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Second-Hand Shopping: How to Save at Thrift Stores & Consignment Shops

By Lainie Petersen

clothes saleThe strategies of extreme couponing, waiting for sales, and shopping at your local dollar store can save you money on products you need. Don’t overlook the humble second-hand store as a great way to also save a lot of money on brand name items. Effective thrift store shopping takes time, but you can find beautiful, functional items for your home and wardrobe without breaking the bank. In addition, when you shop at charity thrift stores, you can support worthy organizations that help your less fortunate neighbors.

Since I am in the process of losing weight while living on a relatively modest income, I’ve recently learned to tap local thrift stores for cute clothes that I can wear during my size transition without busting my budget. I’m not crazy about spending $50 on a skirt that I can only wear a few times before having to pay for alterations, but I recently bought three very cute, almost-new skirts for less than $3 each from my local thrift shop. Even if I pay to alter the items, the total cost still beats retail store prices. I have also had great success at thrift stores for non-clothing items like furniture, electronics, and various types of household goods and kitchenware.

To develop a good second-hand store strategy, understand the differences between the different types of stores that sell second-hand goods. For example, you may not find many high-end brands at standard thrift stores, but consignment stores often sell designer clothes in good condition.

Before we get into the tips on how to hit a home run at thrift stores, let’s first get familiar with the different types of shops.

Types of Second-Hand Stores

If you live in a medium to large-sized city, you probably have access to several different types of second-hand shops. You may find some overlap in the merchandise between different categories of shops. If you have a clear idea of what you need, you can visit the type of shop most likely to carry the goods you need to save you time and stress, and to increase your chances for success:

1. Thrift Stores
Many charities and for-profit businesses operate thrift stores, selling donated or used goods for a fraction of their original price. Some of these stores specialize in one type of item such as books or records, while others may sell everything from bookcases to shoes to silverware.

The quality of items sold at these stores varies, but you can find like-new and brand new items on their shelves and racks after a diligent search. Thrift stores sell clothing and household necessities at budget prices. You may also find that some “generalist” resale shops have a greater emphasis on home goods and furniture, while others offer a better clothing selection.

Nonprofit thrift stores include Goodwill, Salvation Army, and St. Vincent de Paul. For-profit thrift stores include Unique Thrift, Value Village, and Valu Thrift.

2. Resale Shops
Similar to nonprofit thrift stores, resale shops typically operate under the umbrella of a charitable organization or hospital. Resale shops are smaller than their thrift store counterparts, and tend to have a better quality of items for sale than what you can find at a thrift store.

The shops often require that donors carefully cull items for donation, only bringing very gently used or new items to the stores. Many of these resale shops also require that donors launder or dry clean clothes before donating them. You pay a bit more than when you shop at a thrift store, but the difference is negligible, especially considering the quality of the items sold in resale shops.

3. Pawn Shops
Pawn shops often sell higher-end items, such as fine jewelry, electronics, and musical instruments, though some sell all types of goods. Don’t expect to find huge discounts at pawn shops, but you can get some good deals on music and electronics gear.

4. Consignment Stores
A consignment store operates very differently than a regular thrift store. It acts as a middleman between the owner of an item and a buyer. People bring in items to the store and if the item sells, the consignment store splits the proceeds with its owner.

Consignment stores sell higher quality merchandise than what you’ll find in thrift stores. If you like designer duds or high-end home decor, check out consignment stores first.

5. Antique or Vintage Shops
These businesses generally deal in older housewares and decor, and some sell retro clothing. Some antique or vintage shops specialize in items from a particular time period, while others offer a more general selection of older items. Some antique shops deal in genuinely rare items that can cost a pretty penny. Other shops offer great deals on unique, eye-catching housewares, furniture, and jewelry.

rack clothes

Tips for Thrift Store Shopping

Once you have identified what you need and know which store or stores you want to visit, use these tips to help you find the best products at the best prices:

1. Choose Your Store Carefully
Second-hand stores often specialize and you may find that the quality and style of the goods match the community where the store is located. If you want to buy designer clothing, target a consignment store or a for-profit second-hand store in an affluent community.

Friends, co-workers, and online review sites can help identify which stores sell the goods that you want to buy. If you live in a metro area, consider traveling across the city to find even more thrift stores.

2. Check Store Policies
Many second-hand stores have strict policies about returns or exchanges. Expect all sales to be final; most second-hand stores simply won’t consider a return or an exchange, even if an item is defective.

Some stores inform customers if they’ve tested or inspected items before putting them on the sales floor. If the store doesn’t display its policies or information about product testing, ask the manager for clarification.

3. Use the Buddy System
It can take time to find pieces that you like in your size, especially in some of the larger thrift stores. Clothing racks at second-hand stores tend to be disorganized, and stock quickly rotates in and out of stores. Enlist your buddies to help you shop with a purpose at thrift stores. Each of you should know the other person’s sizes and exactly what that person wants to buy.

Then, as you shop, you can keep your friend’s needs in mind as well as your own. When you find something, call your friend over to have a look. If you visit different stores, send each other photos of good finds using your smartphones. This can speed up shopping and reduce frustration for everyone. You also have the advantage of a fresh perspective on what to buy; your friends may pick out unique garments for you to try.

4. Take Advantage of Sales
Second-hand stores have sales, just like traditional retailers. Sign up for stores’ email lists to find out when these sales happen. Thrift stores typically post information about regularly weekly and monthly sales in their stores. Many thrift stores have huge sales at the end of each season, and you can find great deals during these times.

5. Carefully Inspect Items
As noted above, you typically cannot return or exchange items at most thrift stores, even defective or broken items. Prepare to test items in the store, especially when you plan to buy electronics. Second-hand stores typically don’t have salespeople who can help you learn more about a stereo or TV, but they do have electrical outlets.

Check to make sure that electronics and appliances power on and off. Also, check to see if accessories and attachments such as power cords are included. Closely inspect the front and back of garments for holes, smells, and stains.

6. Consider Alterations and Repairs
You can sew small tears, have garments taken in, and replace the soles of shoes. If you find an item that you really like, but it needs alterations or has some damage, consider whether you can repair or re-size the item to fit you. You save so much money buying second-hand clothing that you can still pay for small repairs.

7. Compare Prices Online
If you don’t know the value of an item, visit online auction or resale sites to see the prices for similar products. You can view recent sales and closed auctions on many of these websites, so you can see the total price of recent sales. This can help you in the negotiating process when shopping at pawn shops or consignment stores that offer expensive items.

Final Word

People donate or consign perfectly usable clothing, housewares, and furniture to thrift stores everyday. These stores offer savings of well over 60% off of the item’s original price. Adopt a thrifty attitude toward spending by looking for what you need in resale shops before shopping for new items. You can save a lot of money when you shop at second-hand stores. I really enjoy the challenge of second-hand shopping and hope that these tips help you enjoy it too!

Do you have experience shopping at thrift stores? What were some of your best second-hand purchases?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Lainie Petersen
Lainie Petersen holds master's degrees in Library and Information Science, Theological Studies, and Divinity, and spent five years working in regulatory compliance for a major education publisher. A lifetime Chicagoian, she recently spent almost a year living in the woods of Southern Oregon before deciding to head back home to her family and friends.

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