A Guide To Thrift Shops And What Not To Buy Used

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It’s been said that one person’s trash is another’s treasure, and although this saying can pertain to a lot of different areas in life, one place where this particularly holds true is in the thrift store, especially for Keren Charles, who describes herself as “Atlanta’s thrift shopping expert.”

The personal shopper, fashion blogger, and all-around thrifting enthusiast tells Urbo that the first time she bought clothes from a thrift store, it was out of practicality.

“I had a job at Popeye’s, and we had to wear black uniform pants,” she explains. “My mom suggested that instead of spending a lot of money on pants that were going to get dirty, I should just go to the thrift store.”

Clothes on hangers on display at a thrift store
Olivia Gonzalez on Unsplash

Charles remembers being worried that her friends would see her.

“There’s a stigma [surrounding thrift shopping],” she says. “People think you have to be poor, or homeless, or that you don’t have enough money to go to the mall. The majority of thrift shoppers are middle-class people, and they’re just trying to save money.”

What a difference a couple of decades can make. Today, Charles is one of the internet’s most-visible secondhand-style experts.

“It’s the thrill of the hunt,” she says. “I like going through all of those racks, looking for buried treasures.”

These days, shoppers don’t seem to need much outside motivation. The used clothing market is expected to be worth $33 billion by 2021, according to resale site ThredUp’s 2017 Annual Resale Report.

street shop with colorful clothes and bags on display
Min on Pexels

A new generation of consumers seems to be drawn to thrift stores—not just for style, but because of the social benefits of buying secondhand. Thrift stores don’t contribute to the mistreatment of textile workers half a world away. They prevent cute clothes from piling up in landfills. Plucking treasures from the Goodwill isn’t just fun: It’s ethically responsible.

As such, secondhand buying has become one of the most popular ways to get items on the cheap.

What’s more, you may even be able to make a little cash for yourself by reselling those items you buy at a discount.

But before you go strolling into your neighborhood thrift shop thinking you’re going to uncover a valuable ancient treasure or make a fortune on the items you find and sell, you’ll need to know a few things.

Patience is a (much needed) virtue.

If you’ve never been inside a thrift store before, you might think you’ve hit the promised land when you walk in the door.

From blenders to paintings to that childhood game you stopped playing 20 years ago, you can find just about everything you need—and even more that you don’t.

Because of this, it’s easy to become overwhelmed, and you may want to throw your thrift store dreams out the window.

But you can get past this. The trick to finding that hidden treasure is patience, and lots of it.

Finding a gem takes a lot of patience.

“You really have to invest time when thrift store shopping,” says Tracy Hemmer, a 10-year reseller and thrift store enthusiast who lives in Maryland. “You have to be willing to look through every rack. There are a lot of ugly clothes that get donated. Finding a gem takes a lot of patience.”

Be willing to travel for a discount.

In the thrift store shopping world, there’s a belief that the area in which you get your browse on makes all the difference in the quality of items you will find.

In other words, hitting up stores in higher-income areas means you’ll find fancier labels and higher-quality merchandise than you would in areas that aren’t as economically prosperous. It makes sense if you think about it. But is it actually true?

I do think that the location matters in respect to the kinds of items that are donated,” says Rob Stephenson, who along with his wife, Melissa, offers reselling classes and runs the website Flea Market Flipper. “Thrift stores near a more affluent neighborhood will most likely have higher-end items at a very discounted rate.”

Old metal shelf with vintage boxes and lamps on it
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Stephenson also believes his particular location is beneficial for his reselling business.

“We aren’t far from Disneyworld, so that plays to our advantage sometimes,” he says. “We can sometimes find Disney items at a lower cost.”

Hemmer, however, hasn’t found that the areas in which she shops makes much of a difference.

“I do not feel the location of the store matters, at least at thrift stores versus consignment stores,” she says.

Get the inside scoop on when to shop.

There’s lots of buzz about when to go to stores and if visiting them during certain times of the week will save you more dough. Some shops offer discount days, but with that comes an increased number of shoppers, which means the store is more crowded (and hot, uncomfortable, and potentially aromatic in a bad way). Plus, items will likely be more picked over than usual.

You may be able to find high-quality merchandise, however, by knowing the ins and outs of your favorite thrift shop.

“I will say if you can time it when they first put out a new lot of items, or when they are discounting some items, that is always good for finding items at a low cost,” says Stephenson. “We love checking out our local thrift stores on a weekly basis.”

The next time you shop, ask a manager when the store typically puts out new merchandise and on what day they usually mark down their products. And get there soon after they do it to get your hands on those hot-ticket items first.

While we’re on the subject, staying friendly and developing relationships with the folks who work there can help you get an in on when to shop.

“I have good relationships with most of our local thrift shop owners,” Stephenson says. “This is a great thing because if I find something I am interested in buying, sometimes they will cut me a deal. They also notify me if something I might be interested in comes in even if it might not even be for sale on the floor yet.”

Go in with a plan.

