Thrifting for clothes has been around for ages but it’s really having a moment now thanks to the rise of sustainability efforts, particularly in counter to fashion’s reputation as a mega polluter. It recently reached the pop cultural sphere, with Princess Nokia’s single “Balenciaga” hailed as a thrift shopping anthem of sorts.
But knowing how to thrift shop isn’t as simple as it might seem – it takes a fair amount of know-how to ensure you’re successful at it and not just running on luck. So we’ve compiled the ultimate guide on how to thrift shop, with advice on how to approach the experience, thrifting tips on searching for pieces, and what to avoid. For specifics on how to avoid copping fake streetwear in vintage shops, head here.
It’s also worth noting that there are differences between thrift stores – or charity shops as they’re known in the UK – consignment stores, vintage stores and the like. Thrifting takes a lot more time and patience, but the payoff of finding a gem for a steal of a price is unbeatable. Nonetheless, this guide will also serve you well whenever you’re shopping for second-hand clothing.
Before You Go Thrift Shopping
Not all of these thrifting tips are necessary for every time you want to go charity shopping, but they do enhance the experience and maximize your chances of successfully finding and taking home something.
Research where to go ahead of time
If you’re intending to hit a few stores, make a list and map out your route, as thrift shops are often clustered together. This way you won’t miss any in the same area and you’ll be able to gauge how much time you’ll need. Once you’ve compiled a list, keep tabs on the best thrift stores for future reference.
Have an idea what items you’re keen to pick up
Knowing what you’d like to find will give you direction, but leave room for spontaneity as well. Thrifting clothes can feel a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack, so it helps when you know that it’s a needle you’re looking for in the first place.
Browse your own closet first
This is a good starting point if you’re unsure what items to go for – it’ll give you ideas of what you might need in your wardrobe and/or items that’ll work with what you already have. It can be useful to take photos on your phone of pieces you’re aiming to match something with so that you have them on hand.
Consider donating from your own wardrobe
Before or after a big thrift shop it’s worth going through your closet and passing on things you no longer wear. Think of it as thrift karma and keep the cycle going. For higher-quality items, consignment stores offer cash or money to spend in-store when you trade in.
Check out apps for thrifting tips
These days there are lots of apps that do everything from mapping out the best thrift stores in your area to digital marketplaces where you can buy and sell. It can help to check for stores in a new city, getting an idea of prices on particular items, or simply for inspiration. The Thrift Shopper lists thrift stores in the US, while ThredUp is the world’s largest online thrift store, but is limited to women’s and kids clothing. Additionally, there’s Depop, ASOS Marketplace, Vinted, Etsy and increasingly more vintage resellers on Instagram.
On the day
Make sure you’re in the mood
It almost goes without saying but if you’re not up to the task on the day you’ve set out then postpone. You’ll set yourself up for failure if you don’t want to go before you’ve even begun.
Go with a friend who’s also keen on thrifting
Not essential for those who prefer to move swiftly at their own pace, but going with a friend – one who won’t tire and give up immediately – can make the experience much more fun. It’s also helpful since you can give each other advice on finds.
Don’t go hungry
Another obvious point but again, an integral one. Thrifting can feel like an endurance sport at times, so set yourself up well. If you’re planning a big day thrifting for clothes then bring water and/or snacks as well.
Don’t rush through it
Taking it easy will help you enjoy the experience and up your chances of finding something, so block enough time for your planned route and remember it’s a marathon not a sprint.
Set a budget
This is especially applicable to curated vintage stores that tend to charge higher than charity shops, but it’s important to set a limit for yourself so you don’t get carried away. Just because the items are cheap, relatively speaking, doesn’t mean you can go overboard.
Wear something that’s easy to change in and out of
Thrifting outfits should be comfortable with shoes that aren’t annoying to take on and off, since you’ll be doing a lot of it. Some stores don’t have changing rooms so be prepared to change on the shop floor if you have to. In this case wearing form-fitting undergarments like a tank and shorts underneath your clothes will save you feeling intimidated if you have to strip down in a corner of the store.
Many stores are still cash only and the ones that take card will often have high minimum purchase amounts, encouraging you to spend more. Bringing enough cash will take the second guessing out of paying and also help you stick to your budget.
Bring canvas/reusable bags
Many thrift stores either don’t offer carry bags or rely on single-use plastic ones, so bring your own. Also don’t carry a big backpack or too much stuff with you – you don’t want to be weighed down while you’re browsing.
During Your Thrifting Trip
Figuring out how to thrift shop well is essentially a process of searching and editing – finding something interesting is only half the battle, it’s knowing how to wear it or whether you can alter something to fit that really elevates thrifted goods.
Start off with what you’re looking for
Keep in mind what items you’re chasing and start off in that area to avoid being overwhelmed by the selection when you first enter. This’ll set you off with a direction instead of aimlessly walking around.
Practice scanning for items
Looking over every item is impossible, so the trick is to get good at scanning for things on the rack or in bins. Focus on one area at a time and look for things that stand out at you, be it color/fabric/style. This’ll save you time and make the experience feel less laborious than painstakingly going over everything in detail.
Give your chosen piece a quick once over
When you find an item you like, give it a quick once over. Check for obvious signs of wear and tear, whether the size looks like it’ll fit properly, etc. You’ll do a closer examination later so you don’t need to take too long here.
Do look for items that are out of season
Often they’ll be priced cheaper and you’re more likely to catch a great winter piece when everyone else is thrifting outfits for summer and vice versa.
Do think unisex
Keep an open mind about scouring both men’s and women’s sections, since increasingly clothes aren’t gendered and items are sometimes misplaced in other parts of the store anyway.
