It’s no secret that I love shopping secondhand. What can I say? I have expensive taste, and buying used clothing is the only way I can afford to dress the way I do. When I shop for new clothes, I buy probably 80% of them at thrift stores, a couple pieces on super-sale at nicer stores like J. Crew and Zara, and MAYBE one item full price if it’s something I know I’ll have forever (although I can’t remember the last time I paid full price for something.)
Thrift shopping is ethically minded and eco-conscious. Instead of perpetuating the “fast fashion” industry that’s currently clogging landfills and destroying worldwide apparel markets, you’re recycling–and saving money while you’re at it. I could write a whole post on why buying fewer, higher-quality pieces is better when building a wardrobe, and maybe I will, but until then I’ll direct interested readers toward this great book by Elizabeth Cline on the subject.
Everyone has their favorite thrift store success story. I admit I have several…recently, I’ve found YSL, Miu Miu and Prada at Goodwill, and I regularly buy J. Crew, Theory, and BCBG–all for 90-95% off what the pieces would cost new. Below, I’ve made an exhaustive guide for finding your own Goodwill gems.
Background photo from Flickr Creative Commons, Maegan Tintari (see her blog here)
#1. Go to the right store for how you want to shop.
There are three main tiers of secondhand stores. On the bottom are donation stores, like Salvation Army and Goodwill. These tend to be cheapest with the lowest-quality merchandise (in general.) Then come the lower-end consignment stores like Plato’s Closet and Buffalo Exchange, where mall brands like American Eagle and H&M abound at prices usually 50-70% less what you’d pay in store. The top tier is designer consignment, which only accepts expensive designer clothing.
Designer finds at Goodwill are significantly less expensive than at any consignment store, but you have to dig through much more crap to find them. For me, consigned high-end designer pieces still aren’t generally affordable. Even though it’s used and much less than it would cost in the store, a high-end dress still costs a couple hundred dollars. And I find that the people who consign at stores like Buffalo tend to have a lot of “teen” brand stuff from Aldo and H&M, and not a lot from the higher-quality stores I like best. I have no problem digging through piles of crap for $4 Miu Miu, so I go to Goodwill: the rest of these tips will be based on the Goodwill experience.
#2. Find your jackpot store.
The quality of clothes at any Goodwill is directly related to the average income of the people who donate there. For high-end pieces, shop in the wealthiest areas around you. It’s 100% worth it driving a while to get to a nicer store. I love taking day trips into Palm Springs, CA, where there are rich retirees and three Goodwills–bingo.
Goodwill is better than Salvation Army, because SA prices things individually whereas Goodwill’s shirts, dresses etc are (90% of the time) one flat price. They mark up designer a little, but only the names they know–labels like Madewell and Zara go unnoticed.
#3. Don’t go with a friend who’s your size.
Finding nice things at Goodwill in your size is hard enough without having to decide which girl gets the velvet J. Crew blazer or the Theory cocktail dress. If you go with someone else (and I usually don’t, because I spend hours at Goodwill and none of my friends have my shopping stamina), do yourself a favor and go with someone who has a completely different size or style so you can keep your goodies all to yourself. Sharing is caring, except you can’t share a $6 Prada pencil skirt.
#4. Wear a “thrifting uniform.”
At my Goodwill, there’s always a long line outside the two cramped, dirty changing rooms. I have no patience for that when I’m in the thrift zone, so I wear things over which I can try on all my stuff in front of a mirror. My usual getup is a zip-up sweatshirt over a sports bra and leggings.
#5. Never shop all the sections at once.
To find designer, you’ve got to look at every single piece. That kind of thorough browsing takes a really long time, and covering all the clothes sections that way would take forever. To cut down on how much time I spend, I only look at the sections of clothes that a) I need and b) I wear. For instance, I have plenty of skirts and I rarely wear them, so I hardly ever even look at the skirt section.
