Tips For Shopping At Thrift Stores

Sometimes it seems like thrift stores are on the verge of extinction. What used to be a necessity for college students, “alternative” types, artists, and practical moms have mostly been replaced by “super-low prices” at big box stores, or dirt-cheap fashions from retailers like H&M, Steve & Barry’s, or Old Navy. Still, if you’ve got the time and the right attitude, and you’re okay with that vintage/hand-me-down look, you can find some good bargains at thrift stores.

In true second-hand fashion, we’ve collected a bin’s worth of suggestions on how to maximize your thrift store shopping, added a few of our own, and thrown it all together in no particular order:

  • Go often – turnover is high in thrift stores.
  • Shop for quality – learn how to spot vintage linens, original recordings, depression glass, or whatever it is you’re interested in.
  • Take your time – more than normal retail, thrift stores reward shoppers willing to spend half an hour going through a long rack of clothes item-by-item.
  • Try on clothing at the store – and wear something easy to change in and out of, or something you can pull clothes over in case there’s no dressing room. If it’s cold outside, leave your coat in your car.
  • Test all electronics on-site – carry common batteries with you if you’re looking at used consumer electronics or toys that are battery operated.
  • Factor in the cost/trouble of delivering any furniture you purchase – most thrift stores won’t deliver.
  • Decide on a category before you enter – don’t shop for books and clothes; focus on one thing exclusively
  • When clothes shopping, learn to look for color, then texture, then style. Also, learn to identify material by sight. This way you can use color and texture (and fabric type) to quickly identify pieces you’ll want to actually pull off the rack to inspect further.
  • Avoid the temptation to make clothing-related jokes while you shop – yes, that Mr. Furley blazer is hilarious, but now you’ve wasted another 30 seconds in a store that smells like a basement.
  • If you suffer from severe allergies, stick to Wal-Mart. Many thrift stores are filled with dust or worse, and can wreak havoc on allergies.
  • Take water to drink – it will help alleviate any reactions you do have to dustmites or mold.
  • Eat before you go.
  • Use the bathroom before you go.
  • If you want to avoid crowds, try evenings.

To see each full list of advice, click the Related links below.

RELATED
“Tips for Thrift Store Shopping” [Associated Content]
“Thrift Store Shopping Basics” [Associated Content]
“How to Shop Well for Clothes in a Thrift Store” [WikiHow]
“Thrift Store Shopping” [The Sideroad]
(Photo: Chris Walters)

Comments

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  1. harleymcc says:

    I once bought a rocking grey trench-coat.

    I washed it.

    It was neon green.

  2. jrdnjstn78 says:

    Your grey trench coat turned neon green??

    I’ve been to a few thrift stores. Found some decent name brand clothes for the kids.

  3. gafpromise says:

    I’d rather shop for clothing at thrift stores- reducing waste and consumption and poorly made clothes from sweatshops. We have some pretty decent options here in the Chicago suburbs; but it’s farther to drive than to a department store, and sometimes i just can’t make myself spend the extra time required. I have made some great finds in thrift stores though, some of them nearly brand new.

  4. VA_White says:

    My college roomie and I lived in used mens jeans we bought at the salvation army. They sit lower on the hip than those old womens Levis. This was back before low-rise jeans were popular so we had to improvise.

  5. spinachdip says:

    In large cities and college towns, thrift stores aren’t that much of a bargain unless you go to a really out of the way (it’s vintage, not thrift, of course), especially for the time and trouble of finding that awesome suede blazer in the sea of smelly golf shirts. It’s too bad because I really do find diamonds in the rough, and they tend to hold up better than a lot of newer clothes.

    So yeah, suburban thrift stores are the way to go.

  6. bsankr says:

    I’ve built a pretty decent-sized library by shopping almost exclusively at thrift stores around Tampa/St. Pete.

  7. allthatsevil says:

    I’m a thrift-store junkie. I once found a beautiful corset, never been worn, for $15. I already had a few from the same label, so I knew its actual worth.

    Selling clothes to thrift stores is a major rip-off though. I know they have to make a profit, but when they buy a skirt from me for $2 and then turn around and sell it for $30, they’re just as bad as regular retailers.

    It does seem that the prices in Houston’s thrift stores have been going up over the last few years. It’s getting harder and harder to find good deals. Maybe I just need to find some new places to shop.

  8. BoraBora says:

    Great Tips. One other thing, if you live in a metropolitan area, try the thrift stores out in the sticks. Most city stores are picked clean of the good stuff. I live in the L.A. area, but found some great clothes out by Joshua Tree. A lot of people get rid of some really cool, retro stuff not realizing that some hipster will want to wear it in Silverlake. It’s also a lot cheaper.

