Once with an attached social stigma, opportunity shops are now the place for all, from environmentally-conscious recyclers to bargain-hunting fashionistas.
Elsewhere in the world, these shops are known as thrift, charity or goodwill shops. In Australia, in the 1920s, Melbourne’s Lady Milles Tallis apparently decided the outlets needed a more dignified name and coined the term “opportunity shop”. Today there are hundreds of op shops around south-east Queensland, with some 200 in Brisbane alone and 90 across the Sunshine Coast. Some rely on donated goods; some are stocked with items saved from landfill.
They range from hole-in-the-wall shops to sprawling stores where shelves are loaded with goods, from frocks to furniture, books to crockery.
Shoppers come from all corners.
At a Lifeline op shop in Brisbane’s west, Cathie Brauer is looking for Elton John paraphernalia for an upcoming trivia night theme.
She’s been op-shopping for all manner of bits and pieces since high school, and has a browse about once a month.
“Clothes, things for home, toys for the daughter – didn’t want to buy expensive ones these just going to trash,” Cathie says.
“Sometimes it’s not buying something, it’s just actually seeing it and going ‘oh, Mum had one of those’. It’s a bit of a pastime.”
Australia’s Salvos Stores today resell more than 40 million items each year, helping the Salvation Army provide more than 1.8 million sessions of care annually.
The biggest and busiest of Queensland’s Salvation Army op shops is the Red Hill store which dates back to the 1970s and has some 750,000 transactions a year plus a customer loyalty card for discounts.
The sprawling department store, and a donations depot, has 12 paid staff and up to 30 volunteers.
“By driving reuse through channels such as charity retail, like Salvos Stores, we have the opportunity to not only drive positive environmental outcomes but also positive social outcomes by raising funds to support those most vulnerable in our society,” national Salvos Stores director Matt Davis says.
So, op shopping is not just about helping folk in strife or the family purse, there’s also the business of helping the environment.
The Fashion Council reports that Australia is, per capita, the world’s second highest consumer of textiles and on average, each of us disposes of 93 per cent of these textiles. That means only 7 per cent are recycled which suggests that 6000kg of clothing is dumped in landfill every 10 minutes.
A move toward sustainable fashion, recycling frocks and textiles, means many op shops now include a vintage fashion corner – while “vintage” may be loosely interpreted in some areas, this movement helps save landfill.
It is not all about re-purposing.
Reviva Noosa, the recycling shop alongside the rubbish tip at Doonan, helps divert some 500 tonnes of waste from landfill for reuse each year while offering opportunities to locals through jobs and training.
Stacked with “treasures” from books to bricks, fashion accessories to fence posts, Reviva is run by not-for-profit Resource Recovery Australia with the motto “waste to wages”.
“We get people who’ve been out of work for quite a while and give them a job, get them back on their feet,” says Reviva Noosa manager Mitchell McIntyre.
“We also employ people with a disability and people working out their community service.”
The five-year old shop sees a full demographic of customers, in particular with rising living costs.
“Post-Covid we’ve been pretty full on,” Mitchell says. “A lot more people are thinking about not throwing so much into landfill. There’s absolutely everything from building materials to a few boats, motorbikes, you name it. On a weekend a load of goods comes in and just goes straight out the door.”
Frugal and Thriving blogger Melissa Goodwin suggests op shoppers stick to a budget, have cash – not all stores have EFTPOS – and remember just because something is cheap does not mean it’s a bargain.
“Before shopping at second-hand stores, have an idea of what you’re looking for and write a list,” Melissa notes. “Define your style. Rather than shopping haphazardly, look for clothes, accessories or decor items that match your style.”
She suggests taking time to browse, having an idea of prices and trying before buying.
“If unsure of whether to buy an item or not, then it’s a sure sign that it’s not the bargain for you. Avoid buyer’s remorse and put it back. On the other hand, if you love a piece, buy it. Chances are it won’t be there next time you come back.”
