8 Secrets of an Expert Thrift Store Shopper

couple shopping for furniture in a secondhand store
ALPA PROD / Shutterstock.com

I approach a new thrift shop the way a foodie approaches a farmers market. My palms get sweaty. My focus narrows as I mentally run through the list of everything I’m hoping to find.

Though I’ve picked my way through hundreds of secondhand stores across the country, the rush never fades.

Over the past three decades, I’ve turned my weird enthusiasm into a lucrative side business. These days, I shop more efficiently than ever before and usually find a handful of things that make every trip worthwhile.

The following are my best secrets to success.

1. Shop strategically

christopher babcock / Shutterstock.com

Committed thrift shoppers are an assertive bunch. We hit our favorite spots regularly — sometimes daily — and many of us supplement our income by finding and flipping anything that’s underpriced and in demand. To compete, you need a solid shopping strategy.

First, do a quick primary scan. Briefly check every department just to see what jumps out at you. The goal is to find the good stuff first and grab it. If you’re unsure about an item, don’t leave it behind. Put it in your cart and make your final decision later.

Next, perform a secondary search. In this more leisurely phase, focus on what’s below the surface. Look for hidden gems that others have missed, specific items you need, or clothing in just the right style, size and color.

Not sure what constitutes a hidden gem? Start with “8 Things I Always Buy at Thrift Stores.”

2. Check the fitting rooms

g-stockstudio / Shutterstock.com

I make the fitting room area of every thrift store part of my regular shopping circuit.

The racks outside these rooms are usually filled with clothing that’s been rejected for being too tight, too long or too … whatever. But before these items were rejected, they were selected. That means they’ve already passed someone’s critical eye.

For choosy thrift shoppers, fitting room racks are likely to hold the sartorial cream of the crop. I once found a men’s Barbour waxed cotton jacket on one of those racks for a mere $7.99. Within 24 hours, I’d flipped it for $165.

For more like this, check out my article “11 Secrets to Finding Quality Clothing at Thrift Shops.”

3. Get a little nosy

366048521 / Shutterstock.com

Thrift shopping is no different than retail shopping: The first person to glimpse new items usually scores the best stuff. If the store allows it, sneak a peek at the items waiting to be stocked.

Bins, carts, and rolling racks that are fresh from the backroom hold a store’s most recent donations and often a treasure or two. But a few words of caution:

  • Handle items carefully — no rummaging.
  • Keep clothing racks organized.
  • Try not to interfere with the tasks of busy employees.

4. Practice wabi-sabi

SpeedKingz / Shutterstock.com

In a world of mass-production, thrift stores offer something rare and wonderful: one-of-a-kind finds. To fully enjoy secondhand shopping, embrace wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic philosophy that teaches us to appreciate beauty in imperfection.

Don’t be afraid to buy the odd, the flawed or the homemade.

Some of the most treasured pieces in my home fit that description: a huge folk art painting of a sleeping dog, a chipped midcentury Italian lamp and a slightly frayed Native American blanket. I love these things because I salvaged them, because they have stories to tell, and because they’re utterly unique.

5. Skip the display cases

Dee Dalasio / Shutterstock.com

Thrift stores reserve display cases for their prized inventory — the electronics, jewelry and glassware deemed most valuable. But in my experience, these are often the least interesting things in the store.

First, they’re someone else’s interpretation of “collectible” or “valuable” — and usually off the mark. Second, these items come with high price tags, which means razor-thin margins if you’re planning to resell.

I prefer to find my own hot deals by knowing a little bit about a lot of things. When I’m unsure about an item, it takes just a few seconds to research it online. If I peruse the display cases at all, I do it on my way out the door.

For more tips like this, see “Avoid These 9 Thrift Store Shopping Mistakes.”

6. Rethink pink

vichie81 / Shutterstock.com

For those thrift shopping for profit, understand that color matters. And in my experience, anything pink is tough to sell.

Pink appeals to a very limited market. It’s a color that’s notoriously difficult to match. Many shades — think pastel pink, dusty rose and mauve — look faded and dated.

I once purchased a highly collectible vintage pink fiberglass chair in flawless condition and sat on it — literally and figuratively — for more than a year before finally unloading it at a flea market.

OK, enough pink-bashing. What colors are consistent winners? Blues, bright greens, bold oranges, and classic neutrals like gray and white.

7. Reject most collectibles

Toy Collection
Tinxi / Shutterstock.com

If you’re new to thrift shopping and would like to make a little cash at it, remember one thing: Items that were made to be collectible seldom hold their value.

Generally speaking, things like Beanie Babies, modern trading cards and Precious Moments figurines were produced in such staggering quantities that you can’t give them away.

