Charity shops are a great way to shop sustainably and have been a huge help to me in my year, but I never quite knew how they work. So to find out, I spent a Saturday volunteering at one.
The shop I chose is an Oxfam shop located on Botanic Avenue, Belfast. Close to Queens University, this is a lively neighbourhood full of students.
This is Tra, the Manager of the store, who was kind enough to show me the ropes and answer my many questions. When I arrive, Tra is running around, just a tad stressed out, trying to run the shop on her own. Her two volunteers hadn’t shown up and on top of that, the checkout system isn’t working and she had to dig out the old till. It’s not that uncommon for volunteers not to show up. Tra just shrugs her shoulders and smiles. That’s the nature of running a shop with volunteers, she says. The only persons paid for working in an Oxfam shop are the store manager and the assistant manager (if there is one). On top of that there are overheads to be paid and volunteers get their travel covered as well as lunch, if they do a full eight hour shift, but the rest of the proceeds go straight to Oxfam’s many charitable endeavours.
|Me happily at work, on the right: a shot of the great jewellery selection available at Oxfam Botanic|
On the up-side, it means I get put straight to work. Tra has me sorting through a bag of new end-of-line clothes that has come in from C&A, a German clothes brand, in no time. C&A are one of the brands who send their unsold stuff to Britain, because they have no stores here. This way, they’re not making the charity shops their competition. I place the clothes on suitable hangers and price them.
|Piles of work to be done|
Tra is looking through a bag of stuff that has come in earlier in the week. As the manager, she is in charge of sorting out the clothes. The bags arrive from collection points, are handed in by people and Oxfam Botanic also gets donations from a vintage reseller. Backstage, the work literally piles up. Tra pulls out battered brown leather shoes and discards them immediately. The same fate awaits a stained and torn suit jacket, some old curtains and a stretched out knitted jumper. She pauses over flowery pillow covers and eventually decides to keep them. A top shop top, a pair of new looking jeans and a vintage dress instantly pass the test. It’s like in any shop, Tra explains, you have to think of what will work in your location and know your customers. She tries to focus on studenty stuff and the vintage sells extremely well. Her vintage selection is impressive and the prices are amazing. Tra tries her best to keep the selection of clothes on the rails fresh. Having new stuff on display every day draws repeat customers. If something hasn’t sold after two weeks it is discarded and put in the recycling.
|snapshot of the lovely vintage collection at Oxfam Botanic|
As I’m sorting through my bag, Tra gets me to write a short description off the item on the label as well. When I ask why, she tells me that they have a problem with people trying to switch tags to get things cheaper. She also admits that theft is an issue. Considering that most things in the shop cost a fiver or less and that the money goes to charity, this leaves me feeling rather sad and disappointed with humanity. People, please don’t steal from charity shops... okay?
|I got my concentration face on! Steaming clothes is hard work :)|
Working away, I watch Tra greet familiar faces, banter with customers and help out some tourists looking for directions. She has a particularly long chat with one lady who seems to visit the shop regularly. In many ways a charity shop is like any other clothes store; there’s the ‘business’ side of things with sales targets, ‘branding’, customer service and presentation, of course all within the limitations of not being able to ‘design’ your stock. In some important ways, however, they’re very different. It’s not just that they’re for charity. During my few hours working at Oxfam, I realise that they’re a place of community for people, especially the disaffected, people on the fringes of society. Of course charity shops, with their low prices, are also here to help out the disadvantaged in our society. I think there’s more to it though. Maybe the local character as well as the bustling, chaotic imperfectness of charity shops makes people, who feel out of place in brightly lit, perfectly clean and stylishly designed retail emporiums, feel at home and accepted.
I really enjoyed my time working at Oxfam Botanic. Volunteering at a charity shop is a great way to support a worthy cause, up your skills and meet some fun people and it won't hurt your CV either. You can find out more about volunteering at Oxfam here. Oxfam Botanic even has a facebook page, so give them a like!