Posted by: allisonwonder | March 13, 2010

Thrift Stores: The Good, The Bad, The Messy

I used to work at a thrift store- a big for-profit chain. I worked in 2 different locations as a cashier and as a supervisor.  I could tell you sooooo many stories about the nutty customers… but that’s not what we’re here for today. Trent at The Simple Dollar did a post recently about shopping at thrift stores and why it works for him.  A lively discussion followed in the comments, as it usually does over there. Some people love thrift-store shopping, other people consider it a hopeless waste of time and have never found something they like in all the three times they’ve gone. I thought I’d share some of my thoughts, tips and ideas on the topic, stuff I picked up in the few years I worked in the industry. Bottom line: thrift-store shopping can save you a ton of money on great clothes (especially for kids!), as long as you approach it properly.

Thrift Stores 101 (general info- skip this if you just want the tips)

Second-hand clothing stores fall into 3 categories, as far as I can tell: consignment stores, not-for-profit stores, and for-profit thrift stores. They can all be great sources, depending on your needs.

Consignment stores are generally  smaller stores where (correct me if I’m wrong) people bring nice clothes in and get a share of the profit when their items sell. They’re great spots to look if you want really nice stuff and don’t have time to searh through a ton of racks. Their items are going to be more expensive, as the store shares profits with the people who brought the clothes in, but the store can also afford to be picky about what gets on the shelves, and what you find will be clean and in good condition. If I needed a formal dress, a consignment store would be my first stop. T-shirts? No way. I’m just not that picky.

At the other end of things, we have charity-run thrift stores. Clothes are donated by people or organizations, stuff is priced (usually very reasonably) and put out on the racks. You can find great deals in these stores if you’re willing to do some digging: in my experience, they tend to be disorganized because they just don’t have the staff available to sort everything by type, size and colour and keep it organized after it’s been to the fitting rooms a bunch of times. There are, I’m sure, exceptions to this, stores that are neat as a pin and organized like they’re using the Dewey Decimal system, but I haven’t found one yet. Profits from these stores go directly to supporting the charities that run them (Goodwill, Salvation Army, etc).

For-profit stores/chains (like the stores I worked in) work in a few different ways: they might get their stock from private sources, or they might buy them off of charities. If you’re in Canada and you’re donating clothes to a charity that doesn’t have its own stores, that’s probably where they’re going. The stores pay the charity a fixed amount for clothes and household items by volume or weight, and then price items individually. Prices here are usually higher than at charity-run stores, as these stores have to pay huge numbers of staff (on the floor and in the pricing area, managers and area managers), plus make a profit for head office.  Because more people are getting paid to take care of things, these stores are usually better-organized than cheaper stores- my stores organized by department, item type (short-sleeve shirts, long-sleeve shirts, blouses, sweaters, cardigans, skirts, long pants, capris, shorts…) and colour- ideally, everything would look like a pretty rainbow in each little section.  I find these stores slightly less frustrating than the stores mentioned above, but nothing guarantees a great haul at the end of the day. Everything depends on what gets donated, and you’ll find better stuff in wealthier areas of the country. Sad, but true.

So what’s so great about thrift stores? The prices tend to be way better than “new” stores, and if you have a bit of time to look around (and especially if you can stop in and do a quick scan of the racks frequently) you can find some great stuff- good condition, often with the tags still on, good quality and/or expensive brands. You’ll find stuff you won’t see in other stores, and if you’re looking for anything vintage or retro, these stores are a great starting point. Oh, and if you’re one of those shoppers who just lives for the thrill of the hunt? HEAVEN.

Nothing’s perfect, of course. I can only speak about the for-profit store I worked at and the few other stores I’ve shopped at, but there are problems you’ll run into. You won’t find the same selection at different stores, and you won’t find the same item in multiple sizes. It does take longer to browse these racks than it takes to look at displays in Wal-Mart, Reitman’s, or the Bay- or to scan catalogue pages. If you go in looking for one specific item, you might be out of luck. Oh, and it CAN be time-consuming; dont’s expect to be in and out in 5 minutes with something you really wanted.

