The Complete Guide to Thrift Store Shopping

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A thrift shop is a magnificent place, filled to the brim with endless, discarded possibilities that are just waiting to be reimagined and given a second chance. Navigating the racks, shelves, buckets and piles of pre-owned pieces can be overwhelming for any casual shopper, but for me, it’s where I thrive.

It brings me a true sense of both pride and personal style to have my home and closet filled with one-of-a-kind items, to wonder about the past owner of my mid-century dresser set or dream up a story about a vintage fisherman’s sweater. For my friends, my love of thrift shopping is infuriating; asking me where I purchased an item almost always ends in “Goodwill” or some similar secondhand establishment.

Since today is National Thrift Shop Day, I thought it’d be the perfect opportunity to present my personal shopping secrets. If you’re patient and willing to put in the time, I promise you’ll be able to easily and methodically amass a beautiful collection of pre-loved items for a fraction of their true value.

There are a couple of things you can do before you hit your local thrift store to make your shopping experience all the more efficient. I’d suggest wearing leggings and a tank top or a loose-fitting dress; something that can be easily layered over or quickly slips on and off, so you don’t have to fidget around too much in the fitting rooms (if your store even has them). Putting a bleach pen in your purse is also a good call, so you can test any stains or makeup marks and make sure they’ll come out.

I firmly believe that if you go to the thrift store with a specific idea in your head of what you want, you’ll never find it. That being said, it’s never a bad idea to get a general feel for some things you’d like to search for. Here’s an example of what my current shopping list looks like:

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I also find that browsing Pinterest or flipping through a magazine beforehand serves as an excellent source of inspiration and a great reminder to be open to what I find.

Because thrift shopping is so inexpensive, I don’t necessarily believe in budgeting a certain amount for a specific trip. Sometimes, you’ll strike out and leave the store with nothing; other times, you’ll score the perfect retro dinette set and spend a small fortune.

Buying too much is a classic mistake if you’re new to thrifting; soon, you’ll amass a huge collection of so-so clothing items that you bought simply because of the brand label or ridiculously cheap price tag. Your shopping philosophy at Goodwill should be the same as it is at Neiman Marcus—only buy items that you truly love.

I’d suggest giving yourself at least a full hour to look around, but I’ve spent up to three in the same store and can blow a full Sunday if there are a bunch of thrift shops in the same area.

When you walk in, it can be overwhelming to try and tackle everything all at once, so take the store one section at the time. With practice, you’ll learn which areas you prefer to start with first, and which ones don’t work out all the time. Here are a few specific tips for shopping certain sections:

Clothing

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- Size doesn’t matter, especially in thrift stores. Vintage and modern sizing varies completely, so you can’t trust the number on the tag. Also, don’t rely on employees to perfectly organize the shop for you and put smalls in the small section and larges on the large rack. Browse through everything!

- Consider the possibilities of all clothing sections. I’ve found flawless vintage tees in the men’s section, a boy’s blazer that fit me perfectly and a stunning slipdress tucked away with the lingerie.

- I find that shopping by fabric and print is easiest and results in the highest quality pieces in the least amount of search time.

- Think of the possibilities. Items can be altered, cropped, tailored, dyed or worn open. Buttons can be changed and zippers can be replaced.

- If you’re going to a Goodwill, shop on Mondays (when the 99 cent tag color changes) or earlier in the week. The tag colors rotate in a particular order, so if you go to the same store often enough, you can learn the full schedule and save yourself some money in the long run.
Hunt out of season! Check through the coats in the middle of summer and browse tanks in the dead of winter.

Shoes & Accessories

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- Don’t skip these sections; I almost always find something here. The thrift store is a perfect place to pick up belts, scarves, bags, boots, jewelry and other accessories that’ll give your everyday outfits that “je ne sais quoi.”

- Some people get a little squeamish about wearing vintage shoes; I tend to stick to vintage boots (that you’d wear with socks) or use lots of Lysol to disinfect them.

Home Decor

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- Pick up quirky items to decorate bookshelves, cabinets and dressers. I generally look ceramic/glass/wooden bowls, vases and small figurines. Trays are perfect for displaying jewelry, perfume, or coffee table goodies, too.

- Need picture frames? ALWAYS buy them secondhand. You can spray paint them, too!

- A quick browse through the book section can produce some superb finds. I’ll usually grab a cookbook and something new to read (you can always donate the book back later, if you don’t like it/want to recycle). Need artwork for your place? Look for a book with vintage illustrations and frame those.

- Be careful with lamps, fans and electrical items. Most thrift stores will have an outlet where you can test it before you take it home.

- Dishes, dishes, dishes. All of my plates, bowls and glasses are thrifted. If you want to create a really unique set of dishes, this is absolutely the way to go; often, you can find a full collection for less than what you’d pay for a single glass in new set.

- A quick look through the linen section can result in a vintage apron, crochet blanket or charming set of curtains.

- Boxes, bins and tins are great for organizing everything from lipsticks to office supplies.

- If you have houseplants or succulents, the thrift store is your go-to for pretty little planters.

Furniture

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- Potential is the key here! You can re-upholster a chair, change the knobs on a dresser, or paint a side table. Pinterest is filled with beautiful DIYs for upcycling vintage furniture and ideas for making something secondhand extra special.

- If you’re looking at a wood dresser or cabinet, check for dovetailing in the drawers. It’s a type of interlocking joinery that indicates that true craftsmanship was involved in creating the piece.

- Be wary of couches, sofas and chairs; you don’t want to bring home something that’s infested with bed bugs or roaches (gross). If you’re making a larger purchase, be sure to inspect it thoroughly and take the proper precautions.

If you have a lot of time and patience, and can see thrift shopping as a practiced, relaxing hobby rather than a stress-filled search for something specific, it’s easy to fill your home and closet with strong, stunning pieces. Whether you’re wild about West Elm, crazy for Celine or insane for IKEA, I truly believe that you can replicate any editorial image, runway look or home decor spread with secondhand sources. Hence the reason this article contains only images of my own apartment.

Best of luck, and happy hunting!

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