From an Expert: 5 Tips for Better Thrift Store Shopping

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In the hierarchy of frugal strategies, buying secondhand has always been one of my favorites. I love the idea of dodging depreciation on everything from furniture to sweaters and from dishes to tools.

As consumers face slowly escalating prices on a host of goods and recover from the economic upheaval of the past several years, buying used is going from extreme to mainstream.

So, since secondhand is enjoying a renaissance, I thought it only fitting to explore how to buy better and buy smarter inside that bastion of frugality, the humble thrift store. After 25 years of avid thrifting (with the bargains and bruises to prove it), here are my top five strategies to land even sweeter deals at any thrift shop:

1. Understand that each store is unique

If you’re an experienced thrift shopper, you know that every secondhand store has its own distinct personality. Some stores just seem to get better furniture, others pull in a better selection of books, and still others just offer a wide range of the wild, old and eclectic. Respect and capitalize on the vibe of each store and use it to inform your shopping strategy.

2. Go with the flow

Understanding your local thrift market is key to scoring the best items first. What days of the week do folks typically have yard sales in your area? Look for an influx of unsold yard sale items to hit the shelves a day or two after those sales close. Also, pay special attention to larger stores’ shipment and processing schedules. Learning what days and times your favorite thrift stores restock with fresh donations can keep you one step ahead of the competition.

3. Develop a primary and secondary shopping pattern

Let’s face it: Popular secondhand stores can be a bit chaotic. From die-hard shoppers on a mission to merchandise in a constant state of disarray, thrift shopping is an experiment in proper caffeination levels and an exercise in endurance. To keep my head about me, I like to give each store a quick once-over the moment I arrive. This primary search is my chance to gauge the general quality of the merchandise and see if there are any obvious treasures just waiting to be plucked up.

Once the primary search is over, I can relax a little and go deeper into each section of the store that interests me. During this secondary search, I focus on individual items — thumb through books, try on a coat or two, and compare prices. Here, the goal is get granular and efficiently sift through the junk to find the gems.

Admittedly, I probably think about my strategy far more than the average thrifter. But the primary and secondary shopping approach takes a lot of the stress out of my thrifting experience and helps me lay claim to the best deals quickly. Shoppers who don’t pace themselves in this way tend to get overwhelmed by the experience, be way too competitive, and burn out quickly.

4. Shop for tomorrow … every day

Most people frown on thrift shopping for a very logical reason: It’s nearly impossible to find what you need at a thrift store on demand. Unlike department stores, the inventory in secondhand stores is inconsistent, unpredictable and completely random. If your kid needs a white oxford shirt with a 15½-inch neck and 32-inch sleeves by tomorrow morning, you’d better beat a hasty path to Target and pay full price. But if you know a week or two in advance, it’s entirely possible to find the perfect shirt for $3.

That’s why successful thrifting requires planning ahead and predicting with some level of accuracy what you and your family will need next month, next school year, and next summer. Anticipating size changes, estimating when current clothes or other supplies will wear out, and planning for new activities all ensure that the bargains you score today will be put to good use tomorrow.

5. Check and double-check for quality

Intoxicated by the heady mix of a finder’s high and bargain prices, it’s easy to gloss over an item’s flaws. Don’t let that happen. Most thrift stores don’t allow returns or refunds, so unless you’re a whiz with a sewing machine or a stain stick, pay attention to details like split seams, missing buttons, stuck zippers or discoloration on clothing. Likewise, understand your handyman limitations on furniture, appliances, bicycles and other items. Even the best bargain sours if it’s left to languish as an unfinished project on our to-do list. Focus on items in good, serviceable condition or only those with minor defects that you’ll have the time, skill and motivation to address yourself.

Ultimately, the key to successful thrift shopping is understanding one simple truth: Secondhand stores are utterly unique environments. As much as some thrift chains might try to imitate department stores, the inventory, the selection, the pricing models and the rules are all completely different. When you tune in to those differences and learn to capitalize on them, the bargains nearly jump out at you.

It’s half art and half sport — and with the right frame of mind, you can become a master of the game.

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  • MoneyTalksReader

    Please spread the word that Goodwill Industries is NOT a non-profit organization–so when you donate to them or shop there, you are just putting money in the pocket of the CEO (who makes almost 2 million dollars a year). Please donate and shop at other thrift stores and non-profits who are actually doing some good for the world. Thanks for spreading the word!!!

    • Donna

      hummm- interesting the CEO makes that much. How is that verified? The main thing I like about Goodwill is they provide jobs for the less fortunate. I will say my local Goodwill has raised their prices quite a bit, some even match purchasing the item new.

      • Betty

        I understand they employ special needs people but, only pay them per their skills. Probably doesn’t pay a fair wage since, it is considered training. So in my opinion the less fortunate one is not compensated adequately.

  • MoneyTalksReader

    Sorry I did not immediately reply to Donna, and therefore I am classified a know nothing–I’m just not on the computer that much. I do read the newspapers, do follow the news and do my research before speaking. Unless you live in a cave, it has been everywhere lately that Goodwill is no longer a non-profit organization. 20/20 talked about it, the NY Times did an article on it, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and many other newspapers. Seems they can’t all be wrong. I of course cannot personally verify the CEO’s salary nor any other CEO’s, but that is what was stated. After asking several Goodwill employees why Goodwill was still qualified to accept donations, they explained because Goodwill offers “workshops” which also makes them eligible to only pay their special employees .$38 an hour–the rest is subsidized. You can Google any of this information to verify it or try reading a newspaper……

  • Kerry Aggen

    Some of my best buys at Thrift Stores…

    I wanted to start canning jams & preserves & jellies to send to family and friends as unique, handmade gifts again – I found a huge canning pot for $2 ($25-35 & up retail), and the insert for $0.50 ($5-8 & up retail). I’ve found canning jars for as low as $3/dozen in after-season clear-outs at grocery stores. I needed a smaller dining set (I have a huge one, which I’m seriously considering selling) – a co-worker couple who moved gave me their smaller wood-topped, metal framed table, and I bought 4 beautiful solid wood chairs for $10 each (retail: table – $100 & up, chairs $60-80 & up each). I needed a larger shower caddy – I found one just the right size for $0.50 ($8-15 & up retail, if you can even find one retail as large as I needed). I needed an extra computer keyboard or 2 (I tend to spill things on them…) – I found several for $2 each ($15-25 & up retail). I wanted to better preserve extra food that I freeze (baggies allow freezer burn) – I found a FoodSaver machine for $10 ($35-50 & up retail). I’ve found large rolls of FoodSaver plastic/bags as low as $6 each in after-season clear-outs at grocery stores($12-15 & up retail). I recently moved, and the new rental house needed 3 door stops – I found exactly 3, all matching, for $0.25 each ($2-5 & up retail). The last house needed 2 solid brass window locks – I found 2 that exactly matched the others in that house for $0.50 each ($3-5 & up retail).

    LOVE Thrift Stores and Yard Sales!!!