This essay investigates the role of charity shops in community development in the UK and across the world.
Charity shops were once associated with small establishments that were run by volunteers, dealt with second hand clothes and goods, remained open for a few hours a day and serviced lower income segments of society. They have over the years grown significantly in terms of size and numbers and now occupy a significant position in the retail driven society of the UK (Parsons, 2002, p 1). The evolution of charity shops has led to significant study on the subject, much of it from the marketing and retailing perspective (Sargeant & Jay, 2002, p 140). Whilst charity shops undoubtedly constitute an important subject for study of application of marketing concepts and techniques in a once peripheral but now growing retailing segment, it is important not to sidetrack the basic aims and objectives of such establishments, namely the furtherance of charity work in near and distant locations with the help of local communities. Charity shops have complex and synergistic relationships with the communities in which they are based. Whilst much of the goods stocked and the volunteering used to operate these shops originate from local communities, a significant proportion of their final proceeds also benefit the communities they are situated in (Horne, 2000, p 799).
This short study deals with the concept, origination and evolution of charity shops, followed by their role in community development. The study also discusses the current challenges faced by these establishments and the ways in which they can help in sustaining communities, not just in the UK but in distant and needier societies.
Origin and Growth of Charity Shops
The charity commission defines a charity shop as “a shop which sells donated goods where the profit is used for a charitable purpose” (Lekhanya 2006, p 8). Charity retailing originated in the closing years of the 19th century when William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army perceived the benefits that could be achieved by using the substantial amount of waste that was generated in the homes of the rich and affluent to improve the lives of working class people. Booth organised collection centres to recycle used goods of acceptable quality, which were not needed by well to do households, to benefit people from lower income segments (Lekhanya 2006, p 8).
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Oxfam, the well known charity that commenced in the UK and now has operations across the world, was responsible for setting up the first charity shop in the UK in 1947 (Black, 1992, p 3). Oxfam’s initiative was followed by the Sally Rider foundation, which opened charity shops in major UK cities in the 1950s. The sector has since witnessed significant expansion and thousands of charity shops across the country now sell millions of pounds of goods. Recent studies confirm that charity retailing has increased substantially in recent years and is steadily increasing in popularity (Horne & Maddrell, 2002, p 64).
The primary objective of charity shops is to raise funds for charitable use, both within and outside the community (Lekhanya 2006, p 9). Oxfam, which is an international association of organisations in different countries, was started in 1942 to provide relief to people in war blockaded Greece during the Second World War. The organisation now has more than 15,000 such shops across the world. The profits realised from these shops are used to fund different charities or for Oxfam’s own relief work in different countries. “The work of Oxfam focuses on: Trade, Education, Debt and aid, Livelihoods, Health, HIV/AIDS, Gender equality, Conflict and natural disasters, Climate change, Democracy and human rights, and other related issues” (Oxfam, 2011, p 2).
Emmaus, another global charity that was started in France and now also has significant operations in the UK, has a number of charity shops that sell a range of items at economic prices. The proceeds from these shops are used specifically for helping communities by (a) assisting homeless people to gain new skills and rebuild their confidence, (b) save waste from landfill and conserve the environment and (c) assist communities to achieve financial self sufficiency (Emmaus, 2010, p 1).
Role of Charity Shops in Community Development
It is evident that the proceeds raised from charity shop operations are used for various charitable purposes in various ways, including relief and support, to benefit local and distant communities. It is important at this point to understand the ways in which the basic functioning of community shops helps in improvement of community life (Horne, 2000, p 802). Community shops essentially stock second hand clothes and household goods of various kinds that are donated by people who do not have any further need for them. People dispose of their belongings for various reasons including lack of interest in such possessions, wrong purchases for which there is no ostensible use, the desire to buy new things, changing fashions, lack of storage space and finally the death of family members, whose possessions are no longer required. These goods are collected through various collection avenues, sorted carefully by volunteers for damage and blemishes, acceptability and quality, and thereafter sold to members of society at economical prices (Horne, 2000, p 802).
These basic operations of charity shops help communities by recycling goods from people who have little or no use for them to others who cannot afford or wish to buy them at their original retail prices. Such shops help people from lower income and less affluent segments of society to use a range of quality goods at affordable prices and improve the quality of their lives (Horne & Maddrell, 2002, p 69).
Charity shops universally depend upon unpaid volunteers for their operations. Whilst recent years have witnessed the emergence of paid managers to run these shops, the overwhelming majority of people who work in these shops continue to be volunteers from the local community (Community Helpers, 2010, p 1). Such volunteering, which can be done on a part or full time basis, enables members of the local community to use their extra time productively, engage in charitable activity and at the same time also pick up very important retailing skills that can otherwise be used for financial benefit (Community Helpers, 2010, p 1). Volunteers at charity shops are trained in sorting of material, stacking of goods, inventory operations, dealing with customers and handling counter sales (Parsons, 2002, p 2). Such experience enables people with lesser education and skills to develop specific proficiencies in retailing and take up gainful employment in shops and supermarkets (Parsons, 2002, p 2).