Focus instead on less-obvious items. Timeless clothing, unique midcentury pieces and well-made vintage household products are consistently hot categories.

Recently, I found a 72-piece set of stainless steel flatware from the 1970s. I flipped it within a week for a $70 profit.

8. Go Kondo

gabriel12 / Shutterstock.com

Whether you’re thrift shopping as a side gig or simply love the thrill of the hunt, it’s tempting to seize every great deal out there. Resist this urge.

I shop by one simple rule: If I don’t need it, don’t love it and can’t easily flip it for a profit, I don’t buy it. This guideline helps me avoid mindless accumulation and keeps my home livable, organized and surprisingly minimalist. I think Marie Kondo would approve.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

Read Next
8 Things You Should Rent Instead of Buying
8 Things You Should Rent Instead of Buying

You may think you’re looking at a must-have purchase. But do the numbers and think twice.

3 Cable TV Companies Hiking Prices for 2021
3 Cable TV Companies Hiking Prices for 2021

Still married to your cable company? Hold on to your wallet!

10 Things That Really Are Free on Amazon
10 Things That Really Are Free on Amazon

These freebies are available to anyone — no Prime membership necessary.

5 Keys to Making Your Car Last for 200,000 Miles
5 Keys to Making Your Car Last for 200,000 Miles

Pushing your car to 200,000 miles — and beyond — can save you piles of cash. Here’s how to get there.

These 5 States Have the Worst Health Care for Retirees
These 5 States Have the Worst Health Care for Retirees

All of these states are located in the same region of the nation.

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Most Popular
7 Kirkland Signature Items to Avoid at Costco
7 Kirkland Signature Items to Avoid at Costco

Even if it seems you save a bundle buying Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand products, they may not be the bargain they appear to be.

How to Buy Gas At Costco Without a Membership
How to Buy Gas At Costco Without a Membership

The warehouse club often has some of the cheapest gas in town. Here’s how you can get it as a nonmember.

10 Things to Stop Buying If You Want a Clutter-Free Home
10 Things to Stop Buying If You Want a Clutter-Free Home

If you like to keep things simple, avoid these purchases.

If You Find This Thrift Shopping, Buy It
If You Find This Thrift Shopping, Buy It

Vacuums from this brand can last a half-century, if not longer — and they’re hot on the resale market.

A Simple Way to Silence Robocalls Today
A Simple Way to Silence Robocalls Today

A few steps can keep your phone from ringing when a spammer calls.

This Company Makes the Best Tires in America
This Company Makes the Best Tires in America

Driver satisfaction with tires is at an all-time high, but one brand stands out.

Can I Switch to Spousal Social Security Benefits When My Ex Dies?
Can I Switch to Spousal Social Security Benefits When My Ex Dies?

Knowing when to claim can help you maximize benefits.

36 Things That Will Be Obsolete Soon
36 Things That Will Be Obsolete Soon

The writing is on the wall for dozens of things we have grown up with.

17 Surprising Things You Can Sell for Extra Money
17 Surprising Things You Can Sell for Extra Money

You probably don’t realize these items are worth decent cash.

8 Things You Should Always Buy on Amazon
8 Things You Should Always Buy on Amazon

The giant retailer shines when it comes to these things, from basics to hard-to-find specialty goods.

This Health Issue Can Hint at Dementia Years in Advance
This Health Issue Can Hint at Dementia Years in Advance

One type of pain is especially associated with cognitive decline.

8 Federal Income Tax Breaks for Homeowners
8 Federal Income Tax Breaks for Homeowners

Some of these deductions and credits are available to a wide swath of homeowners.

3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free
3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free

With a little ingenuity, you can cut Office costs to zero.

5 Ways to Get Amazon Prime for Free
5 Ways to Get Amazon Prime for Free

Hesitant to drop $119 a year on an Amazon Prime membership? Here’s how to get it for free.

5 Ways to Fill Your Pantry With Free Food
5 Ways to Fill Your Pantry With Free Food

Anyone can take advantage of these resources.

9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again
9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again

The warehouse store offers an enormous selection, but these products aren’t coming back.

10 Types of Retirement Income That Are Not Taxable
10 Types of Retirement Income That Are Not Taxable

There are lots of things Uncle Sam can’t touch — so long as you play by the rules.

6 Reasons You Should Stop Hiding Cash at Home
6 Reasons You Should Stop Hiding Cash at Home

Stashing money around the house is anything but harmless.

These 5 States Are the Most Expensive Places to Retire
These 5 States Are the Most Expensive Places to Retire

If you expect to have modest retirement income, you may want to avoid spending your golden years here.

View More Articles

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Add a Comment

Our Policy: We welcome relevant and respectful comments in order to foster healthy and informative discussions. All other comments may be removed. Comments with links are automatically held for moderation.