12 Secrets Thrift Store Shoppers Need to Know

thrift store shopper
A woman shops at a thrift store. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Thrift stores have undergone a renaissance in recent years. While people with tight budgets and vintage lovers long have known thrift stores are the best place to score a deal, the rest of America seems to just be realizing the charms of the secondhand shop. Today, one-third of American women surveyed by clothing reseller ThredUp said they’d shop for used apparel. Millennials are leading the charge to Goodwill, with 30% saying they’d shop secondhand, compared to just one-quarter of Gen Xers and baby boomers.
Settling for gently used items has numerous advantages. You can save money, keep stuff out of the landfill, and maybe help support a charity as you shop. But if you’re not used to scoping out the shelves at your local Salvation Army, it can be hard to know where to begin. From what stores to check out first to how to find the best deals, here are 12 tips for shopping smart and saving money at thrift stores.

1. Location matters

The nicer the neighborhood, the nicer the thrift store, as a general rule. While you can find gems (and junk) at virtually any secondhand shop, stores in wealthier areas often have higher-end items than those in less well-off areas. So think about where the richer people in your area live, and then hit thrift shops there.
“You want to know where affluent people live because it’s those affluent people who tend to donate good stuff to thrift stores and take good stuff to consignment shops. These are people who tend to buy expensive things and then turn them over at a high rate,” Trent Hamm of The Simple Dollar explained in a blog post. One downside of shopping at thrift stores in the tonier part of town, though, is they often have slightly higher prices.

2. Shop often, and don’t hesitate

thrift store shopper
A woman browses at a thrift store. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Merchandise changes constantly at thrift stores, and dedicated bargain hunters might visit their favorite stores several times a week to scout for new finds. If you see something you like, don’t hesitate. The chances of it being there when you return the next day are basically nil. Not quite sure whether you want an item? Put it in your cart anyway. Another shopper could swoop in and snag it if you leave it sitting on the shelf. If you decide you don’t want it, just return it to where you found or hand it off to an employee for reshelving before you check out.

3. Shop when seasons change

woman packing a clothes donation box
A woman packs a donation box. | iStock.com/LuminaStock

Thrift store devotees make hitting the shops part of their routine. But even if you don’t visit Goodwill weekly, you can still time your shopping to find great deals. Some experts suggest shopping when the weather starts to change because that’s when people usually clean out their houses and dump their unwanted stuff at the thrift store.
“As a rule, I find the best stuff when the seasons change. It’s the time when people clean out their house and give stuff away,” Virginia of LiveLoveDIY wrote. “Just after the first of the year is a great time, too. Not only is it the deadline for making donations that you can write off on your taxes, but it’s also right after the holiday season when people have bought tons of new stuff and are shedding the old stuff to make room.”

4. You can call ahead to check on stock

young woman in trendy clothes talks on a smart phone
You can call your favorite thrift store to ask whether it has what you’re looking for. | iStock.com/RyanJLane

Hunting for a particular item? Call your favorite store and ask whether it has it in stock. The worker who answers the phone might be happy to tell you that, yes, the store does have a mint-condition Louis Vuitton handbag sitting in its display case right now or that someone just dropped off a dining table and chairs. And if you make friends with the thrift shop workers, they might be willing to tip you off when some particularly sweet merchandise hits the sales floor.

5. Learning the markdowns and sale schedule is essential

thrift store
A sign advertises a sale at a thrift store. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Thrift stores are constantly having sales. Many stores mark down certain tag colors on certain days. On Wednesday, everything with a blue tag might be 50% off, while on Thursday, everything with a red tag will be half-price. Sometimes everything in the entire store is steeply discounted. Figure out when your store is having sales and markdowns, and get there early to score the best deals. If the sales aren’t advertised online, just call the store and ask.

6. Not everything in the store is used

target store
Excess inventory from stores, such as Target, sometimes shows up at thrift stores. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Some thrift store merchandise has seen better days, but other items are basically brand new. It’s not unusual to find clothes with the tags still on at thrift stores because people sometimes donate clothes they’ve never worn. Big chains might also donate their unsold merchandise to thrift stores. You might find brand-new stuff from stores, such as Target, on the shelves at Goodwill, for example.

7. Be picky

flea market for clothes
A shopper considers clothes at a thrift store. | iStock.com/Armin Staudt

Just because it’s on sale at a thrift store doesn’t mean it’s a bargain. Some stuff that makes it out on to the sales floor is still junk. Before buying clothes, check them for rips, stains, missing buttons, and broken zippers. (But keep in mind some items can be easily repaired or altered.) Test electronics before you buy them. Also, check the store’s return policy. Some stores will let you return items or exchange them for store credit if you have second thoughts — or if you get that toaster home and realize it doesn’t toast.

8. Not every store is a nonprofit

Secondhand items fill bins at a Goodwill thrift store. | John Moore/Getty Images

When you hit the thrift store, it’s tempting to justify random purchases with the “at least the money goes to charity” excuse. But not every secondhand store is in the business of helping others. Some thrift stores (including big national chains, such as Savers) aren’t charities themselves, though they might partner with local nonprofits. These stores have been criticized for misleading shoppers and donors, who think the money they spend or the items they drop off are going directly to help those in need. If the charitable aspect of thrifting matters to you, check up on the store and the charities it says it funds before you head out on your shopping mission.

9. Measure before you go

giant tape measure
A boy plays around a sculpture of a tape measure. | Frank Perry/AFP/Getty Images

If you’re searching for the perfect side table for your living room or a new dresser for the guest bedroom, make sure you measure your space before you head to the store. And carry a tape measure in your pocket or purse, so you can check the size of items before you decide to buy. It also helps to know the dimensions of your car’s trunk, so you can get your purchase home, too.
“Nothing sucks more than finding a great piece of furniture and then realizing –crap! — there’s no way to get it home! Not only is your trunk too small and you have no friend with a truck who can do you a ‘solid’ (i.e. favor!), but you aren’t even sure if that little desk would fit perfectly in that nook in your kitchen,” Serena Appiah of Thrift Diving wrote on her blog.

10. Don’t overlook independent stores

second hand baby clothes and pyjamas for reusing
A pile of secondhand clothes | iStock.com/STUDIOGRANDOUEST

Goodwill, the Salvation Army, Savers, and St. Vincent DePaul are all big names in the thrift store business. But there are plenty of smaller thrift shop chains or independent stores out there, too, and they’re worth a look. Off-the-beaten-path shops might be less crowded, be less picked over, and be more willing to negotiate on price than big chains.

11. Use coupons

Used clothes at a thrift store
Used clothes at a thrift store | iStock.com

Prices are already so low at most thrift stores that you might not think of adding a coupon. But many thrift stores will send coupons to those who sign up for their email lists, so you can save even more. You can also follow your favorite stores on Facebook and even look for ads in your local newspaper to find out about sales and get discounts.

12. You can thrift online

shopping online with a credit card
Some thrift stores let you shop online. | iStock.com

People who don’t want to paw through racks of random clothes and shelves of mismatched glassware don’t have to miss out on thrift store deals. These days, you can thrift from the comfort of your own home. Goodwill and the Salvation Army both have online stores, which is where you’ll often find higher-quality items. New York’s Housing Works thrift store also has an online store where you can bid on used designer clothing and other items.