11.11.08

There are many things the world has to thank the British for - all those wondrous writers, all those creative musicians, all those manic comedians, the chip ("Britain's contribution to world cuisine"), those ubiqitious Victorian buildings that provide some sense of familiarity when visiting new countries that were part of Pax Britannia, and perhaps most importantly, Cheddar cheese.

Most of these have managed to spread to various parts of the world and have been welcomed with varying degrees of enthusiasm. But there is one 'invention' that has largely been restricted to these shores (and a couple of other countries).

The charity shop.

For those of you who've never been in one, it's quite simple - these are little stores run by a particular charitable organisation, and most often run by volunteers. So you have shops affiliated to Oxfam, or cancer organisations, or local groups that work with children, or autistic people, or the elderly. They almost exclusively rely on donations, and most of them stock the same kind of range - clothes, books, and knick-knacks. What each store specifically stocks varies quite a bit, depending on the area they're in and the kind of clientele that come into the shops. So while some may have a lot of clothes, others may focus more on books, while some pay more attention to CDs, DVDs and the like. And because the stuff is for sale, most of it is very good quality and often brand new or almost-new. And, obviously, much cheaper than anything you would find at a standard retail shop.

Which is why they're so popular. There's a certain endless fascination in wandering into these shops - particularly when you're not looking for something specific - and just browsing. You find all sorts of weird and delightful stuff, and the joys of trying to imagine who would have bought some of those things (and why they gave it away) is worth the effort alone. To me perhaps that's one of the most important things about them - the diversity and surprise they provide in an otherwise oh-too-standard shopping expedition. Unlike a normal retail outlet, you never quite know just what you'll find when you step into a charity shop, and that thrill of discovery when you find something so quirky you know you wouldn't find it on the High Street....well, let's just say it's like the best scavenger hunt you ever had as a kid, times ten.

Also, when you buy books at the rate I do, the prices help.

Anyways, that's all introduction. The real point of this post - and something that's been intriguing for some time now - is this:

Why hasn't this concept caught on in other countries?

I know the US has the Salvation Army, but even there charity shops aren't that common or popular, are they (I'm genuinely asking)? And I'm thinking of countries like India, where there are so many charities who rely purely on donations and fund-raising, and which is a nation of shops, but which have no comparable outlets. Ok, I know the WWF has a couple of shops, but that's about it.

I've had this discussion with several friends from home, and many of them argue that in a country like India, we don't really need such shops because their activities are covered through other means. For instance, because we have so many poor people, things like clothes and shoes can be given directly to those who need it, or to charities who accept and distribute them. And money, which is perhaps more immediate a need, can also be given in the same manner. So - they ask me - why should a charity go through the hassle of finding an appropriate location, getting people to run it, sorting through all the junk that people will inevitable thrust on them in order to find the 10% of really good stuff that can be put on sale - when instead they can just get the stuff and distribute it directly?

Fair point. But that's only for the poor isn't it? There are so many charities who require money - those that tend to people with physical disabilities, people with mental disorders, cancer patients, heart patients, etc - and who solely depend on fund-raising. Doesn't it make sense for such agencies, say the Cancer Patients Aid Association, to be able to generate funds through an outlet which sells good stuff that people donate.

Ah, but my friends always argue, which Indian would be seen going into such a shop and buying second-hand goods? The shame!

To which I say - poppycock.

Indians love a bargain. This is why places like Fashion Street exist. And if there was a shop that sold new or almost-new products, at half the price from a standard retailer, there would be throngs - throngs, I say - flocking to such a shop.

Besides, who said it has be clothes. I'm thinking books. We all bemoan the lack of good second-hand bookshops that offer a wider variety of titles than the current favourites stocked by those boring corporate chains. And there are so many of us that get rid of books, usually by giving them to a raddiwalla or some library where nobody will ever read them. So if there was a shop that stocked only books and music (like Oxfam Books, or BHF Books & Music), most of which were in mint-condition, and whose proceeds were going to charity, don't you think something like that would work in India? And if it would, why hasn't it been tried so far? Not even Oxfam, which has projects in India, has attempted something like this.