    This mostly works if you are taking a weekend drive or something… obviously not recommended if you need something specific.

  9. thepounder says:

    I’ve bought many many great pieces of clothing from various thrift stores over the years, and since I’m not in a big city the prices were great. I even got a full three-piece suit at one place for $3… I bought it for a disco party I was hosting & the suit was probably from the Dance Fever era, so it was perfecto.
    I also bought a couch at a thrift store once, and that couch was all of $25 and lasted a good four years or so… all it needed as a good cleaning at it was fine. It was bright orange faux crushed velvet, and the wood on the arms was a nice oak (not just crappy veneer). Before you scoff at the color, please know that I really dig disco era items of all kinds, so this couch was as awesome purchase.

    But yeah, if a place says it has “vintage” anything, do expect to pay too much for what is really just “used.”

  10. Jesus On A Pogo Stick says:

    The Goodwill (Good Will?) in down town Seattle is totally awesome. I once found a Kate Spade purse for $5. Also, all the furniture in my house is from thrift shops. I bought a couch and matching chairs for $50 total. I love thrift stores. They are great for college kids.

    Also, I went to a grand opening of a Goodwill outlet store (i.e., big hude bins filled with clothes, shoes, fabrics, you name it) and people were crazy. Every minute or so a new bin would come out, and as the person pushing the bin came through the doors there were about 30 people already digging through the bin. Plus, you can buy clothes by the poud. I can’t get enough of it.

  11. mac-phisto says:

    Avoid the temptation to make clothing-related jokes while you shop – yes, that Mr. Furley blazer is hilarious, but now you’ve wasted another 30 seconds in a store that smells like a basement.

    but that’s the best part! you’re taking away the whole fun of it!

  12. stpauliegirl says:

    I know a Minneapolis Salvation Army that gets samples from a major nationwide retailer (clothing, shoes, and accessories) before they’re on the retailer’s shelves. The samples are used to make commercials and photograph the merchandise for their catalog then shipped off to the thrift store, where most of it is sold for less than $5.

  13. Grimspoon says:

    @harleymcc:

    Don’t make jokes about the clothing, you’ve just wasted 30 seconds on a forums that smells like…..er, i mean….nevermind :-P

  14. K-Bo says:

    5 years ago I bought a 21 inch tv at goodwill for $25. It was made in 1987, but had great color, and took a remote. I gave it to my brother, and all his friends are jealous of my great find.

  15. TechnoDestructo says:

    The biggest tip: Don’t buy something just because OMG THAT’S SO CHEAP IT’S SUCH A GOOD DEAL.

    My mom became addicted to thrift stores, and the last time I went home, I hauled away 40 van loads of crap, much of it from thrift stores. I barely made a dent.

    Thrift stores are the most common addiction of hoarders.

  16. bohemian says:

    Go to thrift stores near places where people have way too much money. Thrift stores like Goodwill near er to swanky neighborhoods have much better stuff. Better furniture, designer clothes.
    Sadly, most of our local thrift stores down here get their leftover items from people who shop at Walmart.

    Some of the cool things I have found at various thrift stores include a silk brocade mens smoking jacket hand made in hong kong for the original owner. A Scandanavian wool jacket for $5, similar ones went for over $300 and this one was like new. I found a pair of nice designer riding pants. A pair of Aigner leather boots that had never been worn.

  17. HungryGrrl says:

    my best Salvation Army buy… nearly brand new white Doc Martens boots for $12, 1/10 of the ‘new’ price.

    My last trip to the Salvation Army, I got two ‘like new’ Forever 21 shirts, one ‘like new’ denim miniskirt, and one really awesome plush velvet houndstooth skirt, all for $12.60.

  18. wwwhitney says:

    I’ve been shopping at thrift stores ever since I started buying my own clothes. Granted, 99% of the stuff you’ll is no good, but it’s that 1% that makes it worthwhile. My wife shops for fabric at thrift stores all the time. She’ll buy a dress designed for a 300-lb woman for $5 and get several yards of perfectly good fabric out of it.

    Oh, and if you’re a guy and not morbidly obese, give up on trying to peruse the men’s section and just stick to children’s and women’s. But maybe that’s just the South. ;)

  19. RumorsDaily says:

    Don’t make clothing related jokes? That’s pretty much all I do in thrift stores!

