Most think of charity shops as places where people who cannot otherwise afford clothes can buy them, but they have a wider role
Charity shops are a familiar feature of high streets and shopping precincts. Much recent media attention has focused on increasing friction between the shops and local traders, generated mainly by the introduction of new goods in charity shops. Local traders feel that the preferential business rate and tax status enjoyed by charity shops gives them an unfair advantage.
While in retail terms charity shops have begun to exert an influence on nearby shops and businesses, my research shows that their prominence in the local community should not be underestimated. An often-ignored fact is that these shops have become significant in the lives of many. Although their primary function is to raise money for charities, those who frequent them use them for differing reasons.
One strand of my doctoral research has involved surveying some 600 customers in 25 charity shops in the Bristol area. The results emphasise the wide range of customers and the overlapping reasons that attract them to the charity shop.
Perhaps most important, the shops provide clothing relatively cheaply to those who could not otherwise afford it. Half of the survey population were elderly, unemployed or single parents with young children. However, the recession in the early 1990s also appears to have bred a seam of more value-conscious shoppers among those on higher incomes. "We get a real cross-section of people, not just poor people, but middle-class people. A lot of people come in looking for labels - there isn't a stigma so much now," said a Bristol shop manager.
Although the number of male customers has increased, women still made up more than 80 per cent of those surveyed. A recent national survey suggests that significantly more women than men donate to charity shops.
Many of those surveyed stressed the enjoyable aspect to charity shopping. Charities' reliance on donated goods makes their stock varied and unpredictable. This, and relatively low prices, is one of the shops' main attractions. One customer said: "Charity shops are a bit more exciting than a retail shop where you know what you're gonna get. Whereas you go into an Oxfam shop and you can find a real bargain and it's exciting. That's nice."
Interviews with volunteers and customers showed that while the shops play a role in providing relatively cheap clothing and household items, they are also important as places to meet socially. The core of volunteers are older women, many of whom are retired and some widowed. For many of these people, volunteering means feeling useful and provides very important social contact, which can be extended to customers. One volunteer said: "We have lovely regulars, we get a lot of them just come in to see a friendly face and have a talk, we hear their troubles and things like that. It makes you feel good that they can tell you their troubles. I think we provide a dual service."
My research has begun to uncover some of the overlapping roles played by charity shops in their local communities. People visit the shops to volunteer, buy items, pass the time, or any combination of these activities.
However, increasing competition among shops for donated stock and volunteer staff is changing how the shops are run. Shops are employing more paid staff and are looking to new sources for volunteers, taking on school students completing community service and trainees from New Deal initiatives.
How will the increasingly professional approach to managing and staffing charity shops affect their social roles? What is clear is that the ground charity shops occupy between commercial enterprise and service in the community is increasingly uncertain. Liz Parsons is a final-year PhD student in the department of geographical sciences, University of Bristol.