For 20 years, academics and practitioners have argued that charity retail has been subject to a professionalising force, also at work elsewhere in the sector, that has brought in centralisation, a trained and paid workforce and increased emphasis on efficiency, targets and regulation.
But research I conducted recently through interviews and observation on the charity shop floor found that top-down professionalisation works only until it reaches a tipping point, at which the rigour and rationalisation of pricing, roles and general practices is found to be in opposition to the individual and philanthropic impulses of workers and customers.
For example, the shops I visited used price lining, whereby quality determines price within a range, to regulate prices and deter haggling. But informal negotiation processes regularly occurred, including favours for regular customers, "letting people off" because of knowledge of their circumstances and upselling in order to hit targets or get rid of stock. There were even instances of customers haggling prices upwards because they wanted the charity to earn more from the sale.
Charity shops are characterised by opportunism rather than professionalisation. The trend towards business-like operations in charities is embraced by their retail arms as and when it suits their purposes, but it is just one of many available resources. They also enter partnerships with corporates that donate end-of-line stock, use workers from Job Centre Plus or on community service and increasingly take advantage of retail Gift Aid. Along with traditional use of volunteers and over-the-counter donations, all this suggests that charity shops are omnivorous - their stock, their workers and their practices are strategically borrowed from the business, state and voluntary sectors.
Triona Fitton is the Pears Philanthropy Fellow at the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent