Thrift Store Dos and Don’ts

by Jessica Sommerfield · 38 comments

Many people have either a strong love or hate of thrift stores. Is your first reaction at the thought of a thrift store, “Ugh, gross, get it away,” or “Oh, boy, what kind of deals will I find”? If you fall into the category of a thrift-store hater, you are not alone. I have always had an aversion to thrift stores simply because of their often dingy, smelly, and depressing atmosphere. Honestly, some of the things people donate to thrift stores should be burned, not re-sold. And, if you’re at the point in life where you are forced to shop at thrift stores, the reality that you can’t shop anywhere else only heightens your distaste for them.

In spite of their negative stigma, thrift stores are increasing in popularity, especially as people are looking for ways to stretch their dollar a little farther in hard times. Thrift store shopping takes an open mind and an eye for finding diamonds in the rough. Those who love thrift stores have mastered this, and are able to reap the benefits. If you’re willing to change your mentality about thrift stores and start saving more money, consider this list of thrift store does and don’ts.

  • Scope it out.  Thrift stores can range from high-end to downright disgusting, but you won’t know unless you actually walk in. If what you find makes you want to go home and scrub up to your elbows, at least you gave it a try. On the other hand, you may find a clean store that sells new or barely used items at incredibly discounted prices.
  • Check in regularly. If a store looks attractive but simply doesn’t have any good deals the first time you go in, keep checking back. Stock changes regularly at a thrift store, so you don’t want to miss a one-day deal. The changing of seasons often prompts people to purge, so keep the time of year in mind when looking for particular items.
  • Focus on these categories: home, décor, furniture, and books.  Although you may find some clothing deals, especially in high-end stores, you will be digging through racks of outdated and well-worn items. If you have the patience for this, the deals are yours. Otherwise, focus on items in these categories that are gently used and will not outdate or go out of style.
  • Be skeptical of electronics and appliances. These items are seldom discarded because the owner gets tired of them or they’ve gone out of style; their presence in a thrift store usually means they are broken in some way, even unnoticeably. No matter how cheap, these items aren’t warrantied and will likely be money pits. Furthermore, used appliances can be fire hazards.
  • Stay away from children’s toys. Although you may find nice-looking toys in a thrift store, thorough sanitization is often difficult, and they may be hazardous to your children’s health. Toys you’re not familiar with may have been missed safety recalls.
  • Pay attention to pricing. Just because you expect thrift store items to be cheaper than buying new doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay attention to prices. Thrift store are still in business to make money. Assess whether the used version of an item at only a slight discount will hold its worth as opposed to buying it new with greater longevity.

If you’ve tried thrift stores in the past and had bad experiences, consider giving them another try, using these tips. Being open-minded about thrift stores can allow you to save money on everyday items and acquire unique treasures you won’t find anywhere else.

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Mrs Te Paki Manihera December 12, 2012 at 1:23 pm

How do I use coupons?

Cookie December 13, 2012 at 7:21 pm

I love thrift stores. Recently I went into one and found a ton of unopened NIB toys that were on my kids Christmas list. I bought $300 worth of new toys and only spent $40!! Many times I don’t find anything of value but its always worth checking out because you never know what might be waiting for you to find.

Kathy DeSmidt December 31, 2012 at 7:06 am

I LOVE thrift stores. I have found some great bargains on new clothing, books and glassware. My son recently found a designer jacket worth $500 on her web-site for $6 at Goodwill. I also found a pair of brand new $100 jeans for 50 cents. Awesome deals are there for the taking if you just be patient and keep your eyes open!

Nichole January 7, 2013 at 11:41 am

I would say to people that are new to thrift stores, start at Goodwill. They are usually well organized, and can give you a good idea on pricing. They also have a “color of the week” tag that is half off for clothing. My other tip is to drive to the nicer parts of town, and look there. Goodwill prices by region, so you will pay the same for clothes at the cheap donation site as you will in the nicer areas.

TAJUANA MASSEY January 13, 2013 at 8:35 am

Love to shop thrift stores!!!!! Was raised shopping in them and know how to look for quality items and other stuff.

