Charity shops in Northern Ireland are reporting critically low stock levels, as donations dry up during the recession.
Members of the public are giving the stores fewer unwanted items, which the voluntary organisations rely on to raise money.
At the same time, tighter economic conditions mean bargain hunters are snapping up stock that is there.
The two factors combined are leaving shelves almost empty.
Age NI, the charity which supports elderly people, has issued an urgent appeal for donations.
Edith McGauhey, who manages the charity’s store in Belfast’s Shaftesbury Square, asked the public to “help refill empty rails and shelves which are usually brimming with interesting finds”.
She said: “Our store room is usually piled high, but now it’s almost empty. Although this is a good thing as it means we have sold what we had, we cannot cope with the increasing demand if nothing else comes in; we simply can’t sell fresh air.
“Without continued donations of everything from clothing to cookware, Age NI cannot continue its vital work to help improve the lives of older people in Northern Ireland.”
The charity Oxfam, which offers relief in some of the poorest countries in the world, said the volume of donations to their shops had fallen dramatically in the past two years and has left stock “at acutely low levels”.
Oxfam said the recession meant people are not buying as many new clothes, “and so are not clearing out their old ones”.
It also identified an increase in the number of commercial textile operators who have entered the market in recent years as a reason for the shortage.
Trevor Anderson, Oxfam Ireland’s head of retail, said: “Due to the increase in customer demand we are in danger of running out of stock and we wish to appeal to the public with a reminder that one of the best ways in which they can support Oxfam Ireland at the moment is to donate unwanted stock to us.”
Mr Anderson said that the present emergency appeal for the East Africa food crisis had seen some increase in stock donations recently.
“It’s an alternative way in which the public can help fund our life-saving work to help the 12 million people currently facing starvation,” he said. “However, stock levels are still critical.”
Action Cancer also said it had experienced a reduction in goods being donated in-store over the last year.
“The charity has taken steps to make the public even more aware of the benefit of dropping in pre-loved clothes and furniture to their nearest shop,” a spokeswoman said.
“For instance, a recent call for donations to Action Cancer shops highlighted the fact that through the sale of donated goods £40 can pay for a counselling session for a child whose parent was diagnosed with cancer and £80 can provide a breast screening for a local woman.”
Age NI said that in the current economic climate people are not buying as much, “and as a result they are not replacing their clothes, homeware, etc as regularly as they might have previously”.
At the same time, a spokeswoman said Age NI was noticing “demand for charity shop stock is also increasing as people try to make savings”.
Oxfam Ireland said it can raise on average around £30 from a donated bag of clothes in good condition; a paperback book sells for around £2.50 and DVDs of feature films also fetch an average of about £2.
“Oxfam can raise £8 to £10 from designer shirts for men,” Mr Anderson said.
“Designer jeans can raise from £12 to £14 and high street fashion brands will tend to retail at 15 to 20 per cent of the original sale price in an Oxfam Ireland shop, depending on their condition.
“These donations are vitally important to Oxfam to fund its international programmes and campaigning work, and the emergency in East Africa.”
The Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) said that research it had carried out, which was published late last year, found that “14 per cent of people have decreased the amounts they give over the last year”.
A spokeswoman said that the position had possibly worsened since then.
“People losing their jobs could be the biggest factor in stopping their donations to charities.
“However, we don’t have any up to date research to back this,” she said.
The spokeswoman said: “We would just encourage people in these tougher times to continue to give to charities if they can.”
You can help Age NI at www.ageni.org or by calling 028 9024 5729.
Oxfam Ireland’s website is www.oxfamireland.org or you can phone 0800 0 30 40 55.
Action Cancer is available at www.actioncancer.org or by calling 028 9080 3344.
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