Hi-Tech for the Lo-Fi
9 April 2014 at 10:00 am
A charity old-timer has gone hi-tech and turned the op shop model on its head, writes Nadia Boyce in this week’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.
An iconic Victorian charity is looking to the web and a new niche of customers for an old favourite – the humble book.
The Brotherhood of St Laurence has worked through a rocky developmental stage to operate Australia’s first online secondhand charitable bookstore, generating profits to reinvest in its programs which aim to alleviate poverty among disadvantaged members of the community.
Pro Bono Australia News spoke with Rodney Weston, General Manager of Business Planning and Social Enterprises, to explore how a strong volunteer program, patience in refining the model and strong customer demand have converged to create a sustainable means of accessing funds.
The enterprise emerged from a climate of financial struggles to go on to generate what Weston describes as a “world of goodness” for the charity, proving, he says, that “there’s a lot of life left in the old-fashioned book!”
Drafting a Model
Brotherhood Books has been through two incarnations since its establishment in 2009.
“A few years ago, we were commercially struggling…wondering if the world had passed us by,” Weston says.
“We took a back-to-basics approach.
“It was recognised that we weren’t doing the best we could with books. We were quite often chucking good and in-demand books.”
Weston said the web seemed an attractive solution due to its broad appeal. Yet, an initial experiment with creating a sustainable web model went awry.
It was an ambitious plan – an Amazon style marketplace for secondhand books including those donated to other charities, with which the Brotherhood would partner.
The marketplace, Weston says, fell over due to issues with stock control and distribution. He says the current model provides the Brotherhood with a “pure retail opportunity” and thus a better chance to focus on the customer.
The web model has now given the business better opportunities for stock control and distribution, reaching a range of markets simultaneously and removing the geographic constraints of a bricks-and-mortar store.
“Since we’ve refocused it, it’s really gone gangbusters,” Weston adds.
“It’s shown that you can have an online storefront – if you have a first rate customer experience – you will get that loyalty.
“People have a real desire for it – whether it’s out of print books or even rare collectibles – people are often picking up from us a book they couldn't get anywhere else.
“It might be politically incorrect versions of Enid Blyton, or in one case, we had a chef wanting a rare French cookbook from the 1970s, and it just so happened it had been donated to us.”
Targeting a niche, Weston says, has enabled the store to stay competitive in the hotly contested online market.
“We’re appealing to the niche of people who want books and love books…a lot of online secondhand stores aren’t specific enough.”
The Fine Print
Weston is adamant that the key to the success of the business is a plan that considers and addresses all stakeholders.
“The real challenge of any second hand business is that you have to appeal to donors, you have to appeal to people so they become volunteers, and you have to appeal to customers,” he says.
“Marketing is critical. The biggest thing for us with our Amazon model, selling other charities’ books is that we couldn't focus on the customer.
“We spend money on Google adwords and Facebook marketing.
“You can build a great rapport with customers, and then some customers go on to become volunteers themselves.”
Weston endorses the volunteer-based model for social enterprise, a system he says has largely run smoothly at Brotherhood Books.
“We see tremendous benefit in running it with a high number of volunteers. It’s really the origin of the second hand and recycling shop movement, though it was a trend for a while to move away from that,” he says.
“You don’t suffer as much from motivational problems as you would for paid staff. Reliability of attendance and the ability to fulfill the needs of our customers are a consideration…it needs care, but the business would not be viable without them.
“Now we have a mix of staff and volunteers, and they form the skeleton of what’s happening…Brotherhood books is a standout for loyalty and depth in our volunteer base.”
Volunteer numbers at the organisation have more than doubled since May 2012.
“Those who might be disabled can have an experience of work, the elderly can engage with the community – all these things really flow out from it,” Weston says.
“We say, ‘you’re responsible.’ People love that.You go into the warehouse and you can really feel the vibe of the place.”
A New Chapter
Although Weston confesses to being an “electronic junkie,” he has little doubt about a place remaining for books in the market.
“Books seem to touch a nerve in people,” he says. “For 10-20 years there’s going to be a good market for books. Perhaps the market will shrink a little…but a lot are not going to be available in your Kindle bookstore.
“Online books are troublesome because there’s nothing like kicking back with an old-fashioned book.”
The Brotherhood is largely Victorian-based, although it does run additional programs in other states under modified branding. Weston says Brotherhood Books will be expanding its reach into Sydney and Queensland.
“One of the challenges that the board has set me is a revitalised growth plan. There’s always the challenge of continuing to grow,” he says.
Currently, roughly 20 per cent of total turnover comes from the Brotherhood’s suite of social enterprises. Weston says the model has provided opportunities for the charity to develop its programs.
“It’s an opportunity to raise money for the Brotherhood to do innovative things. We have demonstrative programs that are tests to see if we can scale them up, and it gives us the money to experiment with that,” he says.
“There is recognition that this could create a lot of value for the Brotherhood.”
For Weston and the Brotherhood, the classics – secondhand books and volunteers – are working wonders.
“I see it as good old-fashioned community development work,” he says.
“To me, it feels like what a charity should be about.”