Oxfam is destroying the second hand books industry.
Many have become disillusioned with Oxfam as a charity. Their chain of book stores is said to have become the 'Tesco of the second hand books industry', as it is bigger and more recognisable than individual second hand bookshops. Moreover, it has the advantage of being a charity. Is it killing the second hand books industry?
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As well as receiving an 80% business rate reduction, Oxfam bookshops are also mostly staffed by volunteers and their produce is entirely donated to them. They also make money on other produce such as fair trade goods, music and DVDs. They effectively do not need to pay to keep themselves in business, meaning that whereas small second hand bookshops are barely making ends meet, Oxfam can build new bookstores.
Oxfam still pay for rent, electricity and heating, which, according to Suzy Smith, Oxfam books project manager, are 'bigger costs than rates'. The number of books – mostly too poor condition to sell – donated to Oxfam bookshops every day is actually difficult for them to dispose of and often clutters the working areas in the shop. Relying on volunteers also has its problems – they aren't usually very skilled, and persuading people to work for you for nothing is difficult. Finally, most of the money Oxfam make goes to fund their charity work all over the world.
Acting too much like a business and not like a charity.
Unlike other charity shops, Oxfam actively set up shop in places that already have second hand bookshops in order to capture a ready market, they price competitively and they advertise aggressively. They are shifting the onus away from simply encouraging people to donate to charity and towards actually making a profit. Oxfam also rely heavily on specialist stores.
They appear to want it both ways - to have both the security and advantages of a charity and the security and advantages of a business.
Oxfam is simply trying to stay alive in a recession. There is no guarantee that if the economic climate gets worse, the Government will not lower or even take away the business reductions on charities, so they are making sure that they will be able to operate even if this does happen. They are also doing wonders to eliminate the traditional image of charity shops being run by gullible old ladies who sell off rare antiquarian books for 50p. Besides, at the bottom line, there is a limit to what Oxfam will be able to do and still be legally allowed to register as a charity, so they aren't going to make a massive profit. Oxfam have so many specialist book stores because they get so many books donated!
Against the spirit of second hand bookshops.
Oxfam book shops are cold and impersonal. They are ruining the atmosphere of the traditional second hand bookshop, a cozy little shop full of unusual books, with a dog in the window, a local business with an owner who has been there for years, who everyone knows and will make you a cup of tea.
This image is not very popular any more. Nobody wants to search dusty shelves full of identical-looking, badly labelled old books when they're trying to find this year's reading list for their course. Much of Oxfam's success compared to local second hand bookshops comes from simply being more attractive to customers. They put their newest, best condition books on display, they clearly label their shelves, their prices are reasonable, their shops are modern-looking and inviting. They have an online shop and they research what actually sells. Besides, Oxfam is criticised both for not being enough like a charity shop and not being enough like a bookshop – what are they supposed to be? They're not that stressful to be in, anyway, they wouldn't be able to sell books if they were.
Inconsistent pricing that is often too expensive.
Because books are priced by volunteers, who aren't necessarily well trained and don't come in to the store consistently enough, there is variation between who prices the books and at what price. Books in general are usually priced too high and antique books too low. As many smaller second hand bookshops thrive on their antique books, Oxfam is driving them out of business by selling cheap antique books.
I volunteer in an Oxfam shop and do at least 20 hours a week. I take huge pride in the accuracy of my pricing and valuation of all types of book and music. However, I can see this point. I get very frustrated with other volunteers who do only spend 4 hours a week in the shop and put very inappropriate prices on books and music. It is frustrating because I invest a lot of time to help those in poverty only for some other volunteer to throw away the money I have raised by putting ridiculous prices on items. If a price is too low potential income is being wasted, and if a price is too high it will never be sold and we do not get any income. And, as this point suggests, inappropriately low prices are undercutting other bookshops by too much. The worst practice, and all charity shops are guilty of this, is 'blanket pricing' - pricing all CDs for example at £1.99 for instance. It is a bad practice because everything has a price, and, more often than not, not the same price. I have seen thousands of pounds wasted in charity shops because they blanket price, and it undercuts other businesses. Charity shops need to take a more professional approach, which should include paying staff to do a proper, professional job. As a result, books will be priced properly, it would be a more professional business that will raise more money. Book selling is a profession and not a part-time hobby.
The pricing isn't that expensive – its just what people would expect to pay for a second hand book in reasonable condition. In my experience, some second hand bookshops are much more expensive. Pricing of second hand books is always going to be inconsistent between one shop and the next. The value of books isn't actually consistent – it depends on how much customers will pay for the books, which depends entirely on what is popular at the time! Oxfam do have some guidelines about pricing and the volunteers are taught to price the books properly. Antique books are priced especially by skilled volunteers. If they're not a high price, its because that book doesn't normally fetch a high price. The reason they sell a lot of antique books is that they get a lot of antique books donated to them. They can't do anything about a volunteer not being able to work two consecutive days in a week – they're volunteers, you can't force them to work. Also, surely this makes Oxfam less like 'the Tesco of second hand bookshops' – a chain store doesn't have inconsistent prices and usually has at least one cheap brand
Factors other than Oxfam causing bookshops to fail.
