9 Pro Tips for Online Thrift Shopping

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You’ve probably honed your thrift shopping skills through years of combing through dusty secondhand shops and crowded flea markets. But online thrifting on sites such as eBay and OfferUp is a whole different animal. Photos can be misleading, items often sell in minutes, and buyers face competition from around the world.

With 35 years of “traditional” thrift shopping experience and 25 years of buying and selling online, I’ve developed a few important strategies. Here are some tips for better online thrift shopping.

1. Sort results to see newest listings

A happy man celebrates making an online purchase
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Most sites allow shoppers to sort search results so that newly-listed items appear first. I use this feature to (hopefully) score deals before other buyers beat me to them.

Customizable “Alert Me” features are even more proactive. Users can save their favorite search terms and receive in-app notifications when related items are listed.

2. Refine results to make offers

ebay app on a smartphone
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Even in virtual marketplaces, haggling is healthy. Sites like eBay allow shoppers to filter search results so that only listings with an “Accepts Offers” feature appear. Buyers can make an offer and sellers can ignore it, accept it, or make a counteroffer.

Pro Tip: To avoid alienating sellers, stick with reasonable offers. Ten to twenty percent below list price is standard.

See also: Selling Your Stuff? Don’t Fall for These 5 Negotiating Tricks

3. Create a watchlist

happy man looking at phone
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Most sites allow shoppers to create customized watchlists for products they’re interested in. On eBay, sellers are then able to send discount offers on those products.

The free feature works like a reverse auction, with sellers lowering their offer until an item sells. If you’re on the fence about something, add it to your watchlist and see if a discount is triggered.

4. Shop brands you know

Woman selling old clothes online
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When it comes to clothing sizes, we’re all living in the Wild West. Vanity sizing and lack of standardization means that one company’s extra-small is another company’s medium.

Avoid size surprises by shopping brands you know and buying multiples when you find a great deal. Fewer returns, fewer hassles.

5. Shop the whole photo

House clutter for a yard or estate sale
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When shopping Facebook Marketplace, OfferUp, and other sites with a local focus, look closely at the photos. You may not be interested in the specific item that’s for sale, but what’s lurking in the background?

Last year, I clicked on a Marketplace ad for a used ping-pong table. The table was in rough shape, but in the background, I noticed a mid-century Heywood-Wakefield nightstand. I could see just enough of the piece’s distinctive design to identify the maker. I sent the seller a direct message asking if the nightstand was for sale. He was happy to get rid of it for $20.

6. Misspell keywords

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Most sites have robust spell-correction tools that instantly turn your search for vantage Dinsey swatch into vintage Disney watch.

But they’re not foolproof — especially when it comes to obscure items or little-known makers. The next time you’re thrift shopping online, experiment a little. Misspell key search terms in various predictable ways. You just might find what you’re looking for (and face no competition from other buyers).

7. Generalize search terms

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Sometimes sellers don’t realize what they have. If you’re shopping for something unusual or rare, describe it like a novice would.

A quick example: I collect midcentury Italian pottery by a company called Bitossi. One of Bitossi’s primary potters was a man named named Aldo Londi, whose signature glaze was a deep marine blue. Marks on old pieces can be difficult to identify so I simply search for “vintage Italian pottery” or “blue pottery, Italy.” On a few occasions (with lots of scrolling), I’ve picked up amazing Bitossi pieces far below market value.

8. Ask for more photos

Taking photo of something for sale online
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The first rule of online commerce: Photos sell products. Sellers who don’t follow this basic tenet should either prepare to keep the item or expect a few inquiries from frustrated shoppers.

When you see an item you’re interested in, don’t hesitate to ask for more images. And get specific. Do you want to see the underside of that pottery vase? The lining of that vintage jacket? If you can’t touch and inspect a used product in person, photos are everything.

9. Respect feedback scores

5 star rating
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When buyers and sellers aren’t able to meet in person and establish some sort of connection, they have to rely on online feedback ratings.

Don’t disregard a low feedback score. It’s a fairly reliable indicator that the seller has trouble accurately describing an item’s condition, packing items carefully, or shipping them on time.

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