Goodwill hunting: Charity shops get a makeover to become a serious business

by Douglas Lloyd Jenkins / 20 August, 2015
Smart-thinking, well-organised op-shop chains are revolutionising charity-based retailing as they target the middle-class dollar.
McCarthy Wallace Dove Hospice chain chief Julie McCarthy (left) and Eastern Bays Hospice Board chairwoman Helen Wallace. Photo/Tony Nyberg

"Dead men’s trousers,” my mother announced when I first brought home a pair of charity-shop trousers.
To me, they were a miraculous find: high-waisted, in heavy blue checked wool and held up with button-on braces, they fitted perfectly. Those that followed became essential building blocks of a personal sartorial style – something near impossible to achieve from chain-store items.

Let’s just say my mother got used to such acquisitions. Today, charity-shop items pad out, add colour and texture to and otherwise complicate a rather extensive wardrobe. From this can be drawn, among other things, a morning suit, a dinner suit, white tie and tails and full formal Scottish evening regalia. These were bought individually for less than the cost of a night’s hire and collectively for less than a cheap suit.

Although I have no hesitation in spending irresponsible amounts of money on new clothes, it is usually when I’m wearing a charity-shop find that the compliments come. “Bespoke?” one shop assistant asked recently while examining a distinctive red jacket I’d worn into his snooty but dull shop. Although I admit to fudging the answer to his next question, where did you get it? – (a vague “Italy” usually suffices) – it felt particularly good to receive a compliment wearing a jacket that cost a fraction of those he was hawking.

Then there were the objects. Bric-a-brac found in charity shops and at church fairs has shaped my professional life. The first museum I ever worked for was on a bedroom shelf heavy with items of Victorian china found in church shops. By the time I reached university in the 1980s, church shops had become a regular hunting ground for fascinating, although not yet desirable, items of post-war design. Back then, an older crowd was buying pre-war, but few have yet crossed the divide into post-war territory. The term “New Zealand design” did not yet have any collecting cachet. Those same pieces later provided illustrations for my books and today – some sold, even more donated – are on display in real museums across the country.

THE NEW RECESSIONISTA

Until recently, charity shops have generally been the haunt of an alternative crowd. Not forgetting those for whom they were conceived, they are populated in large part by students, arty types and the more feral class of antique dealer. It has always been a genuinely mixed crowd, but things are changing and now you’re as likely to find the new Recessionista.

Kiwis are pouring into charity shops in unprecedented numbers. Although all hope to catch a bargain, they’re there for many reasons – not least the well-documented squeezing of the middle class. The gap between the obviously well off and the middle class is difficult to close if you’re paying retail. The cost of keeping up appearances, of not losing out to the Joneses, is increasing, and even a seemingly decent income is being put under pressure.

The Recessionistas, defined as the once well-off who seek to remain fashionable or stylish despite financial difficulties, were a creation of the 2008 recession. No longer able to afford designer-new, they went in search of charity-shop hand-me-downs to temporarily maintain appearances.

This was helped by the observation that the rich are discarding more. Already, donation figures suggest a 30% rise over the previous year as a vogue for minimalism, coupled with self-improvement texts that offer decluttering as the path to spiritual self-fulfilment, encourages more giving.

The downsizing of an ageing population helps. As does the obesity crisis (overweight businessmen find discarding near new clothes for larger sizes more attractive than exercise). Add in vogues for recycling and sustainability and the middle class are finding it easier than ever to venture into a charity shop. Odds-on they chose a hospice shop for their first visit.

Once the state of individual charity shops depended on those running them. Some were clean and well organised, whereas others had heaps of slowly decomposing clothes lying around emitting the distinctive aroma of the unwashed.


OpShopping Photo/Tony Nyberg

THE MIDDLE-CLASS DOLLAR

Old-style church shops still exist, but trying to piece together a volunteer roster from a declining congregation is making it harder to maintain regular shop hours. Getting sufficient donations without the ability to either collect or deliver is also difficult. Rents keep increasing and many still resist electronic payment systems.

The Salvation Army’s charity shops were the first to become organised. They occupied larger floor areas, put in professional managers and could be guaranteed to offer stock that ranged from furniture and bric-a-brac to extensive holdings of clothing. The Sallies could collect donations and deliver purchases. However, they could never shuck off their association with poverty. It might be all right to give to the Sallies, but most of those who gave were never going to shop there. This, in turn, limited the prices that could be charged and thus the funds raised.

In the past decade, a new breed of hospice shop has been able to tap into a new vein of secular gentility in society. It feels good to give to a hospice shop (the middle class understands cancer), but it also feels increasingly okay to shop in one. A new generation of hospice shop is actively targeting the middle-class dollar. The result? Smart-thinking, well-organised chains that have revolutionised charity-based retailing.

Opshop Top Photo/Tony Nyberg

Setting the pace nationwide are two rivals, the Auckland hospice chains Dove and Mercy. The Dove Hospice chain began life in 2004 with a Glen Innes shop and now has six stores that provide a staggering 95% of hospice income.

