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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