40 Thrift Store Secrets Every Savvy Bargain Hunter Should Know

A thrift store can be overwhelming, especially for newbies who don’t know the ropes. Fortunately, though, seasoned shoppers and shop employees know their way around and have shared some of the best tips and tricks – as well as some secrets about how thrift stores operate. Here, then, are 40 of the best nuggets of advice for how to bag yourself a bargain.

40. Start with housewares

When cleaning house, we tend to hold onto small items such as jewelry. But plates and glasses often end up in the “donate” pile as they take up space without getting much use. So start your shopping trip in the housewares section – where you might find something extra valuable. Pippa Williams, who blogs about thrifting at Too Cheap Blondes, told Yahoo, “There are sets of china that costs thousands of dollars, and you can very easily find it for $19.99 for the entire set.”

39. Haggling is a no-no

Former thrift store employee Kitty Fields told Tough Nickel that haggling will do little to ingratiate you with shop staffers. She said that customers would often try and talk down the price of an already deeply discounted item. And at this point, she would deny them. “The more you argue with a thrift store employee,” Fields wrote, the less likely they would be to “give you a break in the future.”

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38. They do what with my donations?

If you make regular donations to a thrift shop, don’t assume that all of your items will end up on sale. You see, staffers typically sort through goods to find the best pieces and put those out for buyers. The rest – including items that stay on shelves for too long without selling – ends up with charities, at a recycling center or, in the worst case scenario, in the trash.

37. Location matters

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The Simple Dollar’s Trent Hamm advised, “You want to know where affluent people live because it’s those affluent people who tend to donate good stuff to thrift stores and consignment shops. These are people who tend to buy expensive things and then turn them over at a high rate.” Just be ready to pay a slightly higher price for your purchases in such areas.

36. Shop private, expect higher prices

Non-profit thrift stores often put their earnings toward the greater good, supporting job-training initiatives, local shelters, food banks and more. As such, they accept more donations – and sell them at a deeper discount – in order to make the money that the community needs. Private stores, though, will always be more selective with what they sell. And because these businesses have to pay their rent and staff, their prices tend to be higher too.

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35. Avoid weekend shopping trips

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The Krazy Coupon Lady website brings together a group of moms who have a simple mission: to cut their grocery bills by at least half. And their discount savvy has permeated into other areas, including thrifting. Indeed, the group suggest avoiding second-hand stores over the weekend, as the shops will be crowded and picked over. A mid-week trip is best, then – especially if the shop restocks its shelves before you visit.

34. Thrift stores don’t do laundry

Stacie Morrell – who has 30 years’ experience in the thrifting business – told Urbo that second-hand stores typically do not wash donated clothes. “Clothing is received in such quantity that no store can launder them before putting them out. It would take forever and be very costly in electricity,” she said. So, although many donors wash their wares before handing them over, be sure to cleanse your purchases once you get them home.

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33. Test electronics before you buy them

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No matter how charming a vintage appliance looks on the shelf, there’s probably a reason it’s at a secondhand store. One top tip, then, is to test any electronic goods to make sure that they work before deciding whether or not to purchase them. Indeed, former thrift-shop employee Kitty Fields told Tough Nickel that buyers should find an in-store outlet, plug in the gadget and give it a trial run. And if the device doesn’t function properly, don’t buy – as it could be a big waste of money.

32. Don’t forget to check online

Much of the fun of thrifting comes from exploring the shelves and finding treasure in person. However, lots of popular thrift stores have now taken a portion of their business online. And it’s on the internet that they typically sell the donations with the biggest potential to make a profit, via online auction sites such as eBay. So, don’t forget to log on once in a while to see if there are any bargains about.

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31. Make end-of-semester shopping trips

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If you live near a university, you’re in luck. Why? Because students tend to clear out all of their furniture at the end of the semester and many pieces will end up in local thrift shops. So, as the college kids are moving out of the dorms, swoop in and buy the items that they’ve donated. And this is especially handy if you’re stocking up for a child who’ll soon be in college themselves, as you’ll be able to nab many of the items for less than the regular price.

30. Use labels as a resource

A traditional shopping trip will have you buying clothes from brands you trust for their quality and pricing. Of course, thrifting doesn’t always afford you the same peace of mind; after all, you might not recognize the brands behind the clothes for sale. Fortunately, however, with a smartphone you can research the name on the label to learn more about it.

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29. Sometimes, “vintage” means “overpriced”

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Thrift store owner Heidi Ferguson told Urbo that shops marketing themselves as “vintage” will probably charge more for their wares. “Oftentimes, I see thrift stores marking prices way up on items they deem ‘old’ or ‘valuable’ because they’ve done an internet search for it,” she revealed. Instead, simply go to a normal secondhand store and dig. And with a little luck, you’ll be able to find equally “vintage” items there but without the markup.

