Back to the shop floor with Oxfam

Adventures in retail and why volunteering works wonders

I recently set up my own freelance business which meant a lot of time spent online, often working at home. Whilst I was busily setting up websites, marketing myself and applying for contracts, I started to notice that I was missing talking to people. There is only so much meaning you can obtain from someone liking your LinkedIn post. Online ‘likes’ are a boost, but I wanted to feel useful in real life.

Oxfam’s mission is to end worldwide poverty and they are currently raising money to help people in Yemen, Syria and Bangladesh. I saw a new Oxfam shop was opening nearby and looking for volunteers. The shop had been set up entirely from scratch by the hard-working manager and assistant manager. On my first shift, I was given a tour and shown how to use the till. When I completed my first transaction of £3.98, I was thrilled! The man buying the DVDs looked slightly concerned at my manic grin. But the sense of achievement was there. I had learnt something. There was a satisfactory click as the till shut. I was hooked!

A selection of the pre-loved and new items in Oxfam

Working in a charity shop offers the opportunity for customer interaction or working behind the scenes if you prefer it. I enjoyed being on the shop floor. Over the course of a shift a steady stream of people came in with donations, asking for items, trying on clothes, commenting on the shop. I was fascinated by the little insights into people’s lives. A man dropped off maternity clothes. ‘We’ve finally finished with kids’, he told me. Two women who worked in a neighbouring charity shop offered words of wisdom. ‘Watch out for shoplifting’, they warned me seriously.

It was a pleasingly zen moment when people found something they liked: a pair of sandals that fitted perfectly, a rare Russian doll, designer trousers, martini glasses. Each time there was a little buzz from seeing someone pleased with a purchase and knowing money was going to a worthy cause. Also I felt more connected with my local community than ever. I felt part of things somehow, in a way that as a passive consumer I had not achieved. And the money raised was going to help people who desperately needed it in other local communities.

A lot of people overlook charity shops on the high street, but they are really missing a trick if they do! Amazing clothes and shoes, many hardly warn, designer, vintage, high street, all sizes and all low prices. Handbags, purses, sunglasses. And the books! Recent bestsellers, collectables, classics, all in perfect condition. The new Oxfam products are fantastic too: ethically sourced laundry baskets, rugs, fair trade chocolate and coffee, amazing smelling soap and hand wash. Ok, so maybe I bought a few things at the end of my shifts…

Doing something entirely different to your usual job can highlight skills and interests you may have forgotten. As well as daily interactions with people in the shop, my ideas were flowing. I started thinking about the social media profile and tweeting daily highlights. Watching others using the till, I developed a theory that the classification of goods could be improved. I thought about layout optimisation. These were all skills from my day job helping companies to make better products and experiences. But I also felt just happy standing by the till, ready to help the customers. Maybe I am a natural at retail after all!

If you are interested in getting started with volunteering in any type of role, join the conversation at a forthcoming meetup.