I, for one, am clueless as to the lack of them. You got any ideas?

And while I don't make too many long-term goals, if I ever do get back to India, this is something I want to try and introduce. For any charity. Because I just cannot believe that it wouldn't work. And, of course, doing some good while being surrounded by books - well, that's heaven, no?


Updated: I forgot to mention that many charity shops also sell their own range of new products, which they source from somewhere or get manufactured. This is an option too to consider for such a venture back home. Or, corporate gifting.

And it just occurs to me that to get around the problem of getting people to come and donate, the charities could always set up a system where people could give their details when they have stuff to donate, and volunteers can go around and sift/select items from their homes. This happens here in the case of some charities that accept furniture - they will happily come round and collect it, so that's one less hassle for you.

22 comments:

km said...

When you do decide to set up a "for charity" used-book store in India, shoot me an email. (I am serious.)

Salvation Army shops (or thrift shops) in USA are usually limited to big cities. One usually does not see too many of them in the suburbs.

But there is a big culture of "gently used" items in the States - cars, clothes, books, DVDs, video games, furniture et al - online, so it is not to say no one buys second-hand. (One can buy used wedding gowns on eBay - not that I am looking for one.)

I believe this is true of India too, where the thrift shop exists not online or on "main street" but in smaller, less visible venues or through other distribution channels.

brinda said...

Yes, it's definitely a great idea. But I suspect it won't do so well here (India, I mean) simply because nobody's going to donate the good stuff. Or sell it. Most people (particularly those born/brought up in the 1940s/50s) are notoriously thrifty. So that's them out. And then there's people like me -- you'll have to pry my books away from my cold dead hands. Of course I'd like it if other people donated their books to your charity shop -- I'll come in and buy :-)

??! said...

KM:
Done deal.

Also, that's another point. People do buy second-hand stuff on eBay, even in India. So charity shops should be an even better option.

And in the UK, pretty much every town has at least one charity shop.

Brin:
This is what I thought too. But you never know. People always have lots of stuff lying around, and instead of going to the hassle of sorting it and then selling it, they might prefer to give it away.

Shyam said...

WHO would give something away for free when they could get a few rupees from the raddiwallah? And I'm with Brinda (and assuming you too) in that a book that belongs to me will continue to belong to me for the foreseeable future :)

Shyam said...

er - one thing i forgot ... weren't chips invented by Belgians rather than the Brits? Or have Goscinny and Uderzo completely misled me?

Lekhni said...

There are the so-called "Goodwill" stores, but I doubt they stock books. Mostly clothes, I am guessing.
If only I knew where to buy lots of "gently used" books :(

Spark said...

I have seen my granny trade old clothes for new steel utensils! so u see....its a long long way to go!

??! said...

Shyam/Spark:
Again, agree. But people do give to charities, don't they? And when there's an emergency, all those hordes of clothes do pile up don't they?

And besides, for example, even if you had just 300 people from all the 15 million people living in Bombay give 2 books each - you'd have 600 books ready to sell. Are you seriously suggesting that's not possible?

Lekhni:
Heh. Come to the UK, I'll take you round to the best places. Then you can ship a whole container full back.

ohsimone said...

Keep me informed as well - that'd be a nice change from Epping on a Saturday afternoon!

??! said...

ohsimone:
Hello.

And, oh, I bow to your greater experience. What a wonderful blog-concept you've come up with. You should suggest this as a column to a paper. Seriously.

km said...

Lekhni: Never been inside a "Half Price Books"? (Store locations)

Falstaff said...

I suspect it's just that the economics don't work. Once you account for all the overheads - inventory cost, rent, etc - the actual money you'd raise wouldn't seem worth it. And given that the concept is untested, and even if it worked it would take time to pick up volumes, it feels like a particularly risky investment for an NGO to be making, particularly given high fixed costs. Not to mention that there are likely to be cash flow problems. And it's unclear that there is, in fact, a large enough market for this sort of thing (how many people are seriously going to go to a physical location to browse through a random collection of books in the hope of finding something interesting? How often will they do this? How much will they spend each time they do?)