At Dove, retail is a serious business. The management and governance teams talk about “pertinent business models, market penetration and product re-engineering”. CEO Julie McCarthy explains, “We need to know what the market is doing and also what the market will bear.” This means keeping an eye on international developments in the charity retail market and what local rivals are doing.

Dove takes in Auckland’s Eastern suburbs, which means it has shops in affluent Epsom, Remuera and St Heliers as well as in less obviously well off Glen Innes and Panmure. This unusual spread has led to a new phenomenon: Dove’s Top Shops.

The Epsom store opened in late 2014 in what had been a high-end women’s boutique, and not much has changed. Epsom provides a new retail environment in which Dove can sell a $1000 item. Nearby, the smaller Remuera shop operates on an Aladdin’s Cave principle, delivering Armani suits, Royal Doulton china and Waterford crystal. Those items have always been in charity stores, but here the best have been selected and priced accordingly.

Although not everyone is thrilled by this thought, Helen Wallace, Eastern Bays Hospice Board chairwoman, makes the thinking clear: “Out of respect for our donors, we have to maximise returns on the goods they donate. We don’t want them to think we gave away goods for nothing.”

Dove’s retail co-ordinator, Anne Comito, who established the Epsom shop, takes a holistic view. “We want the customer to feel good and to get something nice for a good price, but at the same time to know they’ve given to a good cause.”

If a product does not sell in one Dove shop, it will be shipped to another. Dove manages all this because it runs a central distribution system where incoming goods are sorted. Volunteer clothing sorters check for tears, stains and other flaws and each garment passes through three inspection processes. As part of keeping up brand quality, they discard anything dirty or damaged.

The results are that only near-new clothing goes into stores. What they won’t sell is on-sold to rag dealers. Experts from the Dove team of volunteers similarly cast their eye over a mountain of donated books, artwork, silver and jewellery.

That the needs of a Remuera customer can be summed up as an “as new” Armani suit might perplex (even enrage) some, but it articulates how the charity-shop world and its customers have changed. Hospice shops have no association with poverty and they’re free from the politics of individual churches. (The Sallies were hard hit by the church’s opposition to homosexual law reform in the 1980s and donations shrank significantly.) This frees hospice shops to act in new ways.

GENTLE RIVALRY


Hadley Brown, responsible for the Mercy chain, not only talks the talk but also walks the walk – his expensive English shoes are Mercy finds. Their first shop was in Ponsonby, but the consistent Mercy brand dates from 2012. Brown admits to a gentle rivalry with Dove, but Mercy and Dove are subtly different.

A little less noblesse oblige, a little less free market and rooted in the traditions of Catholic good work, Mercy’s approach is gentle. At the same time it’s not allowing business opportunities to pass unexplored. Mercy doesn’t open a new shop (it has ambitions for nine) unless there’s a pre-existing community with whom it can work. Brown notes that “Blockhouse Bay might seem an unusual spot, the shopping strip there is not large, but we were essentially invited in by the community, and it works”.

As part of fitting in, Mercy has made a decision to avoid large stores and semi-industrial settings, focusing instead on quality products. It’s keen to keep the shops clean and not overstocked. Careful to choose good locations, it puts effort into shop displays so it fits in seamlessly with surrounding businesses. Helen Brabazon, who manages the Pt Chevalier store, confesses to spraying the shop with otherwise unsaleable half bottles of French cologne to help create the right atmosphere.

GOLDEN DAYS

Mercy does not operate a centralised system. It wants donors to see their items in the local store and the good price that Mercy will get for those goods. Each shop has a sorting centre and items deemed not right for Mercy find other outlets (selected clothing went to Vanuatu and Samoa after cyclones).

Not every traditional shopper is thrilled by the changes brought about by Dove and Mercy. The $1000 items seem proof that the good times are over.

McCarthyWallace2 Dove Hospice chain chief Julie McCarthy (left) and Eastern Bays Hospice Board chairwoman Helen Wallace. Photo/Tony Nyberg

The often-heard claims that prices are too high and that volunteers get all the good stuff don’t stack up. Both chains have systems in place to ensure volunteers buy off the floor, and with most volunteers working only once a week, their individual impact is minimal. Changes in taste and collectable status mean there are still bargains.

If anything, these are golden days for charity shopping. The successes of Dove and Mercy mean other chains, such as the Salvation Army, Red Cross and the SPCA, are having to take note and are lifting their game with cleaner, better-organised shops. Can it last?

The nation cleans house every January and the trucks are busy. The generation that first passed on their parents’ unwanted Victoriana are now shedding, having either downsized or departed altogether (Dove and Mercy both offer estate clearance and downsizing services). For the past two decades, charity shops have been the hunting ground for mid-century treasures, but this is tailing off. What comes next?

The baby boomers are the last generation to have recourse to extensive supplies of quality New Zealand-made goods and every day the supply gets shorter. Clothes are no longer made to survive generations and even lounge suites are made to be disposable. Electronic goods have rather shorter lives than did the electrical goods of old.

Yet as Brabazon points out, every day another young child finds something in her shop for 50 cents. They’ll grow up hospice shopping and they will find their treasures. Although it’s difficult for this hardened op-shopper – who from last week can ride in a foxhunt properly attired if asked, thanks to a hospice shop – to comprehend what those treasures might be.

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