Recent news that Shelter is planning to double the number of its shops while Oxfam shops posted a record £90m turnover, got me thinking about the funny beasts that are charity shops. Omnipresent on the high street, clearly doing well in recession, yet with idiosyncratic volunteers, usually the embarrassing end of “brand experience”, and often with a tenuous identification with cause.
Buyers shop for bargains and we all know that a junk drop-off has virtually nothing to do with feeling charitable, everything to do with getting clutter out of your house as quickly as possible, with a degree of smugness thrown in for not adding to landfill. Which generally means at whichever charity shop is the most convenient. And then you get in and out as quickly as possible to escape the embarrassment of anyone judging you on the quality, or otherwise, of your junk. (You think I jest? See the scathing outrage of Mary Portas sorting unwashed knickers).
A few months ago I made a beeline for the Oxfam shop where I live to drop off a car-load of junk. Not the nearest charity shop, by any means, there are closer ones with easier parking, so why make the special journey to Oxfam? For a start, they have their own Wastesaver clothing recycling plant, which eases any guilt at dumping really threadbare clothes. It gets sorted and sold as rag and made into all sorts of stuff like roofing felt and insulation. Extra smug brownie points. (But come on, be decent, wash it first).
But it’s Oxfam’s Tag your Bag gift aid scheme that I love. Charity shops have always struggled to make the connection to their cause. They might have had brand overhauls over the last decade to brighten them up (prompting complaints about paid retail staff and rising prices), but they are much the same. People are either dumping their junk for convenience, or browsing for bargains, they are not discriminating by cause. Oxfam is making a real effort to remind customers what it’s all about. Their recent shop refit announced this week includes clothes stands made out of water pipes and taps, and shelving made from emergency equipment crates.
Gift Aid in shops offer a glimmer of hope this could go a lot further. Of course, it has been introduced to maximise income. Register for the scheme, they barcode your stuff, and can then claim tax back on the sale price. Simple. A tax office quirk however, means the charity is required to write to you so you can confirm you wish to donate the money they make. Which means for the first time the charity can thank you and give feedback on the difference you have made. My first Oxfam e-mail told me my stuff paid for “training in culturally appropriate hygiene practices in Zimbabwe”. No, I didn’t have a clue what that was either. I don’t think they’d understood the opportunity they had stumbled across to wow supporters. But the reminder of what the charity shop was really about was a pleasant surprise. They are certainly not just a convenient dump for junk, but they do have the Midas touch in turning junk into treasure.
This week I heard that my last car-load of junk made £97.10 and paid for “a bike for a health worker to reach rural villages in Malawi”. Now that’s much better and worth more than gold, I’d say. OK, there was a “could” in their original sentence, but I don’t care. I’m sold, and now a loyal Oxfam dumper. (Now, if they could link that to my donor record, that would be something).
Matthew is one of our beloved leaders. He has more than 20 years of experience working in the charity sector so he knows his stuff.