Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Stylish Geek’s Guide to Thrift Shopping

As far as I am concerned, buying from thrift and charity shops is the ultimate form of shopping therapy. You can potentially find anything—current styles, vintage items, designer threads, or even custom-made clothing—at extremely low prices.

Even so, I understand the misgivings and difficulties that some have with the task. The first time I went into a thrift store, I definitely didn’t want to be there! (All I could think about was how it smelled like old ladies.) But now that I’ve seen the light, I do know a few tips for making trips less tricky.

  • Prepare.
As with any shopping trip, it is a must that you go on a full stomach. Hungry shopfests never go well—you will probably run out of energy before you find something good or end up buying a ton of clothing you will never wear. I also recommend taking a small snack to the store with you. Even if eating is not allowed, nip a few bites in the fitting room. Don’t leave crumbs and I won’t tell! Trust me, when you’re three-quarters of the way through the clothes, empty-handed, and fading fast, you’ll want it.

The allergy-prone should take their usual preventative measures before shopping. Thrift stores are filled with hundreds of people’s old stuff, which also means hundreds of allergens! You don’t know what pet they had, what perfume they wore, or what laundry detergent they used, and that’s going to be ALL OVER the store. Sneezes and sinus pain are a definite trip-ruiner. If you have very sensitive skin (or are a germophobe), you may even want to wear gloves.

  • Bring a donation.
One should always bring an “offering to the thrift gods” with them to the shop, or else they will surely be cursed with poor luck! Insider’s secret. (Wink!) But superstition aside, it is a kind gesture. Charity shops can’t operate without charitable donations.

  • Know what you want.
Although some are better than others, thrift stores are notorious for being poorly organized. Reviewing a list of your “dream items” (whether it be on paper or in your mind) before heading through the door will keep them fresh in your mind and easier to spot on a jumbled rack.

  • But keep your mind open!
Thrift stores are a great place to try out clothes that you’d categorize as style risks. If anything on the rack catches your eye or looks vaguely interesting, pick it up and try it on. While I don’t advocate making haphazard purchases, better to put a two-dollar investment on that crazy piece in a thrift store than splurge on a passing trend at the mall. If it doesn’t work out, you can recycle the fabric and try your hand at a DIY project.

  • Check every section.
Definitely check the opposite gender’s clothing area as well as the children’s. (I swear I had a prophetic dream once the night before a thrift store run. It told me to look in the little boys’ section first, and I found one of my favorite shirts there!) A lot of times it is difficult to tell where an item belongs, so the perfect leggings may have been categorized as girls’ pants. Misplaced items happen all the time, too. For example, a lot of stores put all t-shirts that aren’t obviously fitted in the men’s section, regardless of color or print. Don’t miss out!

Never trust the size on the label, either. These clothes are of innumerable brands and makes, and every sizing chart is different. So different that in this setting, the size is almost irrelevant. Just eyeball it (duh,if it’s baby-sized but says it’ll fit, don’t trust!) and throw anything that looks vaguely promising in your basket to try on.

  • Clean up afterward.
After making your purchases, clean your hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer as soon as possible. If, by any small chance, something icky did get on your hands from an item, this makes sure nothing unpleasant will become of it. This is especially important if you have allergies.
Obviously, you should launder the clothes you bought before you wear them. Synthetic sneakers can be thrown in the washing machine as well. The inside of other shoes can be cleaned by wiping them down with an all-purpose cleaner like Lysol.

A note to those especially concerned about cleanliness:

Yes, some thrift stores are dirty. Many are not. If you find one particularly skuzzy, just don’t shop there! There are plenty more that are excellently maintained. Although most don’t, some stores even launder all the donations they receive.

I know it can be difficult to sort, try on, and purchase clothing of unknown origin, but remember that the majority of items at a thrift store come from average people’s closets. Much of it has little to no wear, but worn-in stuff does have its perks—it’s trendy and comfortable! If you are still skeeved out (no judging; I have a lot of germophobe friends), you can wear gloves or even try on clothes over a unitard. But unless the idea of trying on other people’s old clothes causes you to have a panic attack, I would still recommend giving thrifting a try.

And the washing issue—I know people who say you should dry clean everything you purchase at a thrift store. Personally, I disagree with this. If an item isn’t dry clean only and doesn’t have any noticeable stains, a simple machine wash with detergent should suffice. The chance that any “icky stuff” would remain afterwards is miniscule, and quite honestly about the same as if you had purchased a new item!

Final thoughts

Thrift shopping is often a hit-or-miss experience. Although there is an influx of clothes at the beginning and end of seasons (when people clean their closets), there is no guarantee that you’ll find anything to your liking. It’s happened to me many times, but I’ve also had times when I’ve come back with multiple bags of great loot. Prepare, but don’t expect to find your dream item right away. It’s the thrill of the hunt that makes it worth it!



  1. Great advice! I have to say I don't understand being squeamish about thrift store clothing. You have no idea how many people have tried on a 'new' piece in a retail store--or bought something, wore it, then returned it.

    Most of my thrifting is done at yard sales where the clothing I find is so cheap I never dry clean anything. If it gets ruined I'm only out a buck or two at most, but that's very rare. And I even wash leather shoes in the washer!

  2. Yeah, I'm not squeamish about the clothing at all...but it does seem to be the main thing holding many people back from thrifting!

    I also barely ever dry clean anything. Unless it's super special, I usually just hand wash it.

  3. My goodness, squeamish? I've been thrifting since 1975 and I've never even got a viral cold from shopping in thrift stores. Most valuable hint: go often. Sometimes I find not a thing, the next time a bundle. Shop all sections. Never miss the pajama section (male & female), almost always something there. Only buy it if you love it; don't fixate on label or cost. I've made a few mistakes buying some fabulous label at low cost (Like an Eileen Fisher for a buck) and never wearing it. Although now I sell it on Ebay!

  4. If you thrift often enough, you can tell just by the feel of fabric if something is good or not. I go through many racks "by touch" and when I feel something that is made of a quality fabric I stop to look at it. This works especially well with men's suits. A good wool, camel hair or cashmere stands out instantly.

    Since I thrift most often at an outlet the size of a supermarket that marks things between 25 cents and $1.75, has little rhyme or reason to its layout (sometimes organized somewhat by gender, never by size), and turns over its entire inventory weekly, this little trick comes in quite handy.

    And for the squeamish? They can just buy it from me on ebay--still less than retail, still helping reduce landfills, still finding unique one-of-a-kind or man-I-wish-they-still-made-those items. But cleaned up, inspected for flaws/repaired, and easily searchable with just a few keystrokes. Win-win!

  5. You can also buy from It is an online consignment and thrift store that sells only designer and name brand goods for very inexpensive prices. Le Thrift also goes to great efforts to ensure that each piece is in great condition and each customer is happy with their purchase. There is also a constantly changing inventory of new things uploaded every week!