One of the best things about thrift store shopping is you never know what you’re going to find. This melting pot of previously unwanted items can provide you with great joy but can also leave you feeling fed up. You may be able to beat those secondhand shopper blues by knowing what to look for.

“I find a lot of kids’ Under Armour, which is always nice,” says Hemmer. “Good kids’ clothes are a great find because they outgrow them so fast!”

Two people looking through crates of records
Artificial Photography on Unsplash

You should also know how much the product you’re about to buy is sold for in other stores.

“Any item is a good find if you get it for a great price and it’s still in very good condition,” Hemmer says. “If you get at least two or three uses out of it and it cost you less than 75 percent retail, it’s worth it.”

Is reselling for profit your calling?

What do you get when you combine a love for finding items on the cheap with a passion for making some cash on the side? The answer for many is reselling.

This extremely popular way to get your side hustle on involves purchasing discounted products and then reselling to others for a profit. Sounds like a dream, right?

But don’t go putting in your two weeks just yet. Reselling is a lot of work, and it may not be worth it to you.

Know what you’re getting into.

Thrift store shopping isn’t exactly a “get rich quick” type of prospect, but there’s a lot of potential to make good money. And just like most things in life, you’re not going to get there unless you get your hands dirty.

This business is like any other: You get what you put in.

“This business is like any other: You get what you put in,” says Stephenson. “That being said, if someone is willing to figure out the basics on how this works, it’s realistic to say someone can make $500 to $2,000 per month in five to 15 hours per week if they are putting some effort in.”

Stay realistic when it comes to the Benjamins.

While some people really hit it big in the reselling world, others have less success. Although you can definitely earn some extra cash by delving into this industry, it helps to have realistic expectations before you start thinking about going into early retirement.

Buying used to sell at consignment isn’t really profitable.

“Buying used to sell at consignment isn’t really profitable, because you only get 40 percent from a consignment store,” says Hemmer. “Ebay, Mercari, and Poshmark are all good online reselling options, but they, too, will eat into your profit. The best things to sell online are high-value, good brand-name items.”

You should also play it smart when it comes to pricing.

Old truck in a field, large hand painted signs in the bed pointing to a thrift shop and sale
chrissie kremer on Unsplash

“I am not a fan of what a lot of resellers do, which is find items that will make [a] $3 to $10 [profit],” Stephenson says. “To me, that is not a high enough return on investment to be worth the effort of buying, taking pictures, posting, selling, and shipping; $50 is really my lowest profit that I can make to make it worth my time.”

And it’s always good to make your customer feel like they’ve made a huge score, says Hemmer.

“Just be prepared for people to try to negotiate,” she says. “Price high so you can lower it and make the buyer feel like they negotiated the lower price.”

Get ready for the haters.

There’s a difference between being a cynic and being realistic when it comes to how people will respond to your new venture. Just sayin’.

But as with any business or money matter, you’ll likely find yourself feeling some friction with a customer or two in just a matter of time. And as long as you remember that haters gon’ hate—and their shenanigans have nothing to do with you—really, you should be just fine.

“Every once in a while, people think that we are taking advantage of someone,” Stephenson says. “But that is far from the truth! We keep good relationships with both our vendors (thrift store owners and flea market vendors) and our customers.

“We definitely aren’t out to scam people. Our local thrift stores make some good money on us on a monthly basis, our buyers get to buy an item at a discounted cost, and we get to benefit from a payment for our time for finding an item and connecting it to the person looking for it, and at a discounted cost. It’s a win–win for everyone!”

Just remember why you’re doing this.

Unfortunately, many find that turning what they love into a job becomes more of a job instead of doing what they love. This doesn’t have to be your sad tale, however, as long as you remember why you started in the first place.

I love the hunt so much.

“Hands down I love the hunt of finding items,” says Stephenson. “It is a thrill for me. It’s exciting looking for items and trying to figure out which will have the best return on investment. I get an extra pep in my step on days that I am visiting thrift stores because I love the hunt so much.”

Beware Certain Items

But hold on: Even though we’ve established all these perks of thrift shopping, that doesn’t mean you should only shop at second-hand stores. As Charles would tell you, used clothes are terrific. An old hotplate with a fraying power cable? Not so much.

By all means, channel your inner Macklemore and pop some tags; the come-ups are out there. But not with these items. Next time you stop by the Salvation Army shop, make sure you don’t throw even a few quarters at…

1. Children’s Car Seats

Car seats have expiration dates. Who knew?

Luckily, new mom Diana Kozlowski. In 2015, Kozlowski’s parents gave her a nice new car seat, which they found on clearance at a local toy store. It was a steal, they admitted. There was a reason the car seat was so discounted, though.

Kozlowski’s parents, like most caregivers, didn’t know to check. The car seat was expired.

“I mean, my parents wouldn’t willingly go buy an expired seat,” Kozlowski told NBC Chicago. “Let alone [that the seat was] expired for two years when they bought it. [It] was two years. It was like 2012.”

Kozlowksi found the expiration date on the base of the seat, and she didn’t use it. But how many more thrift-store car seats are sitting there expired, unfit for use, and ready to be plucked up by unknowing parents?

