We covered strategy–your overarching approach to The Thrift–in Thrifting Done Right, Part 1. Now it’s time for tactics–how you actually operate in store. If this is sounding like a military operation or a major league playbook, please excuse my enthusiasm. And remember, I’m not here to be a thrift dictator, so take the principles you like and make them your own.
-Our first tactic is an expansion from Thrifting Done Right, Part 1 (Strategies): Know (Specifically) before You Go. If you ain’t thriftin’ for fun, go in with a game plan–but here’s the tactic part: don’t be content with a general “I’m here for work clothes,” but zero in on one or two wardrobe holes. If your category is too wide, you’ll end up with items you don’t need in types of clothes you already have; conversely, if you start off with too many categories–especially under time limits–you’ll feel stressed and overwhelmed.
Case in Point: Although I’ve been dreaming of a delicious dark blue work pant (and dressier pants are hard to find in just the right size/fabric/style combination, so the more times you look the better chance you’ll find the Holy Grail), I have enough work pants for the summer. So the last few times I’ve visited a thrift shop, I steered clear of pants and narowed it down to short-sleeve, dressy-yet-comfortable tops in colors that go with the rest of my wardrobe–a hole I hadn’t paid attention to since a summer maternity leave of casual loosey goosey stuff.
–Dress for the Occasion. This might seem like a before-the-store strategy rather than an in-store tactic, but because it’s something to apply differently each time you go thrifting and not a blanket rule on how-to, I stuck it in tactics (plus Strategies was already too long).
If you are looking for clothing of a specific kind (see the first tactic above), dress in a version of the relevant item that is easy to take on/off. Looking for tops? Don’t wear a button-down or a side-zip number that will take time or a helping hand to get on/off. Looking for pants or shoes? Wear shoes that are slip-on, not tied, to make the shoe-trying-on-process or the whole shoes-off-and-on/pants-off-and-on process easier. Trying skirts or dresses (or just tops)? Don’t worry about shoes.
Big tip here: if you are trying on tops, wear the kind of bottoms (shorts, pants, skirts) with which you want them to jive. Likewise, if you are trying on skirts or pants, wear the kind of top you’d most likely pair with them so you can see how it lays over your bottom half. Nothing worse than scoring a great new shirt only to realize it hits funny on most of the pants or skirts you love, or vice versa.
Case in point: My last trip to the thrift store was a spontaneous jaunt wherein I ended up in a dress to try on tops–bad idea since I couldn’t exactly tell how the tops I wanted would look over my preferred waistline. This meant I had to spend an extra five minutes fumbling for a pair of pants with which to try things on. The ones I grabbed fit (luckily), but they were skinny jeans*, a style I don’t normally wear, so I ended up with one loose top that looked great with the skinnies but not as great, silhouette-wise, with my favorite work pants. Wanh-wannnnnh.
–Stick to the Plan. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wandered off to the Magical Land o’ Thrift with a promise to my spouse to “just take 20 minutes because I only have to look for _____…” then wound up an hour and a half later with a stack of purchases that clearly fall outside of “______,” whatever that was. Again, if you have flexible time and you’re having fun, don’t worry about this one–but if you have limited time or you’re trying to build a wardrobe and you’d rather hit more stores in less time to maximize your chances of finding the goods, stick to the category/categories you outlined above.
Case in Point: That last thrifting trip came with time constraints, so I stuck to the short-sleeved tops section for women; as they were organized by color, I only flipped through the hues that would complement my existing wardrobe. A quick trip to the fitting stalls to try everything on, a swing through the kids’ shoe section to see if they had any sandals for my kiddo (no dice), and I was through the checkout line and out the door.
–Contingency Categories. If you strike out on your inital target or the selection of that type of item is meager, or if you are just a badass and find 5 dressy tops you love in 5 minutes, keep a running list of other Wardrobe Holes you’d like to fill. The intention here is to live into the “Thrift Selectively and Often” principle–if you have 10 extra minutes, use it to scan for something additional you’ve been looking for, not just to aimlessly wander the aisles. This is helpful for avoiding coming home with a neon lime muumuu (been there). Unless you desperately desire a neon lime muumuu, in which case that’s your contingency category.
