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How to Thrift Shop for Thrifty Clothing Finds

Everything in the world seems to evolve, from how music is sold (remember 8 tracks?) to how we watch movies. Through the way we stay in touch with friends. It turns out this is also true of the local second-hand clothing store as well. There was a time when the thrift shop was the location you went to in hopes of getting an article of clothing you knew you couldn’t afford at the department store.

Who would’ve ever expected “fashion resale”—used clothing at brick-and-mortar or Internet thrift shops—would become the fastest-growing niche of the fashion and apparel market in the world?

Finding stores full of worthwhile second-hand fashion has become the go-to for obtaining all manner of merchandise at a price you can afford. There is even a new hip name for shopping at the bargain store: “thrifting.” If you go thrifting, you’re a thrifter.

Today, more and more people are looking to get more life from their garments. Not least, among many great reasons to buy second-hand, we help prevent the manufacture of a new garment for every second-hand garment we purchase. And for every clothing item that we resale, we help prevent it from going to landfill and give it a new lease of life under new ownership.

Creating new clothing items is resource-intensive and often wasteful; each thrifty purchase can save you money and make a positive environmental contribution. Read more about the benefits of thrift shopping here.

However, to get the most out of thrifting, there are some basic guidelines you’ll want to know about how to shop for thrift clothing finds. Here are our top tips to make the most of your thrifting endeavors.

How to Find Good Thrift Items

Finding good thrift items
Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

The term “thrifting” implies searching for something special or unique. You aren’t sure when you start exactly what it is you’re looking for, but you have a pretty good idea you’ll know it when you see it. You’ll probably see more than one article that appeals to your eye.

Here are a few guidelines that will help you find those outstanding thrifty items:

  • Get there when the doors open. Thrift merchandise can turn over quickly. Donations come and go overnight. Thus, each new day, especially for the bigger stores, will offer merchandise and bargains that weren’t on the shelves the night before.
  • Come seeking treasure. Even though you might have a list of things you need, you can always find that one accessory you always wanted to complete the family room. If you’re on a tight budget, set aside a “treasure fund,” a few secret dollars you’ve squirreled away in a secret pocket just in case you see that unexpected must-have.
  • Make a plan. You can’t buy everything in the store. List what you need in order of priority. Once you find everything on the list and drop it in your basket so no one else can grab it, nothing prevents you from continuing to enjoy browsing.
  • Unless you’re getting them for someone else, don’t buy things that don’t speak to you. Life is too short to settle for items that are just adequate.
  • Talk to the folks around you. This isn’t Black Friday at the department store. You’ll find the thrift experience feels more laid back with shops that are much more amenable to socializing than retail stores. Share with other customers and staff what you’re looking for or what you wish you were there to buy. Every thrifter has a story to tell and, thus, a lesson to share.

What Is Proper Thrifting Etiquette?

Many expert thrifters stress the fact that every other shopper is essentially in competition with you. This is an especially prevalent idea among those thrifters who look for undervalued merchandise they can purchase and resell at a profit.

Of course, we have all seen skits and television bits where two customers fight over a product each wants and, in the process, destroy what they wanted to purchase. It’s more likely that, if you view other thrift customers as competitors, what you will destroy is your shopping enjoyment.

Get Involved

As mentioned above, speaking pleasantly to other customers and store workers is a good idea. Most thrifters are glad to share their insights, secrets, and unforgettable thrifting experiences.

When you find yourself eyeing an item that another customer is examining, be wary of letting on that you have any interest. If you do, you can promote the notion within the other shopper that the article may indeed be valuable and desirable. It’s perfectly acceptable to say to another thrifter, “I’m really interested in this. Are you?”

Many second-hand shops are run by volunteers who donate their time to help the store raise money for the charity it supports. They are likely not sales professionals and may have limited knowledge about the merchandise.

Not least, it comes from such a vast array of sources. Volunteers make sacrifices from the goodness of their hearts to staff many of these charitable endeavors. No matter how serious you are about your thrift shopping, it's a good idea not to have unrealistic expectations for these folks.

Regardless of your intentions when you’re thrifting, the most important quality to exude is well-mannered graciousness. As a thrifter, you’re also an environmentalist who keeps merchandise in circulation and out of the landfill when you shop. If a charity runs the shop, your money will assist those in need. Remember that your fellow customers are also benevolent environmentalists too.

How to Find a Thrift Shop Near Me?

Thrift Town
Photo Credit: MikeR..... on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

You’ll seldom find a local thrift shop at shopping malls—but many times, they are nearby to receive donations from mall merchandisers. We’d see the early versions and traditional thrift outlets concentrated in lower-income areas near strip shops in times past. This, too, has evolved. Today, you can now find second-hand shops in some pretty upscale places. Some thrifters shop at bargain stores in places like Manhattan!

We should mention consignment shops at this point as well. While we have been mostly describing traditional bargain stores that carry various apparel and housewares, consignment shops are also resale stores. They are outlet shops that sell used merchandise on behalf of the original owners, splitting the sale proceeds with them.

Typically consignment shops will have higher prices than their thrift counterpart, but the costs are still much less than the original retail prices. Sometimes valuable antique items end up in consignment. You can also find them in just about any geographical location.

