Thrifting Done Right, Part 1

Thrift store shopping can be overwhelming for the uninitiated–aisles upon aisles of clothes, a mishmash of styles and colors that looks like a muppet threw up everywhere, and the siren call of cheap, cheap prices that can make you think “It’s only $3…I can buy 10 shirts here for the same amount I’d spend on one shirt retail!”  Even people who are thrift pros still occasionally get sucked into the vortex of inexpensive and plentiful clothing.

This post covers some basic strategies for your approach to thrifting.  Part 2 covers tactics for once you’re in the store (see what I did there?  Strategies are for how you look at the forest, while tactics are the methods you use to negotiate individual trees…or something).  Oh, and let’s be generous about the “done right” part–I’m not here to be a thrift dictator, so take the principles you like and make them your own.

Recon your local stores.  If you’ve visited more than one thrift store (even 2 different Goodwills), you know the offerings can be vastly different, including:

  • Location: The location of your thrift store often determines the quality of the offerings.  I can’t remember where I read this (shame on me because I’d like to credit this smart person!!), but there’s a theory that stores located on the line between more affluent and less affluent areas are likely to have better goods.  Think of it as thrift economics–you need a decent supply (more affluent folks donating tasty items) and a decent demand (less affluent folks looking to score good clothes for non-retail prices).  Sometimes just plain affluent areas work, too–although such neighborhoods don’t always have thrift stores, probably because the demand isn’t high for discounted clothes.  (They may have consignment shops, though, where prices are higher but often so is the quality of the clothes.)  I work in an affluent neighborhood and the closest Goodwill affiliate is indeed merely a donation drop–but just a wee bit further in the other direction, and still in a wealthy area, is a great Goodwill where Tory Burch mingles with Target.  Did I just sound like I know something about high-end fashion?
  • Organization: Different stores organize differently.  Goodwills (and I keep citing them because they’re the biggest thrift franchise out there and I’ve been to 9 in my area…don’t judge, how else would I have become your friendly internet thrift expert??)–Goodwills most often organize by color, which is great if you need a particular hue of shirt, pants, or bridesmaid dress, but not great if you just want clothes that fit and you have to wade through 6 racks of blouses to get 1 shirt.  I did recently find a Goodwill unicorn in my hometown that organizes by size AND by color–it was much more efficient and I was far less tempted to try on things that weren’t in my size.
    There are also stores that have special sections for plus size, maternity, designer, etc. which may help you focus your search; others may just have everything mixed in together.
  • The same principle applies to cleanliness and customer service.  Some stores do a lot better–or worse–in these categories.  If these are important to you, choose accordingly.  I wouldn’t write off an entire store after a mediocre experience with one employee or one trashed dressing room, but if it keeps happening and it bothers you, speak to a manager or patronize elsewhere.
  • Men.  Men are often at a thrift disadvantage compared to women because women tend to buy, cycle through, and therefore donate, a higher volume of clothing than men, which means men end up with a more meager selection at the thrift shop.  If you are a man thrifting with a particular style or size in mind, and you have more than one outlet to choose from, be ruthless about the stores you patronize.  Also keep in mind that consignment stores may be a better bet for you, particularly if you’re looking for trimmer, more fitted options; stores in trendier neighborhoods are also a better bet for this style.

These criteria should help you decide where to patronize regularly and what stores are just fun “bonus” options.

Know before You Go.  Decide beforehand if you’re thrifting for fun or for business.  If it’s business time* and you have a thrift goal in mind–e.g. “my kid needs shoes” or “I need some more work clothes” or “my workout shorts ripped in an unfortunate location while I was in the middle of a squat”–define it before you arrive and discipline yourself once you’re in store.
If you’re thrifting for fun–you’re out with a friend or you’ve got a leisurely couple of hours to kill on a Saturday afternoon–be open to the magic!  Check out sections, styles, and colors you wouldn’t normally embrace, and try on that bolero with the sequined parrots because WHY NOT.  If you didn’t already know, half the fun of thrifting is finding ridiculousness and sharing it with whoever’s nearby–including complete strangers who, in a wonderful phenomenon known as Thrift Camaraderie**, will either revel in the ridic with you or tell you it’s actually AWESOME and you need to buy it. Playing around like this is also a really good way to open up your style to new influences–if jumpsuits have never rung your bell but you’re suddenly curious to try them out, thrift stores offer the perfect low-risk arena to give them a go–and the perfect spot to donate that jumpsuit if you decide that, after all, you’d rather not strip every time you need to pee.