Plus I suspect that the value realized / sacrifice ratio may actually work out worse for the charity shop idea than for straight monetary donation. Let's say I donate 10 books to you. Say you manage to sell 5 of them. How much are you really going to raise on each book, after you net off costs. Rs. 100? 200? It's probably easier to get me to give you a cheque for Rs. 500 (which is all my donation really adds up to) than to get me to give you 10 books.

??! said...

KM:
Never, but if I'm around one, I sure will. Thanks.

Falsie:
All valid points.

So why're they so common in the UK? And why are more of them opening*?


* The answer to this is partly because of the recession.

??! said...

Falsie:
And we're not just talking rural shops. There are two just off High Street Kensington in London, and which do really well.

Veena said...

??!: I am curious as to how many charities do this in the UK - I know there is Oxfam and Cancer Research everywhere but I am not entirely sure that they make much money from these stores (relative to donations). I am not convinced its not a marketing thing - and since they are so big, they can probably afford it.

As for locations, notice the steep diff in prices at the Oxfam stores at High St Ken or Marylebone High to the ones in other not-so-affluent locations.

??! said...

Veena:
From personal experience, there are many large 'chains' - British Heart Foundation, Help the Aged, Sue Ryder, and Barnado's, for instance. These can be found in many large towns.

Then there are others like Mencap, and most regional hospices have their own charity shop.

So it's not like everybody's not in on the action. But you and Falsie are right, and I've also always wondered how they cover the costs. Something I really should look into.

Also, the pricing difference is just a regional-pricing policy, na? They charge for what people around them can pay, which makes sense. Heck, if Tesco can do it, why can't Oxfam?

Veena said...

??!: Looks like I should get out of London and actually visit some of these "large towns"! thanks.

On the pricing, no, of course they can and should do it. I was just wondering if the stores at affluent locations do better than the others. And if prices (and possibly people who think they have done their bit to save the world if they bought some stuff at the neighborhood Oxfam) play a part.

Shefaly said...

@ ??!

OhSimone's blog is fascinating but as unusual posts go, this one takes the cake. Kudos to you!

@ Veena

You mention the price difference but in my observation, charity stores in affluent locations also actually have better stock in trade, which they can sell for better prices. So I imagine they make better profits as well. Earlier this year, Oxfam opened a couple of designer boutiques which will sell donated designer gear. Prescient move considering many fashionistas are now skint and may well be making a bee-line in these stores!

@ Falstaff

Their economics works out for many reasons. Stores are often managed by volunteers not employees. As charities, their legitimate expenses can be written off more generously. When donors use a Gift Aid provision, the charity can claim more money from the Revenue on the donation. The trick we are missing in the UK is that we do not give tax breaks to donors-in-kind by valuating their donations (as they do in the US) so charities, I think, lose out on the Gift Aid equivalent on this.

I imagine if someone wishes to follow suit, ??! has picked a very good idea to write about and they can pick lessons in non-profit management from many avenues.

Cynic in Wonderland said...

See I would see a couple of reasons
a) the thrift gene in Indians means that typically everything is used until its falling apart - hence, I am not sure what is the resale value of it.
b) for books specifically - the book lovers wont part with it and the non book lovers will try and recoup some money by selling it to book sellers who do deal with second hand stuff.
c) lots of indians have this internal passing down of stuff in families - books, clothes et al.
d) logistics of running it

incidentally there are places like this www.karmayog.org.- somewhere in the area - but its in kind rather than cash charities

??! said...

Shefaly:
Thanks. And thanks for the reasonings.

Cynic:
Agreed. All agreed. I still think it can work.

Space Bar said...

This is how (some) charity happens in India.

??! said...

Space:
Ahh. This does not surprise me. Infuriates, yes. Surpises, no. I've seen this kind of behaviour before, and well....what do you say? Apart from ending up outside their house and ranting at them for an hour?