June 29, 2012

Quick Tip: Shopping Thrift

I receive a lot of emails from readers asking where I get many of the pieces featured in my posts. While I do purchase the vast majority at either department stores or boutiques, I get a fair amount of items (and some of my favorites ones) from thrift stores. Sometimes it takes a lot of digging and multiple return trips, but with persistence, and a few quick tips, you can definitely score some great finds.

First, do a little research. There are some great websites that track local thrift stores, and will give you locations and recommendations. I particularly like The Thrift Shopper, which offers a national thrift store directory. Though they do not by any means have every single shop, they are a great place to start if you’re new to thrifting, and a great resource to discover some lesser known shops if you’re an experienced thrifter.

While researching, make note of whether a store is straight-up thrift, resale, or consignment. A thrift store relies solely on donations. They will basically take anything as long as it is in good shape, and the prices usually run the whole spectrum depending on the store. Some, like Goodwill, will price everything to move. They don’t have the staff or the need to research pricing because they go through such a large quantity and have such a fast turnover that it isn’t necessary for them. On the other hand, somewhere like Housing Works is a bit more discerning and will usually hire employees that have a better idea of designer pricing and rotate the stock with seasonal items which can command higher prices (who is going to pay top dollar for a wool coat in the middle of June?).

A resale store usually still accepts donations, though much more discerningly, but primarily relies on people selling back their gently worn (or sometimes brand new!) clothes. They usually buy and stock on a seasonal basis and will do the research to know what an item is worth. Though the price won’t be as good as Salvation Army, you will have a better chance of finding that great designer piece you are looking for, and still for a lot less than retail.

Consignment shops are similar to resale stores, but unlike resale, where a seller gets a set percentage of the price that the store will resell it for, with consignment stores a price is agreed upon for the final sale price and once it sells, the store and the seller divide the money. You can find some really incredible pieces from consignment stores, but because each item is valued individually by the owner and not standardized, you can wind up with some steeper prices. They are still not usually as high as retail, but are generally higher than your basic thrift or resale shop. Also, since if an item doesn’t sell in a set time period the owner gets it back, the impetus to set a higher price is greater.

Another good tip is to check out when stores offer special promotions. Some, like the Salvation Army, have special ‘family days’ where almost everything is half off or offer other deals during holidays. Keep in mind that this is a double-edged sword because though the items are even further discounted, it means that pieces, particularly the more desirable designer ones, fly off the shelves early. As a result, sometimes targeting the day before a big sale might actually yield better finds.

Anytime you are shopping, but particularly when thrifting, a tailor’s tape measure is your best friend. People make all kinds of strange alterations to clothing, so don’t take a printed size at face value. This is especially true with pants, as they are often taken in, let out, or hemmed. Like with any item, trying it on is vital, but not all thrift stores have dressing rooms, and most won’t allow returns or exchanges. Knowing your own exact measurements (waist, inseam, sleeve, neck, and chest, and not just your vanity sizes but your actual measurements) will help ensure that you don’t buy something that doesn’t fit. It won’t necessarily mean you like the way something looks on you, but it means you will be able to get it on your body, which is the first step.

It’s also important to remember not to get discouraged. Depending on where you live, it may take longer to find what you’re looking for, but check back regularly and make friends with the people who run the shop. Once they recognize you as a regular customer, they might give you the inside scoop on when they will restock the shelves (or maybe even hold some stuff aside if you’re really lucky). I’d also suggest that keeping an open mind when thrifting will yield the best results. If you go into a store looking for one very particular item, your chances of being disappointed are much greater. That’s not to say it’s impossible to thrift for specifics, it just means you’re more likely to need multiple visits or locations until you find what you’re searching for. The best way to thrift is just to look around at everything and wait and see what you find. Don’t just buy something because it has a designer label either. If you don’t have a place for it in your wardrobe, save your money for something you do.

Keep in mind that thrift stores rely on donations to fill their shelves. So, having an idea of the area surrounding each store will help you pick out which stores you might want to target. Some national thrift stores, like Goodwill or Salvation Army, spread their donations out among their multiple locations, but for the most part the locals are going to be the ones providing the items you’ll see on thrift store racks.  Wealthier neighborhoods are also more inclined to donate goods, as they don’t wear things until they fall apart like those without disposable income. So, looking at thrift stores in more upscale areas may increase your chances of finding the higher quality items you may be looking for.

The other main tip to keep in mind when doing thrift shopping is to really examine the item. There’s nothing worse than bringing home a great piece only to discover that it has a hole or stain and is worthless. It may not have cost you as much, but it is still a waste if you have to toss it out in the end.  Be sure to check your seams and give the whole garment a once over before purchasing. Also double check wherever they’ve added a price tag, since many stores just use staples, you want to make sure that the tag itself hasn’t damaged the garment. And of course, once you purchase an item, make sure to properly clean it so it’s as good as new before you wear it yourself. Some higher end thrift stores launder items before selling, but for the most part you just don’t know, so wash and then wear. For shoes and accessories that can’t get thrown in the washing machine or dropped at the cleaners, a bottle of Lysol antibacterial spray will do the trick.

One last thing to remember, the proceeds from most thrift stores go to a charitable organization of some kind. If you live in a big city with multiple thrifting options, do some research and support a charity that means something to you. That way, you can give back by giving to yourself!

What are your thrifting tips?

Stay stylish,
- JJ

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