A Basic Guide to Thrift Store Shopping

We live in expensive times. As prices go up and up and up (gas is hovering around $3.00 a gallon across the U.S., milk is expected to top $5.00 a gallon before the end of the year, and so on), even the normal discount stores are starting to feel a little pricey. For many of your basic household needs, you might well find a better deal at thrift stores (or charity shops in the U.K. and elsewhere).

Lots of people dislike thrift stores, for a number of reasons. Often people feel they are “above” thrift stores, that thrift stores carry nothing but junk, or that thrift stores are dark, dirty, and depressing. While there certainly are some pretty dismal thrift stores out there, most are fairly clean and well-organized stores that weed out the broken, filthy, and otherwise unusable before putting stock on the sales floor. And the customers come from all walks of life, from street-walking transvestites to trendy college kids to retired heiresses.

For two years in college, I worked in (and sometimes managed) thrift stores, and I’ve met examples of each of the kinds of people I just listed. One patron who invited me to his home to help pick up a donation turned out to be a retired Hollywood production designer, the walls of whose gigantic house were lined with photos of him standing with the stars of shows like Starsky and Hutch and Magnum, P.I..

People shop at thrift stores for any number of reasons. Some are, as you’d imagine, poor parents and their families just trying to stretch their budget to cover all their needs; others, like the designer, are hobbyists seeking overlooked antiques and collectibles; still others make a business out of sorting through the records, books, and other stuff to find resalable goods; college kids seek out retro fashions and kitschy housewares; retirees seek out companionship and memories of past days; and so on. “Thrifting” is fun and it’s cheap — and it’s also a good deed, providing funds for various charities as well as keeping perfectly usable goods out of landfills and incinerators to provide a few more years of service.

If you’re new to thrifting, here’s a few pointers to help you make the most of a visit to a thrift store near you.

  • Be nice. The people who work in thrift stores are, as you can imagine, not usually paid very well. They may not be paid at all, as many thrift stores provide vocational training or rehabilitation services to people on some form of state aid. So be nice to them, just because it’s the right thing to do. If you frequent a particular thrift shop, you may even find that making yourself known and building relationships with the employees pays off with more than just good karma — if you have particular interests or needs, employees will often pull aside things that might interest you, or hold them behind the counter until you can get to the bank to pull out money.
  • Do the circuit. Thrift stores tend to cluster together in areas with high traffic and low rent. Make a day of visiting all the shops in an area. Since each of the major charities that runs thrift stores tends to appeal to a different kind of donor, each store will have a slightly different kind of stock, so take the grand tour and take it all in.
  • Know the specials. Many thrift stores run different kinds of specials, often offering discounts of 50%, 75%, or even more off their regular daily prices. In my area, one chain takes 50% off anything with a different color tag every week, another discounts anything dated over a month ago, and still another puts out a monthly calendar with different half-off items each day (like ‘anything with a zipper”, “anything plastic”, and so on). Your stores might have discounts on a day of the week, or for certain kinds of people (military and seniors are commonly offered discounts, and sometimes students as well). Ask what’s on sale when you walk in.
  • Know your charity. Some thrift stores are run for profit, so this doesn’t apply to them; for the rest, knowing who sponsors the store might provide valuable insight into what you’ll find there — or incentive to patronize (or not patronize) specific stores. Contrary to popular belief, most thrift stores do not exist to provide cheap goods for the poor — they exist to raise money to support their organization’s missions. Here’s what a few of the major thrift store operators support:
    1. Goodwill Industries: Provides vocational rehabilitation for the disabled.
    2. Salvation Army: Offers shelter, food, job training, and spiritual guidance to the poor.
    3. OxFam: Runs development efforts in Third World nations.

    Many thrift stores are also run by churches and veterans’ groups; their goals are usually pretty self-evident. The best thrift store I ever visited was run by the Friends of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City — the wall of fur coats was behind the grand piano, near the crystal chandeliers.

  • Know what you need. It pays to keep a running list of things you need or want. Thrift stores are great for kitchen wares, office supplies, sports equipment, books, and electronics (especially VCR’s, CD players, scanners, and CRT computer monitors). Furniture is also easily found, though it may take some looking to find furniture that is a) in good condition and b) attractive. A lot of people also find good clothes, although I personally find this too hard of a struggle to be worthwhile — clothes are rarely arranged by size, let along marked, and even when they are arranged somehow they quickly get tossed out of order (if you do buy clothes, make sure you launder or dry clean them before wearing them — most stores don’t). You probably won’t find exactly what you want the first time you walk in a thrift store — you have to think longer-term than that. But with patience it usually is possible to find just about anything — I recently managed to find a decent, working turntable, with a good needle, after looking for well over a year (and I paid $7).
  • Be creative. One of the fun things about thrifting is that you will see things that lend themselves to uses quite different from their original intended functions. A waste-basket can hold poster tubes, a suitcase can act as a coffee table, a record crate can be turned sideways to organize binders, etc. Keep your eyes (and mind) open for objects the might fill a need in an unusual and interesting way.
  • Have a use in mind. This is a warning: don’t get carried away. Be creative, be practical, but also be sure that you can actually use everything you pick up at thrift stores. Low prices and the “here today, gone tomorrow” nature of the stock can lead to hasty purchases. Don’t shop for needs you might have, down the line — shop for things you can use immediately when you get it home.
  • Give back. Don’t forget to drop off the things you no longer use or need when you’re at the thrift store! Most of us have a pile of stuff to give away “someday” — old clothes, an unused piece of furniture, a box of books pulled from the shelf to make more room. When you’re heading to the thrift store, pack it up and take it with you.
  • Haggle. I don’t like to say this, because I hated when people bickered over prices with me when I worked in thrift stores. Don’t haggle for the sake of it — chances are you’re already getting a bargain, and stores aren’t under any huge pressure to move any particular item (unsold stock, especially clothes, is often sold to exporters who ship it overseas). But thrift store employees don’t have much to go by in pricing goods for sale, and they make mistakes — if something seems clearly overpriced, ask to speak with a manager (don’t put floor staff in an awkward position) and make a more reasonable offer.
  • Don’t be afraid to leave empty-handed. Thrifting isn’t like other shopping, where you go in with a list of what you want, get it, and go. Thrifting is a scavenger hunt, where you can hope and dream about the Ultimate Bargain but have to expect not to find it. Half the fun is in the looking — and in thinking up goofy uses for the unidentifiable products that someone, somewhere, once thought fit to spend good money on, or in making up back stories for the forlorn detritus of people’s lives, stuff marked “Bobby, 1st grade” and “Cheryl, love you forever, Dina”. Have fun and don’t worry if nothing strikes your fancy enough to take home with you.

Thrifting is obviously not the most efficient or productive way to shop, so think of it as part of your leisure activities (with occasional payoffs) — the time you spend hopping from store to store is what you do next action lists, priority quadrants, and time tracking to make time for. Take a day your next free weekend to explore the thrift stores in your area and see what you come up with!

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