  20. infinitysnake says:

    @gafpromise: Another nice thing is that by the time it gets there, you know whther or not it’s a quality item..everything’s pre-tested. :-)

  21. drjayphd says:

    @bohemian: Exactly… down along the shoreline, I’ve seen some damn good things just given away (see: my laptop for $300, $16 for a Gamecube, in a different store, an Xbox). Although I kind of have a different motive: buy video games low, sell on eBay. Saw this one woman with what looked to be a bar code scanner hooked up to a Pocket PC of some sort that’d tell her how collectible something is. If you’re profiteering, that’s one thing that might help. Either that or don’t pay any more than $10 for a console. ;)

  22. Some charitable groups hold “thrift sales” that mostly involve donations from wealthier folks (i.e., the Junior League) and those are DEFINITELY the thrift sales you want to hit. Brand new Ralph Lauren for $5.

  23. Grimspoon says:

    Oh yeah, don’t bother with the thrift stores that have a pawn shop in the same outlet. You’ll never find anything decent, ecept maybe clothes. The video games will be picked clean.

  24. ElizabethD says:

    For a step up from thrift stores and their shabbiness (and listen, I love thrift stores; Savers is my mecca!), try independently run consignment shops. The clothing is a bit more expensive but tends to be in style, cleaned, and vetted for holes and rips. I clothed my kids for years in “gently worn” Gap, Dockers, Hanna Andersson, etc. from a children’s consignment shop a few blocks from us. When outgrown, the clothes would go back and be consigned, and I’d get a nice little check every month.

  25. ElizabethD says:

    P.S. Shouldn’t the title of this post have been “Goodwill Hunting” ?

    har har

  26. I am a rare breed: a male clothes horse. But I’m also cheap. Luckily, here in beautiful Austin, Texas, we have loads of good thrift stores. I do about 80% of my clothes shopping in them, and oddly enough, I wear about 80% high-end, name-brand clothes. Just the other day I picked up a pair of really sweet $90 Rocket Dog shoes (looking brand new) for $3.

    Consignments can be a good deal for certain things, too. I bought my Burberry tuxedo for $90 at a consignment shop here. And guys? Chicks really dig a man who owns his own (good quality) tuxedo. Shaken. Not stirred.

  27. deserthiker says:

    I have a closet full of great clothing by Armani, Zegna, Burberry, Hugo Boss, Zanella and others all purchased at thrift stores.

    These are very good tips but I have a few others:

    * Talk to the help and let them get to know you. A regular thrift lifter will get to know the people and they will know your tastes. I’ve had workers tell me that they just got something in that I’d love. More often than not they were correct and saved me time looking.
    * Know your stuff. There are name brands of expensive clothing that I have purchased that no one had a clue were so valuable. I bought a Brioni suit in perfect condition for $12. It fits great, too. I doubt anyone else knew it retails for $5000.
    * Don’t shop the boutique section. Some stores take their best items, put them in a “boutique section” and jack up the prices. Screw them. Finding value in a thrift store is my job as a customer. Besides, most of the time the stuff the workers pick out is junk. Most don’t know much about fashion except what’s popular.
    *Bring your iPhone. Yeah, I got ripped by paying too much but it has saved me money because I have been able to check online for the value of certain items I considered buying. Sometimes it was a good deal and sometimes not but it’s nice to know.
    *Lastly, give back. It’s good karma and it helps to clean out your closet. I have a rule that for everything I buy I have to GIVE something away.
    * Get a good tailor and dry cleaner. I should be obvious as to why.

    Hal

  28. Employees Must Wash Hands says:

    @stpauliegirl:

    That reminds me that the Goodwill down near my office here in St. Louis would often get unopened packs of assembly-required furniture from a major nationwide Minneapolis-based retailer (one whose name rhymes with ‘Blaarget’), at about 15% of what it would’ve cost new.

    Made getting out on my own after graduating college much more financially palatable.

  29. Des says:

    Another tip- when buying pants check the crotches thoroughly. I’ve unfortunately walked away quite a few times with a pair of jeans with *cough* girl-type stains in the crotch. And other pants that had holes there or were worn and would soon have a hole. Pretty much for all clothes, inspect them well. Sometimes a mendable hole in the armpit is worth that cool 80′s t-shirt, but those pit stains really aren’t. It seems pretty obvious, but I’ve found myself getting too caught up in the “great find” to really look for those flaws.

    And be on the lookout for vintage stores versus thrift stores. I’ve seen quite a few places that sell things as “vintage” for quite a bit of money, taking the whole bargain thing out of wearing pre-worn clothing. Vintage stores DO tend to carry a lot of the really neat clothing you may be looking to buy… but yeah, a couple dedicated trips to Value Village and you just might run into it there for $1.

