I’ve always loved perusing thrift stores.
When I was younger, shopping secondhand was a hobby of mine and I would drag friends with me on the weekends to share in the thrill of the hunt. The promise of finding something unique that no one else had was always a huge draw and with my student budget, I knew it was the more responsible way of spending my money.
Beyond the fact that secondhand shopping is less expensive, there are many reasons to choose secondhand over buying brand new: it reduces your waste by buying something preloved, it supports local community programs, and you can find unique items that are often of higher quality than what you can find in retail stores.
It’s at the thrift stores that I’ve found some of my most loved pieces of clothing and accessories – a pair of like-new Ann Demeulemeester boots ($20 CAD), a pair of J.Crew jeans (circa 2013) that fit perfectly, antique home items, vintage brass bracelets, and this 100% silk dress that appears to have been pre-worn maybe once:
When I tell people about the things I’ve found in thrift stores, sometimes the reaction is disbelief: “I never find anything at those places!” is a common reply.
But I’m not blessed by the Vintage Gods, nor do I spend all of my spare time combing through racks and stores. I just use a few simple techniques to find amazing, quality items at great prices – here are my top 5.
1. Location, Location, Location
In my experience, thrift stores in the more affluent or gentrified areas have a better selection of brand name goods. People that live in these areas generally have more disposable income and cycle out their clothing and home goods at a fast rate, so the items at these stores are less worn and you may even be able to find items that are brand new.
For example, back when I loved in Toronto, the Goodwill store near Yorkdale Mall (the busiest mall in Canada, with the highest sales per square foot) had the most amazing selection of designer items. My theory was that people dropped off goods while on their way to do more shopping at the mall, especially since that store was the only used goods drop-off location in the area.
Now that I live in New York, I’ve found that the thrift stores on the Upper East Side are a gold mine of barely used, quality goods. My favorite finds so far have been the silk dress pictured above ($6 USD), a basic black cotton Land’s End button-up, a sheer French Connection blouse (of much better quality than what they sell in their stores nowadays!), and two Chinese Willow Pattern mugs and a Oneida teapot.
2. Shop Out of Season
With thrift shopping becoming increasingly popular, it’s sometimes hard to find what you’re looking for since other like-minded customers are searching for the same items. My advice is to plan ahead and look for items that are out of season.
If you know you need a winter coat for next year, start looking in the spring. It’s at this time that many people purge their closets, plus you’ll face less competition with other customers since most people have a buy-now-wear-now mentality. Likewise, start planning your summer wardrobe in the winter months.
3. Set Aside a Specific Day & Time to Shop
The thing about secondhand shopping is that it requires patience. Unlike Zara, Uniqlo, or department stores, things aren’t easily laid out for your shopping ease. Casually walking into a secondhand store with only 15-20 minutes of time to shop has rarely yielded anything for me. I’ve found my favorite items when I methodically look through all the racks.
*Bonus Tip*: I personally only wear muted, neutral colours, so that helps me to go through the racks more quickly. I only pull something out if it works with my colour palette.
Make a game plan: set aside around 2 hours one day to comb through a single store. It takes time to look through everything and you don’t want to be rushed. When you’re rushed, you’ll make impulse purchases that you might regret down the road. And unlike retail stores, sometimes sales from thrift stores are final. Which leads me to tip number four:
4. Try Before You Buy
This seems like a no-brainer, but really make sure that you try everything on before you buy it. Don’t assume that just because you normally wear a size 32 in Levi’s 501s that the pair of the same size and style at the thrift store will fit you. Oftentimes people have their clothing altered, so you have to try everything on to make sure that it looks good on you. Fit is everything.
Additionally, when you try items on, look for any stains, rips, loose buttons, etc. It’s easier to spot these flaws when you try things on. If you really love an item but it has some damages, consider if you can have it repaired yourself or if you can have it taken to a tailor to fix. Factor this cost into the price of the item. I can’t tell you how many things I’ve purchased thinking, “I love it so much, it just needs a simple repair!” but then I never get around to fixing it or the repair itself outweighs the cost of the original item. I once bought a $40 leather jacket, only to spend over $100 to have the arms taken in.
Be realistic about what fits you and what doesn’t. There are thousands of pieces of clothing in thrift stores so my general advice is to be patient and wait until you find something that actually fits you and requires little maintenance.
5. Think Outside the Box
The beauty of vintage shopping is that you can find incredibly unique and special items. Don’t be afraid to buy an unusual item of clothing or something quirky.
I find that the people with the best personal style are those who wear at least a little bit of vintage clothing. If your normal wardrobe consists of jeans and a t-shirt, look for a retro blazer or an unusual pair of shoes to completely update your wardrobe. I love checking out the men’s section for cool oversized button-ups that I can wear with jeans and accessorize with earrings, a necklace, and a nice pair of boots.
One of the best parts of thrift shopping is the ability to experiment with your style. And if the item doesn’t work out, send it back to the store for a third chance at life.
I’m curious – what are your favorite thrift store finds?
Do you have any tips for a successful thrift shopping trip?