Pretty much anyone who’s been on a budget has gone on a thrift store shopping spree at least once. Whether you’re a thrifting master, a vintage shopper, or just occasionally peruse the affordable racks at your local Goodwill, the world of thrift stores is far more interesting than it may seem.
For a place devoted to castoff goods, there’s a lot more to most thrift stores than unwanted clothes. Workers regularly find name brand name items, pricey jewelry, and the occasional valuable antique.
If you’ve ever wondered about the workings of thrift shops big or small, we’ve got all the insider info. What’s the secret to starting your own thrift shop? What items sit on the shelves for years?
And the question we’re all afraid to ask: Do they wash the clothes?
Let’s take a look behind the racks of resale shops.
Retail Thrift Stores
They don’t need your glasses or baskets.
A few years ago, thrift stores were overrun by used copies of 50 Shades of Grey.
They had so many copies of the Christian Grey fantasy they had to start turning books away in the U.S. and Britain. Now that E.L. James fever has faded, what’s the stuff that thrift stores don’t want?
Stores get tons of clear glasses, stemware, and fine china—and it all sits on the shelves, according to Stacie Morrell, who’s been in the thrift and collectibles business since 1985. “They are all kind of the pink elephant in the store.”
Many people find the glassware too fancy to be used every day. Plus, the clear glass gets easily smudged and dusty, which doesn’t make it look terribly appealing.
The other over-donated item? Baskets. Morrell says that baskets sell okay during the holidays but just sit around the rest of the year. And they get a lot of them. So, if you are in desperate need of baskets, head to your nearest thrift shop and you’ll probably get an amazing deal.
Everyone wants jewelry.
So, if thrift shops don’t want your glasses and baskets, what do they want? Jewelry. According to Morrell, jewelry flies off the shelves. Most stores don’t get a lot of jewels to begin with, but when they do, they don’t hang around for long.
Other than jewelry, thrift stores love getting toys (in good condition), books, and certain kitchen tools.
Morrell says, “Really good cookware, such as stockpots, skillets, pans, with lids and in nice condition, are hardly ever received and usually sell the same day.”
So, don’t hold out hope for finding the trendiest necklace or a Le Creuset grill pan at the thrift store. They just sell too fast.
Recession hits thrifters, too.
When Morrell started out in the thrifting industry, she thought resale and thrift stores were completely recession proof. Sadly, the economic downturn of 2008 hit all American commerce—including thrift stores.
“When people are lacking money or the political view is unsteady, causing consumer nervousness, people just don’t spend. Even at thrift stores,” says Morrell.
During the slump, thrift shops had to turn to online sales just to stay alive. Though the economy is in much better shape now, online shopping is still a huge part of any resale store.
Today, chains large and small offer great used items online. Yep, Goodwill has an online auction site and offers the same kinds of deals you can find in stores. So you can get a bargain or a rare vintage piece all from the comfort of your couch.
The dependence on the internet means that thrift stores have full departments devoted solely to online sales. Workers like Anna (not her real name, she preferred to stay anonymous), an employee with more than 10 years of thrift shop experience, now exclusively handle the online sales that make up a huge percentage of a thrift shop’s income. According to Anna, even 10 years ago, the online market was tiny. Now it’s keeping thrift stores afloat.
Vintage means a markup.
If you go into any “vintage” resale shop, get ready to pay more. Heidi Ferguson, lifelong thrifter and vintage shop owner cautions to watch for markups at thrift stores. She says, “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 and have located a similar item priced that way. If you see this, don’t overpay for the item, just walk away.”
In any thrift store, you can find vintage steals. Sometimes you’ll even come across brand names that are incredibly valuable. Anna says it’s not unusual to find Gucci, Calvin Klein, or Yves Saint Laurent at her thrift store.
Sure, you might not find big names with every visit, and they’re often buried among racks of ’80s mom jeans. Sometimes you just have to dig a little to get those hidden treasures.
If you’re specifically looking for certain vintage trends or brands, going to an online vintage shop such as Ferguson’s can save you a lot of time. These shops make sure that all the finds are rare and high quality.
In a regular thrift store, you’re more likely to find a price increase based on a Google search instead of expertise. So just because a thrift store labels something as “vintage” doesn’t always mean it’s worth the markup.