Car seats expire between 6 and 12 years from their manufacturing date, the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association told NBC Investigates. During this time, the plastics and styrofoam in the seat can degrade, creating a risk of failure during an accident. That’s not the only reason to avoid second-hand car seats, though.

Car seats should never be used after they’re involved in an accident, even if they were unoccupied during the crash. While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends replacing seats that after moderate to severe crashes, other organizations, like Car Seats For The Littles (CSFTL), say it’s likely you’ll need to replace the seat even after a minor collision; the difference depends on how the car seat was manufactured.

CSFTL, a 501(c)(3) organization focused on car seat safety, says “hairline fractures, not visible to the naked eye, and other damage can occur [in a crash] and cause your seat to fail in the event of a second crash.”

When you buy a second-hand car seat, there’s no way to know if that seat was involved in a fender bender, and when it comes to your kids’ safety, it’s better to be overcautious. If you see one in the thrift store, just stay away.

2. Bicycle Helmets

Bike helmets aren’t ultra-resilient armor. They’re not designed to protect you from repeated impacts—you shouldn’t think of them like Captain America’s shield for your head.

In fact, the foam core of most bicycle helmets absorb the blow of, say, the pavement, dispersing it instead of transferring it to your brain. As it absorbs the force of an impact, the foam compacts, rendering it useless for the next strike. That means you absolutely must replace your helmet if you hit your head during a wreck.

The only trouble is that helmets don’t always show signs of damage, even when they are hopelessly failure-prone. It’d be a gamble to buy a bike helmet from the thrift store, and not a very good one at that.

3. Pillows

Stacy Barr runs the lifestyle blog Six Dollar Family, where she shares her tips on going “from six dollars to six figures.” She’s an artist of frugality. She knows her way around a thrift shop.

Still, there are some things that aren’t worth the savings, even for a blogger who built the concept of saving money into an empire.

“Pass on buying used pillows,” Barr wrote. “Yuck. Just Yuck.”

“Drool, sweat, tears, lice and many other things could be lingering on a pillow. Just avoid it and buy a new one since you can find them for as little as $5.00 each on sale a lot of the time. Mark this one totally off your thrift store shopping list,” Barr went on.

If an expert in building wealth through thrift alone tells us to splurge on new pillows, we’ll splurge on new pillows.

4. Stuffed Animals, Maybe

Barr doesn’t outright condemn buying stuffed animals from the thrift store. Plush toys aren’t on her banned list. But she does warn thrifty shoppers to think twice before throwing another stuffed pet into the cart.

The blogger listed the gross things that can hide in the synthetic fur of a child’s beloved snuggle-buddy: “germs, odors, bed bugs, mold, and allergens.”

Even more to the point, Barr, herself an experienced mother, suggests you ask yourself if your kid really needs another plush companion. “My guess is that they already have a ton,” she wrote.

5. Impulse Buys

The whole point of thrift store shopping is to come home with treasures, right? If so, you might be doing it wrong, Barr told her readers. She advocates making a shopping list, just like you would on a trip to the grocery store.

If you need a new skirt, only buy the new skirt. It doesn’t matter that those hilarious Ninja Turtle socks only cost $1; you will never wear them. Save that dollar; each one adds up.

Keren Charles agrees.

“Go in with a plan,” she says. “Just because something costs a dollar, that doesn’t mean you have to get it. Only buy something that you truly need, want, or love. Otherwise, you can end up spending a lot of money on things that will just sit in your closet.”

If you really feel like you need some retail therapy and the thrift store is your hospital, another option is to set a strict budget and go to town—just make sure you don’t blow your budget. Blowing budgets kind of defeats the whole purpose of being frugal.

“Thrifting is addictive,” Charles says. “It also takes a lot of patience, if you’re looking for the big finds, and it can be a bit overwhelming when you walk into the store and see stuff everywhere, particularly if you’re used to department stores. You need to have patience.”

Oh, and while we’re on the subject, don’t assume that just because you’ve found something at a thrift store, you won’t be able to knock a few bucks off of the price by shopping intelligently.

“Thrift stores do have sales,” Charles says, “even on top of their low pricing. Some even send you coupons in the mail—you can still save additional money off the listed price.”

6. Waterproof Outfits

A classic yellow raincoat might look like an amazing thrift-store find, but it also might not work. Like, it might not repel the rain anymore.

The hydrophobic finish that covers raincoats breaks down over time, according to Popular Mechanics. Waterproofing does not last forever, and if the coat is in a thrift shop, that might be because it’s outlived its usefulness.

The same is true for rain boots and galoshes. Over time, everything springs leaks.

All of this said, you can usually tell when an item of clothing is going to fail. If you find an adorable set of rain boots in just your size, who knows? Maybe they didn’t fit the original owner, and they’re totally fine for you. Just be sure to inspect them closely. There’s nothing worse than wasting money while you’re trying to be thrifty.

Oh, and Charles offers one other item to skip:

“Underwear,” she says. “You’ll hear that a lot from thrifters—even if it seems to be a brand-new item, it’s not really worth the risk.”

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