28. Think twice about toys

Before a new toy reaches shops, it undergoes testing to make sure that none of its parts or materials are dangerous to kids. A thrift store probably won’t administer the same rigid examination, though, meaning that the vintage toys you buy there might contain unsavories including lead. So, if you don’t know for sure that an item is safe, leave it behind.

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27. The price is right

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Some thrift-store shoppers use a pretty shady trick to get even lower prices. Believe it or not, these chancers rip off the tags and hope that the cashier will key in a better price instead. But Tough Nickel’s Kitty Fields warns against such a practice. You see, Fields knew about the move when she was a thrift-shop staffer, and she would choose a higher price if she thought customers were trying to cheat the system.

26. Managers make shopping fair for everyone

It should be easy for thrift-shop employees to skim the best items off the top of the pile, right? Wrong; in most stores this isn’t the case. Instead, managers set rules for staff purchases and personally handle pricing too. And this means that none of the staff can sneakily undervalue an item before buying it for themselves.

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25. Put maybe items in your cart too

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If you find yourself mulling over a particular item, don’t leave it behind. “When in doubt, put it in your cart or take the sales ticket until you make your final decision,” ThriftDiving.com’s Serena Appiah told Reader’s Digest. Otherwise, “‘thrift vultures’ [will be] waiting for you to walk away from that amazing find,” and it’ll be lost forever.

24. Make a list, check it twice

Wendy Wynne, a blogger at ProperStyle, suggested via ThredUp that all thrifters “do a closet audit” before going shopping. That way, you know exactly what’s in your wardrobe and what isn’t. According to Wynne, this will help “keep your impulse buys at bay,” and you’ll stock up on what you need instead.

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23. Branch out

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Thrift stores aren’t always well-organized. So, if you have a particular item in mind, it might not be in the section you’d expect. Women’s clothes can end up in the men’s section, for example, and sometimes other customers move things around. The bottom line, then, is that you should branch out into different departments to find what you want.

22. Bring the tools you need

A seasoned thrifter always brings a tool kit along for a shopping expedition. So, what should you be bringing along with you? First, you’ll want to pack a tape measure, which you can use to make sure furniture will fit in your home. A set of batteries, meanwhile, will help you test electronics to see if they work. Also, bring a magnet to test jewelry – sterling silver won’t stick, silverplate will – and an old towel to put down in the trunk should you buy something. Hand sanitizer never hurts, either.

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21. Pay attention to the tag

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At Goodwill stores, for example, staffers use differently colored tags to keep track of merchandise so that they’re able to rotate what’s not selling and keep the stock fresh. However, savvy shoppers can learn the sequence of tag hues, which is a very handy thing to know. You see, every week, Goodwill reduces the prices on the oldest color – meaning that you can save even more on your shopping.

20. Changing seasons = better thrifting

Experienced thrifters, such as Virginia from LiveLoveDIY, know that weather shifts make for better bargain-hunting opportunities. “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,” she wrote. Meanwhile, thrift shops also experience an influx in donations just after the holidays and right before the tax write-off deadline.

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19. Don’t fall for “luxury” designations

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Sometimes, Goodwill and other thrift stores will section off “boutique” or high-end clothes from the rest of their offerings. However, these special selections don’t always warrant the label – or the higher price tag. In most cases, you’ll find better deals on even nicer, more obscure brands by braving the regular racks.

18. Not everything’s used

It’s not uncommon to pick up an item at a thrift store and see that it still has its original tags. That’s right: donors sometimes drop off never-been-worn pieces. On top of that, some retail stores donate their unsold clearance items; for example, Target brings all of its leftover goods to Goodwill. In other words, you can buy new things at the secondhand store.

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17. Have a tailor on speed dial

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Okay, speed dial might be extreme. But do keep in mind that you have the option to hire a tailor to spruce up your thrift-store finds. Shea Daspin, a New York-based stylist, told Best Life, “Don’t pass something up just because the pockets are messed up, because things like that are easy fixes for a tailor. For ten bucks you can get a zipper replaced.”

16. Try on everything

Any thrift-savvy shopper will suggest you try on the clothes that have caught your eye. Many second-hand stores have a no-return policy, so it’s worth taking the time to slip into the dressing room. And you should always wear form-fitting clothes when you go thrifting too. That way, even if there aren’t fitting rooms, you can try on your potential purchases over your outfit.

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15. Call ahead

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Perhaps you’re on the hunt for a very specific item. Well, if you are, try calling ahead to your favorite thrift store to see if they have what you’re looking for. At a smaller shop, you might even be able to request that the staff call you when your item of choice hits the shelves.

