Charity Shop Careers: Clare-Marie Bailie

Sustainability, community, creativity. A charity shop career is so much more than retail.

Clare-Marie is the deputy shop manager at Oxfam Ireland’s Oxfam Home shop on Dublin Road, Belfast.

Hi Clare-Marie! What inspired you to pursue a career in charity retail?
I grew up charity shopping with my mum and gran and when I became a homeowner I really enjoyed finding beautiful vintage items and bringing them back to life by upcycling them and making unique pieces for my home. I also have spent a lot of time volunteering over the years and loved the idea of working in a helping capacity. Having worked in South Africa, Kenya and Romania I have seen first hand the work and benefit of charities, so I wanted to work in a capacity where I could give back.

What skills and qualities do you think you need for working in charity retail?
People skills and good communication skills. No matter which way you look at it, you are working with people and for people. Be able to have fun with customers to make sure they are happy with their bargains and want to keep coming back. You may be working with a diverse group of volunteers and need to be adaptable to individual needs. Be able to help staff develop their skills. Another quality I believe you need is inquisitiveness. You don’t know what is going to come through the door each day so it is good to research items so that you have some knowledge to pass on to customers. 

How do you think working in charity retail differs from other retail sectors?
As mentioned, you don’t know what might come through the door on any given day so it is very different to normal retail where you have the same orders coming in each week. I love it when we get a vintage piece and you have to go away and research the item so that you can put a fair price on it. I remember when I had just started working in Oxfam and a small polar bear ornament came in. I looked at it and thought I would put £5 on it but something made me look closer. After researching I found that it was Royal Copenhagen Porcelain and worth over £150. I ended up selling it for £80 to a very happy customer. I have never made that mistake again. I research every item now to make sure I am making good money for the charity but also giving the customer a fair price. I have learned so much about things that I would never have had the chance to know about in any other job.

In what ways has your role allowed you to grow both personally and professionally?
I have had the opportunity to learn so much. I have had health and safety training and was able to train in PAT testing, so I can now fully test all of our electrical items and ensure they are working and safe for us to sell. Due to my knowledge about different items, I could almost be working on the antiques roadshow. I believe this job has changed me personally. I have had the opportunity to work with some amazing volunteers from all over the world, hearing their stories and learning their cultures and languages has given me amazing insight into people and has taught me to have patience and really listen. This has been invaluable for me as I am currently studying to become a counsellor. 

Can you share an example of when you felt your efforts made a difference?
It is so nice at end-of-year manager meetings when we get to see how our everyday efforts have added up for the charity. Sometimes on a daily basis it is hard to see, or if you have had bad days you can’t see the benefit, so it is nice to see the total contribution that all the shops have made together. It gives you a sense of pride hearing about the projects and work that is being done around the world and knowing that in some small way you played a part in raising the funds that are being used. All those £1 bric-a-brac items add up to do so much good.

Can you share a memorable teamwork experience?
I have so many memorable experiences working with our wonderful volunteers, but just having the time to build relationships and friendships with each of them has been amazing. We call our little team our Oxfamily.  I especially love Volunteers’ Week in June where we are able to plan a fun experience for the volunteers. Last year we planned a barbeque at the beach. Some of our volunteers had never been to the beach before and just seeing their joy playing in the water and laughing was amazing. I was able to bring my two dogs along and everyone had so much fun playing with them. Even though our good Northern Ireland weather didn’t play ball and we weren’t able to get the barbeque lit due to the rain we still all had a great time and laughed so much. We still joke and laugh about that day. I also love that our volunteers are so much fun and love to get involved. For Halloween we did an amazingly spooky window and all dressed up for the day. 

How does your charity engage with the local community?
I feel that we provide affordable furniture and items for people in the local community, especially now, when people are suffering with the cost of living. We work with Bryson a local agency to provide training placements for young people hoping to find work in retail. We offer a diverse range of volunteer roles where people can come for a few hours a week and have some fun while developing their skills. We work with Belfast City Council using their services, for example, over the summer we had a group of ex-offenders helping to paint over graffiti on our building, which was great for us and the locals, but we were also giving people a chance who are working to get back on their feet. 

How do you see charity retail evolving, and what excites you about its future?
I think more and more people are becoming open to the idea of giving items a second chance rather than buying new. This is a really positive move environmentally – less waste, and allowing people to afford beautiful things without a large price tag. It’s great seeing the change in young people who are more willing to buy a second-hand bargain rather than fast fashion. I feel like this movement will only grow and grow as people realise how good it is to shop second-hand. 

In your opinion, what are the most rewarding aspects of working in charity retail?
I enjoy so many aspects: The benefit of seeing where the money raised is going and the work it is able to do; providing volunteers with skills that will be transferable in their futures; having the time to meet new people from all over the world and learn from them. One of my first volunteers was a young woman from Belfast that was struggling to find work in retail. She volunteered with us for a few months and it was so amazing to see her confidence grow. She decided she wanted to work in charity retail because she loved it so much. I am so proud of her, and now she has been working in the shop for a year. 

Do you have any advice for someone considering a career in charity retail?
Honestly just try it. You won’t understand how much you will fall in love with it until you try it. We have so much fun and laughs in our shop. You will learn so much about many different things and about yourself. You will make friendships that will last a lifetime and you will meet so many interesting people. If you are considering a career in charity retail my only advice is do it, you will get so much more from it than just a pay slip.

Thanks so much Clare-Marie!

Do you know someone with an inspiring charity shop background who we can interview? We want to shout from the rooftops to inspire others to think about charity retail as a career path. Email

23/01/2024 16:56