Please note before starting: Every thrift store is slightly different. My experience is primarily with Salvation Army and my local places. Most of this will apply to chain stores, but some will also apply to smaller stores. I’d also like to say I am not taking a moral stand point on the companies’ belief here. This is not the place to talk about Salvo’s politics and shit. There is tons of info online and tons of posts where you can argue that if you want to do that. Thank you and keep reading!
Warning: Many of these may only apply if you live in the U.S. I know little about thrifting outside of the country, but I assume there can’t be that much difference in how not to be an asshole and get good deals. *thumbs up*
Where to Shop
I always recommend checking small local thrift stores first. It is important to help local shops and many of them are charity based!
Chain stores like Goodwill, Salvation Army, and St. Vincent Depaul.
Need more places?
How Much Time Do You Need Really?
One thing I hear a lot is that the person shopping didn’t realize how much time it would take or how much stuff there was to see. If you are going to a small shop allot half an hour to an hour UNLESS you are clothes shopping, then you should add another 15 minutes to half an hour to try things on.
If you are going to a large chain store I recommend having 3 hours per store. Obviously if you go a lot and only need to see the new stuff you won’t need that much, but if you go a lot you probably don’t need this section. Again, add extra time for trying on clothes.
How Salvo’s Color System Works
This was always a mystery to me when I went to Salvation Army. Their colors indicate what is half off, sales, etc. But they indicate more than that, they also indicate when something was processed! That means if you know what color is being processed you can figure out what stuff is new and what will be on sale when.
Essentially the system goes like this:
Week 1. One of the 6 colors is processed, we will say purple for the sake of this example.
Week 2. Purple is on the floor.
Week 3. Purple is on the floor.
Week 4. Purple is half off. THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE TO GET MANY OF THESE ITEMS!!!
Week 5. Purple is pulled! This means that any areas that are over crowded will have all of the purple removed and sent away to third world countries. It is gone. Good bye.
Week 6. Purple is gone.
Each of these weeks another color is being processed, put on sale, and pulled. If you can find out which color is being processed then it is easy to figure out when those items will be on sale. That being said, if you really really love something DO NOT WAIT! Most of the time the item you waited for will not still be there (especially if you live in a city). Only risk waiting for half off if you aren’t in love with it.
What to Buy When
I’m a big advocate of checking every section and buying what you like, when you like. But if you just shop trends or seasons this will help you!
The best time to buy summer clothes is late winter. They’re generally cheaper and you will have a larger selection.
Winter clothes are cheaper and have a larger selection during the spring and summer. Most people aren’t thinking about sweaters and coats when its over 70 degrees so you’ll have the section mostly to yourself!
Holiday items go fast fast fast! If you’re planning on getting your Halloween costume or ugly Christmas sweater from a thrift store I recommend going TWO MONTHS before hand or getting a back up plan. If you don’t plan that far ahead, short of getting really really lucky and ending up there as soon as new stuff is put out, good luck literally ever getting anything good. Check these sections throughout the year though because you might find something perfect in February and then you won’t have to stress when the holidays near.
April, May, June, July, August. These are the months where the majority of household goods, statues, toys, etc come in. That is because it is garage sale season and everyone who can’t peddle their crap off on the street corner gives it away to the thrift stores. These are also the busiest months for most shops. Competition is fierce this time of year, god speed friends.
Which Departments to Check (that you maybe didn’t think of)
If you are into sewing/crafting always check the linens section.
If you are looking for cool storage check out the office supplies, baskets, and dishware.
Check clothing sections that aren’t your size/style. You can almost always find something you can alter or that will make the perfect gift.
Look in the jewelry counter!!! Many people skip right over it without a second glance but usually the coolest stuff is in there, and it isn’t always jewelry. Ours has jewelry sure, but also new electronics, rare books, and trading cards, among other items. Basically anything that is easy to steal and would be a real loss.
I could write a lot more here but basically just check everything tbh.
Every store has different rules for how/if they test things. You can (almost) always ask an employee (not while you’re checking out and holding up the line asshole) to test it. Some stores indicate the item has been tested. The one I work at puts initials on everything that has been tested for example. If there is no indication it has been tested assume it hasn’t and ask!
How to Inspect Clothes (and other stuff!) For Quality
Stores inspect stuff before they put it out but stuff gets missed, especially if its a store with tons of clothes. Here is a quick list of things to check on clothes:
Neck line/under arms for sweat stains
All buttons to make sure none are missing
Check all pockets for rips/holes
Stretch out all elastic to make sure it isn’t ruined
Hold it up/try it on to check for holes and stains
If you see something that is in bad shape give it to an employee! They will appreciate it because they don’t want the store to get a bad reputation for having crappy clothes. If you still want something even though it has damage you can often get a discount at check out if you point it out. This will not work for things that can come out with washing so be judicious.