Since thrift shops can appear virtually anywhere, it’s good to have quick, accurate ways of finding them. Many of the chains have locator apps that you can download onto your smartphone. The search engines built into Apple and Droid devices also produce immediate results when commanded, “Show me thrift shops near me.” With the thrifters’ apps and Internet searches, GPS directions accompany each store’s address information.

Local and online

Regarding physical locations, we have been focusing almost exclusively on brick-and-mortar stores. Some of the most important and easily accessible shops, however, are online. To a much greater extent than local stores, you can search for online thrift merchandise with real specificity.

Many online thrift stores do an excellent job of posting their inventory with clear photos and full descriptions. Unlike brick-and-mortar shops, you won’t get your purchases on the same day. Still, getting the perfect item, you were looking for means you don’t mind waiting an extra day or two—especially if the shipping is free.

What Not to Buy When Thrifting?

When asking if there are any second-hand thrifty items we should avoid, it’s worth remembering that everything in the store was used and donated by previous owners. In some cases, people donated the items to charities because they were defective but had too expensive an original price tag to be discarded simply.

It might have been a failed second-hand shopping experience that caused a Roman consumer 2000 years ago to coin the phrase, cum grano solis (literally, “take it with a grain of salt”).

If defective or worthless items are for sale, the store’s workers may be unaware of it. Such merchandise should be pointed out and set aside. Of course, some customers who find an item with a flaw will still offer to buy it with an additional discount. It never hurts to ask.

In general, there are some categories of items that you should approach with caution.

Here is a list of potential red-flag merchandise.

  • Makeup: While makeup is perishable, it typically does not come with an expiration date. Expired makeup does not spread evenly and can cause discoloration. Even if never used, any container opened and exposed to the air may contain bacteria that you really don’t want near your face.
  • Items made of fabric that you cannot wash or dry clean: Specifically, old couches, upholstered chairs, large quilts, and other bedding material that can’t hold up to a good washing. Such items have a way of gravitating to barns, storage sheds, and places where they are subject to insects (especially bed bugs) and animals who leave behind unwanted bacteria. Items like these can also contain lots of mold and other fungi that are health hazards. If you cannot resist that crazy quilt, set it apart until you can find a company that can sanitize it in such a way as to kill all fungi and bacteria.
  • Old shoes: Unless you’re only going to wear them once, worn footwear is a bad investment no matter how much you mark it down. This goes double for cheaply made older shoes that tend to lose their soles without warning.
  • Rebuilt electronics: Many mission-driven charity shops take in faulty computers, entertainment consoles, music boxes, and so on with the expressed intent of repairing these devices and reselling them. This creates work, often, for folks who are attached to the charity. Ensure that all these devices' features work correctly before buying them and getting a warranty.
  • Worn cookware and plasticware: Skillets, pots, and pans with dings, chips, and scuffs are subject to leaching chemicals into food prepared in them. Over time, plastic plates and storage containers can contaminate food.

Do They Wash The Clothes In Thrift Shops?

In a word, no. Thrift retailers receive too many clothing donations to take the time or go to the expense of washing the clothes you see on the racks or in the bins. They sell clothes “as is.” That said, there is more to know about the mountains of resale fashion you’ll find stocking their shelves.

First of all, while most donors wash their clothes before they donate them, others don’t. When you pick up a piece of apparel you think you might be interested in, smell it. You’ll find a hint of detergent to be more encouraging than the scent of body odor, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy something you think suits you.

Here are some quick tips about checking out second-hand clothes before purchase:

  • Try everything on. Sometimes you’ll find that retailers of thrift don’t have dressing rooms. So wear the least amount of clothes you’re comfortable with. That way, when going into the store, you can slip potential purchases over them. Trying clothes on over your clothes means you don’t have to worry about whether or not the original owners washed them.
  • Check out seams, zippers, pockets, hems, and all the little places fabric can tear or unravel. If you are a seamstress, you can ignore this suggestion.
  • Avoid buying clothes with stains. Chances are the original owners couldn’t get them out, which is why they’re donating them. Or perhaps you’re looking for that pre-worn look complete with the odd mark, in which case grab away.
  • Remember that preowned vintage clothing does not shrink the first time you wash it the way new clothes do.
  • Look for clothing you can layer and wear with other pieces of clothing and accessories.
  • Look for cleaning labels. They let you know how difficult it will be to clean and care for the item you’re thinking of buying.

For more reading, check our guides:

Where Do Their Clothes Come From?

Thrift retailers acquire clothes from a variety of different sources, including you. If you’ve ever driven up to a donation bin, truck, or drive-through, you know that people like you are a significant source of apparel. Indeed, the single most dependable source of clothing donations is the individual donor. Donors who have gone through the closet during the seasons’ changing decided that some clothing items are useful but haven’t been worn.

While we’re on the subject, being a worthy apparel donor means making sure clothing items have been cleaned and neatly folded. There should be no missing buttons, jammed or torn zippers, or stained or torn clothing in your donation.

Retail outlets often donate apparel to resale shops. These stores can receive tax write-offs and avoid the cost of shipping clothes or taking them to landfill. Many stores often leave the tags on these clothes to demonstrate to shoppers that they are brand new. Even though they have theoretically not been worn, washing these new items before wearing them is still an excellent idea.

Finally, specialty shops that create logo ware and athletic apparel often experience overruns. These companies will donate name-brand sporting apparel to local thrift shops for tax write-offs and as a free form of advertising.

Main photo Credit: Emily Allen on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
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