JanetMermaid January 13, 2013 at 7:21 pm

This article is certainly condescending toward thrift stores. I have found incredible clothes at thrift stores — many barely worn, some even with tags still attached. I find the idea of paying full retail for clothes ludicrous. To insinuate that the clothes at thrift stores are filthy rags is disingenuous.

Jessica S. January 14, 2013 at 6:44 pm

I didn’t intend to insinuate that all thrift stores contain poor quality used goods, but in my experience many do — especially in small towns and rural areas where I live. I love to find new clothing with tags still attached at thrift stores, and I’m not too ‘good’ to shop in them. Thrift stores were nearly all I was able to shop in through one season of my life. I was actually trying to show people who might otherwise be prejudiced against them to give them a try, so I’m sorry if I gave the wrong impression.

Chris James January 16, 2013 at 7:40 am

I love thrift stores and have been shopping at them for years. The only ones I would say to avoid is Goodwill. All their “finders keepers” shoes and blazers, etc have now become $10 and up, and thrown into the “Vintage” clothing racks. Regular thrift stores are cheaper. Greedwill

Rusty January 26, 2013 at 7:53 am

The roommate and I haunt the local Goodwills almost every payday. I refuse to buy new music/videos at regular stores as a protest against the RIAA/MPAA so I buy all my music/videos at Goodwill and other thrift stores. At $2 for a CD (sometimes never opened) it’s a bargain. Yes, you have to take what you can get, but it’s worth it when you find a rare or imported disk I even buy LPs there and use my LP/CD converter to digitize them for my own use. We also took TWELVE boxes of stuff over to donate last weekend (some of it bought from Goodwill so they get twice the profit) and have already started collecting another outbound box.

Ron February 7, 2013 at 10:26 am

I generally don’t have the best of luck finding clothing since I’m a bigger guy who wears 1x and 2x shirts. What is there is usually either in poor condition, too expensive (I love the Greedwill comment!) or 20 years out of style. When I was a bit smaller I could usually find sport coats that were like new and were name brand.

I love looking for LP’s and 8-tracks. Rusty has the right idea on converting LP’s to CD. Honestly, 8-tracks don’t sound too bad once they’re cleaned up and digitized either!!!!

Patt February 12, 2013 at 11:30 am

As someone who has shopped thrift/2nd hand etc stores for close to 50 years….I am somewhat of an authority… The secret is consistency .. going often and you are so right about the weekends. I usually have a target item i’m looking for…bowls, picture frames. etc. I make a quick run thru other aisles and just see if I spot something. Sometimes I discover an item I’ve never thought of before.. Rugs recently and perfume another time Ralph Lauren for $5 when my bf just bought it for me for $50 .. Dish towels, pot holders…etc. As my focus changes, so does my plan for shopping. I like Goodwill because it is organized and clean. No garbage or things with only some of the parts..and you can return things in a certain time frame. When in certain parts of the city, we go to different shops…My entire house is resale and no one knows it.. I needed a blender and almost had a heart attack at the prices at walmart. Tremendous help s for lower income or just fun shopping

jmw1963 February 15, 2013 at 1:23 pm

Love the thrifts! I have found such incredible deals at the thrift stores from Waterford crystal wine glasses at $1.76 each to Wedgwood china @ $1.01 per piece to a almost new, genuine Gucci mini purse for $5.00 to some of those cane back French type dining chairs for $17.00 each and an amazing S sofa brand new looking for $250! I love to go and I am always recycling my things so I donate some, and stockpile others to sell on eBay. My philosophy is this…once you use something it is used anyway…so you might as well get something that looks new, for a fraction of the cost. I too have decorated my home with only thrift store items and my friends do not believe the nice items I have bought for almost nothing. The best thing about shopping thrifts today is that if you have a smart phone you can look up items to see if you are really getting a great deal or not. Sometimes the thrifts really mark up “boutique” , vintage or designer items that you can sometimes do better on eBay or Craigslist.

