Opportunity knocks

By Cathrin Schaer

In one corner of this store you'll find designer labels and vintage fashions. In another there's a display of shiny ornaments, delicate china figures, retro ceramics and pretty, painted plates, some items priced at more than $100.

Branding and appearance are important to this retailer, and the uniforms - simple blue aprons that look like the sort of thing a wine waiter at a fancy restaurant would wear - are slick. Point it out and one of the staff members laughs and boasts "we're just like Smith & Caughey's now".

When this place first opened its doors, some well-known New Zealanders would have been there to cut the red ribbon.

But don't worry, there's no need to feel intimidated. Because although it might sound like you're visiting some chic designer emporium, in fact, you've just made it down to the local op shop.

What? An op shop? What happened to the budget treasures, the hand-knitted baby booties in scratchy yellow wool, the retro pictures of a moonlit Jesus mid-blessing, piles of assorted oddments and those sweet, little old ladies who used to sit behind the counter, gossiping and drinking endless cups of tea?

Well, possibly the best way to describe the change is to say that, in line with international trends, the humble New Zealand jumble store is getting more professional.

Overseas, that professionalism has been accompanied by much controversy, including accusations of venal and mercenary behaviour, playing favourites among antiques dealers, unjust tax breaks, unfair retail competition as well as upset volunteers, disgruntled customers and bad reputations. One British newspaper started with the headline: "Are Charity Stores Getting Mean?"

For Barbara Moss, the retail co-ordinator for the North Shore Hospice - a service providing palliative care to the dying - it all started around four years ago.

Moss has a background in retail and was employed to oversee the hospice shops as a result of rising costs - rent payments and also changes in legislature that meant higher compliance costs, mainly to do with employee health and safety.

"With the amount we were having to pay out we needed to become more professional," Moss explains. "We knew there would come a day of reckoning and we wanted to turn our shops into ones that could support themselves. The 50c and $1 things could no longer be the mainstay of the business - we had to become more professional and more clever."

This new attitude was also due to competition from other sectors that didn't previously exist.

"It's a more competitive market," says Chrissy Anderson, who runs a store for Presbyterian Services in Dunedin called Shop On Carroll. Opened just over a year ago, Shop On Carroll is a pretty, boutique-style store, with attractive displays that make it look and feel more like an antique store, with higher prices to match.

"You've got the impact of cheap new goods available from places like Kmart and The Warehouse," Anderson continues. "You've got Trade Me with people going after their own dollar and you've got an increase in the number of 'sell on behalf' shops."

One of the first things that has happened, due to an increasing professionalism down at your local op shop, has been the appointment of paid staff.

"Most charity shops have relied on the goodwill of volunteers. [A lot of them] were started up by middle-aged women, many of whom did not work and were looking for a social and philanthropic outlet," Anderson explains. "But these 'little old ladies' are now, literally, a dying breed."

"Our volunteers were ageing and it was difficult to get younger volunteers to commit because of the way life is these days," Moss adds. "You know, in the past you would have had women my age volunteering. But now we're out working or looking after grandchildren while daughters are working. Additionally our volunteer managers were only supposed to be doing 11 hours week but they were doing a lot more than that - and we worried they were being exploited."

Next up: options for new volunteers to work different, more convenient shifts under the new, paid managers; streamlined management systems and a lick of paint. As one thrift store manager put it, "build it nice and they will come!"

"Modernising the shops, painting the walls and making sure the bric-a-brac is clean and shiny," Moss says of the hospice's new approach. "We've put Eftpos in everywhere and we've put a dishwasher in [some of the shops] so they can wash everything. We don't wash the clothes but we're particular about what we put out. And the volunteers are now taught about how to approach the customers - we want people to forget about standing behind the counter, drinking cups of tea. Rather, we want them to think about what they're doing."

"We want to make sure everything is welcoming, clean and tidy," says Gerry Walker, divisional director for the Salvation Army's community services, from Bombay northwards. "And we're very careful about stock rotation. We replenish the stock regularly because we have clients who come in a couple of times a week."

