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How Oxfam is bucking the high-street trend

Most retailers are having a tough time of it at the moment – but charity chain Oxfam is happily notching up record sales.

Customers in the Oxfam shop in Kingsland Road, London

While the high street struggles under the gloom of the economy and previously grey skies, one chain of shops is doing rather well. Last year, Oxfam had sales of £90m, an all-time record for the charity, and 5% higher than the previous year.

“The charity shop sector as a whole is going well and growing,” says Wendy Mitchell, head of policy and public affairs of the Charity Retail Association. “It is partly to do with the economic climate and attracting new audiences – one million more people from the middle-class are shopping in charity shops.”

Oxfam, she says, apart from having many more stores than most charities, has “a number of innovative initiatives, including the Shwopping campaign with Marks & Spencer [where donating clothes to Oxfam earns you vouchers towards new clothes at M&S], and has worked with supermarkets to position textile banks. These will help them secure good-quality donated stock to sell, which is the No 1 issue for many charity shops at the moment.” (Oxfam is also the UK’s third-biggest book retailer, selling 11m books a year – and drawing accusations that it puts secondhand bookshops, which can’t compete with the charity’s favourable business rates and volunteer workforce, out of business.)

Cathy Barnes, professor of retail innovation at Leeds Metropolitan University, also says innovation is key to the shops’ success. “They are one of the few charity shops to have an online presence. They are good at choosing locations. You see rundown high streets where there are lots of charity shops, because of low rents, and it’s not often one of them is an Oxfam – maybe Oxfam can afford the higher rents because they are a more high-profile charity.” And being in more affluent areas tends to attract higher-quality donations – and higher prices.

Leona Everitt, a spokesperson for Oxfam, says an effort has been made to publicise campaigns in the shops, “so customers can feel there is a direct link to our work. We also have tried to make the shopping experience more enjoyable.” She points out how Oxfam runs shops at festivals such as Glastonbury and Latitude, a pop-up shop selling designer clothes at Selfridges, and says it is no coincidence the director of trading has a background in retail, not charity. “We are getting slicker.”