For non-clothing items check:
Check toys for missing pieces/clumped fur
If something is grouped together find an employee to help you pull them apart to look at them! Do not just pull the tape off and leave a hot mess on the shelf. An employee will help you dammit.
What to Expect Price-wise
Don’t go if you don’t have money. Keep your budget in mind while shopping. If you only have $10 then don’t pick up that $25 collectible. In most chain stores prices are NON NEGOTIABLE. This is not true of small shops. Even then most small places will not deal hugely, think garage sale type deals. If you are at a Salvation Army, Goodwill, etc do not try and haggle (unless the item is damaged and there is no indication on the tag of damage).
Clothing at Salvo tends to range from 99 cents to $7. Things fall outside of this range based on brand, NWT condition, etc.
Explanation of Salvo’s Organization (and how to shop it)
Salvation Army’s organization pisses people off. Honestly. I get yelled at about it all the time like I’m the person who chose this system. But don’t get frustrated! Instead, read on.
Their clothes are organized by fucking color people. It isn’t rocket science. They are NOT organized by size. They are however split into children’s (there’s sub-categories there as well but vary store to store), men’s, women’s, and plus size. Some stores have men’s plus size separated as well.
So you’re in the section you want and now what??? Well if you don’t have a color in mind then start at the first row and walk slowly down the aisle, looking at every item for at least half a second. If something peaks your interest even the tiniest bit stop and look at it more. If you are still interested then look at the size. If its the right size, inspect it and then try it on. Often it will not be the right size. If you don’t care what your clothes look like and just want whatever in your size then good fucking luck friends I can not help you.
How to Rehang Your Clothes
You’ve tried on clothes or pull something off a hanger for some reason and you’re not buying it. Well shit now what? Better just throw it on the ground, in a corner, on top of a random rack right? Nope! No! Actually fuck you.
Most places have a standardized and easy to understand way of hanging their clothes. Look at the clothes around you, or when going into the dressing room take note of how things are hung. At our store for example, everything is hung on certain kinds/sizes of hangers in their proper section. But on that hanger the clothes are positioned so the price tag is always visible because the hooky part of the hanger faces away from the tag. This is not true of all stores, but all stores have a system. Make someone’s job slightly less terrible and put it back on RIGHT. Please. Seriously. Most people in these shops are minimum wage or volunteer and this makes their days just…literally so much easier.
If you’re going to buy something you can feel free to leave it off of the hanger and hand your hangers to your cashier at check out, in an orderly manner.
What to do if You Pull Off/Lose a Tag
You were trying something on and the tag fell off! Oh no! What if they think you’re stealing???? What if ???
First, breathe. Second, decide if you are buying that item or not. If you are, simply put the item in your cart and the tag somewhere you won’t forget or lose it (a purse, pocket, etc). If you are not going to buy the item, find an employee, and hand them both the item and the tag while you politely explain what happened.
It happens all the time and as long as it isn’t all your items suspiciously most stores will have no problem. Promise.
Other Ways to Not Be A Huge Prat
Don’t put your garbage anywhere but the garbage can. Ever. Seriously.
Don’t pee in the fucking dressing rooms. I wish this didn’t need to be said.
If you pull something off the hanger, even on accident, even half way, fix it.
If you spill or break something just tell an employee. They probably won’t even make you pay for it.
Sort before you get to the register! Seriously. If you’re not sure about stuff debate it and separate before you get into the line. You can give items you don’t want back to the cashier if you don’t know where it went. If you opt to return it to the shelf yourself put it back exactly where it came from and make sure the hanger is facing the right way (take note of clothes around it to see where the tag is compared to the hanger).
Don’t let your hell spawn run round, pull things off the shelves/hangers, or mess up the toy area.
Questions to Ask
Where the bathroom/changing room/particular clothing section is. Look for signs first though because honestly most places are labeled. Use your reading comprehension (unless you can not read then just go ahead and ask).
Can I test this electronic item?
Can I see XYZ item in the case?
Do you know more about this item? (At smaller places they really might! At bigger places you probably shouldn’t waste your time unless it has a high price.)
This says “as is” but I don’t see anything wrong with it, can you help me find out?
Questions to Avoid
I know the half off color is XXX but can’t you just give me this half off?
(At chain stores) Will you negotiate/bundle this price?
