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The Ultimate Guide to Thrift Shopping
Ever wondered why other people always find the best deals at thrift stores.
And you never find anything worth taking a second look at.
They always find the best deals.
They seem to have all the luck.
But it’s not about luck!
They’re thrift store pros.
Thrift store pros know what to look for and they go thrift shopping often enough to find it. They know prices, brands, and quality when they see it. Thrift shopping is not about luck. Even though most people think it is.
It’s about knowledge and frequency. It’s knowing how to spot a good deal and knowing when to walk away from a bad one. To snag the best stuff, you have to go often and to many different thrift stores.
If you’re serious about getting into thrift store shopping, then you need to know a few guidelines that the pros use.
One In, One Out
All thrift store pros know how easy it’s to go overboard thrifting. You don’t want to become “junk drunk.” It’s really easy to one day find yourself staring into your closet full of crazy cat lady sweaters. It’s best to adopt a “one in, one out” rule with yourself when it comes to “like” items. Items that you already have multiples of but you keep on finding better ones. Ones you can’t live without.
How it works
For everything you want to buy, you must pick one
Donate, Donate, Donate
Keep a donation box in your home, where you can pop items in. When you have an inkling to go thrifting, remember to bring the box along. Some thrift stores even give you a coupon when you donate to use in their store.
Make A Wish List
Most thrift store pros keep a wish list of items that they are constantly on the lookout for. Most even have a “White Whale” item. A white whale is an item that they have been searching for for years but has yet to come across.
You don’t have to write down your wish list, but you should have an idea of things you’re looking for. Having a wish list helps you to avoid becoming overwhelmed. Unlike regular stores, thrift stores are full of “one of’s.” The vast amount of individual items is staggering. You can’t possibly look at all the items. A wish list will help you narrow down your search but don’t get too specific. Go into a thrift store with an open mind.
Check your closet before you go
If you are on the hunt for clothing, check your closet before you go.
- What do I need? Distinguish between wants and needs. Do I actually need something or do I just want something new?
- Do I need something to match or make a certain outfit? If so, what color and style am I looking for?
- If you have kids, what size are they in now? You should always keep an eye out for items at least a size bigger.
Get used to the fact, you’re not always going to find what you’re looking for when you want to. Go thrift shopping with low expectations. Thrift stores are not always going to have the style, size or color you want. You need to be patient and wait for the right item. If you know you have your cousin’s wedding coming up, start looking for a dress far in advance. Avoid disappointment by waiting till the weekend before to start looking.
Love The Game
Thrift shopping is all about going into the thrift shop and having no expectation of what you might find.
Ask yourself does this item make me want to do a little dance?
A friend once told me that if something doesn’t make you want to do a little dance, then don’t buy it. And this little piece of advice
Thrift store pros will always say no to “So So” items. Be picky, if you don’t love it then leave it. So So items are a dime a dozen. Chances are if you pass on a “so so” item, you will find similar one the next time you go shopping.
Thrift Store Pro Advice
If you want it, buy it. Because it
If you like it, but don’t love it, leave it. Or sleep on it.
If you don’t buy it that day, it probably means you didn’t really want it.
If you go back and it’s still there, it was meant to be.
“Most of my wardrobe is vintage and I’ve worn dresses to the Oscars that I got for $10. At Sean Penn’s last Haiti gala I wore this vintage dress that I’d worn to a film premiere in 2005. I know that’s kind of a no-no in the fashion world, but why wear something just once if you love it?”
No damaged items, even if it’s cute.
This guideline that is up for debate. If you are not handy, then say no to damaged goods. No matter how cute it is, it will always be broken. Be patient and wait for a better one to come along. But if you think that you can fix an item and you absolutely love it. Then go ahead and buy it. A lot of flippers make good money on items that others can’t be bothered to fix up
If you like it, try it on.
Most thrift stores don’t allow returns. So unless you know your size in certain brands and you’re absolutely sure no alterations have been made to it. Then buy it without trying it on. But your best bet is to try on all clothing items. I know it’s a pain in the butt. But just like in regular stores, sizes vary from brand to brand.
Try on items as part of an outfit
If you are looking for some work shirts to go with some black pants, then grab a pair of black pants to try on your tops with. This will give you a better idea of how the tops are going to look. Grab belts, shoes, and accessories if you need to.
- How will this item fit with my wardrobe?
- Will I wear it?
- Could I easily resell it if I decide I don’t like it?
Here are a few Thrift Shop pro tips for buying clothing
Always buy quality of quantity
The best thrift store pro trick to finding designers clothing is to know your brands. And not just the brand’s logo. Thrift store pros know how to spot a fake as well. Nowadays most luxury designer items you find will be fake. Thrift store pros know what quality pieces should look like and what condition is considered good. If you don’t know, bring your smartphone with you and look it up before you buy. You can use google’s shopping feature to see what the going retail price is.
But keep in mind, the brand don’t matter if you wont wear the item.
A thrift store pro has master the art of the scan and feel. They can scan a rack of clothing and zero in on items that pique their interest. This is where your wish list comes in handy. You can narrow your search to all the items that meet your criteria. Looking for a red sweater? Scan the rack for sweaters for the color red.
A lot of pros also have mastered a sense of touch when they feel fabric. They can run their hand down a rack of clothing and identity quality fabrics. This art comes with time and experience. Don’t worry if you aren’t there yet.
Look at the label. Not just for the type of material but for the wear of the item. If the label is really worn, then you know that the item is fairly used. If the label is in really good condition, then the item deserves farther investigation.
Avoid synthetic materials.
Seek out classics.
When you’re first building your wardrobe, focus on finding good quality classic pieces. Items that never go out of style. You will end up getting better wear out of these, than the latest trendy pieces.
