Power Thrifting

thrift shopping tips

Thrifting takes time. Even a seasoned thrifter is unlikely to pop into a thrift store for 20 minutes and emerge with a few great finds. Thrift stores are generally large and slightly disorganized, so shopping trips will be most successful when they’re relaxed and un-rushed.

But there are plenty of ways to make sure you stay focused and on-task when you do thrift, so you don’t waste time faffing about with stuff you don’t need or want. Here are some tips that will help you up your thrifting game:

Shop by color: If you know you need a turquoise sweater or maroon skirt, you may have better luck at the thrift store than the mall. Most thrift stores organize their wares by size, then by color. This comes in especially handy if you’re thrifting for a trend, and that trend happens to be the season’s hottest shade. Zero in on the appropriate portion of the color wheel, and start going through the racks.

Shop by pattern: Nearly all of my patterned pieces have been thrifted. Since patterns have a reputation for being trickier to style than solids, I think many patterned pieces are bought on whims, worn a few times, and then donated. Patterned garments are typically grouped with their dominant colors on the racks, but that actually makes them far easier to spot. Scan along until your eye lands on a pattern, decide if it’s of interest, and either pull the garment or move on.

Shop by fabric: I’m no sewist, but years of thrifting have taught me how to feel the difference between genuine silk and silky-feeling materials. I highly recommend running your hands over any piece that looks interesting before you bother to pull it out. You’ll be able to tell instantly if it’s too scratchy, staticky, or otherwise unpleasant to the touch. And if a garment passes the fondle test, yank it and check the fiber content. Anything that necessitates dry cleaning should give you pause, since cleaning bills can negate bargain prices. And, of course, you can check for your own fiber preferences and allergies.

Shop by type: Tackle the store department by department. Otherwise, you’ll get overwhelmed and give yourself a migraine! Start with pants, then move on to sweaters, then dresses, then outerwear … and if you just can’t do it all, that’s OK. Come back next week.

Image courtesy Brad K

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  • MM

    I always subject my thrifted finds to the sniff and seam test. Apart from checking for holes, etc, check the seams of the garment. Are they intact, worn, serged? These things can tell you how long you’ll have your new precious. The sniff test I use primarily in large thrift stores like Goodwill or Salvation Army. If that incredible dress has an obvious “funk”, I will think twice about it. Especially if the funk is cat or other animal. You can always have it cleaned, but again then you are weighing cost vs cost.

  • Anna

    Great tips, Sal!
    I would add that in my experience some fibers like wool (and especially cashmere) can feel kind of scratchy in the store if it has been a while since they’ve been washed. Also, you’ve done many posts about how to reduce washings (which are great) so that helps with dry cleaning bills. I pretty much never get any sweaters dry-cleaned, especially my cashmere and wool ones; I hand wash them at home in a rinse-free detergent designed for hand-knits and delicates (Eucalan or Soak are my favorites). Dry cleaning I reserve for pants that need creases or skirts that need to be pressed or other things that need to be refreshed once in a blue moon. Fibers like wool, silk, and cashmere were around long before dry cleaning, so frequently they can be cleaned in alternative ways no matter what the tag says (and it’s easier to take a risk hand washing something from the thrift store than from the mall, since it’s usually so much cheaper!)

    • Bubu

      Anna,
      Thanks for the tip on rinse-free detergent for delicates, i had no idea those existed! i see them on Amazon – can you find them in stores as well?

  • Lynnski

    More tips:

    Grab any shoes that capture your interest, and put them in the bottom of your cart. Try them on either WITH other items you’re considering, or AFTER you’re done with the dressing room and want an excuse to sit down for a while. Don’t waste time trying on shoes in the shoe area.

    Either wear or grab layering pieces that will help you see what you’re trying on in the context of an outfit.It’s easier to make good decisions if you can style your potential finds in a (somewhat) realistic way.

