Oxfam Superstore: Leading the charge to change charity retail

Oxfam Superstore: Leading the charge to change charity retail

Combining the best of old and new practices, the Oxfam Superstore – based in an out-of-town park just a stone’s throw from the charity’s head office – is meeting the demands of the increasingly conscientious modern consumer, while pioneering a new and excellent concept for its sector.

The UK has always been a country that’s keen to give to charity. Now, it appears that charity is returning the favour, giving something back to the world of retail.

Oxfam, one of the most recognisable names in the world of British charity, has developed a superstore concept that may change the way retail stores operate both in and out of its sector – and make use of the ever-growing number of large, disused units found on and off the high street.

An organisation like Oxfam is one of the few charities with enough money to explore, test and demonstrate the power of an experiential retail space. As it stands, Oxfam is the UK’s fifth largest charity in terms of income, as well as the country’s seventh-most marketable brand according to Savanta’s most recent index. If it works, it could pay massive dividends for the charity and those people it supports with its worldwide fundraising efforts.

However, the sector at large is one of incredible power – and for that reason, the great strides made by Oxfam could have a huge effect on the state of British retail at large, and be all the better for it, meeting the demands of the modern consumer – one that’s ever-increasingly conscientious on moral and environmental levels.

The Oxfam Superstore.

Charity’s big wins at home

A common criticism of charity shops is that there are “too many” of them – a weirdly popular gripe that the Charity Retail Association calls out as its number-one myth. While approximately 4% of retail units are occupied by charities, the national vacancy rate stands at 10%. All in all, the CRA estimates there are 11,200 charity stores in the UK. Approximately 650 of these are operated by Oxfam.

Another curious myth the CRA points to is that charity shops “bring down the high street”. Those complaining should think again; according to the Office for National Statistics in July 2019, second-hand goods are actively powering the market, with charity and antique shops maintaining retail growth.

Partly because of the finance streams from charity retail, £10.1 billion was donated to worthy causes by the British public in 2018; while this figure has slightly dropped since 2016, there’s no sign it will drop markedly, even in the current economic climate. If anything, people will explore bargains even more in the coming months and years.

As such, Oxfam’s home-based superstore might be the first of many. After all, it’s more than just a big shop.

What does the Oxfam Superstore offer?

Combining the best of old and new practices, Oxfam’s superstore – based in an out-of-town park just a stone’s throw from the charity’s head office – is open to the public for four days a week. Its opening has been timed perfectly, as it pairs nicely with Oxfam’s “Second Hand September” initiative: an effort to end the “unsustainable” effects of “throwaway fashion”, which is “putting increasing pressure on our planet and its people”.

Inside the Oxfam Superstore.

The superstore, which specialises in furniture, is the closest to a big-box store that a UK charity has ever really been. It’s something a little more popular in the US, particularly with Goodwill, which regularly operates huge out-of-town units. Oxfam looks like it effectively wants to combine its name with a TK Maxx-style experience, where something special can be found cheaply, but with the promise that a return visit at a later date will offer a whole new selection of items.

It’s just as well that it’s actively encouraging people to go out of their way to return regularly. Its location, while understandable due to its closeness to the Oxfam HQ, isn’t near any complementary retail experiences. Only car and motorcycle dealerships are in the immediate vicinity, alongside the Mini Cooper plant; a ten-minute walk away offers a Tesco Extra, M&S, Next and others.

In order to make a visit that little bit more worthwhile, the Oxfam Superstore has diversified. Inside is the charity’s first on-site café – cleverly housed inside an old Oxfam water tank – which serves a changing menu of “world foods”, taking inspiration from the areas it supports. But it’s more than just food and drink.

Oxfam's water tank cafe.

Explaining the café’s ethos, Oxfam’s trading director Andrew Horton said it “will be at the heart of a new community space where we will host free talks and events for school groups, for example.” Social enterprises and local businesses are also given access to free, in-store meeting rooms, bringing in another stream of custom in much the same way as Santander’s Work Café, which we visited recently.

Horton continued: “Our aim is for this to be an enjoyable and fun ‘destination’ shopping experience. Customers will be able to shop ethically, but we want this new store to have the wow factor. We want people to linger, to chat over coffee. We have a ten-year lease on this unit and if it is successful we will roll it out in other locations.”

Combined with the ever-popular pastime of charity shopping, these additions bring a remarkable number of benefits to charity shops in particular, as well as retail at large.

A big future for big-box retail?

Firstly, the big-box mentality is surprisingly well-suited to charity, and at a time when large retailers like Marks & Spencer, House of Fraser and Debenhams are actively withdrawing from large units. Oxfam’s ability to regularly cycle stock is a fantastic means of evolving the experience on a regular basis, while it can also provide its core catalogue of regular new products, such as greetings cards, stationery, sustainable food products (such as Fairtrade chocolate).

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On a human level, charity shops attract very specific types of customers, with shared interests and goals. The idea of introducing a real social element to these stores therefore works, while businesses will likely want to demonstrate their dedication to good causes by organising meetings there – benefiting from free parking and easy access via motorways, removing even more barriers to purchase – therefore bringing more newcomers into store.

What’s more, just days after the store opened, the BBC visited to interview those exploring the aisles and received nothing but unanimous positivity from consumers – something that business landlords will undoubtedly see potential in, should they have large units in need of a sizeable tenant.

With such a big presence, these organisations can effectively run themselves; in the same report, it was revealed that 650 bags and boxes of donations had been gratefully received by the store’s staff in the first few days of operation, refreshing stock and giving customers countless reasons return.

A great start, but it can be better

While it’s hard not to have a positive opinion of a charity initiative with such big early successes, Oxfam, its contemporaries and the high street at large shouldn’t see this as the silver bullet for their problems. So long as units like this exist in out-of-town shopping parks and on high streets around the country, they’ll be judged on the same principles as every other store – and falling behind on expectations will only hold them back, or potentially doom them to failure.

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Each charity, especially those like Oxfam already operating an online store, must explore the opportunity to become truly omnichannel by testing the likes of click and collect or in-store stock check, and ensuring the basics like returns policies and delivery are up to scratch.

On top of this, Oxfam must do everything in its power to open several more concepts like these as soon as possible. While the ten-year lease at its Superstore debut shows commitment to the cause, pushing the idea out to other areas of the UK is the only way to give it a fairer and fuller test.

With no shortage of huge, empty units up and down the country, it’s not a case of charities like Oxfam improving their own fortunes; it’s a matter of life and death for these retail spaces and the communities around them.

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