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Five Tips for Thrift Shopping Success

Written by Ed Avis - 9 Comments

Five Tips for Thrift Shopping Success

You drive by the Salvation Army store every day, but you probably never stop in. Maybe you shop at Goodwill for some old clothes for a Halloween costume, but wouldn’t think of going there for anything else. Well, maybe it’s time to change your shopping habits and make thrift stores part of your routine. With today’s economy crawling out of its slump, shopping for the amazing deals on used goods simply makes sense.

According to the Association of Resale Professionals, there are more than 30,000 resale shops in the United States, and the industry is growing about 7% each year. Goodwill Industries generated $2.69 billion in retail revenue in 2010 – that’s a lot more than Halloween costumes!

Here’s the bottom line: A lot of stuff you can find at resale shops is perfectly good. It’s not new, but much of it is only “gently used.” From clothes to kitchen utensils to books to furniture, thrift stores carry a wide enough range of merchandise to stock an entire apartment or just satisfy your shopping jones.

To get your share of resale savings, it helps to know the range of possibilities. Some resale shops are like big garage sales, selling an uneven selection of goods at low prices. Many Salvation Army stores fall into this category. These stores are fun to shop in because you never know what gem you’re going to find.

At the other end of the spectrum are high-end consignment shops. The merchandise in these establishments is not donated; rather, it is provided to the business with the understanding that if it sells, the store will keep a percentage but the original owner of the item will get the rest. The original owners of this merchandise are often well-to-do individuals trying to make room in overflowing closets. Consignment shops often carry high-quality goods at remarkable prices.

In between these two extremes lie many other resale businesses. Goodwill stores, for example, are generally larger, neater, and better organized than Salvation Army stores. The merchandise is clean and in generally good shape. Many not-for-profit organizations run resale shops that support their operations – some of these are elegant and well run, while others resemble yard sales.

Another breed of resale business is the flea market. These establishments usually feature dozens to hundreds of individual booths selling all kinds of merchandise, from used auto parts to antiques.

Speaking of antiques, many resale shops call themselves antique shops even though their merchandise rarely rises to that term. These can be great fun to explore, though, and sometimes real treasures turn up.

Regardless of which type of resale shop you patronize, here are some tips for getting the best deals.

  1. Shop regularly. This may be the best tip – patronize the resale shops in your community frequently and you’ll learn the patterns. When do new shipments arrive? When do sales occur? When is the store not crowded? You’ll find much more good stuff, and probably get better deals, if you learn these basics.
  2. Sometimes you can negotiate. Many shops, such as Goodwill, won’t haggle. But many others will. And it never hurts to try! Politely ask the owner or manager if he or she will consider an offer; you’ll probably have more luck if you’re willing to buy multiple items or more expensive items. And shops are more likely to deal on slow-moving merchandise. Speaking of dealing, bring cash, as many resale shops don’t take credit cards.
  3. Don’t be afraid to travel. If you live in an urban area, you might discover that the thrift shops in your neighborhood get quickly picked over. Take a trip to a rural area and see what’s there — the mix of merchandise will probably differ, and you’ll have less competition.
  4. Take your time. You’re not going to find much if you rush through the store. Relax, dig, enjoy the hunt. The real treasures only give themselves up with some effort!
  5. Don’t go overboard. Yes, the CDs only cost a quarter, but resist the temptation to rebuild your entire 1985 collection during one visit. Shop carefully, keep your head, and choose wisely. Remember tip #1 – you’ll probably be back soon.

Do you have any thrift store tips? What about success stories? If so, please share them in the comments.

Published on July 26th, 2011
Modified on July 28th, 2011 - 9 Comments
Filed under: Consumer, Frugality

About the author: is a writer and editor in Oak Park, Illinois. He specializes in personal finance, parenting, and small business topics. He is married and has two sons.

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9 Responses to “Five Tips for Thrift Shopping Success”

  1. 1
    Daniel Says:

    St. Louis has a fantastic chain called Value Village. They always have huge inventory and run half-price specials once a month. I get pants and shirts for $3-6 each (often cheaper). I’ve been shopping there for over 2 years, and it makes me feel like a king every time I come out with a sack of clothes for $20-30. I use to shop at Old Navy and Dave/Barry’s, but now I get much better clothing for even cheaper. Thrift store shopping is definitely the way to go.

  2. 2
    Alissa Says:

    St Vinnys (Saint Vincent de Paul) is the big thrift chain here, and I particularly love their ‘Dig and Save’ location. It’s essentially last chance St Vinnys, where they bring stuff that is still salable, but hasn’t sold in the other stores. Everything except furniture is sold by the pound. You can buy household goods for 20 cents a pound. My entire dish set, 8 plates, 8 small plates, 8 bowls, cost me well less than $10, and is all solid oven safe stoneware. Silverware is 10 cents each. Furniture is cheap. And clothes (or anything cloth related) is $1 a pound. It’s particularly great if you like to mix DIY with your thrifting, as you’ll often find furniture that just needs a bit of TLC to look nice, or hems mended on clothes.

  3. 3
    Bryan Says:

    Something I’ve considered doing (but never really done) is scanning the bar codes of the used books in thrift stores with an Amazon app on my iPhone to see how much they’re selling for. Most donated books aren’t worth much, but I saw an article over at Slate where people do things like this full-time (which I think would be ridiculously time-intensive). Still, I enjoy books, and I think it might even be fun to do so.

  4. 4
    meghan Says:

    In between these two extremes lie many other resale businesses. Goodwill stores, for example, are generally larger, neater, and better organized than Salvation Army stores. The merchandise is clean and in generally good shape. Many not-for-profit organizations run resale shops that support their operations – some of these are elegant and well run, while others resemble yard sales.

    Another breed of resale business is the flea market. These establishments usually feature dozens to hundreds of individual booths selling all kinds of merchandise, from used auto parts to antiques.

  5. 5
    Sherry Says:

    Recently someone said items at their non-profit thrift store are washed. If I remember correctly, this was true of all thrift stores back in the 60’s (not rummage sales, though). With the increase in bed bugs which affect clothes and books and furniture, etc. does anyone know what precautions, if any, thrift stores take today? Or how to know if merchandise is infected?

    Any comments would be appreciated.

  6. 6
    Sue Says:

    I know that Goodwill does not take matteress. So this probably helps control bed bugs by just not letting the mattress mix with other merchandise.

  7. 7
    Danna Says:

    I found an Ann Taylor jacket for $6. I believe it had never been worn. Retails for $150. That’s just one of many items I’ve found. I buy almost all my clothing at thrift stores. It’s almost like a badge of honor for me when I tell someone I only paid $4 for a shirt.

    However, I won’t buy shoes at thrift stores. Can’t really wash those!

  8. 8
    Linda Says:

    We’ve shopped thrift stores forever; my young kids hated that we did, embarrassed that everything from the oak kitchen table on down was from one. Now grown, they won’t shop real stores. They’re proud to boast their deals. The lure of the bargain and thrill of the hunt calls. My husband loves shopping too; we regularly hit 3 or 4 stores each week. Recycled goods help everyone; the money goes to good causes & we end up with great stuff! Color me a loyal supporter!

  9. 9
    alex Says:

    Thanks for writing this post. People who’d like to help the less fortunate can also go to Goodwill for some back-to-school shopping. http://youtu.be/oD8ZiathS9s

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