Second-hand goods sold with first-class service is how Anderson puts it. "[Shop On Carroll] does not look or smell like an op shop. In fact, many people who would not normally be seen dead in an op shop come here."

Anderson adds they've also paid for professional branding and signage, considered the shop layout carefully and hired staff members specifically for their display skills. Plus, she says proudly, rather than just chucking stock on shelves they have a team of volunteers who prepare the goods for sale, including crafting reuseable shopping bags from donated fabric scraps, and "we launder or dryclean all clothing items".

Obviouslt it wasn't always like this. Charity shops have been around since the late 1800s and can be traced back to the Salvation Army in Britain. In her 2007 book about New Zealand's clothing habits Looking Flash, Bronwyn Labrum, a senior lecturer at Massey University, reckons that op shopping was first documented here in 1927 when the Auckland City Mission decided to charge a little bit of money for clothing they'd previously given away. But it wasn't really until the 1960s that the op shop as we know it today began in earnest.

According to British experts in charity shopping, this was due to the nature of consumer society, where the culture was one of buy and discard rather than the wartime ethos of "make do and mend". Goods, especially clothes, that were too good to throw away were donated to the charities for them to convert into cash donations.

This cash conversion started off with what we'd now call a jumble, or garage, sale. Then when the garage sales were a success, they became more permanent. Donated goods went on sale several days a week, usually in a makeshift store staffed by the charity's volunteers and often in premises already owned by the charity. This was partially to avoid paying extra rent but also to be close to the people the charity serviced, who may have needed the budget clothing and furniture most.

Since then things have clearly changed a lot. Op shops have moved into proper store fronts and often away from the impoverished neighbourhoods that spawned them. And there are plenty of different flavours of op shop - everything from the shack filled with bags behind the local church or kindergarten to huge marts with racks of clothes and rows of furniture.

Most recently though, your friendly neighbourhood charity shop has been getting even more competitive, complicated and clever. A warning to dedicated op shoppers and vintage collectors: you may find some of the following upsetting.

Overseas there have been all sorts of innovations, some of which are already happening here in New Zealand, others we may see more of in the near future. These include charity store fashion shows, fancy-dress racks, retro racks and clever marketing techniques that see, for instance, all the gowns and suits collected from around the region's stores, then sold at schools during ball season. Some stores - Shop On Carroll is one - have held special themed sales evenings, where they sell tickets to cover the costs of food and wine, and then bring out a few exclusive treasures from the back room to offer to their special guests.

Sometimes those treasures have been sold online, opening the charity store up to a far wider, even international, audience.

And, then there are those pesky vintage dealers.

In the past antique, collectable and vintage clothing dealers have sourced a lot of their product from op shops. It takes a lot of hard work, great taste, a discerning eye, sound knowledge of their speciality and plenty of repeat visits to do this job.

Still, deserved or not, quite often those dealers would be picking up items from op shops for a couple of dollars and selling them on to their customers in a swankier part of town with a massive mark-up. And most of the time the little old ladies behind the counter would be none the wiser. These days they are.

"We noticed people walking in and picking up china to see what's written on the bottom," says one volunteer.

"I watch Antiques Roadshow, that gives you more of an idea," says another.

"We went through a box of what looked like old rubbish - china that had been left at the front door," says one op shop worker. "And we found a piece that I think ended up selling on Trade Me for something like $300," she brags happily.

An elderly volunteer from another store points to a striped retro top on the racks. "This sort of thing is very trendy right now," she says. Crikey.

"We're upskilling our staff," Moss says, explaining that all the staff have become treasure hunters-cum-vintage dealers. "One or two of the store managers have special interests [in certain kinds of collectables] and we will also get experts in to attend the managers' meetings to teach them how to recognise things like New Zealand ceramics, old books or retro clothing. The managers all collaborate closely. It's quite okay to ring up and say, hey, come and look at this and tell me what it's worth."

Other op shops will ask local auctioneers to visit and may end up selling the best stuff at auction to get a higher price.

