Consignment vs. Thrift: Knowing Your Options

consignment_vs_thrift

When it comes to my outfit posts, I tend to list anything that’s been bought secondhand as “thrifted,” which isn’t quite fair. Yes, items purchased at consignment shops are used and yes, I had to do some digging to find them. But thrift stores and consignment stores are really quite different.

HOW THRIFT STORES WORK

Weeellll, some will work differently than others. But here in the U.S., the vast majority of thrift shops are donation-based and center on a charity or non-profit organization. Community members donate used goods – including clothing, shoes, and accessories – to the organization in question. Although donating truly ruined items is discouraged, damaged, heavily worn, and flawed items are relatively common. Items are sorted and priced by volunteers, then sent to the sales floor where they are bought by shoppers.

HOW CONSIGNMENT SHOPS WORK

Again, there are several models. But in most cases, consignment stores keep buyers on staff. Community members bring in gently used items for evaluation, and the buyers look them over to determine if they are likely to sell well from that particular shop. If the items are deemed a good risk, the shop sells them on behalf of the original owner, takes a percentage of the sale price, and gives the remainder to the original owner. Some consignment shops will take the items, price them, sell them, and THEN pay out the consignee’s portion. Some will pay up front.

THRIFTING IS YOUR BEST BET WHEN …

Thrifting is a crap-shoot. You never know what you’ll get because stock is constantly rotating and donations may range from high-end designer goods to wacky vintage duds to fast-fashion castoffs. But here are a handful of instances in which thrifting may be the better secondhand option:

You’re broke: Thrift shops are almost universally cheaper than consignment shops. This is not to say that you can’t get bargains at consignment shops or that some thrift stores aren’t grossly overpriced. But thrift stores are utilizing donations and trying to sell as many items as possible, while consignment stores are choosy about what they accept and must split profits with garment owners. Consignment shops will charge more. If you’re truly broke, you’ll likely do better shopping thrift.

You’re looking for casual items: Again, plenty of great office-appropriate and formal duds can be found at most thrift shops. But since thrift shops accept flawed items and since some folks might choose to keep or consign fancy garments that are still in good shape, thrift stores are a better bet for casual wear.

You’re shopping for accessories: Scarves and belts can be nabbed for pennies on the dollar at thrift stores, and they’re small enough that you’re likely to spot any damage or wear. Jewelry and shoes are catch as catch can here in Minneapolis, but hats and gloves are abundant and cheap. You’ll get better deals on perfectly good stuff if you thrift for accessories.

You love the thrill of the hunt: Thrifting takes time and patience. If you love searching for amazing finds or breathtaking bargains, you will adore this type of shopping. If the process is as much fun as the finds you take home in the end, you’re a born thrifter.

You’re a secondhand shopping expert: I’ve been thrifting since I was 13. I know how to find what I want, and what my deal-breakers are. I can tell from feel if a fiber is something I’d want to wear and know how to spot good construction from 30 paces. If you’re new to secondhand shopping, consignment shops might feel less overwhelming. If you’re an old hand, you can hit the thrift racks with confidence.

CONSIGNMENT SHOPS ARE YOUR BEST BET WHEN …

Since consignment operations sift wheat from chaff at the outset, you’ll find higher end labels and garments with less wear and tear.

You’re looking for work clothing: Lots of fun casual items on the racks, too, but consignment shops are generally stocked to the brim with work-appropriate garments in good shape. You’ll spend more, but you’ll get newer items for your investment.

You’re looking for something specific: Consignment shops tend to have smaller inventories and are better organized than thrift stores, plus they stock classics pretty consistently. Now, if you’re on the hunt for a red leather jacket with fringe and rhinestones, thrift stores or even eBay might be better bets. But if you’re looking for button-front shirts, skinny jeans, colorful cardigans, or simple sandals and you aren’t willing to hunt through multiple shops to find them, try consignment.

You want updated versions: Some of you may be saying, “Hang on. What about the whole ‘thrifting for classics‘ thing?” Good point! And here’s why I’m sending you to consigment: Thrift stores will have classic items in abundance, and some will be exactly what you want. But they’ll also have skirts from the 80s and blazers from the 90s, which may look just ever so slightly “off” to your eye. Most consignment shops only accept items that were made in the past 3-4 years, so you’ll have an easier time finding current iterations of classic items.

You prefer mid-market and high-end clothes overall: If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Banana Republic girl, you will occasionally luck out at the thrift stores but you’ll find BALES of great stuff at consignment shops. If you love Eileen Fisher clothes but hate the prices, consignment shops can help you out. Naturally, mid-market and high-end brands turn up at thrift stores, too … but not quite as often.