Council-run resource recovery centres bring in goods collected from a variety of facilities and kerbside cleanups, diverting hundreds of tonnes of household goods from landfill each year.
This system also reduces “donation dumping” – the heaping of low-quality goods outside second-hand stores.
In Brisbane, the Endeavour Foundation’s Treasure Trove shops, with paid and volunteer staff, are open Saturdays and Sundays. Items must be collected the same weekend to make room for fresh products arriving each week.
The stores tend to see a lot of household, or personal, items that have been replaced by new goods around Christmas. The post-Christmas, early New Year period is a good time for bargains, as is the end of the financial year.
Many businesses have unspent funds, or tax concessions at the end of the financial year and will purchase new items, which could mean an influx of office desks, chairs or stationary mid-year.
Endeavour staff today see a range of shoppers with more people realising value in “upcycling”. One customer furnished her entire house with Trove items, spending about $1500 when new items would have cost around $25,000.
Proceeds from Treasure Troves help people with a disability. Endeavour Foundation, founded in 1951, supports adults with disability to live in safe and suitable homes, work in jobs that suit their abilities and goals, and to be active members of the community – it’s often looking for volunteers to help staff Treasure Troves.
St Vincent de Paul’s Vinnies op shops are seeing double digit sales growth every year says operations manager Drew Eide.
Sale proceeds from 154 outlets around the state contribute to services and support for vulnerable Queenslanders. The charity supplied $355 million in aid in the 2021-2022 financial year.
More customers are now younger with a more environmental focus.
“I always say we are no longer blue rinse and mothballs. We’re here to deliver a dignified shopping experience to cater to this ever-changing customer, and the new-found demand for recycled retail,” Drew says.
Linda de Blasio, retail operations manager for a region from Deception Bay to Childers and west to Kingaroy, says Vinnies prefers face-to-face donations.
“When people bring it into the store it’s usually because they’re donating good things and it also gives us an opportunity to thank them,” she says.
There’s a steady stream of donations in her region, and sorting and pricing goods is constant. Vinnies’ stores have a pricing guide, while understanding areas such as Noosa will have higher-end, and higher-priced, goods than country areas.
And donors sometimes want to retrieve items.
“Like if the wife’s cleaned out the husband’s cupboard and there was something there, a prize possession he’s still wanting to wear. And there are accidents for people cleaning out a house and sending something that wasn’t supposed to go,” Linda says.
“We’ll try our hardest to get them back, but there’s the sheer volume and saying ‘it’s in a black garbage bag’ isn’t much help when there are 50 million black garbage bags.”
Lifeline, a national charity, provides access to 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention services for troubled Australians and relies on op shops and special events, such as Book Fest sales, to raise funds.
There are more than 120 Lifeline shops around Queensland offering a variety of clothing, “vintage revival threads”, bric-a-brac, furniture and household items for re-purposing plus some new homewares and accessories. Lifeline Queensland’s online op shop at shop.lifelineqld.org.au has more than 10,000 items in over 130 categories, with free Australia-wide shipping for sales over $58.
Waves of Kindness at Noosaville is among the busiest of the Sunshine Coast’s op shops and provides crisis intervention, clothing and household goods to disadvantaged and low-income earners.
Last financial year, the charity surpassed $500,000 in supporting the local community with goods and financial aid. Store manager Wendy Jordan says average monthly sales are around $130,000 to $150,000.
Waves of Kindness relies on 80 volunteers and 15 paid staff to sort and display items for repurposing. Goods, and sales proceeds are allocated through requests from agencies such as Anglicare and school chaplains, to help with household needs, paying bills or finding emergency accommodation.
“We’ve got customers who shop here every day – books, clothing, manchester, kitchen ware, furniture, jewellery, you name it,” Wendy says. “We don’t question why people are buying.”
As Frugal and Thriving blogger Melissa Goodwin writes: “Some days you may shop in second-hand stores and come out with booty, other days may see you leave empty-handed. The thrill of the hunt is part of the fun.”