Lifeline op shops go online to maintain services through pandemic

Australia’s more than 20,000 social enterprises make an enormous positive contribution to Australians’ lives.

  • Online op shop platform launched within one month of COVID-19 lockdown
  • 12,000 people call Lifeline Queensland each month for crisis support
  • Sophisticated use of social media to promote sales
  • Social enterprises such as Lifeline Queensland op shops must innovate to stay relevant

Social enterprises are activities that deliver a service or make or sell goods solely for the benefit of people rather than for profit.

Lifeline op shops are one of Australia’s largest and best-known social enterprises. When the COVID-19 lockdown hit last year, Lifeline Queensland’s 130 stores had to close virtually overnight, resulting in the loss of a substantial source of revenue for their vital crisis support and suicide prevention services.

It was a potentially devastating time for an organisation to which at least 12,000 people turn for help each month. To maintain their vital services, Lifeline Queensland pivoted to online and set-up an online shop.

QUT Emeritus Professor Myles McGregor-Lowndes, a board member of UnitingCare Queensland that operates Lifeline under licence in Queensland, and former director of QUT Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Non-Profit Studies, said non-profit organisations needed leaders to take courage and seek opportunity to survive and thrive when faced with a crisis.

Professor Myles-McGregor spent many years researching non-profit organisations and developed accounting, marketing and human resource materials available to non-profit organisations to lower their costs and professionalise their operation.

“Lifeline Queensland’s rapid response to the revenue shortfall was brilliant,” Professor McGregor-Lowndes said.

“I have been around the sector for more 40 years and interested in op shops; and this is truly a remarkable breakthrough executed with expertise and passion on a shoestring budget in the most challenging of social and economic conditions.

“Non-profit Studies at QUT seek to impart the back office and leadership skills that aspiring leaders of the non-profit sector can harness to turn challenges such as the pandemic into opportunities to achieve their organisation’s mission.”

Jamie Mackay, General Manager, Lifeline Retail said Lifeline Queensland moved online in the peak of the first wave of COVID-19 when everything was shutting down around the country.

“We had just temporarily closed our 130 stores and needed to find a way to offset the loss in retail sales revenue,” Mr Mackay said.

“So, we formed a team of people from three different warehouses and devised a plan to build and take a website live within four weeks.

“We turned up to work (online) every day and worked through the plan together – solving issues from logistics to website interface, from backend IT infrastructure to uploading product photos.

“Every item is a one-off, so we need to take four photos of each and every one of them. We now have more than 10,000 items online and have at least 40,000 photos in our catalogue which is a pretty remarkable offering.

“Very quickly, we became one of Australia’s largest online op shops. I believe Australians are excited to have the op shopping experience they love, now delivered online.”

Mr Mackay said Lifeline Queensland had set high standards in customer service.

“We can’t greet an online customer as warmly as we would if they entered one of our physical stores, so our customer service and order fulfillment has to be as near perfect as we can get it.”

He said a key factor in why people op shop at Lifeline was its purpose.

“All profits go towards funding our 24/7 Lifeline Crisis Support and Suicide Prevention services and people love to support this vital community service.

“Secondly, our product offering is genuinely appealing and our stores are funky and retro. Just because we are an op shop doesn’t mean people shouldn’t expect high-quality products and a first-class customer experience.

“We are constantly looking at ways to improve our customer experience because we know it’s the key to the future success of the business.”

QUT Business School social media marketing communication researcher Shasha Wang, with Professor Gary Mortimer, is studying motivations for op shopping by all sectors of society.

“The financial motive is key for people with limited incomes and for those looking for cheaper options for high-end (slow fashion) pieces,” Dr Wang said.

“I have found many people have a strong anti-consumption motive – they want to reduce waste and preowned pieces are an alternative to mass produced, disposable fast fashion.

“Other people op shop for nostalgic pleasure, for things that bring back memories, that have a story behind them, and others simply cannot pass an op shop because it is a treasure-hunting experience for them.

“Lifeline Queensland has made sophisticated use of sales promotion in social media. For example, they ran a ‘flash sale’ on Facebook which appeals to people sense of FOMO (fear of missing out) when you have a limited time to make a choice.”

She said online vendors enhanced consumers’ trust when they provided clear, accessible visual and written posts.

“Lifeline is already a trusted organisation, the online op shop is clearly set out and their customer service policies engender trust,” Dr Wang said.

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