When I go to Goodwill, I always have a plan of action. First, I look through all the dresses. Then, I do blazers and jackets. Third, button down blouses, and fourth, t-shirts (but only in the colors I wear–white, black, grey, and blue, mostly.) Then I try on all my finds at once. I usually check in at the red t-shirt and sweatshirt sections to see if there’s any USC apparel, then I sweep by the dish section for my mom and I’m out. That routine takes me about an hour and a half.
Pants take much longer because it’s harder to find pants that fit well, and I generally have to try them on in a dressing room. If I need pants and jeans (which is rare), I make a special trip.
#6. Watch the care labels.
A lot of expensive stuff is dry clean only. Dry cleaning is really expensive, usually about $10-15 per piece. It’s totally worth it if you find something you love that won’t need to be washed often afterwards (like a blazer), but watch how much it jacks up the price of your piece. Would you still buy that dress if it’ll cost $20 total instead of $5?
#7. Try everything on.
Only buy what fits perfectly. The key to clothes looking expensive, no matter what they cost, is the fit. This is especially true for dresses and jackets. Once in a blue moon, a piece will be worth tailoring. For instance, I got the aforementioned $6 Prada pencil skirt taken in so it would fit perfectly. The total cost of the skirt, then, was around $30–still much less than any high-quality, perfectly fitted pencil skirt in a store. But most pieces aren’t worth it–wait to find one that fits better.
#8. Avoid the most common Goodwill pitfalls.
Here are a few types of clothing you’ll find at Goodwill that, while enticing, aren’t worth your closet space.
1. The designer clothes you don’t need.
Who doesn’t need a $6 Theory cocktail dress? This girl, for one. I have much more formalwear than I have formal events, unfortunately, so as good of a deal as this dress is for someone else, it’s not a good deal for me.
2. The designer clothes that are out of style.
Just because it’s designer doesn’t mean it’s fashionable. Don’t get sucked into buying something just because it’s from a big name. Goodwill is full of designer clothes that people gave away because they’re not in style anymore. In general: if Rachel would have worn it on Friends, it’s not back in yet. (Exceptions: midriff tops and Moss-style slip dresses.)
3. The perfect clothes that aren’t your size.
A grey wool blazer from J. Crew for $7. Amazing, right? Except it’s two sizes up from what I buy there, and blazers are really expensive to get tailored. As much as it hurts, you have to pass these babies up (see #7.) Again: good deal for someone else, bad deal for you.
4. The trendy-cheap clothes.
Clothes from places like F21 have such a short life expectancy that they’re not good purchases the second time around. A used piece from H&M is likely to pull, pill, or rip, meaning that it’s wiser to buy them new from the store. People say you shouldn’t buy used knits in general because they’ll stretch or pill, but I disagree–just thoroughly inspect the piece before you buy (sniff the armpits.)
#9. Don’t buy a lot.
Because things at Goodwill are so affordable, it’s easy to fill up your closet really fast. While this can be a good thing, it’s bad if you burden yourself with an overstuffed wardrobe of pieces that are just eh. When I’m considering a piece, I ask myself: would I buy this in the store if I could afford to? If the answer is no, I put it back. It’s unlikely that you’ll find more than 1-3 perfect pieces on a single visit, and that’s just fine. Take the time to collect a perfect wardrobe.
On the flipside, the nice thing about shopping at Goodwill is that it doesn’t feel as bad giving things back. My wardrobe is constantly circulating, and because I only paid a few dollars for each piece I don’t feel so bad giving back the ones that didn’t quite work out or that I’m tired of.
Yesterday, I only found two pieces: a Zara blazer and a button-down from Scotch & Soda. Both would have cost me $100 or over in store, but my total for both was $12.
I like to calculate the deals I get. It gives my resourceful side pure glee to buy nice things for 95% off, things I could never afford otherwise. Shopping at Goodwill isn’t the most pleasant experience on its own, but I make a day of it–nothing better than getting an iced coffee and blasting tunes on the sunny California freeways. Just avoid rush hour and you’ll have a blast, I promise.
Anything I missed, thrifting ladies? What’s your biggest Goodwill triumph? I want to hear about it!