Thrift & Tell Thrift Store Secrets
As many of you know, I absolutely love hunting. Thrift and charity stores are a great place to find incredibly good deals on one-of-a-kind pieces that you will have and love forever. Whether you have never been in a thrift store, went once, got overwhelmed and left, or just generally are not inclined to hunt, it can seem daunting. However, I have put together some of my tips from a lifetime of thrifting to help. I should mention that my mother, the best hostess and chic entertainer I know, loves hunting, so I grew up with both the nature and nurture to love this sort of endeavor. Follow my tips below, have some patience, and you will soon be hooked too!
Before I begin, I want to touch thrifting for pleasure versus business. There are people who are full time thrift store resellers. While I recognize that this is an industry now, I would encourage you to think of thrifting as a personal quest to find unique, fun items. Trying to take a $4 shirt and flip it for $15, while possible, to me seems like a low return on investment when you consider the time it takes to source. If you want to try reselling, go for it, but read the guide below with the understanding that these tips are not centered around resale.
My favorite items to shop for in a thrift store are home decor pieces. I love vintage china, stemware (scan for thin lipped glasses to find the nicer ones!), platters, sterling silver, silver plate pieces, lamps, frames, art, tables, wood chairs etc. Stemware and plates can be as little as 99 cents per piece, which is great for large parties and often cheaper than renting. (You also won’t cry when someone inevitably breaks a glass!). There are some things I would not buy at a thrift store. I am a germaphobe, so you’d never find me buying a second hand sofa or anything that was not easy to clean! I am not entirely opposed to fashion items, and have occasionally found cool jewelry and clutches, so definitely don’t write off those items either. I would just say those items are for the more experienced hunter, as the racks and racks of clothing can be intimidating!
Location, Location, Location
The closer you are to fancy people, the better the donation will generally be. Even in the same town, different thrift stores can have different types of goods, depending on the organization that runs them. So don’t assume all thrift stores are alike. I have heard the thrift store shopping in Palm Beach is next level and am convincing Billings Design Studio to come down with me to hunt. Nicki Clendening and Gen Sohr, are you in too?
Not Marie Kondo approved
Don't assume things are organized in a thrift store. These places are often run, at least in part, by volunteers. Most are short staffed, so don’t expect it to look like Bergdorfs. (That’s the fun of it!) Embrace the chaos and enjoy yourself.
Nancy Drew skills encouraged
When hunting, look near mirrors, dressing rooms, and the check out line. This is often where people ditch the best things!
Thrifting is a marathon, not a sprint
Don’t give up! You cannot guarantee your first visit is going to be magic. Frequency is key here. If you have a flexible schedule, try to go during the work week. Saturdays and Sundays can be a zoo. If you’re going on the weekend, I recommend going in the morning when things are more organized and the store is quieter.
Dress for success
If you’re going to shop clothing, wear something that makes it easy to try on. Thrift stores sometimes don’t have dressing rooms and if they do there could be a line.
A penny wise, a pound foolish
When buying clothing, think of the ease to clean it. Is it jeans you can easily wash or is it a fur coat that will need to be professionally cleaned? Does it smell of smoke, moth balls etc.? If so, I would ditch it.
If you’re buying furniture, keep in mind the cost to repair. Don’t buy a $300 sofa thinking you can simply reupholster. Reupholstering can be ungodly expensive. Keep in mind those costs so you don’t end up with a discarded couch in your hallway, a la Sonja Morgan.
Leave your snobbery at the door
Don’t be a tacky and show up in head-to-toe designer. For many people, this is their main source for home goods, clothing etc. I typically wear nondescript clothing and if I happen to pass a thrift store all dressed up (you know I can’t pass one without going in!). I will sometimes just take a credit card in my hand rather than prancing in with a big Chanel bag. Act and dress respectfully and the shopping gods will thank you.
A lot of items are donated because they’re no longer wanted. However, keep in mind some items are donated because they’re somewhat damaged. Inspect what you are purchasing. For example, I found Waterford flutes for $2, but they had two small chips. There is no point in buying chipped crystal. It will break. A broken record player or a blender that leaks will do you no good either.
This is not L.L. Bean. *
Keep in mind, all sales are final, so be sure you are happy with it. (*Old L.L. Bean!)
Variety is the spice of life
Search for unique, fun items. I have found lots of great art in thrift stores. I also have found beautiful china; since it is not popular right now there are great pieces from estates. Rather than buying a bunch of white Ikea plates, get a bunch of mismatched china plates at the thrift store. These pieces will have more character and be less expensive overall. They are also a conversation topic for your dinner guests!