    Don’t expect better success rates than you’d have in a non-thrift store. This might be particular for me, but I thrift most of my daughter’s clothes. Sometimes I bring ’em home, wash ’em up, and when I present them to her she hates them. I find that infuriating! Then I remind myself how easily that could happen with clothes from ANY store, and I feel better. (And anything beats taking her shopping to choose her own clothes.)

  • Great tips – I always do the “fondle” thing – running my hand lightly down the rack. I also tend to be a label snob when thrifting, though not with retail so much. I get a little boost of confidence when I see a reliable label, that the garment might stand up to some extra wear. I totally agree with Anna – most anything can be washed if one is gentle.

  • Eliza

    Wear an outfit that is easy to change in and out of, and has a flattering fit! It helps to have an outfit that makes you look good right there in the dressing room with you to compare with potential purchases. Being able to say “this thrifted piece isn’t as flattering as the boring outfit I wore here” has definitly saved me lots of debate in the dressing room!
    I also think it helps to learn brand names. A lot of my nicest clothing looks terrible or plain just boring on the hanger, but the expensive cut and fit shows immediately when I put them on. When I thrift, my process is to touch test first, look it over, and check the label.

  • I follow all the tips you mention, but here is one I use in regard to fit. I rarely try stuff on while thrifting. Instead, ever since seeing someone else share it, I think maybe it was Jessica from What I Wore, I’ve been doing a fairly reliable trick of taking the waistband of a garment and seeing if, held out flat, it will wrap around my neck… if so, it is is usually a good indicator if it will fit (at the waist anyway). Must be some neck/waist ratio that is probably googleable but I haven’t done that yet.

    I also set a dollar limit, like $10 max, -or- I’ll only let myself buy color of the week items.

    Finally, going in with your impatient 4 year old in tow is another good way to ensure a speedy exit! I’ve made some great scores that way… I guess my selection process thrives under pressure. 🙂

  • LinB

    More women’s clothing than men’s clothing gets thrifted. I find that as many as a quarter of the garments hung on the men’s racks are actually women’s clothing — shirts that button on the “wrong” side, slacks that are sized something like “18 W”, etc. If you have time, it is well worth shopping the men’s racks as well as the women’s racks. Knitters/crocheters can find sweaters that are out of style but made with interesting yarn, and ravel them for an inexpensive source of yarn.

  • Tip: leave your kid at home. They have zero interest in it and the floors are SUPER dirty. It was so much easier when she was a baby. 🙂

  • Laurinda

    For thrift and retail stores I carry a small 3′ retractable tape measure – mine fits on a key chain – to compare waist and bust width to my measurements before trying garments on. Or sometimes *instead of* trying garments on, thrift store ‘dressing rooms’ can be a hassle.

  • Aziraphale

    These are good tips. I have long had an aversion to thrifting, but I really wish I didn’t, because I see some of the most fantastic stuff on other people only to find they got it at a consignment shop!

    Here’s my problem. I’m very small, and invariably — INVARIABLY — if I find something I like, it will not fit me. This is enough of an annoyance in retail shops, where at least they will have a size close to my own, and I can get minor alterations. In thrift shops, it always seems that the pieces I fall in love with are waaaay to big or long, necessitating major, costly alterations, which sort of defeats the purpose of thrifting. Also, the chaotic riot of colours and fabrics in thrift shops jangles my brain. So long ago I gave up. But maybe I should give it another try.

    • Stacy

      I have the same issue…so I haunt my Salvation Army for shoes, purses, belts and jewelry. I found a fabulous pink patchwork Coach bag at my local store on 50% off day! And some great Franco Sarto boots that look like they were worn only once or twice. Every once in a while I’ll find some clothing items that are just my size…best find yet is True Religion jeans for $15.