Every day is like “Antiques Roadshow.”
Anna finds her thrift store job fascinating because she gets to do so much more than sift through bags of clothes. In fact, most of the time people donate items that take a little sleuthing before they can hit the shelves.
Anna says, “Often I get an item to list online and I don’t know what the darn thing is until I research it. With the antiques, there are no model numbers, so my co-workers and I will help each other try to figure it out.”
Anna says she and her peers have to research historical context and value for about half of their items each day. You have to be a part historian, part antiques expert, and part retail employee to really succeed in some of the major charity shops. It’s a little like working on a constant Antique Roadshow, but all the profits go to charity.
But seriously, do they wash the clothes?
Okay, this is the question. I remember kids would whisper about how thrift store clothes were dirty and that they never got washed. Either way, I ignored their warnings and enjoyed my wardrobe that came almost exclusively from Goodwill. (PS., I still rock thrift store threads.)
But are the whispers true? Do they wash the clothes?
No! They don’t wash the clothes! According to Morrell, “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, not to mention having space for industrial washers and dryers.”
Since they can’t wash it all, stores get picky about what they’ll accept. Morrell says that every piece of clothing is checked thoroughly and anything that’s overtly dirty, worn, or holey gets thrown away. Also, stores don’t accept any underwear (thank goodness) and only take bras if they look essentially unworn.
Most people do wash their clothes before they donate them. But just to be safe, it’s best to put your new used clothes in the wash before they go into your wardrobe rotation.
Secrets of Online Thrift Stores and How to Start Your Own
Online is not going anywhere.
All of our thrift store experts agree that online sales are here to stay. From online outlets for charity shops to vintage Etsy stores, there’s a lot of money to be made in used items.
Right now, these web versions of thrift stores are keeping the brick and mortar thrift stores open. And they give thrifters all over the world an opportunity to make money reselling things they love.
Here are a few more tips about the world of online thrifting. Plus, some advice if you want to get into the online resale business yourself.
Buy low, sell fast.
Some thrift stores work exclusively on donations and they’ll take anything that’s in decent condition. But other resale stores have to purchase their inventory and still make a profit. For antique shops and vintage resellers, most retailers live by one rule: Buy low, sell fast.
Pablo and Beverly Solomon have worked in design, antiques, and resale for many years and they shared the best advice they’d ever heard: “Buy anything if it is really cheap. If you buy something cheap enough, you can always make a profit.”
The key with cheap items is you want to sell them quick, according to the Solomons. They say it’s not worth holding on to an item in hope for a better price. Just take anything above what you paid!
That’s great advice to take if you’re trying to set up your own resale shop and good to keep in mind as a customer. Most resellers have a lot of items they want to move. So, a bit of haggling can get you an even better bargain.
Find your niche.
There are a lot of online resale stores out there. But that shouldn’t stop anyone from starting their own shop. But instead of trying to sell any random thing you find, Etsy shop owner Ferguson suggests that you find a niche.
“I started selling vintage clothing almost 20 years ago when eBay first started because it’s what I wore and liked. The passion that drives me today is the same. And that’s why I never tire of it because I love what I sell and I think that shines through in what I do.”
Online resale stores can be a great way to make a little money from something you love. If you’re really into vintage toys, you already know the products and the target market, right? So you could turn all that knowledge into cash by playing into that niche audience.
Obviously, making money through a resale shop is tough, but if you pick a topic you know and love, it can be a fun way to start a little business of your own.
Online reselling is not easy money.
Again, online resale is not easy. Once eBay blew up, everybody and their uncle thought they could open a shop and make bank. But there’s a lot more to running a vintage store than going to flea markets and getting cheap, used stuff. It’s a business.
Ferguson says, “Online selling is getting more and more competitive … I must emphasize that it takes time, patience, and experience to get your footing and generate traffic.”
But Ferguson doesn’t want to discourage any potential eBay entrepreneurs. She suggests that you start small. Just find a few things and sell them on eBay or Etsy to see how you like it. If it goes well and you enjoy the work, you can open your own store and start putting more time into your new resale business.
For those of you who have no desire to get into the thrift industry, it’s still helpful to hear the behind-the-scenes tips of online resellers. And even though you never deal with them face to face, know they work really hard and treat them with the same respect as you’d treat someone working in a high-end shop.