Case in Point: With more time on this visit, I might’ve snuck a look at sweaters (opposite seasons being a great time to find things), as I’m looking for sweaters I absolutely love to replace several so-so numbers I donated after last winter (which is why there are now so many sweaters at thrift stores). With some bonus time (say Spouse decides he needs to look up reviews of the breadmaker he’s contemplating buying from Appliances, or–Heavens!–finds a stack of pants he wants to try on–his Thrifting Unicorn), I would’ve perused the dresses, too, as I’m always on the lookout for a yummy work dress. Dresses are not a hole, per se, in my closet, but the more I find that really hit a sweet spot for me, the more I wear them (and the more I can trade out for dresses I own that aren’t as perfect for my taste/size/wardrobe palette).
–The Full Price Test. This concept commonly pops up in retail shopping but is just as (even moreso?) valid in secondhand excursions: Would you pay full (retail) price for this item? If not, don’t buy it. End of story. Well…
…am I telling you that really, if I found a dress that retailed for $85 (or $285) in great shape selling for $7 (or even $15…), and I liked it enough to wear it regularly but not enough to pay $85 for it (and the idea of ever paying $285 for any piece of clothing, ever, makes me break out in hives), would I really turn it down? Of course not! So let’s apply the spirit of the test, if not the letter. A good translation might be: would you be willing to fork over your hard-earned money for this in a retail setting, period? (This requires imagination for those among us who have stopped shopping retail altogether, but work with me.)
So this tactic needs a little tweaking to work in a thrift store, but it then becomes that much more important to apply rigorously. If you’ve never been down the slippery slope of thriftjustification, let me illustrate for you: “This is a good quality shirt…I don’t usually wear this color/style/length/fabric, but it’s only $5, and I’m sure I can find a way to work it in.” Or “I love stripes but these are a little narrow, and that navy is so dark it’s almost black, but I’ve been looking for a Breton mariniere forEVER and this fits me so well…and it’s on sale for $3…” See what I mean?
Fellow thrifters, I make an impassioned plea: do not lower your standards simply because you have lowered your price point!! Only purchase things you will LOVE and wear in good conscience, knowing you would have bought them regardless of their secondhand status because they are just that perfect for you. This is the only sure way to avoid the dreaded Thrift Shlump (Slump + schlub + lump??), wherein all your clothing is just a bit “off” but it all sort of works so you don’t want to let go of it…and anyway it’s impossible to find *just* the right clothing item in thrift stores so you might as well settle, right?
WRONG ! LIES !
Trust me, once you begin to practice this little tactic you will walk out of thrift stores consistently happier and with better finds (even if fewer overall), and less and less with that vaguely nauseous feeling associated with having spent money on something you know will molder at the back of your wardrobe for the next millenia…or worse, the vaguely uncomfortable feeling associated with donning clothing you don’t love but feel obligated to wear because you paid for it.
Case in point: This trip all the tops I bought managed to pass the test but one (see above re: loose top seducing me with the help of skinny jeans). Their quality and the fact that they all hit the “sweet spot” I was looking for (see above re: sticking to the plan) made them winners.
Caveat: Your purchases should pass the test 85-90% of the time; sometimes you JUST NEED A BLACK DRESS (or running shorts or a tie or whatever) because Aunt Liza’s funeral is tomorrow and the most sombre color you own is fucshia.**
*Does anyone else feel like skinny jeans are basically glorified compression stockings? No? I did have a pair I loved, about 6 years ago, but they were much more stretch than skinny, which is the only way I could escape the sensation of having slipped my legs into sausage casings.
**Someone please tell me why fucshia is spelled that way? Does not “fuschia” seem much more phonetically plausible?