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Online auctions impact on second-hand charity shops

Howard Lake | 15 August 2004 | News

Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Elizabeth Day reports that online auction site eBay “is losing charity shops thousands of pounds each week because people would rather sell their possessions on the site than donate them to worthy causes.”

Without naming specific charities, she claims that “medium-sized charities are facing losses of up to £50,000 a year – often as much as a 10th of the revenue from charity shops.”

Ebay has certainly made a rapid and marked impact on the sale of second-hand goods in the UK. The online auction site has 9.31 million British users and sells £1 billion worth of clothes and accessories each year. The 6,500 charity shops in Britain sell around £300 million worth of all goods each year.


Why your supporters are wealthier than you think... Course by Catherine Miles. Background photo of two sides of a terraced street of houses.

Charities that have noticed a drop both in the amount and quality of donated items that are given to their shops include Marie Curie Cancer Care and Trinity Hospice. John Canessa, of Marie Curie Cancer Care, told The Daily Telegraph that: “there are fewer donations coming through the door. The rise of sites such as eBay is playing a part in this.”

Of course, it is not just eBay that has caused this change. TV programmes that encourage viewers to clear out their attic and sell valuable items have no doubt contributed as well.

What can charities with second-hand shops do about this? First, they should be aware of why this change has come about: eBay offers a solution that is easy – you don’t have to carry bags of second-hand items down to the nearest charity shop. On the other hand, you do have to carry them to the nearest post office to send them off, so criticisms by some eBay users that charities won’t collect donated goods might not be as valid as they appear.

Ebay also offers the opportunity to make money from donated goods, whereas previously the only way to do that was to go to the trouble of setting up a stall at a jumble sale or car boot sale. Whether the person that wants to make money out of second-hand goods is the same as the person who wants to donate such goods to charity is a moot point. Nevertheless, the ease of making such a return is certainly tempting.

Secondly, charities should be testing out selling some of their donated items using eBay or other online auction companies. Collectors’ items or other unusual and valuable items should certainly be tried. Some organisations, such as Oxfam, Amnesty International UK, and British Heart Foundation, already auction items online with eBay which has a dedicated charities unit. None of them were quick to do this, however, given that eBay’s UK arm opened in 1999.

Of course, as a spokesperson from the Association of Charity Shops pointed out to the Telegraph, there have always been other options for making money out of second-hand goods, rather than donating them to charity.

However, eBay and its ilk can not – and should not – be ignored by charities. If this trend is accurate, then charities which raise funds from donated items should be using online auction services to maximise their income. In addition, they should also test encouraging their supporters to sell their second-hand goods online themselves and donate all or some of their proceeds to the charity.