8 Ways to Score At the Thrift Store
Why I thrift
Thrift stores have always been the main way I have bought clothes, ever since I started buying my own clothes as a teen in 1997. Thrift stores were a way to find stylish clothing that I could afford. I guess that means I’ve been thrifting for 20 years now. Wow.
In the good old days, the Salvation Army thrift store would charge by the pound. When you were finished shopping, they would weigh it on a big scale. And it was cheap. Like cheap cheap. Like $1.99 per pound cheap. Some places in the US still do this, but they may charge more or have switched to piecemeal pricing.
I love thrifting because when I get home and bring in my Goodwill haul, I feel proud and happy. By contrast, when I shop retail and overspend, I might feel a little guilt and buyer’s remorse.
I can overspend at the thrift store and still spend less than $40. I can come home and show off all my treasures I found, bragging about how cheap everything was.
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The 8 Ways to Score:
- Slide the racks
- Stay informed
- Check for stains and holes
- Sanitize shoes
- Choose the right location
- Try everything on
- Know your labels
- Check the reject rack
See what I mean by these in the article below.
Thrifting is Recycling
The clothing and textile industry processes BILLIONS of pounds of donations each year. The rest of it, 10-15 million tons a year, ends up in landfills. Fast fashion means clothing made cheaply that is more disposable than in decades previous.
The material is more flimsy; the construction more hurried. Cotton material may be a natural fiber, but it doesn’t decompose in a landfill because it’s not exposed to air. Clothing recycling is absolutely essential to reduce our carbon footprints and reduce landfills. Unusable donated clothing is reused in other forms as industrial fibers, insulation, and carpet padding.
For years, a viral social media post has circulated, claiming the Goodwill and other charity stores are somehow evil and taking advantage of the charity model. This has been debunked by Snopes and by people who have common sense.
Since the CEO of a company is a hired employee, he doesn’t receive any profits. A CEO who manages a worldwide charity organization with 180 agencies across the globe, deserves to be paid a high salary. He doesn’t own the charity, he works there. He doesn’t make a profit, he makes a salary.
The Goodwill is a not-for-profit organization who uses the proceeds from the sale of the items donated to fund their charity efforts. None of the money from Goodwill stores sales go into the owners pockets. If you don’t like the idea of Goodwill helping people by selling the stuff you didn’t want anyway, don’t donate there. I will always shop and donate at Goodwill.
The Goodwill helps over 2 million people every year with job training and placement services. They also help veterans, people with severe disabilities, and provide people like me a place to buy clothing and household items they wouldn’t normally be able to afford.
How to find the GOODS
What do you need?
When I go the thrift store, I usually have something specific in mind. Sometimes, I need something to wear to an event, to church, or to a job interview (yoga pants are no longer considered “slacks”). Thrift stores separate their clothing by type, so one row of racks will have women’s pants, another will have jeans, and dresses on a separate rack.
Each rack is roughly separated by size, sometimes by color. Knowing what you need helps you zero in on an area of the store and go home with things you will actually use.
Slide the racks
As you make your way down the rack, the best way to find the good stuff is to slide the rack. Slide each hanger to the side as you look at each item. You can do this really fast. If something catches your eye, pause and look it over. Pick it up and hold it at arms length. Look for stains or holes or weirdness.
If it’s good, throw it in the cart and keep going. You would be surprised by the amount of awesome items I have found squeezed between two ugly shirts that I would never have seen if I didn’t slide the rack.
What catches my eye is colors and patterns. When I don’t have time to do a full slide-rack shop, I browse by color and fabric pattern. I just try to eyeball the rack, only pulling the items I am immediately attracted to. I miss a lot that way, but sometimes I get lucky.
Pile it up
As I go through and slide the racks, I am fairly liberal with what I put in my cart. If I see something that might be cute, I throw it in. No time to waste standing there looking at it, weighing it against its $2.99 price tag. Just throw it in and you can decide after you try it on.
Be mindful of how you place your items into your basket. I like to hang the hanger off the inside of the basket with the hangers facing the same direction so I can scoop them all up when it’s time to go to the dressing room.
