Op-shops are the new cool

WHAT A BARGAIN: Amanda Fisher, 26, found some items to try on at the SPCA Op Shop in Vanguard St.
WHAT A BARGAIN: Amanda Fisher, 26, found some items to try on at the SPCA Op Shop in Vanguard St.

If you're unlucky enough to have friends more stylish than you, op-shop envy will be a familiar sensation. Just try complimenting your crafty friend's fetching scarf or your hipster mate's ironic seventies Stoke Bowling Club vest without receiving a breezy reply: "Oh, this old thing? I found it in an op shop."

The cult of the second-hand has been well-documented by now: the thrill of the hunt, the unique expression of self, the glow of moral worth. You could say that charity stores – as distinguished from their more upmarket cousins, the vintage or antique merchants – are having something of a boomtime.

The SPCA opened up a new op shop in Vanguard St last August, joining Red Cross and St Vincent de Paul in what's become known as `Op Shop Alley'. Charity Barn moved in down the road last May, and though it went bust in November (blaming its demise on "too many charity stores"), the Salvation Army is confident enough of the location that it moved its Family Store to the same premises last month.

The Hospice Shop opened a new furniture store next to its existing Bridge St shop in winter 2011, and another op shop in Richmond's Queen St in November 2009. A new Red Cross opened nearby late last year, complementing the existing Sallies store. And they say they're all doing well, as growing numbers of thrifty, ironic, fashionable, or crafty Nelsonians flick along the rails and dig through the bins for the perfect bargain.

Because you surely can't get a better business model than a charity shop: devoted, often creative customers, free labour, no stock costs, and that intangible feel-good factor drawing people through the doors.

Of all the op shops the Nelson Mail spoke to, none would reveal turnover, though all seemed to be booming – in fact, they said the biggest problem was finding space for stock. But behind those hand-lettered price stickers and plastic coathangers, there's some business skill needed to survive.

Because some fail. For the seven months it was open, Charity Barn couldn't make enough to cover the rent. Christchurch-based manager Grant Edwards doesn't know – or won't say – why. He'll only say that the support wasn't there in Nelson.

"We have three in Christchurch and they absolutely thrive," he says. "I don't know what the story was with Nelson. A lot of people were disappointed [it closed] but you can't flog a dead horse. You still have to pay the rent."

Yet others, even new ones, are still going strong. One important factor is the power of branding, even with something as seemingly corporate-free as charities. Animal-lovers might shop (or volunteer at) the SPCA; church-goers may focus on the Salvation Army. Or perhaps the organisation's activities in other areas might garner them some press; after Christchurch's February earthquake, nationwide sales at Red Cross shops jumped between 20 and 30 per cent.

"The brand Red Cross was very much in people's minds after that," Red Cross South Island regional retail manager Jill Lyne says. "What people like about Red Cross is we're international, and we're [religiously and politically] neutral."

Red Cross Nelson is having a sale when the Nelson Mail visits; yellow-stickered items are half price, which puts some literally at dollar prices. "The majority of things are catered for women, with dresses and tops still the mainstay," co-ordinator Sandy Hodgson says. However, trendy young guys' stuff sells extremely well too. "I can't get enough. Anything that comes in with Billabong, Quiksilver, Roxy, it's gone within an hour. Everybody buys something; we cater for the whole family."

Ms Hodgson has found that as op-shopping becomes more popular, purveyors are more discerning. She says Red Cross has "lifted the bar" since last October, focusing on better store presentation and slightly higher prices, and moving away from the $2-$3 stuff. Their new Queen St, Richmond store is selling more upmarket items imported from Australia. "We get things in here like (high street fashion label) Zambesi. I'm not going to be charging $3 an item for Zambesi," she says. "Since doing that we've had a better turnover and also the bar of our donations has gone up. It's been good for us, I think."

The Red Cross is part of a nationwide alliance with designer clothing store Country Road, where the boutique store's customers bring in their old Country Road garments and receive a credit towards their next purchase. Since it started, shoppers have donated more than 4500 pre-loved Country Road garments and accessories, weighing more than two tonnes, to Red Cross shops.

And although it might not seem it at first, the four charity stores tucked together on Vanguard St are a bonus, Ms Hodgson says. "It becomes a destination. People come here with the purpose of retail therapy: one, two, three, four times. It becomes economical for them to do it rather than driving to a specific shop in its own place."

The money is spent locally, supporting Meals on Wheels, camps and free transport, and projects such as the recent installation of special lifts into the pools at Ngawhatu.

"Government funding for [non-government organisations] is so hard to get that people need to [open op shops to fund] their services," Mrs Rolfe says. "What we earn here allows us to do everything else in the community ... we try very hard to spend what we raise here in our area. That's where it belongs, that's where it comes from."

Next door, one of the city's newest charity shops, the SPCA Op Shop, is managing to carve out its own niche. Manager Stacie Doyle, an op-shopper since her early teens, says the shop is benefiting from being in the bargain-basement dress circle. "That little triangle gave us an instant market, whereas if we'd set up somewhere else it would have been more of a struggle."

They're also benefiting from brand recognition, she believes; it seems one secret to running a successful op-shop is giving your customers a good idea about where their $4 is going to.

"Everybody loves the animals," Ms Doyle says. "It didn't take much – the SPCA's a lucky little cause for people to get behind." Ms Doyle has worked at many charity stores around Nelson and now manages 29 volunteer staff, mostly either young people or retired. Since it opened, donations have been "overwhelming".

"We're amazed at the level of brand-new and upper level [clothes]," she says. That includes Trelise Cooper, Nike, Kathmandu, new pairs of Etnies still in their shoebox, and even a pair of new, albeit aged, pink knickers from Trathens, one of Nelson's early department store.

The shop is an offshoot of Bishopdale's SPCA centre, where the money goes to pet-owner education and caring for abandoned animals; 18 puppies need homes at the moment, for example. Ms Doyle believes having that tangible reminder up the hill helps with its success.

Down the road at the Salvation Army, one national tactic has been the introduction of a loyalty card scheme – a stamp for every $2 spent, and your 10th purchase is half price. The Sallies are not fazed by Charity Barn's demise in the same location.

Jan Rolfe, area manager for three Salvation Army stores, says business is only growing in their stores in Nelson, Richmond and Motueka. Last year the Sallies nationwide made a `profit' of 30 per cent – $9.9 million in the last financial year – though that is returned to the community through its work in emergency food parcels, budgeting assistance, life skills training, mentoring and support and more.

She says they're "very confident" of success in the new location. "It's a good size for us." She doesn't want to comment on Charity Barn's demise there, but says she'd like to think the difference is "the professional way we do things".

"It shows you what a throwaway society we are, but without it we wouldn't be open," Mrs Rolfe says. Indeed, we import new clothes at an incredible rate – and the charity shops might just be a good way to make space for more.

Each year, people spend around $3.4 billion in New Zealand clothing stores on clothes, shoes and accessories. Of that, about $1.4b is spent on imported clothes. According to the Environment Ministry, about 100,000 tonnes of textile waste are dumped annually, about 30 kilograms for each of us.

Charity shops hate to throw out clothes, but much of what they receive is past it. It then becomes industrial rags, or, like national chain SaveMart (which other op-shop workers dismiss as "a business" with a sideline in charity), sends unsold clothing to Papua New Guinean highland villages.

But charity shops are changing the face of retailing, Mrs Rolfe says. "When you think that we've been here in Queen St for 12 years, we've never been short of stock. We definitely get customers from all walks of life, [and] people have their favourites; but mostly they just love to shop at all of them." She thinks there have been more and more donations over time, despite the rise of auction websites like Trade Me during the same period.

The other big player is the Nelson Region Hospice stores. The first was established about 12 years ago, and now its five stores across the region produce about a quarter of the dollars the hospice needs to make up its annual shortfall.

Nelson Hospice has several hundred volunteers working varying hours, but gets by with only one paid manager. General manager Des Slow says all types shop there: "The rich, the poor, the young, the old, and every combination of those; young rich, young poor, the lot. People looking for a bargain, people looking for something weird and different, people just there to see what they can find."

Competition between shops is good-natured, Mr Slow says. "We are all asking the public to donate and the public have a number of options. That's good – we don't aspire to be exclusive, we know there are a number of worthy charities about and we are one. We might think we're the most important, but sadly, no," he jokes.

Yet, it's not all plain sailing. Blenheim Salvation Army had a problem recently with people using donation bins as rubbish skips, dumping in sheets soiled with urine stains, towels with dog excrement in them, and broken glass. Nationally, the Salvation Army alone spent nearly $600,000 on rubbish removal in 2010/11.