Talking Points: Why Charity Shops Aren’t Cheap

Oxfam also sell a range of fair-trade snacks

This must be one of the most interesting and also one of┬á the most difficult posts I have faced the challenge to write. In fact I have been sitting on it and tinkering with it for almost two months. Why? Because put simply, it is so important. I am sure you have all either heard, read or taken part in one of the many debates over charity shops and how they work, doing the rounds at the moment. The main argument seems to be that charity shops are too expensive. I hold my hands up and admit I too am guilty of saying this, at times I have been floundered by the price of something I have seen. I became somewhat jaded with charity shops, seeing things for sale more expensive than their original retail price or knowing I could get it cheaper on eBay. I had also heard stories of the fat wages the charity shop executives and managers were on, that our money wasn’t even going to the charities. I admit I didn’t really know what to think any more, the final straw was a sign in one local charity shops saying ‘No Primark’. I simply didn’t understand why they were being greedy wanting only things they could sell for a high profit. Why not have a 50p rail for the Primark then? Surely it would still raise money for the charity and people would appreciate the bargain price. With that I abandoned charity shops, I stopped shopping in them and stopped donating.

That was until I met Jacky from North West is Best. Jacky works as manager at the Oxfam on Oxford Road, Manchester and is passionate about what she does. We had exchanged a few conversations and she had started to show me the other side of the argument. One day Jacky invited me to go see how it all worked for myself. So off I went to volunteer at Oxfam for a day and truly find out what it was all about.

Books and gift packages

I wasn’t undercover as a reporter or anything, but I left the note pad at home and went into it like any other volunteer would. I was shown around the shop and taken to the back room to meet the other volunteers working that day. What first struck me was the wide variety of backgrounds everyone had, most students from overseas. Everyone was friendly and said they really enjoyed working there, it was a great way to meet new friends and get work experience for the CV too boot. I can see why it appealed and I guess it is something I had never considered before, having studied myself close to home.

The first thing which really surprised me was the donations pile, literally a small mountain of bags and boxes, all different sizes and shapes. For someone with a naturally nosy instinct I found this pretty exciting. Everyone eyed me with a knowing look. I soon came to see why they were all a bit more reserved, not all the bags contained treasure. In fact some of them were only fit for the bin. Before setting to work on the sorting, Jacky explained the Oxfam protocol. All donations brought to the store and sorted through, the good stuff such as clean, clothes in new or very good condition are priced up then put straight out onto the shop floor. Anything which isn’t in a sale-able┬á condition such as very worn clothes is sent off to be recycled. The charity gets money for the recycled material, not so much as profit from a sale but every little helps. Ok that sounded straight forward enough, but oh boy it really wasn’t. I know a lot about clothes, fact. I also know a lot about brands and designers, fact. I sell and trade clothes too, all round I would say I am a bit of an expert. But given a random bag of clothes, in varying conditions, from varying brands, some I had never even heard of and told to grade them into excellent, good and not good is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.

I stood staring at the clothes on the table before me, armed with the grading and pricing guide. The condition and the type of item determined the price, anything not in good condition was to be sent for recycling. It sounds so simple, even as I am writing this now it is difficult to explain. Quite frankly it is bewildering. Who am I to decide what is ‘good’. I take lead from the two other volunteers as we chatter away, they show me examples of how they have graded things. Basically you have to get out of the ‘charity’ mindset and into the ‘retail’ mindset. For most people when you clear out your wardrobe at home, anything you don’t wear any more gets thrown into a bag. Unless it is falling to pieces then it goes into the bin. You don’t consider it’s worth to someone else. You also have some sentimental attachment to it. I make the rookie mistake of holding up a dress and saying ‘But someone will like it’, everyone laughs. That is the sorters cardinal sin! Yes someone might like it, but you aren’t there to take pity on old, unloved clothes. You are there to make money for the charity, so you have to think, if this is for sale out there in the shop will many people want to buy it.

A huge variety of clothes and accessories

Jacky explained, shop space is scarce so only the very best items can go onto the shop floor. The aim is to sell things quickly and keep a fast turnaround, so there is always something new for the customers to buy. Every item is marked with the date it was put out and the sorter who priced it – take a look if you find any ‘Pearl’ items! The date is so that things which don’t sell aren’t left gathering dust. They are reassessed and either sent off to be tried for sale in an alternate Oxfam store – all the stores have different target markets; or for recycling. I didn’t know this before and it really makes you keen to revisit your local charity shops often to check out the new stuff!

I quizzed Jacky on the types of┬á ‘Oxfam customers’. Interestingly the location of the Oxfam stores really makes an impact on who shops there. For example this shop is in between The University of Manchester and Manchester Royal Infirmary hospital. The student attraction I already guessed, myself often visiting the shop as I studied and work at the Uni. It was common knowledge around the uni that this shop is especially good for books, it helped build up my swelling collection. One thing I would never have considered is that the shop was also a real asset to the hospital, be it relatives or patients wanting a quick change of fresh clothes or visitors looking for a book to keep them occupied or a ‘get well soon’ card. Having far too much personal experience with hospitals I think they should all have a nearby charity shop, there are many times I would have appreciated a new book or just a wonder around to keep my mind of the eternal waiting.

Knowing the types of customer the shop attracts also helps determine what will be ideal to sell there. Manchester is very lucky having a fair few branches of Oxfam, famously the two specialist shops Oxfam Originals for vintage and Oxfam Emporium for books in the city centre. The sorters can send things off to the specialist shops, but as a donator it is also good to know where best to take your items to donate.