Also, the key is going often and checking out different thrifts in other areas. Many times you find that one thrift may specialize more in china and glassware or another in clothing and furniture. Knowing what each store carries is more likely to help you get what you are looking for. Get to know the people who work there. Talk to them and tell them you are looking for a specific item and ask them if they get that particular item in, could they call you. Usually they have a list of things people are looking for. Where I live the interior designers have the inside track and a lot of things are sold before they even reach the sales floor.

TessieQ February 20, 2013 at 11:11 am

What every “how to shop a thrift store” article I’ve ever read overlooks is WHO are the people buying new and then donating their barely-used stuff to thrift shops? Without the well-to-do folks out there cleaning out their closets and cupboards and rooms at practically every change of the season, thrift shops wouldn’t exist. So my hat is off to those people! Thanks for being willing to buy new at high retail prices so we regular folks can reap the benefits of your extravagance!

THE key thing people should be aware of when shopping thrift stores is pricing. I routinely see used household goods at Goodwill/St. Vinnie’s/Salvation Army (the Big Three) priced higher than one can find at Walmart or a dollar store and of the same quality. In fact, I’ve seen items still with dollar store stickers on them priced HIGHER at thrift shops than the original price!

Goodwill, et al are staffed by people who really have little to no idea of the value of what is donated, so pricing can be erratic, at best. Also…and this REALLY ticks me off…Goodwill is NOTORIOUS for bagging stuff together that has no relation to each other. For example, while it makes sense to bag a group of small toys together to sell as a whole (small toys are easily shoplifted if by themselves on a shelf), bagging cotton crochet thread, two My Little Pony dolls, a baby shirt, and three skeins of cheap acrylic yarn together does NOT. This is what I found at a Goodwill just a few days ago when shopping for the crochet thread. They wouldn’t remove what I wanted and reprice it; instead, I had to buy the whole bag and then re-donate on the spot the other crap in the bag, making certain I received a donation receipt.

Shopping small thrift shops is often easier. They’re not as crowded and their staffs are often more willing to cut a deal. I’d guess that about 80% of any donations made go to the Big Three and then the small stores get the rest. Unless people are aware there ARE smaller shops in their area, the smaller shops won’t get much in donations on a regular basis. So look around…you might find shops run by a local hospital or church or some sort of society (Humane, Cancer, etc.). Don’t overlook temporary shops as well, such as a fund-raiser yard or jumble sale sponsored by a church or school. Treasures ARE out there if you’re willing to hunt for them!

Louis February 24, 2013 at 10:20 am

Do not forget that when you are traveling to visit thrift stores in your travel destination. We just returned from Spain and visited a charity thrift store that allowed us to help a needy charity plus find some fantastic top of the line gifts and designer products for ourselves. What a great way to help others in a local community and because they were very selective in their merchandise we saved money. Some items were in an original box plus leather jackets costing 10x the new price were next to new in their condition. Keep in mind that all sales are final and need to be paid in cash.

selena February 26, 2013 at 1:44 pm

I tend to seek out christian stores. Not because of religious devotion, but because a: they are likely to be in a network with other shops, so they can exchange goods and stay well-stocked, b: they tend to be genuinely about helping the poor, with only volunteers, and cheap pricing (to make it affordable to the poor), and all profits going towards charity.

Typically the other options are either a commercial store (expensive!), or an independent charity (severe lack of merchandise).

I read in some of the other comments about getting some form of reimbursement if you bring something to the shop yourself, but we don’t have that around here: a commercial shop will pay you some cash (though the only time my mom did that she was deeply insulted by the low price she got), but the charity-shops will only reward you with a big smile and some good karma, no store-credit or anything like that.

Catherine Taylor March 1, 2013 at 11:26 am

St Vincent De Paul and value village is also doing the color thing as well. Stay away from the salvation army. They are way to expensive and rude.

R March 9, 2013 at 2:31 pm

Well-curated thrift shops are fantastic for things that don’t wear out easily in the first place, like china and glass. My favourite coffee set was purchased at Goodwill (the trick? It was part of a larger set that was mostly chipped, so even though I just got two un-chipped mugs with their dishes, at $3 it was still a bargain). You have to know what works best for you at a particular store. At my favourite thrift store, I go straight for the china, the dresses, the loose fabric, and the books. Since it is located close to several universities, the book selection is fantastic. I also love their belts and handbags. Basically, you have to figure out what you like best, and spend the bulk of your time in those sections, but always check out the rest of the store.