Charity shops also provide opportunities to both donors and volunteers to engage in fruitful and enriching social interaction and provide focal points for development of various community activities like raffle sales, sports meets, children’s programmes and other ventures that can benefit and enrich local communities (Horne, 2000, p 802). The proliferation of these shops in recent decades has resulted in significant enhancement in both the range and quality of stocked goods and largely removed the stigmatisation that was otherwise associated with buying goods, which were second hand or even belonged to people who were dead (Goodall, 2001, p 42). Such shops now service the needs of various segments of society and their customer base does not consist only of lesser affluent people. The engagement of modern retailing techniques and smart advertiser has in fact made these shops ideal locations to shop for retro fashions and interesting household goods and furniture (Goodall, 2001, p 42).
Use of Charity Shops in Other Countries
Whilst charity shops in the UK and other affluent nations do cater to the needs of lesser affluent segments of society, shopping for second hand clothes in much of the west has now become a past time, more than a necessity. Charity shops offer shoppers opportunities to engage in retro or vintage looks or otherwise experiment with fashion as well as furniture (Stewart, 2010, p 1).
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The need for second hand clothing at economical prices is however very strong in some parts of the developing world, especially in the poorer countries. Whilst charity shops can of course fulfil important community needs in the UK, the United States and other countries of Western Europe, they need to essentially expand into the developing world, where their operations can help in satisfying the clothing requirements of truly poor and underprivileged people (Hansen, 2004, p 5).
Organisations like Oxfam, Emmaus and Sally Rider are in the process of opening shops in developing countries (Sargeant & Jay, 2002, p 140). However the number of such shops in absolute terms is too low to make a real difference and much of the second hand trade in clothing happens through exporters of second hand apparel rather than through charity shops. Organisations like All-Tex Recyclers, an Irish exporter of second hand clothing, buy second hand goods from leading charitable associations (All-Tex Recyclers Ltd, 2010, p 1). Such organisations arrange to pick up goods from charities; they provide predetermined prices for such goods, reprocess and repair these items, and thereafter export them to various destinations in Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Pakistan. Such re-processers, whilst working for profit, do finally help communities by recycling textiles, saving the incineration energy that would have been used for burning these items and helping people from low income societies to live lives of greater quality and dignity (All-Tex Recyclers Ltd, 2010, p 1).
Whilst exports of second hand clothes by re-processors and exporters can help in meeting the demands for cheap second hand clothing in poorer countries, the conduct of such operations cannot satisfy community needs in the ways adopted by Oxfam, or other similar charitable organisations, in running their charity shops (Field, 1999, p 2). It is thus important for more charity shops to be opened in developing countries where such shops can be operated by local volunteers and can truly help in making a difference to the lives of underprivileged people and communities (Field, 1999, p 2).
The past three years have been difficult for charity shops. With the economic downturn forcing people to buy fewer things, they have lesser to give away (Third Sector, 2010, p 1). Charity shops have consequently been unable to maintain or improve their volumes of collection and sale of second hand items and suffered in terms of revenues and proceeds. The expected improvement in economic activity in the coming years should help in enhancement of productivity and profitability of these shops in the UK and other western countries (Third Sector, 2010, p 1). It is however important for charity shops to expand their operations beyond their familiar western habitats. Their recent preoccupation with enhancement of product range, customer satisfaction and marketing skills is leading to the downplaying of their main role of helping people in need in local and distant communities. Organisations operating these shops now need to seriously plan their operations to help truly poor people in the developing world and expand their presence in the poorer countries.
This essay studies the role of charity shops in community development in the local and global context.
Charity shops have in recent decades grown in size and numbers and now occupy a significant position in retail driven western societies. The primary aim of charity shops is to raise funds for charitable use. The basic functioning of these shops helps in enhancement of community life in various ways. Such shops stock second hand clothes and household goods that are donated by people who do not have any further need for them. They are usually staffed by unpaid volunteers from the local community who are trained in sorting of material, stacking of goods, inventory operations, dealing with customers and handling counter sales. Such experience helps individuals with lesser education and skills to develop skills and take up gainful employment elsewhere. Charity shops also provide opportunities to donors and volunteers to engage in enriching social interaction and help in initiation of various communities that can benefit and enrich local communities.
Whilst charity shops fulfil important community needs in the UK and other western countries, they need to expand into the developing world, where their operations can help people and communities in need.
The recent preoccupation of these establishments with marketing and growth in their home environments is sidetracking their fundamental role of assisting people in real need in local and distant communities. The charities running these shops need to seriously plan their operations to help communities in poorer countries and expand their presence in the developing world.
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