I did a lot of thrift and vintage. I would mix those pieces into some of the more inexpensive items from Express, Gap, Old Navy, and Clothestime.
Avoid buying dry clean only.
Unless it’s vintage, brand name or you absolutely love it. Do you want to be spending money on dry cleaning?
However, you could brush up on your laundry methods and probably get around the dry clean only tags.
Wear a tight-fitting tank and leggings
Wear items that you can easily try other items over top of. You don’t want to spend hours in the change room line up. Wear clothing you can easily slip a dress or shirt over to check the size before you buy.
Vintage sizing runs small.
Keep in mind vintage clothing sizes run small. Always look for sizes bigger than you usually take. Here is a great guide to vintage sizing.
On her advice for new vintage shoppers: “Never shop for something specific. Just browse. Don’t expect to find what you were looking for. It never works. Either go for cool pieces that stand out and are unique (you will keep them longer) or go for the big designer pieces that will last you a lifetime. Don’t buy things you know you will dispose of. Try stuff on. Vintage was made for smaller people. But don’t be afraid to buy things too big. Alterations are common when buying vintage. You don’t want to miss a cool piece just because it’s too big. Too small is not recommended!” —Elle, February 2013
Don’t be afraid to customize.
Keep in mind you can tailor good quality pieces to fit you better. Don’t waste your time on tailoring fast fashion pieces. Unless you are handy will a sewing machine, they’re not worth the money.
It’s helpful to learn some basic tailoring. Sewing on loose buttons or hemming pants are an easy fix.
Browse the change room return rack.
The change room return rack can be a hidden gem of vetted items. You already know someone thought these items were good enough to try on.
Buy off season
You will have better luck finding good quality sweaters in July, than in November. Because there will be less people looking for them. The section will be less picked over.
Shop all sections
People like to stash items places they think other people won’t look. They do this to hold items until the item goes on sale or their next payday. You can find some amazing stuff tucked away in the most random places. Always keep an eye out.
Woman. Check out the Men’s section
Men. Check out the Woman’s section
Petite woman. Look in the teens section
Often items get mistakenly places in the wrong section. Make sure you look in all the sections, even if you aren’t looking for that particular type of item.
Don’t judge a thrift store by its appearance.
You can find amazing treasures in the grungiest looking stores. Most thrift shop pros don’t stick to one thrift shop. They will make a circuit around town and hit up a few on a shopping trip
Location can make a difference in the type of items you can find. Often you can find great household items in areas with a lot of retirees. Or higher quality items in so-called “rich” neighborhoods. Also get out of the city. Small town thrift stores are amazing. They’re often less picked over and items are more
Keep in mind that some of the bigger thrift store chains will ship products around, so you never know what you will find.
“I honestly shop mostly at thrift stores. I think there’s a big difference between thrift and vintage. Vintage stores are usually more expensive and it’s already picked out for you, but I like thrift stores because they’re cheaper and I kind of like having to find the gems. I just go to the Salvation Army, that’s the cheapest. And I look on Etsy for nicer vintage things that are maybe a little more expensive. And it’s good to keep an eye out for vintage fairs or events.” —HuffPost, April 2012
The fun is in the hunt
There is no exact science to finding the perfect thrift store. Its about frequency and time. Thrift store pros will go thrifting often and spend a lot of time in each store. Thrift stores put out new items every day. And while you don’t have to go every day, the more often you go the more likely you will find something amazing.
You have to spend time searching. Check every section twice. Some of your best finds will be on your section time though a section. Some trips you’re going to find a ton, others trips you’re going to find nothing. It’s ok to walk out empty handing. Remember quality or quantity.
Inspect before you buy
Find a well-lit section of the store and examine everything before you buy. A lot of stores don’t let you return items.
- Are there any stains, rips, chips or strange odors? Check the front, back, crotch, & underarms.
- Do all the zippers work? Are there any buttons or snaps missing?
- Where is the tag attached? Sometimes tags are attached to the actual fabric instead of tag or seam. This can cause a hole in the fabric.
- What are the cleaning instructions?
- Are all the pieces in the box?
- Does it work? Ask if you can plug in any appliances or electronics. Open up battery compartments and look for corrosion. Bring extra batteries with you and a small screwdriver.
- Check DVD cases for empty DVD cases, mismatched DVDs or scratched or damaged DVDs.
- Check all pockets. Don’t just stick your hands in pockets. You will be surprised by the nasty things people leave in pockets. Peak in first.
It’s helpful to bring a tape measure and a small screwdriver with you. You want to make sure the item will be fit in the spot you have in mind for it. As well as that it will fit in your car. Also, having a screwdriver/Allen key will help you if you need to disassemble something.
If there is a problem with the product but you still want it, ask the manager for a discount. You never know what kind of deal you can get. But always be polite and willing to walk away from a bad deal.
Thrift shop pros will know approximately what the retail prices are of the items they want. They know how to spot a bargain and will walk away from overpriced items. Every thrift shop pro has a limit to how much they will spend on an item. Some will not buy an item unless is at least 70% or more off retail. If you are unsure, search what the average price of the item
Get Cozy with the Cashier
Chat up the cashiers. They always have the best information about products and promotions.
- Find out what is their return/exchange policy?
- Do they have promotions/coupons?
- What day do they rotate stock?
- What day does the color tag sale changes?
Make sure you follow the thrift store on social media, so you can stay up to date with all their promotions.
Do not be afraid to ask questions. Some smaller stores have “wish list book” where you can request an item and if one comes in they reserve it for you.
Bring Grandma on Senior Day
No matter what wash everything when you get home. The last thing you want is to have bed bugs from your $1 t-shirt.
Don’t give up after your first visit.
Most thrift shop pros have been doing this for years. They have perfected their thrift shopping process.
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