At Shop On Carroll, Anderson says an antique dealer advises what prices they should be charging. "We've also been developing relationships with others [dealers] to deal with the items we do not specialise in. For example, books. For this we bring in a preferred dealer, whose family are great customers of Shop on Carroll, to pick out the good ones."

While Canvas was visiting what you might call a better class of op shop, such a transaction took place. In hushed conversation in one corner of the shop, a man was picking out samples of tan, glazed, locally made pottery from shelves of glasses, crockery and art-class rejects. He advised the shop volunteer about prices and was given a small blue and tan vase for his troubles. One wonders if he bought up the rest either for his own private collection or to sell on at higher prices. This kind of thing is enough to enrage even the casual op shopper. Watching this scenario you feel oddly emotional and feel like demanding the collector step away from the ceramics and the op shop employee keep the goods at the original price. Why?

In their 2003 book on what second-hand shopping indicates about contemporary consumer culture, Second Hand Cultures, British researchers Nicky Gregson and Louise Crewe talk about "the thrill of the search, finding something unexpected, a treasure no one else has identified".

They also talk about being skilled in spotting items that have childhood nostalgia value and finding items with a story to tell. In other words, when the dealer gets there first, well, it just doesn't seem very fair. Or fun. Gone is the intoxicating thrill of the chase, blown is the all-important "what if" factor.

The charity shop's answer to that sort of complaint: suck it up, people.

"You can console yourself with the fact that the money you are spending is going to help the dying," Moss, says unapologetically. "And if you were going to a retro shop to get that dress, it would still cost you $250. So $20 is still pretty good. Of course, we're happy for someone to get a bargain. Things do slip past. And if they do, that's our fault. But mostly we don't miss the bargains anymore and I'm proud of that."

With regard to selling their wares to dealers before anybody else even gets a good look at it, Anderson says: "we get a really good payment [from them] so it's a win-win scenario."

And while many op shops don't necessarily like the idea of selling to dealers, who then profit further by hiking the price up, she argues that, "their money is no different from anyone else's. A sale is a sale."

Additionally, setting out the collectable items makes them easier for everyone to find, and that makes op shops more attractive for all sorts of customers, not just those with specialised knowledge and the patience to rummage. It opens them up to a more mainstream audience.

Still, that brings us to another and far more serious problem with the increasing professionalism in local op shops. Dr Avril Maddrell, a senior lecturer in geography at the University of the West of England, who co-authored a 2002 book called Charity Shops: Retailing, Consumption and Society, tells Canvas: "Yes, I have heard of customers saying, 'How can you charge these prices? You call yourself a charity?'

"Locals - customers, donors and volunteers - can be alienated by increasing professionalism."

Maddrell says the answer to that question depends on whether the charity should be raising funds for the most needy or providing goods to the relatively needy. "Where's the balance?"

Indeed, there's been a lot of nasty press in Britain recently talking about how regular retailers felt that charity stores there were getting a far better deal than they were, with tax exemptions, free stock, and unpaid staff - yet they were now also competing with standard retail businesses.

In New Zealand this has yet to become a big issue. As in Britain, funds from any "trading activities" by charities are exempt from income tax but it's also worth bearing in mind that New Zealand op shops are not quite as professionally advanced or prolific.

Still, if everyone's focused on grabbing (and appropriately pricing) the fancy stuff, then what happens to the people who genuinely require the op shop's cheap clothes and furnishings, the ones for whom the stores were founded in the first place? Isn't it all getting just a tad greedy?

For Moss and the hospice - a non-denominational, non-religious charity - the answer is straightforward. "As far as we are concerned [our purpose] is to make money for hospice," says Moss, who might best be described as a philanthropreneur.

"Helping someone in need is secondary for us. I do think when I first came here that some of our older volunteers felt that their job was 50/50, half raising money and half providing for the poor. But I don't think it's really that way anymore, the whole dynamic is changing."

Having said that though, Moss is quick to point out that their prices are still not that high. True, most of their clothing and furnishings are still inexpensive, it's just the collectables that they're fishing out so they get the profit rather than antique or retro dealers.

