What is Thrift Shopping?
Thrift shopping is the term used for shopping at a thrift store, flea market, garage sale, or a shop of a charitable organization, usually with the intent of finding interesting items (mostly clothing) at a cheap price.
Thrift shopping, thrifting, or bargain hunting is considered a hobby for most people. But personally, I’ve always viewed it as a form of art. To walk into an establishment with a blank canvas, the items you walk out with serving as the paint, the glorious attributes that will complete the bigger picture.
An empty living room, once predominantly monochrome and empty, is now enriched with these intriguing pops of color. A vermillion Art Deco armchair. A bright, brilliant red.
The sheer yellow curtains which fall attractively towards the floor, lifting delicately in the wind during the summer months. The minimalist gold plated picture frames hanging on all along the wall. Inside them portray hints of nostalgia.
While keeping in mind that thrift shopping is an art, this also means that the experience should be fun. So if you still find yourself struggling don’t worry.
Here is a full guide that will reveal all the tea you will want to know in order to have a successful thrifting experience.
Table of Contents
Growing up my Mom and I had a habit of visiting either our local thrift store or swap meet every Saturday. Honestly, I feel fortunate to have been introduced to these kinds of hobbies so early on.
The idea of bargaining, negotiating, and not settling for the first thing on the shelves is an ideology that has been engraved in my brain. But aside from this, it was really the outdated oddities (or so I call them) that never failed to catch my attention.
The velvet red armchair sitting all alone in a corner, waiting to be picked up and taken home, the cherry wood vanity from France with a large round mirror resting in the back room, the artsy glassware currently being displayed in and around a risen bookshelf—all of these things were eye candy.
And even if I did end up leaving the location with little or nothing in my basket I still felt like the experience was worthwhile.
Observing other people and the conversations held in these spaces is something truly unique. It’s not often when you’re able to pick up a book, glance to the older woman suddenly standing next to you, and discuss an author you both admire.
Or, of course, managing to overhear the uncommon revelation: ‘’Oh, Mom used to have these!’’ followed by ‘’Yeah, I’m glad she got rid of them.’’ (Yes, this was an actual conversation I overheard one morning. And yes, I did my best to try and hide my smile from behind the clothing rack I was investigating).
Because of my early success stories with thrifting is why I find myself surprised by individuals who claim they don’t thrift, or, better yet, constantly refuse to. Why? you might ask…Well, it’s usually one or two (or all) of the following reasons:
- The inside of these stores are always dirty and unorganized
- The clothes are not washed/ not high quality/ not their style
- The items are used—and this factor alone is a major turnoff
- The items are not brand names
- They don’t know where to start
Now, if you’re reading this and found yourself head nodding to some of these statements there’s no need to worry. You’re the exact person who I’m looking to share my knowledge with. Sure, some of these things I will admit are undeniable, but most of the time these factors have to do with either your preference or the location itself.
Another plus? Most of the advice included here was gathered from previous inquiries that I had answered from various volunteers throughout the years.
Looking for more bargain shopping tips? Read this: 9 Cheap Fashion Tips To Make Us Broke Girls Look Rich
Before getting into the whole globe of it all I would first like to clarify the previously mentioned assumptions.
- Dirty and unorganized. Yes, it is true that some thrift stores will be unorganized and far from kept. Most of the time this most evidently starts with the staff and their own intentions for the store. Do the employees care about the mission they are trying to achieve? What about the boss? Is the store itself well knitted with the community? These are questions you should ask yourself before coming down on the theory that your one bad experience is the notion of all thrift stores.
- Clothes are not washed/not high quality/not your style. Of all my years doing this thrifting business, I’ve never come across a store that has not washed or inspected their clothes before displaying them. And even if you recently discovered a small snag on a sweater you should already be washing all clothing, scarfs, pillowcases, and blankets on your own before using them—even if the volunteers guarantee their items are put through the most rigorous washing process. This, to me, is common sense. Regardless if it’s flu season, countless amounts of people have been touching the same items you have all throughout the day. You may be able to see a stain with the naked eye but not germs.
As far as the quality and style of a thrift store’s donations this really depends on location. Think about it. Wouldn’t you be more likely to come across brand names in areas with higher income? At the same time, however, this doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t find equal quality products somewhere local. Again, the key here is to experiment (and have fun!)
- Items are used. ‘’Oh, the horror!’’ Now don’t get me wrong. If you’re one of those people who are generally stiff about the whole idea of owning used items I won’t stomp on your foot. But here is where I would like to ask you to ask yourself Is it really that big of an issue?
Think about the bigger cause here. Almost all thrift stores donate a portion (or sometimes all) of their proceeds to charity. The one that I frequently visit here in San Diego provides educational aide to children whose families can’t afford to send them to college. So yes, you may be investing in used items but you’re also contributing to someone else’s future.
It’s undeniable that thrifting can sometimes be overwhelming—especially if you’re walking through narrow aisles stacked to the brim with potential investments. Even to this day, I’ll admit to occasionally coming home with an item that I probably should have left at the store. That’s why I have dedicated this section to how to thrift.
1. Check your reasoning. Walking into a thrift store is not the same as your average trip to Walmart or shopping on Amazon. In fact, I tend to consider thrifting an entire embankment on its own. Sometimes you just want to window shop (the act of looking around but not actually buying anything). Other times you may not mind swinging by and purchasing something without much thought—which isn’t bad either. Just be mindful that your house isn’t starting to resemble the store itself.