Read the vibe of the store and move on if it’s not working for you
Some stores are tailored to a particular type of style, which will become clearer as you traipse though the inventory. If you start to feel it’s not your vibe, it’ll save you time and energy to move on before you tire yourself looking through everything.
Ask the clerk
If you’re trying to find an item in particular, it can pay to ask the shop assistant if they’ve seen something like it. However, bear in mind the best thrift stores to do this in are the smaller, curated ones. Photos of what you’re chasing come in handy here.
Successfully thrifting for clothes comes down to a number of things but patience is tantamount. It really is a case of right place, right time, as well as having a keen eye, but patience is what will turn your thrifting game from amateur’s luck to a seasoned pro.
Make yes/no/maybe piles
Take the clothes you’ve found and go over them again, splitting them into these three piles. Once again, you don’t have to spend too long here as there’ll be further opportunities to cull your stash. Using your initial gut instinct is a good way to go.
Try everything from the yes and maybe piles
There’s no way around it, you have to try everything you’re intending to buy on to make sure it fits correctly. This will help you narrow down your selection even further – if the idea of trying something on is already irking you, it’s a good sign you don’t really want it.
Trying on by kind is a good approach
Stores often have limits on how many items you can try on at once, so if you have to split up your stash then grouping items together can be helpful. For example, trying on all of the pants you’ve picked up will make it clearer what works and what doesn’t, before moving on to another clothing category.
Learn how to identify easy alterations
This is a tip that’ll save you both money and grief (from realizing after you’ve bought something that the alteration you wanted to make is much more effort than it’s worth). Knowing easy alterations from major structural changes on a garment will help you decide whether to keep or let go of something. For example, pants can easily be tailored shorter, but a blazer with shoulders that are too wide isn’t a simple and cheap fix.
Look at the tags and consider the fabric
This will help you identify how easy an item will be to launder and whether it’s worth its price. A common example is the sheer amount of polyester items in thrift stores. There’s nothing inherently wrong with polyester garments and in some cases it’s the preferred material, but if you think you’re paying premium for top-notch fabrics like silk or wool, it’ll be a smack in the face to find out it’s synthetic once you’re home.
Ask yourself if it’s something you’ll actually wear
Thrifting for clothes is fun but it’s easy to get carried away. This is where a friend will come in handy and help you reign it in if you’re in danger of buying things in the moment that you’ll honestly never wear.
But don’t be afraid of taking risks
Thrift shopping is a much cheaper and eco-conscious way of trying trends, so have fun with it and branch out a little from your usual picks.
After trying on, take another quick look in the store
Once you’ve tried all of your stuff, get back out there and quickly browse the racks one more time. You’ll have a better idea of what you’re after now and that item you scanned over earlier might be hiding in plain sight.
Decide on which items you want to buy
Similar to how you made piles for trying on, go over your selected items one more time. This is the final stage of the editing process, so consider how each piece will fit into your wardrobe. Ask yourself: Do you already own something similar? Was everything with the fit alright? Going with items you only truly love is helpful here.
Now examine them very closely
You should have already caught major flaws such as stains or rips, but now go over each piece in closer detail, including turning the piece inside out to check the lining. Look for stains/rips/snags/loose hems/missing buttons/faulty hardware/tags that have been cut off/overly smelly garments, etc.
Check the tags if you haven’t already done so
Tags on vintage items provide many details that can be the deciding factor if you’re on the fence about something. For example, knowing the fabric or how easy a garment will be to launder.
Consider if it’s actually worth the price
Often things will be overpriced and just because it’s cheaper than buying new in a store, doesn’t mean it’s worth the labeled amount. It also pays to check back regularly, as sometimes items are reduced if they don’t sell.
Know when to ask for a discount
If the item is flawed then ask for a price reduction. Additionally, some stores offer discounts to students/veterans/teachers.
Respect the pricing strategy
Some stores sell by weight, others may negotiate and some are firmly priced. It’s fine to ask for a discount if it’s valid, but each store is different so respectfully keep that in mind.
Most stores have a no return or exchange policy
This is the reason why many of the pedantic notes above are necessary. It’s worth thinking that little bit harder about whether you really want something, as more often than not you won’t be able to return it.
After You’ve Thrifted
Wash your item before wearing it
You should have an idea of how easy the piece will be to clean by now, so put it in the wash in order to freshen it before wearing. Some stores wash pieces themselves or only accept freshly washed clothes, but it’ll take the guesswork out if you just do it yourself.
Air out pieces that can’t be washed
If it’s not easy to wash, put your garment on a hanger and let it air out near an open window – this’ll refresh the piece and get rid of slightly musty odors that might be lingering from the store. Alternatively, consider dry cleaning if necessary.
Do alterations soon after buying
If you need to make adjustments, do so soon after buying your piece. This will ensure it doesn’t get relegated to the back of your closet and forgotten about.
Keep in mind
Start off by integrating one thrifted item at a time
If you’re unsure how to integrate thrifted pieces into your wardrobe, start off with one item per outfit rather than a full look.
Remember where you bought your pieces
It’s useful to remember where you bought things and check back often – if it’s an independently-run store, chances are the owner/buyer has great style and it’s likely you’ll find many more items there in the future. You can also ask how often they restock and plan to go then.
Don’t be disheartened if you weren’t successful
Some days just don’t work out and it’s important to be ok with that. Each time is different and new stock can appear every day, so keep an eye out and check back in from time to time. The piece you’re looking for is still out there.
Thrift while traveling
Checking out local thrift shops while on holiday, be it close to home or in a foreign land, is a great way to merge local fashion history and culture. At best, you’ll end up with unique pieces that’ll serve as eco-conscious souvenirs for years to come; at worst, you’ll leave empty-handed but with insight into what the locals found fashionable in decades past.