Sale days and staying informed
Thrift stores often run specials on different sections of clothing on certain days of the week. At Goodwill, they will have a sign at the front that tells you which color tag is on sale and how much. Sometimes, they have .99 cent clothing sale days. Each store has their own calendar.
Ask the store manager what day of the week the new donations go out on the floor. Most Goodwills have donations delivered in from other donation centers and they need to process it first. Since most donations happen on Saturday and Sunday, and processing takes a few days, Wednesday is the best day to shop.
Weekday mornings (except Friday) are great because the store is normally very empty. No waiting for one of three dressing rooms, less waiting to check out, and no one crowding you while you shop.
Following the thrift store’s Facebook page can also give you the insider’s track on not only sales, but cool new items that have been donated and are newly available for purchase. Better get there quick if you see something you like- you aren’t the only one!
When I’m searching for a pair of jeans, the first thing I look at after the size, is the bottom of the leg. I am not a fan of skinny jeans or tapered leg, I prefer a boot cut or a flare leg. This helps me immensely cut down on the number of jean-candidates as the majority are skinny.
Next thing I look for is the wear:
Are these jeans too worn between the legs? Most jeans wear away right where your thighs rub together.
Are the bottoms of the legs frayed?
Are the pockets pulling away at the corners?
What kind of buttoning or zippering does it have?
Know your real jeans size and the Euro sizing.
If you’re a fan of cutoff jorts like me, the leg length and ankle fit doesn’t matter because you’ll cut that part off anyway.
Favorite find: A pair of no-name, non-mom jeans that fit me really well that I have kept for several years.
I don’t usually buy shoes at the thrift store, unless they are just really really spectacular. Used shoes are molded to someone else’s foot over time, which can cause you some discomfort.
Foot fungus is a thing and not something I want to buy with my shoes. That said, if you find a pair of shoes at Goodwill that make you gasp when you see them, by all means, buy them! Shoes can be easily sanitized.
Sanitize the inside of your secondhand shoes with rubbing alcohol, Lysol disinfectant spray, or my favorite, Purell Disinfectant spray. This stuff kills Norovirus in 30 seconds.
Favorite find: a nearly new pair of muck/rain boots in my size and an almost-matching pair for my daughter.
The dress rack at Goodwill is my absolute favorite place in the store. What’s nice about dresses, you can wear your size, and all of the sizes larger with just a few sewing tricks. I love reading about thrift store dress refashioning.
The dress rack is also where they hang jumpsuits, overalls, coveralls, weird bodysuits, and one-piece full body costumes. That means it’s the best place to find the most flamboyant, or WTF? items.
Favorite find: a pair of authentic Big Smith gardening overalls in my exact size. For four bucks.
My second favorite part of any thrift store is the housewares section. This is where I go to junk up my house.
Kidding, sort of.
Sometimes you can really score some brag-worthy finds here. Framed paintings, luggage, briefcases, retro kitch, lamps, electronics, and small appliances can be found here for cheap.
You should plug in any electronics before you buy them to make sure they work.
Favorite find: a giant, rolling leather travel bag worth over $300 retail.
Books and Media
Still reading paper books? There’s no Dewey Decimal System in this section, so you’ll have to spend some time browsing to find the goods. This section usually has CDs, DVDs, VHS, 8-tracks, and records too. I have been incredibly lucky a few times and found some real gems here in the past.
You can sell used books on Amazon, but consider the profit margin before you buy.
Favorite find: An egg crate full of vinyl records, some highly valuable to collectors.
Location, location, location
I’m a thrift store snob, if there is such a thing. I specifically look for thrift stores in areas where the real estate values are high. I’m looking for thrift stores in suburbs near affluent neighborhoods where there is a high probability of name brands and designer labels being donated.
The brands I’m always looking for are Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, Calvin Klein, the Gap, Levi’s, and Converse. It may be different for you depending on what you’re looking for. I’m old school utilitarian and this is what I like.
Another place to potentially find the goods: a small town Goodwill that has its inventory shipped in from somewhere else. These stores may not have enough donations from nearby locals, so they have to ship it in.