You’re easing into secondhand: I want everyone I meet to unlock the joys of thrift shopping … but I also understand that it can be overwhelming. (If you’re local, you can always set up a personal shopping session at Value Village to get you started!) If you get overwhelmed easily, are working on a tight timeline, or just don’t enjoy the shopping process all that much, starting with consignment shops can make the transition to secondhand shopping a bit smoother.

Related posts:

Do you tend to do more of your secondhand shopping at thrift stores or consignment stores? A bit of both? Do you go to one source for certain needs, the other for different needs? What do you see as the advantages of one over the other?

  • Marsha

    Although I occasionally shopped consignment in the past, I’m now exclusively a thrift shopper. I enjoy the wider variety available at thrifts, along with the lower prices. I seek quality garments and am not particularly label conscious. You’re right that the consignment shops stock mostly newer garments, and to me, this is a disadvantage because I like being able to choose from the 20- or 30-year span available at thrifts. But the biggest drawback to consignment shops in my area: they have few garments in my size. As a size 14/16, I’m in the great gulf between regular and plus sizes. Many consignment shops, like their retail cousins, have few garments larger than a 10 or 12.

  • Monica H

    I have had much more success at thrift shops than at consignment shops. I have a hard time with fit as I’m tall, so in any store it’s a gamble to find things that fit well. Here at least, the thrift stores have about 3-5 times as much merchandise as consignment stores, so just on a numbers basis I seem to get lucky there more often. Also you left off one other big benefit of thrifting – all the fun you can have laughing at all of the blazers with shoulder pads from the 80s and other quirky merchandise you can find there! :)

  • Laurel H

    I love both thrift stores and consignment, and agree with all your pros and cons. I prefer thrifting because of the prices. I find that often, the store pricers and shoppers don’t realize the value of something that a consignment store owner would. For example, two weeks ago, I bought a pair of barely worn Thierry Rabotin (made in Italy) suede flats for $5 in a thrift store. (I nearly passed out!) I’ve seen his shoes in consignment stores for no less than $100. I shop consignment when I’m short on time or, as you say, looking for something specific or something I want to be in excellent condition. I also prefer the thrill of the hunt in thrift stores. Finding a designer item in a consignment store is like shooting fish in a barrel!

  • Nebraskim

    Not addressing the thrift v. consignment question but I noticed that the side-by-side comparisons of two similar looks (topper, t-shirt and skirt) help point out how these somewhat different looks address different issues but have the same net result. For example, the flared checked skirt with fitted topper is so balancing, yet it also makes your waist looked very teeny. And the pencil skirt with a fitted topper does the same thing. The side-by-side comparison was interesting to me, too, because these are essentially using the same colors (white, black and red) and showing how they can be reworked into different looks. I love that checked skirt, BTW. FAB.

  • http://corpgoth.blogspot.com/ Trystan (the CorpGoth)

    I’d note that it really depends on where you live — consignment stores can be harder to find than thrift stores. Most every community in the U.S. has Goodwill or Salvation Army, plus local thrift stores, while consignment stores can vary wildly. You may have to look in the (print or virtual) phone book or ask friends for the name & location of consignment stores.

    And because there are fewer consignment stores overall & bec. they are more selective, their selection is smaller. Which, as another poster commented, limits sizes, but also limits options if you’re looking for something unusual or special. I find this makes consignment harder to shop than the free-range of thrift stores.

  • Tabie

    So timely, seeing as how I was just planning on hitting up some thrift stores today! I love both thrift and consignment and use to work at a Plato’s Closet as a buyer which is what helped me develop my eye for quality, used clothing (I actually miss that job). When I was thinner (size 12) I had tons of luck every where I went and have bought many brand new items from Goodwill, including an Express skirt with the tags still attached. Now that I’m a size 16 and in between plus and regular sizes like Marsha I’m having a bit of trouble finding clothing (doesn’t help that I’m tall either) but my absolute favorite clothes came from consignment and thrift shops!

  • http://notdeadyetstyle.blogspot.com/ Patti @ NotDeadYet Style

    I love both kinds of shopping, they both involve re-cycling and (usually) great prices. I stopped by one of my favorite consignments in St. Petersburg this weekend and picked up some very cute summer pieces, 50% off : >

  • http://chiralcraft.wordpress.com Laura

    I wish there were more consignment options in my area (SF Bay Area), to be honest. There are some that specialize in high-end, designer stuff which is not my jam so I haven’t checked them out. The only remaining consignment store I know of that focuses on BR/AT level brands is run by a bunch of unpleasant women, unfortunately (or at least they’ve always been weird around me, maybe it’s my fault!).