Donations waiting to be sorted

Back to the sorting, I have to say I was ashamed for the people who had brought some of the things. Dirty, paint splashed, unwashed, ripped clothes. It seems that many people use charity shops as a dumping ground. Fair enough Oxfam can make money from recycling the clothes not fit for sale, but please send them in a clearly marked ‘recycle’ bag to save the sorters time and also their health!┬á Because volunteers are scarce, their time is even more precious. Half of our day was wasted having to separate unsaleable goods. Fortunately I was spared any really horrors, but the others told me sometimes bags they opened could contain, lets say ‘unhygienic things’. If you have something to donate to charity that is brilliant, but please either mark it in a bag for recycling or make sure it is clean and pressed and ready for sale. I know most people wash second hand clothes themselves prior to use but still it makes it a much pleasanter shopping experience knowing that you don’t actually have too.

Now for the prices, I was reassured that there were no wrong decisions, I just choose which price I felt appropriate, every item type was given a set price I simply had to decide on the condition and tag it up. Whilst Oxfam do not refuse any specific brands they do have a list of the very cheap retailers such as Primark or Grocery store labels so that the sorters will have an idea of quality. Again this is something I expect to find really easy, I pretty much thought I would know all the brands I should encounter. Turns out I was wrong again, there were some I had never heard of. Ok so you think you don’t need the brand name to be able to determine quality? Somethings yes it is obviously well made or not but for others, it is really, really hard to tell. It also showed me that we rely so much on brand dames to indicate quality, the brand names are so ingrained into our subconscious I am sure we don’t stop to consider it as much as we should. Having a pile of dresses from all over the High Street gave me an eye opener to the quality of some brands and just how similar they are. I am English and have grown up with theses brands but got flummoxed quite easily when met with one I had never heard of. One of the volunteers with me was from Kenya, I asked him how he found it. He said yes it was the same for him, some brands he had heard of back home, others he was getting used to living here in the UK. Interestingly he found learning about all the brands help him get an idea of the UK culture. Just think about when you go on holiday abroad, seeing all the brands you have no preconceived conceptions about them. It is fairly liberating in a way, but also a bit unnerving having to take the trouble to examine the quality rather than have the brand reputation dictate it for you.

This also answered on of my original questions, why had I seen Primark top’s on sale for more than their RRP? Well if all charity shops operate a similar system to Oxfam, which I am sure they do, it is easy to understand. Many of the volunteers many not know the difference between Primark and Monsoon. In the price guide a vest top in new condition goes for the same price no matter what the brand. Ok if it happens across an experience sorter a distinction may be made to downgrade the cheaper brand item, however if the sorter does not recognise the brand it would just be classes as a new top, simple as that. I asked Jacky about my theory of having lower quality brands on sale cheaper but she explained that due to the small size of the shop priority had to be given to items which would make the most money, also Oxfam do use all donations either to sell or recycle. So nothing is unappreciated or not used.

Listening and watching Jacky doing her job opened my eyes to another question I had, why are some people paid for their jobs in charity shops? Of course I still have no idea the exact wage the chief executives are on but the regular shop managers are certainly not bathing in champagne and eating caviar every night. Managing a charity shop is similar to managing another other retail outlet, however it comes with it’s own added problems. With the majority of the staff voluntary some do not take it with the same commitment and priority as a paid job. They turn up late or not at all without warning. Obviously most staff are hard working and committed, please do not misunderstand me, but here I wish to focus on the problems which can arise. All the volunteers are from different backgrounds and have different skills. There is no job application process to find the perfect candidate for each roll. Volunteers need training, all which takes time and experience. The shop itself still has overheads it must cover things such as rent and amenities, a pressure to simply keep the shop open let alone finding extra funds to refurbish the shop or extend it. It is a very rewarding job yes, but also a stressful one and I am sure it would be one hundred times harder to not only find someone with the time but also the dedication to do such a job full time solely as a volunteer. Managers need to be paid because they are vital to the shop working. For most people in order to be in the position to dedicate themselves full time, they need to be paid. Wouldn’t it be nice if we were all millionaires with no need for wages!

The sorting table where items are examined and priced

So no charity shops are not there for you to pick up cheap clothes, they are their to raise money for the various charities they represent. You getting cheap clothes is simply a bonus of this. Yes I still feel there are many people out there who would really benefit from receiving clothing for free or very little money, but I sure don’t have the solution to this. If you do then how about you put it into action rather than sit and preach about it. I challenge anyone who want to criticise charity shops to go and volunteer yourself first before casting aspersions. It really opened my eyes and saw me donate to various places in the last few weeks. Charity shops do much more than raise money though they are a hub of the community, offering experience and friendship. I am proud to say I support that.

Tips on donatng to chairty shops:

1. Only donate something for sale that you yourself would be eger to buy. Make sure it is clean and pressed, ready to go right on sale.

2. If you have un-saleable clothes to donate bundlge them in a bag and mark it for recycling

3. Check with each individual shop what type of donations they need, some may not have the recycling facilities. Some may not be part of a chain like Oxfam, many are stand alone shops. Some don’t even have store rooms so do ask first rather than dumping bags on their door step. For example one of my local shops only had room for my books not clothes so I gave them what they needed and too the rest to another shop.

4. Just because it’s designer doesn’t make it valuable. A pair of designer jeans may have cost ┬ú200 originally but if they are covered in paint and ripped they are un-saleable and worth nothing, merely fit for recycling.