Britain’s charity shops have much to learn from Australia

As a teenager, I worked in an Oxfam shop for one afternoon a week, selling Barbara Taylor Bradford books and Val Doonican records to pensioners.

We’d get the occasional person under the age of 30 in the shop, but it was usually some kid forced to come in as a dare by their mates. Now some charity shops in the UK have gone upmarket and become second hand book dealers or vintage record stores.

You can also find specialist stores supplying electrical goods and furniture. And, for a while, retro chic made it cool to shop in charity shops. But despite this surge in popularity, the status of Britain’s charity shops pales into insignificance compared with Australia’s ‘op shops’, as they are called down under.

They are a mainstay of most suburban high streets in Australia. In the Melbourne suburb where I live, there are at least five such establishments on the high street. And the merchandise in the Australian shops is far superior to that of their British counterparts.

Australian op shops are often bigger than the British equivalent. One store in my locality more closely resembles a supermarket than your typical British charity shop where everything is cramped into one or two rooms. And reports in Australian newspapers suggest that the Victorian city of Geelong could soon get Australia’s largest op shop, with proposals to redevelop a former motor plant into a shopping centre entirely made up of shops selling second hand or recycled merchandise.

Ian Ballis, the man behind the proposal, plans to attract op shop operators, including charitable organisations, to the centre’s retail, storage and distribution facilities. The site’s location on a busy arterial road is said to offer the potential for the centre to become a leading tourist attraction in the region. It remains to be seen how the Op Shopping Centre concept will translate to a large out of town site.

But it will be interesting to see whether the enforced thriftiness brought on by the economic crisis might lead to similar developments in some of the UK’s struggling shopping centres.


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