  30. SoCalGNX says:

    If you shop at the stores that are in or near more upscale towns, you will find lots of goodies. I have Tommy Hilfiger, Kate Spade, and other designer purses. Various home discount stores also tend to donate their surplus such as lamps and decorative items (all new!). I have also found things that I could resell on Ebay when I was struggling financially. As for Savers, the only one I have been too was in Flagstaff and I would not recommend it.

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  32. etinterrapax says:

    Our SA is pretty much a dead end. It’s in a poorer area, and 90% of the kids’ clothes is for girls. I found it to be a lot of effort for one or two items; consignment shops are a little better for that. They did have some interesting-looking pieces of silver and pewter in a glass case, though. In a poorer community, there aren’t as many eBay power sellers combing for treasure.

  33. Starfury says:

    I am a thrift store shopper. I look for old boardgames, books, and some toys. Sometimes it’s to add to my game collection, other times it’s to eBay the items. My latest find was 2 large bags of Legos for $1 each. I’ve also picked up games for a few dollars and sold them for $50+. My wife will shop for clothing there sometimes and finds name brand kids clothing for a few dollars each and they’re almost new.

    I won’t buy electronics or electronic toys at thrifts; never too sure how long they’ll last.

  34. SaraAB87 says:

    Most stuff at thrifts here is horridly overpriced, 7$ for jeans with umm.. crotch stains.. yeah, that are 10 years old and horridly out of style. Thats the kind of stuff you find here. I wouldn’t buy toys or video games at the thrift here, my theory is that if people give it away to a thrift store, it obviously doesn’t work.

    Garage sales are the way to go here, because you can get items for much cheaper. Usually 25 cents to 1$ for clothing, and this is where you get the brand new stuff because most people put out all the stuff they have worn once and some of it even has tags, and then you know it has most likely only come from one owner so its in better condition. Yard sale people are generally honest about the condition of their items too, all the video game consoles I have gotten from yard sales worked perfectly as the person said it did. People here will go into Gamestop and spend a couple hundred on used gamecube games for their kid because their kid got a Wii and needs something cheaper to play, however when they see a stack of the same games at a yard sale, for some reason they will not buy it! Its a mentality that I will never, ever understand.

  35. gamisan says:

    I great tip is to look for used clothing from manufacturers who have a lifetime guarantee on their clothes – such as Lands End. I had a friend who would by the clothes used, then exchange them for a new article of clothing – reportedly, even in a new size.

  36. While I’m shopping for myself, I buy any t-shirts that look interesting or that I would wear, even if I’m not sure they’ll fit me. There’s a box in my clost of shirts that are too awkward, small, or large for me to wear, but have great designs and soft material. When the box fills up, I take it over to one of the rip-off vintage stores in downtown and turn a profit selling them for three to four dollars each, when I paid only 95 cents.

  37. othium says:

    I ama thrift store addict myself and have found many wonderful items to furnish my apartment. My entire place is filled with mid century modern pottery, furniture and paintings. All of the items were purchased for for $10 and less. I have even paid for my rent a few times with sales of antique/rare pieces I sold on Ebay. Last one I found was a rare piece of California pottery that I picked up for $5 and sold for over $300 to a collector.

    The tip about bringing bateries with you is a great one to pass along. I have been doing this for some time and it has been worth it! Many electronic items that work perfectly get passed over by other shoppers who don’t want to take a chance on them because they don’t know if it works or not. Being able to test them right in the store before buying saves a lot of time/money.

  38. ZugTheMegasaurus says:

    Thrift stores are great if you need something really fancy for a one-time event (like a wedding or black-tie party). My mom and I went to a thrift store in Cherry Creek (very upscale section of Denver). They had an evening gown that sells new for over $800, and it looked like it hadn’t ever even been worn. Forty bucks. I always think people are crazy when they spend a few hundred dollars on something that they’ll only ever wear once.

  39. ltlbbynthn says:

    Thrift stores don’t wash clothes before they put it out for sale. I always feel dirtier after touching them, and I’m not normally psycho like that. I still love finding a store that has a rack of $1 shirts and skirts :D

  40. UpsetPanda says:

    @ltlbbynthn:

    My friends and I, whenever we go to thrift stores, use hand sanitizer right after we leave. You never know who else has been touching or trying on clothes….just imagine someone’s child roaming around the store, touching the clothes with fingers that have been jammed into mouths and food and who knows what else…