14. Know when to say “no”

Simply put, there are some items that you should never buy second hand. For starters, say “no” to underwear and swimsuits for sanitary reasons. Meanwhile, mattresses might house bed bugs, as could plush children’s toys. And always avoid any child-related item with safety standards – think car seats, strollers, cribs and the like – because older models might not meet current requirements.

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13. Get the inside scoop

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Fortune favors the bold, especially when it comes to thrifting. So, don’t be afraid to ask the staff of your favorite shop when its shelves are set to be restocked. Chances are that this is done on the same day each week. And this, of course, means that you can start scheduling your shopping trips so you’re there as soon as the new merchandise is.

12. Invite a friend

Sometimes, you just need a second opinion before you buy, so why not invite a friend along on your next thrifting journey? That way, you’ll have someone to encourage you to make a purchase – or to put that awful item back. Bonus points, too, if you take a buddy who has an eye for finding hidden gems among the racks, as their skill will benefit both of you.

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11. Prep for furniture beforehand

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If you’re on the hunt for furniture, it’s best to prepare in advance – just in case you find something. So, before you head out, measure the space that you’re trying to fill – as well as the doors, stairwells and hallways that you have to clear when moving something in. All you have to do then is bring a tape measure with you to ensure that a particular find will fit through all the obstacles.

10. Befriend the staff

The more you visit a thrift store, the more you’ll get to know the staff – and they’ll get to know you, too. And over time, this growing relationship can help you score a dream find. For instance, the staff might call you ahead of time to let you know that an item you’ve been searching for is now in stock. Or, if you’re really lucky, they’ll point you to a one-of-a-kind piece that has just hit the sales floor.

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9. Be real with yourself

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Long before you step into the thrift store, Elle magazine recommends that you “evaluate your closet and your capabilities.” In other words, be honest with yourself: will you ever have anything tailored? And after that, will you actually wear it? Don’t let a cheap price tag convince you to buy something you won’t actually use.

8. Explore small shops, too

Thrifting doesn’t start and end with big-name stores such as the Salvation Army and Goodwill. What’s more, independently owned shops tend to be less crowded, which means that their selection won’t be completely picked over by Sunday. And, although we do caution against haggling, the staff at smaller retailers might be more open to negotiating without issue.

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7. Forego the flea market

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Thrift shops receive donations and then place the best items out for sale. It’s fair to say, then, that while some research into the pieces and their value may take place, this analysis is less than extensive. At flea markets, though, the seller knows exactly what they have on the table and what it’s worth. In other words, you’re much less likely to score an amazing deal at the flea market.

6. Get into a thrifting routine

Make a trip to the thrift store part of your weekly shopping routine, alongside groceries, gas and dry cleaning. And as you become a more and more experienced thrifter, you’ll improve your ability to quickly pinpoint the treasures hidden among the racks. You’ll become familiar with the merchandise, too, making it easy to spot new additions.

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5. Find your light

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Overhead fluorescent lighting doesn’t shed the best glow on your potential thrift-store purchases. Indeed, the dimness makes it hard to spot stains, rips and holes. To combat this, though, you can switch on your smartphone’s flashlight to examine each piece. Alternatively, find a store window and bask each piece in natural light, removing any item that has irreparable imperfections.

4. Go by feel

Sometimes, a piece’s label doesn’t tell the whole story. That’s why Los Angeles-based thrift-store shopper Nikki Mateo told Reader’s Digest that she touches every item to evaluate its worth. “Ignore the brands. Ignore the sizes, which are never accurate anyway. It’s all about the material. If the fabric feels good and luxurious, pick up the item and analyze it further. This is how you find hidden gems,” she said.

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3. Bring your donations with you

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Why not make your thrift-store trip a two-for-one journey? That’s right: you could empty your closet and bring your own donations before shopping. For one thing, this practice will show you what, if anything, you need to add to your wardrobe before you shop. And you can give yourself a bit of good karma by donating your wares too.

2. Take a lap

Kentin Waits, a thrifter with a quarter-century of shopping experience behind him, has a very particular shopping method. He told Money Talks News, “I like to give each store a quick once-over the moment I arrive… to gauge the general quality of the merchandise and see if there are any obvious treasures.” And after his initial sweep, Waits returns to the highlights and digs deeper.

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1. Thrift while you travel

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When life takes you to faraway cities and countries, take yourself to the thrift stores at your destination. You’ll introduce yourself to a brand-new market and, perhaps, a totally fresh selection of secondhand goods too. And not only that, but if you’re traveling, a thrifted piece could make a unique souvenir to boot.

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