I spent 8 years working in thrift stores and two more at other clothing stores. I don’t miss spending 8 hours on my feet putting clothing on hangers, or opening mysterious trash bags, but I still love the stores. Let’s learn how to get the best deal in thrift stores!
Thrift stores offer an incredible cross-section of clothing, housewares, electronics, and basically everything else under the sun. You can find new items that were donated with the tags still on them or vintage treasures from decades ago. Many resellers consider thrift stores to be the backbone of their business and we love bragging about major be on the lookouts (BOLOs) that cost us pennies but earned us dollars.
Like most resellers, I love thrift stores. Even though the prices have been increasing over the last few years, I never plan to stop shopping thrift. With my years behind the “Employees Only” sign, I can tell you the top ways to get the best deal at your local store. Perhaps more importantly, I can tell you the supposedly money-saving strategies that you should definitely avoid.
I know that no one has “extra” time right now, but volunteering for a few hours a week at your local store could have some serious benefits. If you’ve ever wanted to peek behind the thrift store curtain, volunteering lets you do that. More than a peek, volunteering gives you the opportunity to be the first person to see new donations. Because you’re not an actual employee, you get to pick what you do. No boss can tell you to jump on the manager or mop a bathroom floor, if you want to sort clothing, you get to. If you want to clean and price housewares, that is how you will spend your day. I met more than one volunteer who ran a side business based on their volunteer area. One guy put in about 4 hours a week in our media department and made thousands a month on the records he bought in our store.
Besides the obvious opportunities for your reselling business, you can basically be in Holiday shopping mode all the time! Basically, the entire time I worked in thrift stores, my friends and family knew that that was where their Christmas gifts were coming from. They knew, but they didn’t care. I got everything there.
One year I got my mom J. Jill cashmere sweaters with the tags still attached, my dad biographies of the founding fathers, and books about old sailing ships because, you know, he’s a dad. My three brothers got various housewares and furniture for the new homes they moved into, and a lot of clothing for a new baby girl that arrived a few months before. In addition to getting everything at thrift store prices, I got an extra discount as an employee. Most stores also give that discount to volunteers as a way to show their appreciation.
One final benefit of volunteering at a thrift store that needs addressing is the wonderful feeling of moral superiority that comes from giving your time to a good cause. Most thrift stores benefit a charity designed to benefit your local community. I, for example, love dogs, but I’m crazy allergic to them. As much as I would love to volunteer at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), I can’t. My face would swell up, they would have to call an ambulance, and it would be ugly. But I can volunteer at the store down the street that gives its profits to the local dog shelter. My work provides them with money, and I have a deal with the manager that lets me take home non-saleable cotton clothing that I braid into dog toys. Everybody wins!
Ask About Discounts
This one might sound obvious, but the manager at your local thrift store has a lot more power than a normal retail store manager. Most can, at any moment, give a special manager discount, stack it on top of a senior or student discount, initiate a colored tag sale, or give you one bulk price if you’re buying a lot of items. They want return customers just as much as you do, and who doesn’t love networking with potential lifelong buyers?
As long as you’re respectful and realistic, it never hurts to ask for a discount or to get yourself on a first-name basis with the staff.
Like I said just above, it’s great to get on a first-name basis with your thrift staff. A lot of businesses don’t like resellers, some big box stores even teach their staff how to identify and ban us, but thrift stores are different. They just don’t function like your local Target. Thrift stores don’t have the same 40 Lego sets on their shelves that all have to sell for $98.99. They don’t have to compete with resellers selling that same Lego set on eBay for $49.99. Thrift stores, as you know, sell single, donated items, and their reputation caps the price they can ask for. No one would pay $98.99 for a Lego set at Goodwill even if it was new and never opened because, hey, it’s a thrift store! They are their own world, and you can take advantage of that.
Thrift stores like resellers because we make great customers, and we aren’t fighting over the same customer base. And it’s not like we get a super-secret reseller discount. We pay the same price as every other customer, but we buy a lot more. If there’s a specific product that you love selling, there’s no reason not to share that info with your local thrift manager. I, for example, headed the clothing department and loved my customer, Steve.
Steve introduced himself to me the first week we were open. He told me about his eBay store that specialized in vintage band t-shirts. Every time I found one, I put it behind the register and called Steve. He paid us $25 per t-shirt, and we were both happy with the arrangement. I had a guaranteed sale within 24 hours, and Steve had a team of people sorting through thousands of bags a week.
We could have put them in our silent auction or even tried opening our own eBay store, but you guys know that posting something online doesn’t mean it’s going to sell quickly. Most stores don’t have the storage space that having an eBay store requires, and you never know what money a silent auction will bring in. It might only get a $2 bid and be done in 3 days, or it could get to $200 and last a month. Neither outcome is guaranteed and both have their drawbacks. I loved my arrangement with Steve, and so did he. We had a similar arrangement with a furniture dealer and someone who collected and sold electronics. I mean, who doesn’t like a quick sale? The faster something sells, the faster you can put another item in its place and make another sale.
I never thought it would be controversial to say that you shouldn’t steal stuff, but apparently, it is. Switching tags in a thrift store is stealing. I know some of you might read that and say to yourself, “they get it all for free”, but that’s not quite true. Sure, most thrift stores rely on donations, but as all of you know, running a business isn’t free. They have to pay employees, utilities, marketing, rent on buildings, gas for their pick-up and delivery trucks, taxes, and all the other stuff that comes with owning a business.
Trust me, I know that none of us want to pay higher prices at the store, it cuts into our profits, but that’s exactly how thrift stores feel. After all, if you buy a Coogi sweater for $20 at a thrift store, would you list it for $40 because that’s a fair markup on what you paid? Hell no! You would list it at $250 just like I would. Would your customers consider that fair? Probably not. If you told them that you bought it at a thrift store for only $20, they would probably be outraged. You know how much it’s worth, so you’re charging more, just like a thrift store.
Most thrift stores are not-for-profit businesses. Most of them were set up by well-meaning people and their profits go to charities in your local community. When you steal from a thrift store, you’re not just taking an item or paying less money, you could be taking food out of a pantry or keeping a bed from opening at a homeless shelter. I know that sounds overdramatic, which, hi, welcome to me, but I’ve seen the end result of it. When my stores used to put out a designer piece, we expected it to be stolen, but most thrift stores do. You might think that the few times you switch a tag or steal something don’t matter. Every day, hundreds of customers at the same store tell themselves the same thing. It adds up.
Don’t Cause A Scene
No one in the service industry or the world of retail deserves to be yelled at. Maybe Samantha, but she knows what she did…
Yelling at someone, belittling them, or throwing a fit will probably get you a discount, but only once. After that, I guarantee that every employee within earshot will remember you, and not in a good way. It’s not worth risking years of goodwill for one single purchase.
If you want to read a truly awful story about customer engagement, check out my book “Why I Hate Everything: Reflections on a Decade in Retail” on Amazon. I would tell it here, but it has some very non-List Perfectly-approved words…
In short, do everything you can to be kind. Remember that retail workers are people too, and they would rather have a friend customer than a sketchy customer. They want to sell as much as possible as quickly as possible, just like you do. Show them that you will be a good customer and they will probably want to help you out.
Do you have any tips on getting the best deal? Share them on List Perfectly’s Facebook group!