Keep up or get left behind: Op shop finds an online niche

Samantha Arthur the marketing and digital coordinator selects items for the online store and manages the operations from purchase to delivery. Photo supplied.
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Op shopping might be all the rage for young hipsters keen to be sustainable, but as the modern market finds other ways to recycle and reuse, op shops will have to get creative to survive. Millicent Spencer reports.

A Melbourne based op shop has taken their store online to keep up with the growing number of social media pages that allow people to buy, trade, give away and swap goods.

Sacred Heart mission marketing and digital coordinator Samantha Arthur said the mission joined the online marketplace to keep up with the demand.

“We want people to buy from us,” Ms Arthur said.

“With social media and Facebook marketplace, people aren’t donating to get stuff out of their wardrobe, they are on-selling,” she said.

“I have to consider, how am I able to make people feel really good about donating rather than on-selling?”

Sites such as Girls Trade Melbourne, All Melbourne Suburbs And Surrounding Areas Buy, Swap, Sell & Freebies, and,  Buy, Swap and Sell for Melbourne’s Western Suburbs, as well as pages on Facebook, eBay and Gumtree, all are providing stiff competition.

Three years ago, as a casual worker in one of the organisation’s stores, Ms Arthur identified the lack of an online presence as an issue.

She said she sent an email to the business development manager and put herself forward for the job of online coordinator.  

“We had no online store, we had little information on our website about the op shops.  Having worked in the stores for so long I knew that we were different to the Salvos – our brand was a lot different. No two stores were the same,” she said.

The Sacred Heart Mission launched their online store a year and a half ago and now have almost 4000 followers on Instagram, to match their 12 physical stores.

Sacred Heart Mission’s online store operates out of its Grey Street op shop. Photo supplied.

“The online store is a good place to one, keep the bargains in store but two, look after that demographic of shoppers who are after designer clothes,” she said.

The online store allows the mission to reach a much wider market, which is important as the reach of their physical stories was much less than other national op shop chains like Vinnies or the Salvos, Ms Arthur said.

“We post to QLD, Tasmania, everywhere around Australia, we even post to America and the UK.”

The quality of donations has improved, she said, and the prices reflected that. A typical sale price is one third of the retail value.

“We try to raise the bar with the quality and spend a lot of time trying to educate donors about what is and isn’t an acceptable donation,” she said.

Acceptable is “something you’d give to a friend”.

Ms Arthur said she had seen a resurgence in op shopping over her 10 years with the mission, with people going now looking to them for current designer garments.

People also care about the environment more and are proud to be wearing pre-loved clothes, she said. 

A sustainable alternative to fast fashion

Ana Fernanda Covarrubias is a fashion designer and stylist who makes all of her clothes from recycled materials. Photo supplied.

Fashion designer and slow fashion advocate Ana Fernanda Covarrubias, who moved to Australia four years ago, said she began op shopping for affordability, but also as a fun hobby.

“I needed to express myself in fashion, but I didn’t want to contribute to the fast fashion industry,” she said.

Op shopping stops items going to landfill and keeps the garment in the economy for longer, she said.

“In the past people have been a little bit embarrassed to go op shopping but now it is cool,” she said.

Since arriving in Australia she had embraced the slow fashion movement, which encourages buying pre-loved clothes and mending to make things last, she said.

“In the last two years I have seen lots of people join the movement.

“Once you know [about fast fashion] you cannot go back and pretend that you don’t know, because you know every purchase you are making has an impact on someone else and the planet as well.

“I understand that lots of people depend on the fast fashion industry but slow fashion advocates like me are not asking for the fast fashion industry to disappear. We are just asking to slow down and increase the prices a little bit to pay the people who are working a better wage and be more mindful of the materials and the manufacturing process.

“This is just not sustainable anymore.”

Australian’s buy an average of 27kg of fashion a year and discard 23kg, making us the second largest consumers of textiles. 

The lost skills of repairing

Yassie Samie, a PhD candidate in the School of Fashion and Textiles at RMIT, is focusing her research on textile waste and said people generated a lot of waste because they did not value garments.

“We just throw away because we have lost the basic skills of repairing,” Ms Samie said.

Australians have increasing disposable incomes as well as access to much cheaper products, she said.

RMIT Senior Lecturer in Fashion  and Textiles Dr Rebecca Van Amber said that, different segments of the population have different mindsets about how they interact with goods.

“There’s definitely a certain segment of the population that doesn’t bring things to the op shop, they don’t donate second-hand clothes, they don’t think about repairing and reusing,” she said.

“I also think there’s a certain percentage of the population who do not want to wear second-hand clothes.”

For example, people that were from a low socio-economic background may not have liked growing up in hand-me-downs from older siblings and cousins, so now they have a negative association with wearing second-hand clothes and will only buy new, Dr Van Amber said.

“There’s the idea that second-hand clothes are not as good,” she said.

Fast fashion contributes to poor quality clothing due to the cheap fabrics, leaving the future of op shopping uncertain.

“I hate going into an op shop and just seeing a bunch of old peeled jumpers and fabrics that are really cheap and they are sort of like $15-20 and you’re thinking, well that’s probably more expensive than the store it came out of,” said Dr Van Amber.

“Good quality second-hand items are much harder to find, and if they are in an op shop, they’re sometimes in specialised op shops in more expensive suburbs or they have been hand-selected, so you’re not finding those bargains,” she said.

Op shops need to get creative

Ms Samie said that in order for op shops to survive in a world of fast fashion they have to get creative with their business models.

“They’ve got to work on their business models and change that, because we know we have a lot of low-quality products, and if you just want to sell them as they are you probably won’t make a profitable business,” Ms Samie said.

“The successful brands and op shops are the ones that offer different services, for example refurbishing and upcycling,” she said.

Dr Van Amber said there were a lot of cheap, low-quality items flooding the market.

“But there are still always going to be some designers and brands that are having a higher quality and certainly a higher resale,” she said.

“I think the challenge is with op shops, some of those higher end brands and things, people are now trading those sorts of items on Facebook Marketplace and eBay now,” she said.