Charity shops: Is the future online?

Charity shops: Is the future online?

The worth of our e-commerce market has increased significantly every year since 2014. Where do charities come in to this, and what can they learn from online retailers? Is the future of charity shopping online?
Zoe Carmichael

I am a charity shop fanatic. A few years ago I decided to ditch mainstream stores and buy almost all of my clothes second-hand instead; but I am constantly being told that online fashion retailers like ASOS are a shopping revelation and will make me change my mind. Shopping online does seem tempting, and clearly others agree: in the UK, a fifth of non-food items and, more specifically, over a quarter of clothes are sold online. If online shopping has become so successful, surely online charity shops are the next best thing?

Actually, online charity shops aren’t a new phenomenon. Oxfam launched the first charity shop website in 2007, now with 100,000 listed items and making £2 million each year, and lots of other charities have been using sites like eBay to sell donated goods for years. However, Oxfam’s online shop is still described as a ‘well-kept secret' and many other charities’ online shops focus on branded merchandise with a relatively limited range of second-hand goods, if any at all. Are charity shops simply not well-suited to the online marketplace?

Keeping up with internet giants

Online-shopping competition is fierce. Internet retail giants from Amazon to ASOS and online branches of high-street shops are able to sell mass-produced goods cheaply, often using beautifully photographed models to advertise their products. Replicating this business model with unique, individual items is more complicated. Even though everything is donated for free and normally sorted by volunteers, it is much more time-consuming to photograph, list, and package second-hand goods on an individual basis. (I should know, having spent a week doing this for my local branch of Mencap!)

For a large-scale online charity shop to be a success, matching the reputable services of mainstream retailers is key. Consumers have come to expect low prices, free returns, and fast deliveries – so charities need to provide these too. Oxfam has proved it’s possible, offering a well-organised website with many options for refining your search, detailed listings and clear photos. But creating an online shop on a similar scale is probably only possible for a huge charity like Oxfam.

Knowing what sells

This certainly doesn’t mean there’s no place for smaller charities online. Many sell new goods, often gifts or items related to their charity’s work, as a straightforward way of raising funds and awareness. For charities that already run charity shops, however, the internet offers more opportunities.

I’m not suggesting that online charity shops should replace shops on the high street. After all, our CAM (Charity Awareness Monitor) research from January last year shows that most people actually prefer to buy all sorts of items from charity shops rather than online, with young people being the main exception. However, selling more desirable or specialised items online (e.g. on eBay) can allow charities to get maximum value from donations. Antique, vintage, collectable or more valuable goods, from musical instruments to electronics and designer clothes, could be real money-spinners online, instead of selling for a few pounds in a shop to someone who thinks the item is worthless.

The difficulty is for charity shops to know which donated items are worth saving for the online market. Data products such as Terapeak show what will sell well online, and for how much, and could allow charities to be more strategic about what to put on the internet.

Emphasise eco

Online charity shops also have to compete with the increasing number of sites and apps which help people give away and get stuff for free, such as Freegle or Freecycle, as well as local Facebook groups. They market themselves with an eco-friendly message of re-using stuff and reducing waste. But charity shops serve the same environmental function, as well as providing vital support for their charities!

UK charity shops help to reduce CO2 emissions by about 3.7 million tonnes per year, and I think charity shops should emphasise this more. This could encourage environmentally-conscious people to donate to charity shops, instead of freebie sites. Charities will also be more likely to attract donations if they promote being able to accept goods of all types and sizes, by selling the more unusual items online.

Sell to donate

It is incredibly easy to sell your old stuff online and make some money – this could pose a problem for charity shops. If young people get increasingly used to buying and selling second-hand goods for personal profit, charities are going to miss out on connecting with an important demographic group. But how can they possibly compete for valuable donations from cash-strapped students? Well, if you can’t beat them, join them! eBay for Charity allows sellers to donate a proportion of their earnings to a charity of their choice. Charities of all sizes could use schemes like this to encourage online sellers to donate to their cause.

From shoppers to supporters

Let’s not forget that charity shops are more than just fundraisers. Data from our Charity Awareness Monitor over several years shows that donating to and buying fom charity shops are consistently the public's top two methods of giving to charity. This makes it the perfect avenue to draw in new supporters by engaging shoppers in the work a charity does. If online sales can become successful, they can also be a very effective way of directing consumers to a charity’s website, raising awareness and encouraging further donations. Charities are the most successful organisations at re-engaging with consumers who’ve bought from them online. I know I rarely pick up and read a leaflet from a charity shop about what the charity does, but would be much more likely to click over to a charity’s website or watch a quick publicity video when browsing online.

By further establishing themselves as online retailers, either with huge online shops like Oxfam, or selling a few specialised donations or merchandise, charities can reach out to groups that shop online rather than on the high street, and eventually build a wider support-base

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