With all of that said, I’ve discovered a few things about thrift store shopping that might help you out a bit, whether you’re a seasoned second-hand pro or just getting your feet wet:

Shop frequently: Thrift stores get new stock almost every day; if you’re only shopping once a year, you’re probably missing “your” items. If you can stop in every few weeks or once a month and go through the stuff you’re looking for (ie what you need and in your size), you’re far more likely to see that amazing sweater that’s sofreakingperfect. I find it’s less frustrating to do this if you can find well-organized stores, so you’re not wasting time on stuff that’s not even your size- remember which stores you see that are easy to scan quickly. If you have time to work there a shift or two a week, you’re in the best position of all!

Know your local stores: Thrift and consignment stores in any area will vary greatly in selection, cleanliness and organization. Know where you like to shop, and unless you’re up for a challenge, forget about the rest of them. Also, try new stores when you’re traveling: I can tell you that selection and quality are far better in some parts of the country (Ontario) than others (Newfoundland, I’m looking at you). People in some areas are able to buy better-quality new items more frequently, meaning their almost-new castoffs end up in thrift stores. Other places you might find slightly-worn Wal-Mart stuff on most racks. You can still find gems in those areas, but the hunt’s a lot more challenging.

Keep your mind open: Like I said before, if you walk in with a short list of specific items, you’ll probably walk out disappointed. If, on the other hand, you keep a running list of items you’ll need in the near future and are willing to be a bit flexible, you might find stuff that’s better than you expected.  Need something to wear to a friend’s wedding this summer? Rather than going in looking for A Purple Dress, Knee-Length, Low-Cut, just browse the dress racks- you might find a green strapless number that looks fabulous on you and that you like better than the purple number you were looking for. But conversely…

Stay within limits: you need to find your balance between being open-minded and buying everything that catches your eye. Ten $5 items still equals $50 out of your pocket. That’s why I like to keep a broad list of what I need, plus a budget. I have room to get that nice pair of jeans AND the t-shirt that looks so good on me, but not to spend $30 on a dress that’s a great deal but that I’ll never wear.

Expand your size range: Maybe you always buy your shirts in “Medium” when you shop for new clothes. That’s a good place to start at a thrift store, but it can pay to expand your horizons. If items are sorted by what’s on the tag, you might miss out on an amazing sweater that says “large” on the tag, but that someone shrunk in the wash. Bear in mind, too, that there’s a huge range of brands in a thrift store, and they all size differently- you might be an 8 in brand A’s pants, a 10 in another and a 6 in a third. Hold stuff up to you, see if it might work. Then…

Try it on: Thrift stores will generally not take returns, so you’d better be pretty sure about hat you’re buying (though exchanges are usually an option, “store credit” isn’t always).  A good thrift store will have fitting rooms, and if they’re not understaffed (or overrun with inconsiderate customers- don’t even get me started!), you’ll have a good spot to try items on. Another bonus with thrift stores is that people who work there don’t get paid on commission, and there’s no high-pressure selling. I once (when asked for my opinion) told a woman some jeans made her butt look kind of flat, and she could do better. She was incredibly grateful, and she DID find something better. When you’re shopping a lot of brands, sizes and styles, you really want to know if an item’s right for you.

Know the store’s return/exchange policy: see above. You might not get a refund, you might have to bring it back within 7 or 14 days. If you can’t come back for three weeks, tell them. Cashiers or supervisors will probably be able to make a note on your receipt that will extend your exchange privileges.