Tina Cole March 11, 2013 at 7:20 am

I love thrift stores. There is one in particular that I got to regularly. They get furniture from high end hotels when the hotels remodel or redecorate. When I decided to change my decor to Coastal, I found many pieces of furniture that are perfect! I also find most of my clothes there. They are in excellent shape, and yes, some are brand new! I’ve turned several of my friends on to Thrift Store shopping. If you find a store in an affluent area of town, you can find designer purses and shoes and clothes are unbelievable prices! In this economy, it’s the way to go!

Karen March 20, 2013 at 4:22 pm

I love the Salvation Army store here in town! Yeah you have to search through the clothing there but while searching who knows what you’ll find. Greedwill is so expensive. Yeah they may have their clothing sized but I can buy 3 pairs of jeans at S.A. with tags to 1 pair of heavily worn at Goodwill.
Also find out what day they put new items out.
Make friends with workers,they can tell you when something your looking for comes in.

SecondHandRose March 24, 2013 at 1:45 pm

For really amazing high end bargains, hit the thrift stores near big universities (especially Ivy League colleges!) around graduation. Many of those kids are heading back to their home states and leave amazing finds behind. Quality clothing, books, furniture, appliances and generally fashionable, too.

Shopping off-season is also a great money saver. Buying a leather coat in June or summer clothing in October will save you a bunch. I look for Halloween costume ideas all year long.

For those who need bigger sizes, you’d do well to look for stores near retirement communities and urban areas (one kids enormous t-shirt is another man’s ‘fits just right’ lol). Avoid stores in Asian neighborhoods, where the clothing is generally more petite. I once found a pair of size 8 pants in the ‘obese section’ of the jeans rack in such a store! haha

Sometimes I’ll travel to another part of the state with a friend to see what’s to be found and often find something great. Checking out thrift stores in other places when traveling far from home is an interesting way to see another culture, whether abroad or visiting San Fransisco.

Wearing stretch pants and a tank top under your clothes makes for a cleaner, faster, less frustrating changing room experience. Slip on shoes, too.

I’ve been thrifting my entire adult life and have relocated to several new cities, setting up a home each time with new treasures and great mug collections. Some I’ve kept for years and taken along and the rest went back into circulation, ready to be loved a third time or more. Remember when going through your own closets that those hot pants from ’97 that you’ll never ever wear again and keep purely for sentiment would be so happy making new great memories on someone else. Let them live on!

Kat Katrawitz April 5, 2013 at 9:14 am

My mother would not let us have/wear clothes/toys etc from jumble sales, second hand places as she was terrified of germs, bugs and illnessess.
Kat. Hastings, England.

Patricia Campbell April 19, 2013 at 12:13 pm

A friend got me started frequenting consignment and thrift stores. It is her hobby. She has found some wonderful buys, and I have also. I donate to the Salvation Army and feel if they are happy to take my castoffs, I am happy to take someone else’s. The staff have always been friendly and accomodating. I recommend it to anyone who has a spirit of adventure and a thrifty streak.

Shir-el April 30, 2013 at 12:12 pm

I prefer shopping second-hand and thrift stores: often I’ve found unique clothing, heirloom linens (embroidered napkins, table clothes, sheets), beautifully crafted wooden toys, even rare (and costly!) jewelery and gift items. Think it as shopping in a bargain basement antique store – without the up-scale prices! My rules are: no dry cleaning, and everything has to be able to stand one wash cycle with bleach (not in the rinse cycle) or be swabbed/soaked in alcohol. Happy Hunting!

Old Uncle Dave May 1, 2013 at 11:21 am

I once scored a like new Bijan shirt for six dollars at a thrift store. If you don’t know how much I saved, google Bijan and be amazed.

Lisa S. June 12, 2013 at 6:13 am

Shopping at thrift stores is also a great way to “recycle”. It sounds snobbish to classify people as “forced to shop at thrift stores” isn’t it?

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