This method can be hit and miss as it really depends on a lot of different factors. Call ahead and ask what day they get their shipment in, then be there the next afternoon. The inventory that is shipped in is from the same big pile as other stores, but it’s less picked over because there’s less shopper-competition.
Vintage, Retro, and High End Items
It’s unlikely that you find any authentic retro clothing from the 60’s and 70’s anymore, but you might get lucky. Most true vintage finds will probably be in a privately owned, for-profit thrift store located close to an artsy district in an urban area. Expect to pay more at these kinds of stores as they may see their inventory as more of a hand-picked curated showcase instead of a secondhand junk store like charity stores do. The good news is that these types of stores can negotiate the prices and maybe even barter or trade. You can’t negotiate prices at a charity store.
When thrift stores identify designer jeans and purses, they will put them behind the counter or under a glass display case and charge more for them than similar items. I don’t go for these items because they aren’t items that I value at that price. I’m looking to keep each and every item I purchase under $5, preferably less.
Try It On
The return policy for most thrift stores is: no returns. You’re welcome to donate it, but you can’t get your money back. The solution: try it on. The dressing rooms at a Goodwill are not the greatest, but they serve an important purpose: they keep you from wasting money. Nothing worse than getting home to find the pretty blouse you found is too small.
I’m the lady with the full shopping cart who has been in the store for over an hour. It takes a lot of time to slide the racks, and it takes time to try everything on. Plan to spend some time if you want to find the goods.
Wear flip flops and clothing that can be easily changed out of. I stand on top of my flip flops while I change clothes.
And wear a real bra and not a sports bra so that you can see how a shirt fits…unless you’re hunting for a workout top, in that case, wear the sports bra.
Sometimes, items will look better on the hanger than it does on you. And the opposite may be true as well. It might look super cute on the hanger but when you try it on, it’s wonky or it has a hole or a stain you didn’t catch before. That’s ok. It’s just part of the process.
Pants and jeans are not going to fit right 90% of the time. There’s just too many variables that can change the way a garment looks. If you have some extra curves, getting the right fit for pants can be challenging. However, when you do find just the right fit, it’s an amazing feeling. I like to jump up and down and say “Score!”, or do a little dance and say “Aww yeah!”
As you are going through your pile, separate the no’s with the yes’s. There might only be one hook in the dressing room, so you might have to hang your yes’s on the doorknob. When you’re finished, hang your no’s on the reject rack. See more about the reject rack at the bottom of this article.
Consider your cart before you check out.
Before you head to the register, double check the items in your cart. Look for any flaws and reconsider things you are on the fence about. If it’s a maybe, just put it back. Trust me. If it’s still a “maybe” after you’ve tried it on, it is probably not worth the money and you’ll end up donating it back to the store where you bought it.
Reselling is a big industry and there is money to be made there if you have the skills and the time.
Furniture refinishing is very popular, but you’ll need a way to transport your pieces, a storage area, and a place to work. Then you’ll need a way to get it to your customers. Look for high quality pieces with hard woods and subtle retro style.
If money making is what you have in mind, spend some time looking online on sites like eBay and secondhand sites to see what prices popular items go for. This way, if you do find something sell-able, you’ll know how much you can get compared to how much you have to pay for it.
Familiarize yourself with and keep an eye out for Union tags and vintage labels on authentic retro clothing. Lot of good info out there to help you identify the real deals.
Clothing resale is also popular for eBay and local online garage sale groups. This model relies on finding high quality items at a rock bottom prices. You’ll need to photograph the item, advertise it, accept payment, and ship it to the customer. Consider the cost of selling before you buy. If you were to provide a service to high income clientele, like a personal organizer, sometimes your clients will need to donate some items and you’ll get first pick- probably for free.
Check the reject rack
This is the number one way I find the best stuff. The clothing rack next to the dressing room is where you’re supposed to put the things you tried on and didn’t want to buy. This spot is a gold mine of pre-picked items that someone thought was cute, but maybe it just didn’t fit them, but it might fit YOU!