While browsing an Oxfam bookshop recently, I saw several books and a CD I would have bought, but, to be honest and upfront about it, they were far too expensive.
I know the secondhand book market and the prices that are fair and sensible. The Oxfam pricing policy seems to sit at the highest end of that.
I am a friend of Oxfam and I am fully committed to their work of creating a world without poverty. It’s a charity I’ve supported for many years.
The money raised is crucial to the well-being and improvement of life for many thousands of people, and at times Oxfam’s work is a life-saving intervention. They need all the money they can get.
So why did I not buy the books that interested me?
Put simply, and probably a bit controversially, I don’t like being ripped off, and I don’t think a charity should price itself out of the market.
For example, a CD that is $8.20 on Amazon was deemed a collector’s item and priced at $18.05 secondhand. A two-volume set of theology was twice the price of another secondhand bookseller who deals in theology and is not cheap.
Add to this that Oxfam, as a charity, receives discount on local authority rates, is staffed by volunteers and receives its book stocks as donations and at no cost. So why is that stock priced so high?
Now I did buy a book; it wasn’t a bargain but it was a fair price, which I was glad to pay. It was an anthology of Aquinas’ theological writings, an Oxford hardback published in 1954. In that deal, there were two satisfied parties.
So I wonder if there’s a need to be a bit more realistic in pricing policy. This would demonstrate an interest in the customers’ satisfaction as well as the main mission of making a difference in human life and welfare in a fragmented, unequal world.
These two go hand in hand; the main mission is possible because of customer loyalty, volunteer time, public generosity in donations and a fine track record in using funds with strategic generosity and care.
My experience raised another point easily missed in these austerity days. Charity shops started as places where those on low incomes and others struggling to get along in life could go and find warm clothing and other necessities for knock-down prices compared with the retail market.
In the interest of maximizing income and profits, there are now policies of only taking what is “like new” or labeled as “designer” clothing.
These items are then priced beyond those who are looking for recycled good quality clothes at prices affordable to them.
Nobody is saying charity shops should become clearance houses for worn-out castoffs.
But a balanced stock, with an eye to local customer base and a commitment still to supporting the poor whether here or overseas, would restore a needed balance.
The need for a review of pricing policy and customer service is increased when you come across articles noting the volume of charity shop items priced at $164 (100 British pounds) or higher.
Without such reforms, there is a serious danger of reducing the credibility of charity shops as places where the word “charity” still retains some of its meaning as gift and grace to the poor.
Jim Gordon recently retired as principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He continues to lecture there in church history and systematic theology. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Living Wittily, and is used with permission.
James Gordon is part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy.