10 Important Tips for Successful Thrift Store Shopping

As states begin to relax guidelines, second-hand stores are, once again, open for business. I love a good thrift store find!  Nothing beats the feeling of finding the perfect accent piece or outfit at a price that is a mere fraction of what you would have paid for it at retail. 

Thrift stores are also the perfect place to find items to add to your gift stash, a special place in your home where you store items to give for special occasions. A gift stash keeps you from purchasing gifts at higher prices, possibly going over budget.

My husband and I have been thrifting for over three decades and we’ve developed a checklist of ten strategies to help make your second hand shopping a positive experience. That’s why today I’ll share ten tips for making thrift store shopping a positive experience. 

In this YouTube video, we show you exactly what to look for at your local thrift store.

1.  Know your prices.  

I have created a descending hierarchy of thrift stores within a certain radius of my home.  Where I begin my journey depends on what I am shopping for.  If I am looking for furniture, I may choose to begin my search at the Mission Mart.  There are two locations in my town and they generally have a nice selection, with fantastic prices.  Plus, all the proceeds stay local and are used to benefit our local women and children’s mission. 

If I just can’t find what I want there, I will look at The Attic, a high end resale shop.  Their prices aren’t as good as the Mission Mart, but the quality is fantastic and they have a “Dutch Auction” system, in which the longer the item has been in the shop, the lower the price of the item descends. 

If clothing is on my list, the stores I visit first, second, and so on will be in a different order.  Think through your shopping strategy and driving route before you leave home.  This will save you time and money. 

2.  Know their discounts, sales, and cycles 

The nice thing about turning 50 is that the senior citizen discounts start rolling in!  And when you turn 60, this trend soars even higher!  Ask your local thrift store about discounts for senior citizens, armed services members, city employees, educators, etc.  Make a note of the days of the week on which discounts are offered for which you qualify. 

Also ask if they have a monthly sales flyer.  This document will list special discounts for every day or week of the month.  For instance, “five dollar clothing bag” or half-price clothing are popular days at thrift stores. 

Once I know the sales, I’m going to pick one of those days to visit that specific second-hand store – with a list of items and sizes in hand to maximize my shopping dollars.   

3.  Get to know the employees  

Be kind to these employees, who are most likely working long hours for minimum wage or slightly above.  They are doing their best to provide you with great service and low prices.  However, they must follow the rules of store management. 

I have found that a little honey goes a long way.  I have had store employees grab items from the racks and point them out to me when I am finding clothing and accessories for something special – like my child’s “50’s party”.  They have also pointed out discounts of which I was not aware and helped me shove as many items of clothing as possible into a “$5 bag”.  If there is any “give” in their policies, they may be more than happy to get an assistant manager to discount that item with a flaw they did not notice when pricing the item.  

Don’t ask for a discount on every single item.  Don’t abuse your power as a customer.  If there is a flaw, point it out and then be gracious as they make their decision about a discount.  Always, always, always be absolutely, positively honest!  No switching price tags (happens all the time to second-hand stores) and no getting upset if they honestly cannot help you. 

4.  Know your name brands 

Let’s face it, name brand items often last longer, are manufactured with stronger stitching and better fabrics, and the colors don’t fade.  But, there is no way that I am paying the prices that department stores charge for name brand items.  This is where thrift stores shine!  Use your smart phone to check the price of the same (or a similar item) brand new.  Then you will know that you are getting a bargain that will last a long while. 

5.  Have a list of seasonal needs 

As soon as thrift stores put out their new seasonal merchandise, plan to descend on them like a horde of locusts.  Just kidding!  Seriously, go through your bins of clothing, shoes, and accessories.  (You should have these bins sorted by size and season).  Write down a list of sizes for next season’s boots, mittens, shorts, swimsuits, etc.  Stick the list in your purse.  This list allows you to buy with confidence.  In this way you don’t overbuy or miss getting something that you should have bought. 

6.  Bring a flashlight  

The florescent lighting in many stores is a “yellow light” and does not show up light colored stains!  A true white light will show imperfections.  It also allows you to see small print better.  Even one of those small pin lights will shine a more perfect white light and show stains and imperfections.  For those of us over 40, flashlights also aid us in seeing small print on electronics and appliances.  

7.  Ask about return/refund policy 

Ask if their return policy is in writing.  The policy is for both your protection and theirs. A lot of questions and hard feelings can be avoided with a clear, concise return policy.  Once you have the policy in hand, follow it.  If something breaks a day or two after the expiration date, it doesn’t hurt to ask for special dispensation in returning your item. 

Sometimes they will have mercy (especially if you have been kind and considerate in the past).  But, if they say “no”, continue to be kind and take the item back home and dispose of it.  No fair disposing of the item in the store’s dumpster (especially if it is a large item).  Believe me, these stores have to throw out a lot of junk already.  They use every square inch of that dumpster every week. 

8.  Don’t be afraid to bring an item with you 

If you are matching a color, texture, or style, don’t be afraid to bring along the item that you are trying to match.  If you need shoes or accessories to match your blue dress, bring along the dress.  I always stop by the front counter and show them the item in my bag.  “Hi, I’m here today to find earring and a necklace that match this dress.  I brought this from home to be sure I get the right color.” 

I have never had an employee turn down my request to carry my own item into the store. In fact, more times than not, they have taken time out of their day to offer to help me.  Do be sure you are absolutely, positively transparent about what you are bringing into their store. This is for your peace of mind as well as theirs. Yep!  Believe it or not, some people try to sneak (steal) items from their establishment.  

9.  Ask to plug it in and test it out  

It is not inconveniencing store employees to ask to try out an appliance or electronic gadget before purchasing it.  If an employee rolls his or her eyes or gives you an indication that you are being a pain in the backside for asking to test an item, then it it the employee who needs a change in attitude. 

Many years ago my husband began bringing along a CD or DVD that he knew played properly.  When he was testing an item that required it, he would just tell the employee, “I brought this CD from home and I’d like to use it to test this player,”  We have never had an employee decline.   

10.  Check buttons, hemlines, and zippers

Try the zippers, check the seams, examine the hemlines, and look at the buttons.  

In my zeal over a new “find”, I sometimes forget to check the basics.  If those buttons are hard to match, you may wind up replacing every single button on a sweater, rather than sew on one that definitely looks out of place. 

Making a simple check-list is really helpful if your children are shopping with you.  This trains them on how to shop second-hand too!  These skills are wonderful when passed down generationally!

Buying second hand can save you a boatload of money, not to mention the fact that there can be a whole lot of fun in the search.

Happy Shopping!  

Did I miss anything?  If you have tips or great thrift stories, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.  

8 thoughts on “10 Important Tips for Successful Thrift Store Shopping”

  1. Oh I like that white light tip! My biggest thing is SMELL EVERYTHING! Our family is super sensitive to cigarette smoke, and sometimes even though an item is clean it has absorbed that smell, and may or may not be salvageable for my family.

    Also, have you heard of the Goodwill Outlet?! I love going to the one in Jacksonville, IL. I think my biggest find was a book that I paid .25 for and then my friend flipped because she recognized it as super rare… It currently sells for well over $200! But I’m keeping it. Because, well… It’s a good book! Hahaha

    • No! I have never heard of a Goodwill Outlet! Holy cow! This sounds like a place that I definitely need to visit! My husband has the same problem with cat fur. We had to be super picky about buying a home. He could walk into an open house and tell within about 30 seconds if they had a cat or not. You really can’t get rid of the cat dander easily. We had to “pass” on so many homes because there was no way that he could live in them. I am super sensitive to cigarette smoke, too.

  2. Thrift shopping is one of my most relaxing self-care activities. I enjoy looking for good deals and finding interesting and cool things. I love your pointers about bringing in a flash light and knowing/researching your brands. I never thought to do those things. Genius! xxx

    • Thanks, Josie! I agree that thrift shopping is all about that thrill of never knowing what treasures you are going to find that day. Such fun!

  3. Thanks for sharing all these tips about thrift shopping! I’m excited to try it out as soon as COVID is over! 🙂 One of the good things about this is that it’s more sustainable as well! And the gratification of getting a great item for a very good price just can’t be beat with shopping at retail stores.

    • Kathleen, you are so right! It feels good to do something which is sustainable, fun, and saves money. Good luck with your shopping.

  4. Your tip on bringing a white light is priceless! Wow! Also I agree on the importance of shopping around to know the different price ranges at your stores. Interestingly, there are a couple thrift stores, or perhaps better called second-hand stores, in our area that are really rather pricey. It’s worth doing comparison shopping for sure to get the lay of the land.

    • Thanks, Katrina! I agree that prices can vary wildly. Usually we ask friends or others in the community where to find the best buys. What amazes me is that after years in this town, someone will come up to me and tell me about a great second-hand store that I have never visited or heard of.


Leave a Comment