    • JM

      I encourage you to give local thrift and consignment stores another try 🙂 There is a wide variety of organization and style, so with a bit of hunting, you can probably find a store that doesn’t give you a headache. I’m also (at a weight that is healthy for my particular body) very very thin, and just shy of average height. I’ve been out-sized in most brands, so I tend to have terrible luck everywhere. What I’ve found with thrift stores, which are the source of about 90% of my clothes, is that I have a wider range of acceptable fit versus price (and supporting a good cause). If I’m going to pay full price for an item, it should fit perfectly! But if it was only $5 and I can make it flattering by belting the waist or doing some quick alterations on my own, then I’m more likely to bring it home. Thrift stores can also be a good source of finding brands that fit you that you would never have otherwise heard of. Even if you don’t end up buying those pants with the stain, you might discover that you rock that particular brand/cut.

    • JennyOH

      I think if you’re small, you actually are at an advantage with thrifting. Yes, you may have to get things taken in substantially – but the money you spend on alterations is offset by the fact that you didn’t spend much on the piece to begin with.

      Also, not to be all sour grapes as a bigger size, but while you can take things in to make it fit smaller, you can’t add fabric on to make it bigger 😉

  • Laurie

    get stoned first.

  • M

    My favorite thrift store doesn’t really have a dressing room… there’s a corner with mirrors where people try on stuff, but that is about it. As a result, I always try to wear a close fitting tank top with layers on top and fairly opaque leggings with a skirt on the bottom. This gives me a lot of flexibly in trying on clothes so I don’t have to stare at an item and mull over whether or not it will really fit.

  • J Anderson

    Hi Sal!

    Since I have a LARGE wardrobe (years of thrifting) I always look at the items that are on sale first. At Goodwill each week a different color tag is half off. That way I know I’m getting the best bargain (aka justify buying more clothes) and I score a great new find! My deal of the century was a leather jacket for $10!!!! (Can you hear me jumping up and down???)

    Great tips! Keep up the good work!

  • Dionne

    This is a timely post for me, as I’m taking three friends shopping this weekend at the “VV boutique” and two are thrifting newbies that have asked me to show them the ropes. I’ve been making a mental list of hints to help them get prepare, basically a lot of the things people have already said.

    1) Go through your closet beforehand and find the gaps – determine what you need most 2) Wear clothes that are simple and come off easily: slip-on shoes (with socks! those floors are incredibly dirty), a basic tee in a neutral shade (especially if you’re looking at blazers and cardigans) 3) don’t just look in your own size – thrifting really illustrates vanity sizing 4) where I live is very dry, so a ponytail helps with the static electricity that builds up with pulling so many thing over your head 5) if you wear makeup, this is a day to do it, those lights aren’t exactly flattering 6) be a bit of a label snob 7) if you put it on and think “not bad,” don’t get it, only buy things that “grab you up in your face” 8) expect to find one great piece for every 10 things you try on – my ratio is a lot better than that, but I’ve been doing this for 20 years 8) if you can swing it, having a friend along to give opinions and hang up clothes you’ve tried on makes it go a LOT quicker 9) your fingers will smell by the time you’re done. Be prepared.

    And my biggest tip for my friends, which is why we’re going this weekend: Value Village is having their 50% off sale this coming Monday here in Canada. The place is a zoo on those days, with massive lineups for the dressing rooms. So we’ll find what we want and make a list describing item, color and size. Monday morning at 7:00 when the store opens it’s still pretty deserted. Be there at opening, spend five minutes finding your items, walk out and completely avoid the crowds. Voila!

  • Stacy

    My best tips:

    * Find out when the 50% or other sales days occur.
    * Ask the employees when they typically stock the newest items.
    * See what has been left near the dressing rooms, if the store has them. Someone else may have already dug through the racks for you!
    * Find out if there is a return policy. My Salvation Army will exchange items or give store credit if clothing is returned within 7 days. Take your haul home, try it on, and bring back what doesn’t work for new treasure!

  • LG

    I don’t know where you come up with such great tips day after day, but these are great. I have kind of given up on thrift-shopping because it takes so much time, but this renews my hope. I think I’ll try again. :0)

  • Em

    The key is to wear clothing to the store that aids in the trying-on segment of shopping. Leggings and tank top with something easy to slip out of over top.

