It’s the question every fashion-savvy bargain hunter has asked themselves — why are op shops becoming so expensive? Desley from Brisbane Vintage and Collectables, who spent several years managing an op shop in Brisbane, says there are a number of factors.

“Why are Op Shops becoming so expensive?”

I hear this cry every day, so I have to put pen to paper to explain — NOT justify — the current situation of ‘Op Shops’.

Maybe the larger charities should be renaming their thrift shops ’boutiques’, ‘second hand stores’ or something similar as the Op Shop of today is not and will never again be the same as the Op Shops of the past.

In my mother’s day, the Op Shops were social enterprise outlets, many run by charities to sell items that their members made — for example, the Society for the Blind sold wicker and cane ware that their blind members made in their workshops. These outlets evolved into thrift shops stocked with donations from the community and provided an outlet where disadvantaged people could come and buy clothing and homewares at a low price. Don’t forget in my mother’s day pensions were very small and coming out of a depression, many people struggled to live.

In the 21st century, the Op Shop scene is completely different. Large charities run huge retail outlets which fund their core business to the community. If you are confused about an organisation’s core business please check their websites and it will provide information; for example Lifeline provides a free telephone counselling service to the Australian community.

These outlets are not shops that a person can pop into and get free or cheap clothing, they are retail shops not dissimilar to any other second hand dealer.

The government regulations, insurances, rental, power and IT costs involved in running these outlets have increased remarkably.

There is a way, however, that a disadvantaged person can obtain free or cheap clothing through these organisations and these methods are known by the person’s social worker, case worker, the government department or the organisation who is assisting the individual or family. It is a rare occasion that a person can just walk through the door and receive free clothing, as not even paid managers have the authority to give away stock and the policies around this are not made by them.Think of the goods that would walk out the door for free to friends and family if these polices were not in place. Op Shop stock belongs to the organisation, not to staff members.

These organisations are not in the Op Shop business to provide the general public with bargains and the sooner you come to grips with this fact, the sooner you will lose the feeling of disappointment over the pricing of some of the shops’ stock.

“If the stock were cheaper they’d sell more!”

One of the best fallacies I keep hearing is “If the stock was cheaper than they would sell more”.

Having run an Op Shop for five years, I can tell you from experience that reducing the price on stock does not increase sales — believe me, we tried that many, many times. In actual fact, a person who buys at a reduced price still only buys the item that they want; the reduced price does not encourage them to purchase more items than they want in the first place. Often when we had half-price clothing or fill a bag, people mostly opted for the one item they found OR the few items that did not fill the bag.

Now this would be different if Op Shop stock was ALL designer brands, but as the seasoned op shoppers and volunteer staff know, designer brand donations make up a VERY small part of your stock and if you sold all this stock off cheaply you would be left with a lot of not-so-attractive clothing that has to be sold at a price that will not recoup your overheads.

Admit it — when you enter an Op Shop you head for the best brands, the best quality and the rarest items. Multiply yourself with hundreds or thousands of customers and most Op Shops cannot provide only the rarest or best to every shopper — this is why these items are marked at a higher price.

They are not marked at a price for a dealer to buy and make money on or for a person to buy and make a profit by reselling.

“The stock is free, so why charge so much?”

Another favourite of mine is “stock is made up of donations which are free”.

Granted donations provided to op shops are not paid for initially BUT it costs the charity to sell these items unless they operate out of the back of a church or of a charity owned premises. The little community-based op shop I started for a small not-for-profit cost $10,000 to set up.

Then there are the ongoing costs like…

  • Rent (increases five per cent every year in all commercial cases)
  • Electricity (and you all know what that is like)
  • Multiple insurances, including public liability and workers compensation
  • Government fees and banking/EFTPOS charges (the bank even charged us $350 to close the EFTPOS account!)

I saw it all in those five years.

  • The women and men arriving and departing in their new BMWs and Mercedes Benzes complaining about our $15 dress/suit price when none of us could even afford the insurance on their cars.
  • The dealers who want rare and mint condition collectables for a few dollars so they can make greater profits.
  • The people who shoplifted or got their children to shoplift from us.
  • People raiding the bags of donations, spilling them open on the footpath and taking the best of the items being donated.
  • People dumping a load of unusable household furniture outside the front door of the shop so I had to call on help to dispose of it before we could open.
  • The flasher who waited until one volunteer was alone then absolutely terrified her with his disgusting antics.

Our little community-based Op Shop ran for five years as the overheads were overtaking our takings, so by thinking out of the box we started to sell online.

The online sales eventually took over the physical shop sales so the directors, in conjunction with the auditors, decided to close the physical shop.

We were not a high-end Op Shop; we could not sell furniture (no physical space) which brings in more money to charities but we were proud to sell ONLY items that we would buy ourselves. We were totally into recycling, clothing suitable only for rags was given to a local mechanic and framer. Kmart and cheaper chain store clothing was bagged and sent to our local women’s and men’s refuges. Anything that we thought that was too good to discard and that we could not sell was placed into a box outside the store for people to take for free.

People are also critical of cases where volunteers get first choice of donations. I can assure you this is NOT the case in all instances. Our store policy was that volunteers were not able to purchase donations until they were priced and on the shelves for sale.

As a matter of fact, we had a wish list for our clients who were searching for specific items i.e. those who collected frogs, fairies etc etc. If we had a donation that suited we would telephone them to let them know that we had some items that they might be interested in. Many of these people became good repeat customers who thought very highly of staff and exchanged Christmas presents and flowers on special occasions with the staff.

Sadly, the people we assisted in the community were the ones who suffered with our closure. These people included…

  • The women and children from three local domestic violence shelters who obtained free clothing and footwear.
  • The men, women and children in the local crisis care centre who obtained all their goods free from us.
  • The long-term psychiatric care patients leaving the local hospital who were given free starter packs when they left a hospital to go into transitional housing.
  • The local homeless who received backpacks with toiletries, blankets and whatever else was needed.

Should there be another Queensland or Australian flood we are not there to provide any of the $250,000 worth of clothing or homewares we did in 2011 and 2013.

When a house burns down the devastated family cannot walk through our doors and receive clothing to take away with them.

When local refugees need someone who can speak English on their behalf they have to find someone else.

When a person who has no money to get to the local shopping centre is passing, they now cannot call in and ask for help.

This is only a small selection of the services we provided to our local community and all these services cost the organisation money to provide.

Money which only came from the little Op Shop run by four dedicated volunteers.

So think twice before you complain about Op Shop prices. Think about the REAL reason they exist – unless you have worked for one like I have, you have no idea what the real story is!

Although no longer an Op Shop manager, Desley still fundraises for her community online at Brisbane Vintage and Collectables — check out their Facebook page at facebook.com/brisbanevintageandcollectables

This post originally appeared on I Love To Op Shop and has been republished here with full permission. Check out their Facebook page at facebook.com/ILoveToOpShop

Do you think Op Shops are too expensive, or do you think the prices are fair? Let us know in the comments below!