From a former employee-turned-bargain lover.
Thrift shopping (or "thrifting," as I like to call it) is not for the faint of heart. It certainly warms the cockles of our souls to find an Ann Taylor LOFT dress with tags buried in a pile of polyester at our local Goodwill, yes – but it's much easier said than done. If you know how to go about it, thrifting can be incredibly successful; the key is to know how and where to look. As a passionate thrifter myself, I've been in and out of more Goodwill stores than you could count, and frequently dig into the local thrift shops to experience the thrill of buying an expensive item for under $5.
As a very inexpensive hobby, I thoroughly encourage anyone willing to get their hands dirty (and, they literally will get dirty) to take a couple tips that I've learned in my thrifting ventures that'll take your finds to the next level.
Start with a strategy.
Going into a thrift store with an open mind and open heart is great – but after 30 minutes of browsing used VHS tapes, you'll wish that you'd started with a plan. If you have specific items on your must-find list, write them down. If you know that you're looking for a sleeveless tank size medium, make a mental note to start in that section. Thrift stores are notoriously overwhelming, and any time you stray off your desired path, you will get sucked down a rabbit hole.
Use your powers of scanning.
Words to live by! There is no need to scoot every hanger on the rack when you're looking at clothing. You'll be able to spot the fabrics, textures, and patterns that you're looking for much more quickly if you just take a slow walk down the aisle, scanning the shirts, skirts, pants, or coats for something that may fit your style. This is an especially great technique down the jeans aisle, where you can easily tell which pants are too acid-washed for your look. Flipping through every hanger is a time-waster.
Y'all, pay attention to this one. In a regular department store, clothes that you're about to buy always look about 3 times better on you under those dressing room lights than they will in real life. In a thrift store, it's the opposite. You may have seen 18 Hawaiian shirts in a row that make an old, dingy jumper look like a ball gown. Clothes in thrift stores can be deceptive. If you only semi-like it in the thrift store, you're going to hate it at home.
Don't be afraid to touch stuff.
My sweet sister, as wonderful as she is, absolutely hates germs. So, when she goes into a thrift store – or, when I drag her into a thrift store – she never finds anything. Cause and effect, y'all: if you aren't willing to actually pick anything up, you won't find the buried treasure. And, if that is you, we officially revoke your privileges of saying "How do you always find the good stuff?" There may be the dress of your dreams behind that flannel nightie. Move things around!
Don't ONLY look in one place.
I can't tell you the number of times that I've gone into the men's long-sleeved shirt section and found an incredible woman's button-up wedged in-between the shirts. Items can easily be mislabeled or mis-tagged – which means that the one thing you could be looking for may be in another section. If you're after something specific and haven't had any luck in the right section, take a quick minute to scan through the next-closest rack to see if you're in luck.
Give yourself plenty of time.
If you're going into the store knowing which item you're looking for, okay. You could probably handle the job in 30 minutes. If you're not sticking to a list, give yourself time to scan, flip, peruse, and mosey through the aisles. An hour may be enough time, but you're pushing it. Without a time constraint, you'll be able to justify taking a minute or twenty to look through the books at the back of the store, where something good is always hiding.
Pay attention to the tags, the dates, and the colors.
Most thrift stores have a system for keeping their inventory organized. Some stores, like Goodwill, manage the products through color-coded tags. The colors rotate through, which lets the store know which items have been around the longest. If the week's color is orange, that means items with orange tags have been in the store about five weeks – hence, the store's hoping to clean them out. If you find something that you love and you're willing to wait for a better bargain on it, you can check back in the rotation to see when the color's on sale. Although not all stores go by a coloring system, many do. Others often have dates on the tags; if your item is before a certain date, you could get a percentage off your purchase. And, be sure to keep an eye out for the mega sales that thrift stores often have. On the first Saturday of the month, Goodwill puts everything on a 50% discount. This is a great option if you've been eyeballing an antique chest of drawers and hoping for a better deal. Just be sure to plan your time accordingly; the stores are often packed.
Give everything a second look.
In the dim light of the thrift store, it can be easy to overlook things like rips, stains, and holes. To avoid buyer's remorse, give everything in your shopping cart a careful once-over before purchasing. Check the backside of the clothing, flip through the book, and open the DVD case to make sure everything's in order. You'd hate to get home, grab a cup of tea, and curl up by the fireplace only to realize that your new copy of "Pride and Prejudice" has had the whole first chapter scribbled out in crayon.
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Don't always pick the shortest line at the register.
If you've made it this far, great! To wrap up your visit, here's a hint for checking out: the line with one person in it isn't always the quickest one. Take a second to size up what's actually ahead of you. Four people in a line holding clothing with scan-able tags will leave much more quickly than one lady with a cart full of trinkets (which have to be inputted manually).
Don't give up after your first visit.
Sometimes, you don't always find what you're looking for. The great thing about thrift stores is that the merchandise is changing and being refreshed constantly. If you're feeling discouraged, don't count out your local thrift store just yet. Wait a week or so, and you'll likely find a whole round of new merchandise to shop through. Happy hunting!