    I know that few women want to wear heels when shopping, but honestly…you can’t get the real feel of a dress or skirt if you’re not wearing the type of shoes you’ll eventually wear it with. If nothing else, grab a pair of heels in your size from the rack just to try thing on with. I can’t tell you how many dresses I put on an was “eh” about, which suddenly turned into must-haves when I tried them on with pumps!

    • Sharon

      And the other side of that coin: Some skirts and dresses that look fine when you’re standing barefoot can magically become matronly or indecently short once you’ve got the right shoes on.

    • JennyOH

      Great tip, I forgot to put this one about shoes in my comment! I also try to have accessories with me that I commonly wear. Like, I almost always belt dresses and wear slips. I also try to wear undergarments, particularly bras, that aren’t towards either the pushup or minimizer end of the spectrum.

  • I am all too aware of how easy it is to spend 45 minutes or an hour at a thrift store (even a smallish one) without even noticing, especially because I ALWAYS try on everything. Usually I realize I’ve spent enough time there when I start sneezing!

    I’ve found shopping by pattern to be helpful, especially as I’m trying to incorporate more patterns into my wardrobe. In addition to checking the fiber content of a garment before pulling it off the rack, I also check the label. It can be hard to judge fit on a hanger, but there are some brands that I know fit me well and others that just are not flattering on me, no matter what. They tend to be the casual or sportswear labels like Charter Club, Land’s End or (especially here in Maine) L.L. Bean. No point in taking them into the dressing room!

    I also tend to limit myself to a few “departments” at a time: OK, today it’s scarves, jewelry and dresses, etc. Sure, I’m probably leaving some treasures behind elsewhere in the store, but it wouldn’t be fair to hog them all to myself, right?

  • Terry McKenzie

    Be mindful. Don’t leave your cart unattended and watch your purse carefully–best yet, keep your money and keys in a pocket and leave the purse at home. At least here in Chicago, the big (read: good) thrift stores are notorious for pick-pockets/purse snatchers. And more than once I’ve had things I’ve combed the racks for stolen out of my cart by other “shoppers” before I can make it to the check out.” It’s a jungle out there.

    • Sal

      Yikes. Thanks for the warning, Terry!

      • Kookoo

        The same rules apply for the tjmax/ Ross stores. I’ve been brushed and rushed enough to catch on to the game. That’s why I never carry a purse to shop, and never allow a person to suddenly crowd me when the other aisles have plenty of space. It’s amazing how quickly they move on when you refuse to budge, be a victim, or tell them to put your stuff back in your cart. … Yes I’ve done that more than once!

  • I love thrifting!! There aren’t too many great places I have found in Michigan though:(

    Great tips!

    A Funky Little Fashion Blog

  • Lisa W.

    I keep a running list (sometimes mental, sometimes on a piece of paper) of desired items for everyone in my family, the household & friends. If I’m making the trip I want to maximize it and hit all departments if I can. If I’m going with the purpose of buying myself a tweed skirt, I may strike out, but wind up snagging a bracelet that’s perfect for my vintage-loving friend’s upcoming birthday, or an odd-sized picture frame to fit that watercolor my son made for me. If you need something urgently you probably won’t find it, but you may just find something useful or wonderful, completely justifying your trip! Be open!

  • Anna

    I love to thrift. Most of my clothes are thrifted and people are always asking me where I get my clothes. When I tell them, they’re always shocked or dissapointed because they can never find anything at thrift stores. The key is to have patience and imagination. When I go to Savers (my favorite), I spend hours there. I go through each department and fill my cart with everything that I like, no matter what the size tag says. Then I try things on. This is where I determine what fits and what doesn’t, what can be altered and if it’s worth the work (or money if you don’t sew). A huge majority of my skirts are cheap, elastic waist dresses from the 80s that I cut the top off of.
    To go to a thrift store and fill your cart with everything that interests you is not the most efficient way to shop and most people can’t handle it, but I’m extremely methodical and I find really great items this way. I also always go alone, because I don’t want to feel rushed when my shopping buddy has given up.