2. Experiment with more than one location. As stated before it’s especially important that you visit more than one establishment. Reason being is because different locations will carry different inventory. Another thing! All thrift stores will have a different variety on different days of the week. (But I’ll touch more on this a bit later).
Some things to practice when thrifting would include:
- Taking note of which items one location has over the other
- Comparing prices (especially with larger items such as furniture)
I could tell you many occasions where I’ve visited location A and found the exact same quality of items and variety. The only difference: the pricing. There was this one time when a new location opened up across the street from a favorite preexisting establishment. Upon walking in I felt motivated—until I saw the prices. $20 for a used over-shirt? No thanks.
- Have a general idea of what you’re looking for before walking in. This will not only pave the outline for your thrift shopping experience, but you will also increase your chances of avoiding unnecessary purchases. One thing that has always helped me is saving photos on my phone for inspiration. When I enter the store I will sometimes pull my phone out and analyze the images again.
Check out this video by Mr. Kate on how to design a bedroom with items specifically purchased from the flea market. From creating ”mood boards” before shopping to choosing items that flow together, Mr. Kate effortlessly takes inspiration from many sources and pulls them together into one.
Especially when it comes to the home interior, color, patterns, texture, and style these are all things that will save you both time and money.
- Be realistic. Yes, those cream pillows with the canary yellow stripes look cute—but where will they go? It’s hard to let go of things we really want off the shelves. But what’s even harder is managing a cluttered house. Be wise with your purchases.
If necessary, as long as the item is undamaged most thrift stores will allow returns.
- Visit the thrift store earlier in the week. This I learned from a local favorite. Most thrift stores sort through their main bulk of new donations on the weekend and receive most of their donations during this time frame as well. With that being said, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are really the days for prime thrifting. Think about it. By the time Friday rolls around most of the unique items have probably already been chosen.
- Ask for an item to be put on hold. If you’re still playing devil’s advocate with that intriguing Art Deco chair look around and ask a volunteer if the item can be put on hold. 10 minutes? An hour? Zero? Accept their offer generously. If they refuse your request be respectful. Remember: sometimes it’s not the fact they don’t want to and rather store policy.
If you do end up in the second situation, and if the item is small enough, place the item in your basket and browse around the store a bit more before coming to your conclusion. Reason being? There have been plenty of times where I have left an item sitting on a shelf and innocently thought ‘’no one would take it.’’ Ironically, there I was a few minutes later, only to find out that the item is gone.
- Don’t be hesitant to ask about sales. A while back I purchased a few throw pillows. The lady at the cash register was very social and at some point revealed that they have a 50% sale on throw pillow at the end of each month. This just goes to show you that a little socialization goes a long way. My $15 total could have been $7.50!
And while on the subject . . .
- Don’t be afraid to ask for a discount on items with defects. Yes, it’s true that sometimes the volunteers will miss a snag or two on a sweater. But keep in mind that thrift stores already put a big discount on their items, so understand that if they refuse to haggle they have a right to do so.
Another thing you can do is keep a record of the price of the item on a sheet of paper (or your phone). As the weeks pass, and if you consistently see the number dropping each week, keep track of it until you come to terms with the sales price. If you feel comfortable, you can show approach a volunteer and present your offer then. Especially if no one has bought the item yet, chances are they may go ahead bend the rules.
Still looking for more shopping tips? Read this: The Ultimate Guide On Styling Clothes With Print
- Don’t be afraid to ask about testing electronics. Nothing is worse than coming home and realizing that the record player you just invested your heart and soul in is all wired out. The easiest way to avoid this is to simply test electronics at the store. In most cases, your request will be granted.
- Be respectful to the volunteers. This should be common sense. But in case it wasn’t already made clear before: politeness goes a long way. Keep in mind that in most cases these volunteers aren’t getting paid—they took on this role because they deeply related to the mission of the location, or, in many cases, have a general passion for helping people. So questions starting with ‘’Would you mind showing me’’ make a big difference compared to ‘’Where’s the (fill in the blank) at?’’
And while on the topic of volunteers . . .
- Ask, but don’t expect them to help transport your purchases. Some locations don’t mind letting their volunteers help out. In other cases, I’ve seen signs that specifically ask all shoppers to keep in mind that they will be the ones carrying out their goods. Reason being? There are a few possible explanations.
- Health insurance (sometimes the location prefers to avoid responsibly in the case of a volunteer injuring him/herself, let alone a customer
- Certain volunteers having health disabilities (which prevent them from moving heavier objects)
- The chance of breaking something else in the store while moving a larger object
- Challenge your creativity and restrictions. Some of the best deals I’ve across resulted in using an obscure item such as a larger candleholder as a resting place for one of my smaller succulents. Think outside of the box when looking at home décor. Ask yourself, Is that a teapot or a place to grow a small catnip garden for kitty?
- Have fun. My last piece of advice? Have fun and make memories. Purchase an item because you have a personal connection to it and not because you think it will heighten your home interior game during the holiday season. Laugh. Smile. Be open to those you come across.
I think one of the biggest lessons I’ve ever learned from visiting these stores is this: All walks of life may have their differences, but sometimes it is the material goods, a used book or an attractive vase, that will bring two of the unlikeliest of personalities together.