Perhaps it is the nature of the charities they work for - being church based - but Anderson and Walker feel differently.

"We consider both roles to be equally important - to provide funds for the work we do in the community and to provide affordable products to people who can't afford to pay retail prices," Walker says of the Salvation Army Family Stores. "Also, we've been in this business a long time and we know that [our charity stores] can be more than just shops, they are one of the entry points for people asking for our services. Someone might come in and they get talking and we find out they might be in need of some other form of assistance," he says. "So I think we need to be careful of that."

"People are donating to us and with that comes responsibility to get the best price. But we need to remind ourselves that although putting prices up might make good business sense, it's not just about the money.

"First and foremost it's a church and a social service and we can't price ourselves out of the market we serve," he says.

And this is where Shop On Carroll is a particularly cunning initiative in a smaller city like Dunedin. This store looks like the future of New Zealand's op shopping.

Anderson's store was founded in December 2006 when Presbyterian Services were forced to lease a new warehouse for all their donations. Previously they had held various items back - such as antique linens or heritage items - and then sold them at special biennial markets. But the new warehouse space also had a shopfront so they could experiment with this kind of niche marketing without paying any additional rentals, and without damaging their core business of helping those in need.

"We're very fortunate in that we have two bites of the cherry here," Anderson says. "One with our Family Works op shop that's been around for 35 years and another with our Shop on Carroll. By having two separate brands we can target two different markets. The first provides clothing and other goods - bedding and household items - at no cost to those in real need. The second sells collectables and stylish vintage and retro clothing. And we have the advantage of being able to send unsold stock from Shop on Carroll down to the op shop after two or three weeks." So, as Anderson says, they get the best of both worlds.

Even though the British have been doing this sort of thing for years - there, the Charity Shops Survey of 2007 found that 23 per cent of charity shop chains had opened a niche designer clothing outlet in the past year and, besides its standard charity stores selling donated goods, Oxfam now also has a chain of Fair Trade stores, Fair Trade cafes and its own internet sales site as well as specialist vintage clothing shops - this is still pretty advanced for New Zealand op shopping.

A lot of our local op shops don't even come close to being clean, comfortable, tidy boutique environments, complete with recessed lighting and posh shelving. However, there's no doubt we're going to see more of that, as well as charities increasingly branding and marketing themselves as the competition for both donated goods and for volunteers increases.

Undoubtedly we will also see more customers in the op shops, the sort of people who might never have gone there before. And not just because they are becoming more stylish and more customer friendly, but due to changing attitudes.

As Suzanne Horne, who authored the British book on charity stores with Maddrell, writes, "[op shops] have the potential to serve four purposes - in that they offer a social service, enable the recycling of goods, help to raise awareness of the charity and provide a fundraising medium."

Maddrell adds that, "when I did most of my research on this, recycling and green motivations were secondary. But these may be increasing as awareness of ethical and sustainable consumption increases."

A translation for those wondering what all this means for your collection of antique crocheted doilies: Op shopping makes you feel good.

And whether you're preparing to mourn the end of the treasure trail where you were hoping to see a Crown Lynn vase for $2 or whether you feel the higher prices and increased marketing is all worth it in the name of charity, hopefully that's one thing that won't ever change.

FRANCES DUDDING

A mother of one who works part-time in a vintage clothing store, Dudding been op shopping since she was about 13 years old.

"Things have changed heaps. I used to go to the church op shops but now I have a 5-year-old daughter and I tend to go to all the vintage stores along K Road - mainly because they're on the way back from my daughter's school.

"I do still go to op shops further out of town - and if you go somewhere like New Lynn, the whole process is definitely more exciting. Finding that one little treasure makes it all worthwhile.

"I think when you go into stores now, a lot of things have already been picked out for you. It doesn't upset me. I actually think it makes it easier for most people, especially for those who don't have time to go sifting through everything. That makes the price difference worthwhile. In the future I think that the prices are going to go even higher. That's because a lot of the locally made stuff from previous decades just isn't made the same way anymore. And I think people are going to be willing to pay even more for that sort of quality."

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