I’ve been shopping at Goodwill and flea markets and secondhand stores for a long long time. So long that on most days I’m wearing at least one or two things that are secondhand. The most common response I get when I tell people where I find a lot of my stuff is, “I don’t have good luck there” or “I don’t have the time.” Well, it’s neither luck nor time that allow me to find such good stuff, it’s a skill.
Here are some of the rules that I follow and I hope they help you find some good stuff.
There are no rules in thrift shopping. Seriously, sizes, labels, sections? Throw those things out the window. (I’ll explain more below.)
Focus on the out-of-season sections. Look at sweaters during the summer and shorts during the winter. People don’t get rid of the clothes they need during the season they need it, and on the other hand, most people don’t look for clothes they don’t need when they don’t need it.
Don’t buy brands from stores you don’t regularly shop at. I don’t like Old Navy and Gap and just because I find their stuff at Goodwill for less money doesn’t mean I’m suddenly going to love the brand. Knowing what brands you don’t love helps you quickly move through the racks.
Try stuff on. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go in the fitting room. Have no shame in your game. I’ll set up shop by a mirror and try on tops over my clothes just to know they will fit OK. Pants? Yes, of course, please use a fitting room.
Don’t believe sizes. Vintage clothing rarely has sizing similar to today’s standards so just use the sizing as a guideline. Get to know about what size you wear in older brands. For example, I’m a size 8 so in vintage styles I tend to wear closer to 12/14. Know your sizing in today’s brand as well but know that sometimes clothing ends up in secondhand shops because the sizing might be funny. Also? If you know 7 for All Mankind jeans don’t fit you well, just because they are only $5 at a secondhand store does not mean they will magically “fit better.” And sometimes shirts that are too big go great with leggings, and shirts that are a bit small make cute crop tops. When thrifting, don’t let sizes and labels box you in.
Don’t abide by store-labeled sections. A lot of secondhand stores are sorting through a lot of clothing fast and what you might think is a sweatshirt they might put in the sweater section. This is especially true for home goods. Think outside the box. If you’re looking for a bowl maybe you could find a cute planter to put things in instead? Also, HALLOWEEN. Halloween items are usually priced super cheap and sometimes stores will include vintage boots and other items thinking they might make good costumes. I found a $400 pair of cowboy boots in a Halloween section for $4. Get to know what sections you find the most stuff in and stick to them, and avoid the sections where you tend not to find anything.
Don’t buy the stuff you’re not willing to take care of. I don’t buy linen. I like linen but I never iron and I don’t dry clean. Again, just because it’s $5 doesn’t mean I’m suddenly going to be a domestic goddess. Here’s how I clean secondhand items that can’t go through the washer machine but are pretty durable: I turn it inside out and put it in the dryer with a load of washed wet clothing. It gets hot enough and steamed enough that it 95% of the time comes out great. Dryel bags are also good.
If it’s not a yes, it’s a no. Sometimes there are things that I fall in love with on the rack and it’s a decent brand but it just doesn’t look right on. This should be kept in mind when thrifting and when retailing. Just because it’s only $5 doesn’t mean it’s worth it.
Get to know brands, styles, and quality. Sometimes there are not labels on clothing. There’s a couple of things you can do. Does the pattern look familiar? (Stuff from Boden or Orla Kiely have patterns that are pretty identifying.) How do the seams and zippers feel? These are the places where you can usually surmise whether it’s quality or not. Also? Smell. I know this is hard to handle but especially with bags— leather has a distinct smell. (Also, don’t buy stuff that smells like cigarettes. It’s too hard of a smell to get rid of and it can be real pungent.) Old vests and jackets sometimes have their labels in funny spots- like inside the pockets. Labels for scarves can be found along the edge or the corner, sometimes hidden with the design. Also, if you love it and it fits well and you will wear it and take care of it— the brand doesn’t matter. When all else fails, Google the brand to learn more about it.
Don’t save your trip to the secondhand store for when you have an hour or more. Get to know the store that you’ll be frequenting and then make a couple of 10-minute trips per week rather than one long trip. Also, get to know when your store is busy. Saturdays, senior discount days, etc., these are times to avoid. Ask when they put new items out and get to know how their discounts work.
Last quick things: Just because you’re thrifting doesn’t mean you avoid buying retail. Buying stuff secondhand allows me to buy some things retail that are really good quality (aka more expensive) because my budget is not totally eaten up. I also keep an eye on what’s trendy and how I can replicate it with secondhand stuff. Seems that “these days” vintage fashion is coming back. Why buy a brand new Champion sweatshirt from Urban Outfitters when I can by the real thing at Goodwill for $6? Sweater with funky patterns from Anthropologie? Those are all over the place in thrift shops for much less money.