Snooze you lose
If you see something and love it, get it. There is no “sleeping on it” in thrift stores. Things go fast, so if you wait you run the risk it will be gone, even in a few minutes. I put everything I think I like in my cart and then put back as needed. You have to play to win here!
Keep your wits about you
Depending on the location, there are hawks that will eye your cart. If you leave it unattended, you might have some sticky fingers! This is a rare occurrence, so don’t think this is the wild wild west, just something to keep in mind!
T&T black list
We all love a deal, but here are some items I would not buy at a thrift store, no matter the price!
Cribs and anything related to child safety
Sofas (sorry I just can’t)
Pots & Pans- they tend to be scratched and you can find decent deals on Amazon or at Home Goods
Hair curler and anything to do with hair
Sneakers (no other reason than that seems gross to me)
Go in with a thesis
This is a tip from my mom. Once you get your grounding, start going into thrift stores with a purpose. My mom recommends going in knowing what you’re looking for and not getting distracted by the other items. “I am not looking at clothes or men’s shoes!! I go directly to the home section and search for cheap glasses and silver. I don't get caught up in anything else.” -my mother.
Don’t be a cheapskate
Most thrift stores are charity stores, so I don’t try to negotiate. Frankly, so many items are less than $5 anyway. If you’re fighting over a dollar, you have bigger problems. Some stores will have a very clear reduction schedule (i.e. prices for items at 30,60, and 90 days). In addition, some stores provide discounts based off the day of the week, so check with your store. If you’re at a regular consignment store, you could try to negotiate if you know the item has been sitting for a long time. If you’re at a flea market, they’re assuming you’re going to negotiate, so definitely try there.
BYOD (Bring Your Own Donations)
Most thrift stores will take donations, so this a great opportunity to clear out your house and give back. Just be sure to call ahead to be sure they’re accepting donations and clarify what items they’ll accept.
Check yourself before you wreck yourself
Just because it is cheap, does not mean you need it. You don’t need more clutter in your life. I often do an edit before I check out and ask myself, “will I remember this a week from now?” and “if I move, will I donate this or insist on moving with it?” If I can’t come up with a good answer or if it involves, “well I probably will use this on St. Patrick’s Day”, I ditch it.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can you tell if something is real, such as silver or crystal?
Remember, these pieces are for your enjoyment, so don’t worry too much about the materials if you’re paying less than $10 for the piece. If you happen to be somewhere charging a lot more, then of course you want to be sure you’re not getting ripped off. In general, crystal should make a musical tone when you tap it; glass will ring. If you’re holding a crystal piece, it should create a rainbow effect; glass will not. Full silver will be marked 925. Silver plate will often say silver plate. There are tons of resources online, so when in doubt you could always look on your phone while in the store. That being said, I have no idea what some of my favorite pieces are made of and could not care less. They were less than $1 a piece and I love them! If you find a full silver piece for $10, awesome, but focus more on design than material.
Do you ever shop for clothes or just home?
I just do home. If shopping for clothes, I would shop for yourself. There are people who make a full time living flipping thrift store clothes, but from what I can tell, the margins are incredibly low. If you get lucky and find something designer, fantastic. Keep in mind, though, that finding a real Birkin bag in a thrift store is about as likely as winning the lottery. Most “designer bags” I see in true thrift stores are fake. If you do find something you think is designer, I would recommend googling “how to spot a fake [insert item]” and if it seems legit you can take a chance, buy it, and get it authenticated.
Should I be patient or scour? Just go through one rack at a time?
If you don’t naturally like hunting, use my mom’s tip and go in with a focus. For example, I want to find a large platter for my next dinner party or I need a wooden bedside table. Especially if you don’t like hunting, going piece by piece is going to make the experience painful. I enjoy thrifting, so I like to browse, but I know that is not for everyone.
How do you decide what’s worth and what’s junk?
Most things at thrift stores are inexpensive. Buy what you like and don’t concern yourself with flipping etc. Unless you’re well versed in antiques and know what will or won’t sell, I wouldn’t bother yourself. Focus on pieces that speak to you.
In houseware, do you only spring for full sets or will you pick up odds and end pieces?
Of course a full set would be lovely, but I buy all sorts of odds and ends. Typically, I aim for a set of at least four, so that you can use the piece when entertaining a small group, but I have been known to buy a single tea cup and saucer that was beautiful for display. Again, thrifting is not about flipping- it is about finding things you will make you smile when you see them.