If you’re into haggling over everything…: Don’t try it at the chain stores- they’re probably not allowed to do it. Pricers get training, and unless there’s a glaring flaw in the item that they obviously missed, the price is going to stand (admittedly, some managers or supervisors may be more flexible than others).  Some customers will try haggle over every missing button, and it’s a waste of time. I don’t know how other stores are with changing prices; I’m not a haggler, myself. Where I worked, trying to haggle over prices was about as productive as trying it at Wal-Mart. We just couldn’t change prices outside of extreme circumstances. If something seems WAY off, ask; just remember that you’re at a retail store, not a garage sale.

Know your prices: You can find amazing deals at thrift stores, far cheaper than buying new. You will, however, sometimes find oddly-priced stuff. Dollar-store items for $1.50., for example. Boots in great condition for $9.99 that were $11.99 new (we used to wonder, once in a while, what the pricers were smoking). Know what you’re willing to pay. Be prepared to pay more for good-quality items, though. There are still stores out there where you might find a $300 jacket for 50 cents, but they’re becoming extremely rare. At the store I worked at, an item with the tags still on could cost up to 50% of its original price, so that $300 jacket would still cost you $150. A great deal if you wanted that jacket anyway, but not a great impulse buy.

Go for the baby clothes!: That one deserves an exclamation point. You can find incredible baby stuff second-hand; that plus gifts is how both of our kids were clothed the first few years of their lives, and we still don’t buy much new. Three reasons for this: First, people get ridiculous amounts of new clothing as baby gifts. Second, babies grow very quickly. Third, because of the first two points, babies often only wear an outfit once or twice (or not at all) before they outgrow it. And really, how does a baby who doesn’t even crawl yet wear out his or her clothes? They don’t. Stains you want to watch for… wear and tear not so much an issue. The brands you find will depend on what’s donated, but the condition is frequently near-perfect.

Kids, too: As kids get older, they wear their clothes out more. There are still deals to be had, though. Your kid doesn’t need new clothes to play in- save the good stuff for school and outings, and let them wear $1 sweat pants to play in the mud. Also, dress clothes don’t tend to get worn much before they’re outgrown. Then there’s the regular surprises: stuff someone got brand-new as a gift and it didn’t fit or wasn’t their taste, or stuff donated by parents who buy their kids new clothes every few weeks. Take advantage of those deals!

Other Items

You can find lots of household items at thrift stores, often at incredible prices. A few things to remember:

– Watch for items that go with your collections: this is best place to find them cheap*, especially if they’re not in great demand. Seriously. If you collect souvenir shot glasses, look for 69-cent deals that somebody else didn’t want.

– Think before buying electronics: I can’t speak for all stores, but this stuff’s often not tested beyond seeing whether the power light comes on when it’s plugged in. Use the outlets provided for testing, but in the case of DVD players and other things that require other equipment to test properly, you might be buying blind. You might notice either a sign on the wall or a sticker on the product saying that all sales are final- even if the thing won’t turn on when you get it home. I won’t buy a camera at a thrift store- if it’s there, there’s probably something wrong with it. With stuff that requires batteries, either bring a few of your own along for testing or ask at the cash desk- they might have some spares you can borrow for a few minutes. Screwdrivers, too!

-Know prices for bulk-priced items: Books might all be $1, or they might be priced according to the publisher’s price. This will probably be posted on the wall or shelf. Also note that bulk pricing usually applies unless otherwise marked– if there’s a price tag on your item that’s higher than the bulk price, that’s the price. People often complain and say, “but the sign says…” You might disagree, but they’ve priced it that way for a reason.

The most important thing to remember with thrift store shopping is to try to have fun. Slogging through a thousand items can be boring as hell if you treat it like a job, but if you take a friend and laugh at the tacky sweaters and help each other look for what you need, it can be a thrilling hunt and a fun way to pass some time. Try not to get too disappointed if you don’t find exactly what you want- it might be there next time. Oh, and leave the kids at home if at all possible- I’m currently finding it almost impossible to do serious browsing with the kids around.

Please add any tips you’re discovered in the comments!

*This and garage sales if it’s garage sale season

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