    • Michelle

      I second the recommendation to fill your cart, and to not pay much attention to sizes. I’ve got size 2 to size 10 in my closet: The variety of brands and ages of clothing found in a thrift store makes sizes less relevant. I don’t have the patience to go in and out of the dressing room, so I load the cart up (even to overflowing!) once and hit the dressing room. If I didn’t find it that time, I’ll leave, unless I’m really desperate for something.

      I’ve only recently begun planning ahead enough (yay for closet audits!) to know what I *need*. I keep that list in my head and stay open to awesome finds I may run across along the way.

  • I usually try everything on and bring friends who are into shopping. They help me decide on things half the time. Also: I always, always make sure to double check for holes, seams, and stains. I will make sure to find three different areas of lighting and double check at least the front to make sure the colors all look “right” 🙂

  • Sharon

    I’m 5’2″, so if a pair of pants not marked “petite” or “short” isn’t miles too long, I always check the hems. Sometimes amateur tailors mangle their hemming jobs, so they end up in the giveaway pile after they become way too short or with weird bunchy uneven hems or one leg an inch longer than the other or something.

  • Molly

    The most important first step for me is deciding whether I want to linger and take my time or if I’m not feeling dawdly that day. If the former, I grab things I wouldn’t otherwise try, and maybe discover some amazing new cut or color. I also try on items I usually find difficult to find, and mostly it doesn’t work out, but once in a while I get a new pair of jeans that fits well and is short enough not to need hemming!

    Most of the time I’m not feeling quite so patient, and here’s what I’ve learned from those days: Know what holes you’re looking to fill in your closet (for me, dresses and sweaters) or where you tend to have the most luck (tops) and skip the hard-to-fit ones (pants) that will probably be disappointing and time-consuming. Know where your fit trouble spots are (shoulders) so you can pick up an item (jackets…sigh), check that measurement, and leave it if it’s not spot-on.

    Be willing to skim and walk away. Wrong size? Stain? (Always check armpits!) Bad fabric? Cheap brand? Just move on. There are only a couple items I lament not having tried, or that I tried and still wish had fit me better. There are always more clothes out there, and I’d rather not end a day feeling worn out by what should be a fun activity!

  • Thrifting has always been intimidating for me, but this makes it seem a little less overwhelming. Thanks for sharing!

    GlamCake

  • Kookoo

    I always go with brand, fabric, lining, and reaction first. The best tip I have is going through the racks in all sizes. Most of my thrifted items are labeled much larger than my actual retail size. They may have been gifts or spontaneous purchases by the original owner. My bonus moments are often large or 2-5 times larger than my 4 petite frame.

  • Velma

    I second the advice to ignore the size labeling and check a range of sizes in the store. I wear a 6-8 in contemporary sizing, but my thrifted clothes range from a 4 to a 14 (a 70s-vintage Pendleton skirt). Older sizes run MUCH larger, and of course British and Euro sizes are different, too–proving size is just a number, eh? If I have time, I ignore the size divisions entirely and scan all the racks for nicer fabrics, because of the size variations and because things get moved around.

    If you’re slim, check children’s clothes, and men’s are often worth a look, too–especially for nice leather belts, tailored shirts, and dress pants if you’re tall. Accesories are a great place to start, if you’re new to thrifting–a kind of gateway drug! 🙂

  • Great tips!

    I second the comment about wrapping the waist band around your neck. This is a great trick to help you discover if the item will even remotely fit your body. If the waistband touches from edge to edge without a gap or too much overlap, it should fit. This seems to work really well with skirts.

    I move pretty quickly through a thrift. I like shopping alone because when I’m done, I can leave. Chicago thrifts are often busy and chaotic, so the less time I spend in there, the better. This is especially true on weekends.

    Wear a shopping dress. I try to wear just a simple jersey pullover dress that I can get into and out of quickly if I want to try on anything. The more complicated the outfit I’m wearing, the less likely I’m going to bother trying on clothes. (That’s true of any store for me.)

