and to our charity itself, to get the best possible price.

“Retail presence online is also key to generating funds, and our charity uses eBay and Amazon to reach a much wider audience, including overseas, to sell donated items that are rare or collectable, such as vintage toys and first-edition books. That’s why the Distribution team includes staff and volunteers who are collectors with a trained eye that helps them spot ‘treasure’ likely to attract a higher price online than in our shops.

“Embracing technology has also enhanced our large-item furniture collection service that’s provided seven days a week to ensure our five shops stocking new and second-hand furniture receive a regular supply.

“Thanks to St Luke’s investment, we now have a telemetry system that enables us to be much more efficient. The drivers of our leased vans are equipped with electronic tablets with in-built sat-navs so that the Retail Admin team knows where they are at any given time and can plan the most efficient routes for them, giving the donors they’re collecting items from an estimated time of arrival. This reduces wait times, helping St Luke’s maintain its excellent reputation. I’m proud that other charities are seeing what we do here as the ‘gold standard’ and aiming to follow our example.

“Innovation is also important when it comes to doing our bit for the environment. Donated items that can’t be sold in our shops are recycled wherever possible because they can still bring in valuable income from the companies who pay us for them. In fact, there’s enough to fill the three 3.5-tonne vehicles that collect from us five days a week! Unsellable items are taken off to recycling plants around the world and we aim to be ethical and avoid them ending up in landfill wherever possible.

“The market for recycling is very volatile though – for example, the price we can get for textiles has dropped ten pence per kilo in the last 12 months – so I keep a close eye on which companies pay best and we use them accordingly. It’s all part of maximising income to build resilience for our charity.”

“There’s much more to what we do at the Distribution Centre than most people realise. We regularly welcome volunteer teams from local companies, who really enjoy it for team-building and it’s great for raising awareness of St Luke’s. We also work with the DWP to help people who’ve been out of work for some time gain new skills and build confidence through volunteering, which can help them go on to find paid employment, including – in three recent cases – with St Luke’s.

“Of course, none of what we do would be possible without such a dedicated team of staff and volunteers rolling up their sleeve’s day in, day out – not just getting things done but doing them to such a high standard. I want to say a big thank you to each and every one of them.”