Other than the image of the traditional second hand bookshop being unpopular, bookshops are also failing simply because small, unsuccessful business do fail in times of recession – why should bookshops be any different? - and because people prefer to buy books online now. There are ways that a business can be innovative and survive in a recession, and a bookshop that hasn't changed at all in 20 years isn't doing any of those.
Marc Harrison of Ellwood Books complains about lack of official help for small traders.
' “I wanted to play Radio 4 in the shop but was told it would cost me £300 a year in performing rights payments,” he said. “The parking restrictions are terrible, and even the Christmas lights don’t extend beyond Brown Street. '
How is this Oxfam's fault?
In the words of David Taylor, Oxfam Bookshop manager,
'Large chains do put small stores out of business. It has also happened to the new book trade. To single out Oxfam is unfair. It’s not really a local issue, but a national one.'[[http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/aug/04/oxfam-shops-booksellers]]
Besides, Ellwood Books could still thrive quite well as an online book store if they make themselves a decently presented website and advertise well.
Many second hand bookshops do already sell online, either through their own websites; however most small second hand bookshops would never be able to afford a well presented website for themselves, and even if they could they would not attract customers to the site as they would not be nearly as well known as for example Oxfam. Instead many of them use bigger websites such as Amazon or Abe to sell their books. Second hand bookshops can adapt to the online threat, it is much more difficult to stop a bricks and mortar threat that takes away the customers who visit their shop. Afterall we dont want our second hand bookshops to all migrate to being soley online.
Oxfam is using the money for a good cause.
Comparing Oxfam to a chain of convenience stores is a poor metaphor. Tesco is a multinational corporation. Oxfam is a charity. Whether or not its business practices are absolutely gleaming, Oxfam is still providing aid to developing countries and people in global crises (full details of which can be found at https://www.oxfam.org.uk/oxfam_in_action/). And unlike a business, Oxfam is too closely monitored to get away with being fraudulent. Surely it is better to support a charity that does good work but has a slightly tarnished reputation – mostly caused by not being gullible idiots who sell rare antiques for 50p – and to fight against actual multinational corporations whose business practises are much, much worse, who make much more of a profit and still underpay their workers.
One of the major complaints is that, while a lot of money does to go these causes, proportionally not enough of the money donated to Oxfam actually goes to aiding developing nations or helping its volunteers and too much of it goes to pay the management staff and to build more Oxfam shops. People have not realised before exactly how much money Oxfam makes. Oxfam have also been criticised for sending much of its donated stock straight to the recyclers.
A comparison to Tesco may not be entirely fair, however it is the effect we are looking at not the differences between Oxfam and Tesco as types of stores. That tesco underpay their workers is surely a similarity to Oxfam having volunteers who are unpaid in comparison to the second hand bookshop owners who have to make a living from selling their books. Providing aid should not really be seen as a reason to justify what they are doing, if tesco was giving away all its profit it would effectivly be doing the same, sure we would praise them for it but it would not change opposition to having more stores and chasing others out of the market place.
If Oxfam reaches 25% of the second hand book market will they be investigated for being a monopoly? It seems to be very unlikely in the short term that Oxfam would get big enough to justify an investigation but in the interim there is nothing to stop Oxfam's advance damaging the industry as they go.
Alternative sources of second hand books.
The choice is not just between Oxfam or second hand book shops. There are also car boot sales and church fairs, book stalls outside Universities, private buying and selling of books between individuals and Council-run book swap meets. Amazon and eBay are a huge source of second hand books, and there are always libraries. Oxfam has very little influence over these sources of books – their online shop isn't THAT popular.
Most of these alternative sources have been around as long as the second hand bookshops. Indeed many such shops will take advantage of them. Second hand bookshops use the internet as an alternative outlet to sell the books they get. Oxfam is probably therefore the main change in the market.
Its not about the books
The focus of Oxfam's retail activity should be purely on the funds raised to help those in need around the world
Oxfam are helping those in desperate need who are already suffering the devastaing effects of <a href="http://www.oxfam.org.uk/get_involved/campaign/climate_change/">climate change</a> and global warming.
Whilst it is admirable what Oxfam are doing, they should not be attempting to create a niche for themselves that imperils the fortunes of other booksellers who rely on their revenue for a living.
A solution that involves the impoverization of some to relieve that of others is no solution at all.
Has anyone here mentioned or thought about the salaries the manager and the assistant manager of these charity shops get ? it far outweighs the salary of a second hand book sellers including job security.
What do you think?