-When it comes to thrifting for business, shop selectively but often.  We’ll talk more about how to hone your hunt in store, but the basic principle to building a full wardrobe out of thrift store finds is to know what you want and to scan for it repeatedly.  Thrift stores often have high turnover, but the stock is never guaranteed–you know there will ALWAYS be white shirts, but not always the three-quarter-sleeved, fitted, collared, open-necked version you specifically want, in your size.  This means you need to carry around a mental shopping list of the items you want/need and, upon entering a particular store, efficiently check its offerings against your list.  This doesn’t have to drain the fun out of thrifting–once I’ve inventoried my list I often keep perusing the racks for amusement and inspiration.  It does, however, allow you to be intentional about building your wardrobe and to set realistic expectations that this is a process; unless you hit the thrift jackpot, it’s probably going to take some time.

-In that same vein, prepare to leave empty handed.  This may sound counterintuitive if you’re here because you want to know how to build a wardrobe.  But trust me when I say that it’s better to leave having bought nothing than having bought something, anything, because it was “too good of a bargain to refuse” or it was “allllmost right.”  We’ll cover these pitfalls in more detail later, but remember the oft-repeated shopping adage: would I be willing to pay full price for this?  If not (and you’re not thrifting for fun or for Halloween), resist the temptation.  When it comes to thrifting for business, your purpose is to see if there’s anything worth adding to your wardrobe; if the answer today, in this particular store, is “no,” then leaving with nothing is a perfectly acceptable outcome–in fact it’s the right outcome, a VICTORIOUS outcome.  Remind yourself of this as you walk in the door and you’re much less likely to succumb to the impulse buy (aka the anxiety buy or the run-to-the-register-with-whatever’s-in-the-cart-to-avoid-a-toddler-meltdown buy) or to feel deflated when you leave without new duds.  You WILL live to thrift again–successfully!

-Related: Pace yourself.   Shopping slowly and intentionally means living with impatience at first, but if you practice, it creates space where you can hear your inner style conscience, that little voice that naggingly whispers “you love the IDEA of playsuits but you really never WEAR them in real life,”  or “mustard is your favorite color, yes, but you hate how it looks on you.  PUT IT BACK.”  Slow style also means you can live with an experiment–a different style skirt or that irresistible chartreuse sweater–for awhile to see if it makes it into heavy rotation before you buy 5 more just like it.

-This is probably clear after the last three points, but thrifting most or all of your closet is a long game.  Like building any quality wardrobe, particularly one of the less-is-more, uniform, or capsule variety, you need to know where you’re headed, take your time, resist mediocre compromises, and savor the moment when you find juuuust the right sartorial gem.  Because, oh yeah–most of all, this is supposed to be fun!



*Gold star if you get that reference.
**I made that term up but the phenomenon is REAL.

2 thoughts on “Thrifting Done Right, Part 1

  1. My perspective on the men’s thrift scene is totally different.

    In my experience, men donate clothes but rarely thrift shop. In NYC, there is SO MUCH men’s clothing (and leather dress shoes!!) in new condition, while the women’s clothing is heavily picked over.

    Also, some thrift stores don’t have dressing rooms. Most women’s clothes need to have an exact fit, so it’s tough to buy without trying on. However, a large percentage of men’s clothes (think t-shirts, sweaters, baggy pants, shorts) aren’t made to fit exactly, so guys can hit the jackpot.

    1. Fascinating! I’m not surprised that NYC’s thrifting scene is picked over for women’s clothing given the high style quotient there; but I’d think that male hipsters, and dandies who haven’t yet made their fortunes, would be all over that scene! I’ll have to convince the spouse to go on a weekend getaway just to thrift….

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