    What we do have here is a selection of thrift stores, some of which are lower-end in both prices and organization, and some that are more like consignment level in prices and brands. One of my favorites for work-wear is run by the local Junior League in a wealthy suburb. Prices are sometimes inflated but nothing is worn or laughably out of style.

  • http://birdybegins.wordpress.com Eleanorjane

    I’m not aware of any consignment stores in my city. I expect there might be some, I just haven’t come across them.

    I sometimes browse thrift stores but I mainly buy books. I have gotten costume outfits (i.e. 1940s secretary) and things like a cheap tote for a trip to London that I’ll give back to the shop after using it once.

  • Eliza

    I’ve shopped both, though since I’ve lost weight I’ve been hitting the consignment stores more frequently. I’ve found that I prefer shopping consignment stores when I’m “building” my closet (after big lifestyle or weight changes), and thrift stores for “maintaining” it.

  • http://fashionforgiants.blogspot.com Gracey the Giant

    Although I am a BIG fan of second-hand clothes, I rarely visit consignment shops. Most of the second-hand items in my closet are thrifted and I’m usually able to get pretty darned lucky with what I find there so I haven’t had any need to visit consignment shops.

  • Shaye

    I used to shop a lot at for-profit resale shops, which I consider a bit different from consignment stores. Never had much luck finding stuff at true consignment shops, where the previous owner got paid only after the purchase. I always had better luck at places like Buffalo Exchange where the shop paid up front for the merchandise. Something about the shop having to take a financial risk upfront led to better goods, IMO.

    Of course, since I’ve started thrifting, I have a hard time shopping at for-profit resale places. Hard to justify spending $20 on an item I know I could have thrifted for $8 – so much of the stuff available, at least around here, is very comparable to some of the better thrifted items. I’m constantly amazed at how much thriftable merchandise out there looks like it’s never been worn!

  • http://www.graceapp.com Lisa maree Dom

    Used to do both. I loved the hunt at high end thrift stores in London going from Notting Hill, to Queensway, to South Kensington to Chelsea and the prize was designer.
    Best find? Armani cashmere full length coat for £180 – worth several thousand pounds.
    eBay and the economic meltdown kind of killed that as people stopped donating nice things because they could and needed to sell them.

    Consignment stores in Ireland got good then as the property bust & credit crush meant previously wealthy wives had no spending money and needed to realise their only “assets” discreetly – in other words last years Jimmy Chu’s could pay this weeks grocery bill.

    I bought those Jimmy’s and in my greatest find; a Balenciaga black leather sling bag. . I actually tried to do a cash deal on the asking price of €200 but the shop owner laughed at me, so I paid meekly. A most beautiful bag that is so soft I can put a puffa jacket inside it and use it as a pillow on long haul flights.

    And the value of that pillow? €2,500 !

    Xx

  • http://Divineconsignonline.com Joyette Kendig

    Thanks for taking the time to explain the difference between thrift and consignment. I love the analogy of consignment stores separating the wheat from the shaft. On an average, our store only accepts about 25% of what people bring us to sell. A minimum of two people inspect each item for damage and wear and we also have a friendly return policy. The goal of Divine Consign (in PA) is to give you the thrill of the find without the exhaustion of the overburdened hunt. We will notify regulars if we get their favorite brand of shoe in their size and so on. At first glance our prices may seem higher than a thrift store until you compare quality. I’ve been to big box thrifts where they charge more than we do for items that were new with their tags. We also have clearance sales and a popular 99 cent rack. There are many bargains to be found but using your own store credit is the greatest way to save. It’s like shopping for FREE. Finally, in figuring a value for your dollar, our shop supports and helps to fund MANY non-profit organizations (i.e. relay to life, the public library, local social services & many more) We offer family friendly flex-time employment to our staff. I especially love that we’ve helped hardworking families make ends meet during tough times.

  • http://denimdebutante.com Hayley

    I live in Washington. For several reasons, including Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” (the music video was filmed in various Seattle thrift shops like Goodwill because he’s from here) prices are very high at Goodwill. My local consignment stores are actually way cheaper.

  • Pingback: Why I Thrift | Ruby Bastille

  • Angela

    I love the thrill of finding designer deals at thrift shops, but I don’t always have time to dig. One thing I have found is that a higher percentage of my purchases from consignment shops (as opposed to thrift shops) become wardrobe staples. June Resale here in Minneapolis is my favorite consignment shop. I think the pieces I get there become favorites of mine because Daune has such a great eye, so whatever she brings into her shop is there for a good reason. On the other hand, I’m more likely to take risks when thrift shopping, because the prices are so cheap. More often than not, those “bargains” languish in my closet, which is why I’m tending to learn more toward consignment shopping.