Not really a question but pleaseeee do not complain about the policies/pricing to the cashiers. They probably hate them too. That isn’t their choice. Literally shut up you’re being annoying and they don’t care because they’ve already heard like 30x. Write a letter to corporate. Damn.
Don’t ask any questions that could literally be answered by looking at the tag on the clothing, the marks on the bottom of statues, the info in a book, etc. Like use your eyes and see the truth.
Do you have more of this ~really specific~ item in the back?
Do you have this in another size? No. No we fucking don’t. This is such a nonsensical question and you need to go to Walmart with these expectations.
Literally so many more things. If you’re like “hmm this seems like it could be an annoying or obvious question” please just don’t. Most of these workers have a wholeeee lot to do and not much time. The chain stores have quotas and shit so please keep that in mind when you’re being persistent.
Which Items To Ask if They Have More in the Back
Basically anything big and really unavoidable if you were to glance around the room.
Anything that says there is more to the set and you need to ask.
Some stores may know about linens, its worth asking.
These are not 100% true because sometimes the stores have off location storage units and they won’t know!
Which Items They Won’t Know if They Have
A specific book/game/movie/cd
Statues, toys, baskets, homewares, etc etc
Basically if it is smaller than a television they probably don’t know so don’t ask.
Fees! Fees! Fees!
Some places have “hidden” fees (aka they’re not like shouted in your face when you enter.)
You should keep this in mind mostly with furniture/appliances.
The fees at our store (which will be pretty common) are storage and delivery fees. If you can’t take an item with you that day they may charge you a fee to hold it (you will have to pay for it that day most likely, and then come back later to get it). If you can’t get an item home because you don’t know anybody with a big car there will almost undoubtedly be a delivery fee. Keep that in mind and make friends with someone with a truck.
I’ve Bought My Stuff, Now What?
Remove the tags from everything!
Sew up any holes from the tagging process if you’re worried about them stretching.
Wash anything made of fabric! Thrift stores generally do not wash the stuff they put out so please wash them!
Fix any missing buttons, sew up holes, etc.
Link: How to Remove Sticker Glue (You’ll need this, trust me.)
Every thrift store has different return policies. Some (like Salvation Army) have it posted on the wall. You should read it if it is posted. If you don’t see it posted feel free to ask an employee, any one should know.
Salvation Army’s return policy is as follows: All items are sold AS IS. There are no returns, exchanges, or refunds given for any items.
How Often Should I Check Back?
Smaller stores don’t put out items as regularly. You can check back once a month or so and not miss out on much.
Chain stores put out items far more often. Check back weekly if you can, preferably on Monday. If you can check Monday and Saturday you’d really be in the good place.
In regards to Salvation Army: They put out new items EVERY SINGLE DAY in almost every department. Our store puts out 2,000 new items a day on average, larger stores will put out more. This is overwhelming for most people and you should not check back every day unless you really have nothing better to do. Many people have nothing better to do. No shame in that.
Perks of Being a Regular
So you do all the stuff above and you back a lot and you’re well liked by the employees because you aren’t a huge asshole who makes a mess and asks stupid questions all the time. Congrats!
Once you become a regular certain perks might open up to you (will vary store to store and employee to employee tbh). You may be given special deals, shown items before they’re put on the floor, be recommended stuff that you may not have seen, and certain specials may be extended longer for you. I can’t guarantee it but this is some of what we do for our regulars.
Wear loose clothes at are easy to change out of if you know you’ll be going to the thrift store. Lots of layers and accessories slows the whole process down and its easy to lose your extras in large stores. Especially in thrift stores, anything that is dropped could easily be a product there and often just ends up priced and on the shelf! So dress simple and comfy.
If you’re looking for specific items make a list! There is a ton to see and it is easy to lose focus or forget why you came in.
If you are trying to match a specific item in your closet take photos of it on your phone or bring it with you! (If it is a small store tell the cashier you brought it in loose before you start shopping, and if its a big one put it in a bag from a different store.)
Most thrift stores do not wash the clothes or kitchenware or anything honestly. They might wipe it down if its dusty. So please, for yourself, wash everything you get that you’ll be wearing or putting near your face. Also wipe down anything you’ll be giving to a child, kids touch everything and kids are gross so please don’t make your child sick by being lazy.
If anyone actually read this, thank you! I hope you learned something, got some new tips or are possibly ready for your first big thrifting adventures, and have a better understanding of how thrift stores vary from regular stores.
Thrifting can save you tons and tons of money and help you find super unique things. So don’t be afraid! Dive in and have tons of fun.
Feel free to send me any questions I may not have answered or anything you think needs to be amended. <3