    Go A LOT! The more often you hit the thrift, the better luck you might have. I am in a lull and haven’t been thrifting much at all. I notice that the less I go, the less success I have. Perhaps you sharpen your skills the more you do it, or maybe you just see more turnover if you thrift a lot, but I used to go at least a couple times a week and my success rate was measurably better.

    Lastly, it’s not just your purse you have to look after, but the contents of your cart, too! I once had to stand at the checkout and wait around for the person who lifted a really great vintage handbag from my cart while I’d left my cart unattended. I never would have bothered, but this was a really special purse and it was meant to be mine ’cause I found it first. 😉

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  • Dress appropriately!

    I’d recommend a long, loose shirt, a skirt and flat shoes that you can slip out of easily. Thrift store change rooms are notoriously awful – generally they’re a curtain that never closes properly so being able to quickly change without flashing anyone helps a lot.

  • Jen

    Wear a camisole and leggings or tights under your clothes. This way if there’s not a dressing room, you can still fairly accurately judge fit. Also helps if it’s a piece that is low cut and will have to be layered or to judge how a tunic/dress will look with leggings.

    If you’re thinking about it, throw it in the cart and try it on. I’ve often said, hmm, like it, don’t love it, left it on the rack, and then changed my mind and come back. And someone has taken my precious in the meantime. And often, if I love the pattern/color/etc., but not sure if it fits, I’ll throw it on right there in the aisle over my cami. If it doesn’t fit on over a cami, likely I’ll be pulling and tugging at it anyway, trying to stretch it out.

    Also, wear socks! I do buy second-hand shoes, but I scour them throughly with rubbing alcohol when I get home. And I don’t want anyone’s foot fungus because I forgot socks while trying on shoes.

    This is likely to make your trip longer, not shorter, but scan the sizes you don’t usually wear to look for interesting patterns or colors. Sometimes I look in the larges even though I’m a 2XL. Some things are cut big, can be worn open, or are put back in the wrong section. I recently found a gorgeous cerulean blue sweater vest, sized medium, that looks darling shrunken over a button-up shirt. And most of my blazers won’t button over my belly but I rarely button them anyway, I get too hot. I also shop in the maternity section for empire-waisted shirts or dresses.

    Shopping in consignment stores usually means better quality items but higher prices. But sometimes it’s worth it not to have to scour each item for holes or stains.

    And my best tip is to go with a buddy that knows your style or favorite colors (bonus points if you’re similar sizes). My mom is my favorite thrifting buddy because we’re both plus size, but with wildly different styles. Because we know each other so well, we often split up, her checking skirts for me and her while I check cardigans.

  • JennyOH

    I think you hit all my main thrifting tips! I definitely try to shop with something in mind (at the moment, I’m shopping just for myself, not to resell). Like, right now I am looking for a high-waisted, pleated, longish skirt in navy. It helps me not get overwhelmed with all the other stuff. Or maybe just looking for black cardigans, patterned dresses, etc.

    And I ALWAYS scan the rack for interesting patterns/colors I want, zero in on those and see if I like the fabric (I love “the fondle test”!), and only pull it to check the size at that point.

    Another things that keeps me focused when I’m just shopping for myself is to know what styles/cuts suit me. So I might find a really awesome print…but it’s on a tiny mini shift style dress. Not for me, don’t even bother.

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  • Anonymous

    Make sure to look for rips, stains, cracked buttons, blown out pockets, fading, discoloration. Depending on what you buy, rips or fading might be desirable, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve purchased something only to be let down by a missing button or small rip I missed once it gets home. Spend a couple minutes inspecting every inch of the garment you are about to buy!

  • Look for rips, stains, cracked buttons, blown out pockets, fading, discoloration. Depending on what you buy, rips or fading might be desirable, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve purchased something only to be let down by a missing button or small rip I missed once it gets home!! Spend a couple minutes inspecting the garment you are about to buy!

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  • Nita

    i just found your site and I really enjoyed it. Like you, I love thrifting and consigning. I agree with all of your great tips, and I especially appreciated seeing various ways of styling same garments. Thank you.
    Nita