While living in Chicago I made ends meet by becoming a thrift store connoisseur. Not only are thrift stores an easy way to save money, but they also provide an opportunity to make a little extra cash. I, for instance, would scour the stores for books that I’d buy for a dollar and then turn around and sell online for $25, $50, even $100 or more.
My travels took me to mom and pop thrifts as well as large thrift chain stores like Unique Thrift, Goodwill, Village Thrift, and the Salvation Army. Along the way I learned some valuable tricks and tips that can help you save and make some serious cash too.
Understand that all thrift stores are not created equal
Perhaps you’ve wandered into a thrift store and were been turned off by the high prices, low quality merchandise, or the overall dinginess of the place. Don’t let this dissuade you from the thrift store experience.
Not all thrift stores are created equal. For every thrift store that disappoints you, you’re bound to find two or three that are a bargain hunter’s paradise.
This holds true even for the big chain thrift stores. I frequented several of the Unique chain thrift stores in the Chicago area. At one particular Unique store you would hear customers constantly complaining about the prices. Yet, another Unique thrift store a few miles away offered bargains galore.
This is because managers at many thrift store chains have great lead way in how they run their stores. A poor manager can make a thrift store unbearable for shoppers, while a great manager can turn a thrift store into a great place to shop.
The best finds are found the day after a thrift store sale
Thrift stores in Chicago would feature weekly or bi-weekly “blow-out sales”. As expected, there were long lines of people waiting to get first crack at the bargains.
Yet, after attending a few of these I quickly realized that the “sales” were simply a way to clear the shelves of the castaway items the store couldn’t sell the week before, – a way to make room for new merchandise. All the great finds had long been been purchased.
The day after the sale is when the new donations start hitting the shelves and you can once again find true bargain hunting treasures.
To uncover the greatest bargains act like an Ebay-er
Many of the larger thrift stores have an area in the back where clothes and other merchandise are sorted and priced. After the items are priced, they are placed on racks outside the sorting area. This is where the professional Ebay sellers hang out.
Since the racks are now sitting in a public area of the store, people who sell clothes on Ebay pick out all the great stuff before the store employees have a chance to take the items from the racks and place them on the store shelves.
This is how the Armani, Austin Reed, Christian Dior, and Fred Perry items are scarfed up even before they have a chance to hit the shelves. I quickly learned to make this section of the store my first stop.
Don’t let a bargain go
In my thrift store travels I would always see that one customer who would find an absolute bargain but would try to hold out to save a few more bucks. They’d try to wait until the next thrift store sale hoping the product would still be there. A $200 bike bike with a $20 price tag would be staring them in the face, but they would put it back hoping to save an additional $5 at the next sale. Others would try to hide their new found bargain in the back of the shelf or in the wrong section of the store in hopes of it being there when the weekly sale arrived.
Inevitably, within an hour the bike or other “hidden” item would be gone, purchased by a customer who really understood the deal.
Lesson: If you find a real thrift store bargain don’t wait hoping that it will be marked down later. Trust me. It will be gone long before then.
Know your merchandise and turn your knowledge into cash
One thrift store regular I got to know would regularly purchase Gucci, Burberry, and Fendi handbags for $40 to $50 and then resell them on Ebay for $400 or $500. The key he informed me was being able to tell the counterfeits from the real thing. He knew his handbags inside and out, and as a result made a ton of money.
I learned to do the same thing with books, becoming knowledgeable about which books would sell well online. As a result, I was quickly able to identify books that would make me money. One day, for instance, I immediately recognized a rare book and purchased it for twenty-five cents. I later sold it online for $1200.
Others thrift store friends I’ve met along the way were knowledgeable in designer clothes, high end watches, or antiques, and they all made money reselling items online.
If you know your shoes, dresses, hats, or antiques, and are willing to put in a little effort, thrift stores could help you create a pretty nice side income.
Don’t just visit thrift stores in high income areas
Many people believe that you have to shop at thrift stores in well-to-do areas in order to get the best merchandise. While this may have some merit, don’t overlook middle class and low-income areas as well, especially when dealing with chain thrift stores.
Many of the larger chain thrifts send all of their donations to one central warehouse. From there the items are trucked to the individual thrift stores in the chain.
This means that a Salvation Army store located in an upper scale area may receive the same type of merchandise as a Salvation Army store located in a more economically depressed area. Some of my best finds have come from thrift stores located in some pretty economically devastated areas of Chicago.
Treat the staff with respect
It’s amazing how far a smile and treating people with respect will get you. Remember, the thrift store staff are people too, often struggling just to get by on their minimal wage jobs. And unfortunately, they are repeatedly abused by customers.
Just be nice to them. It’s the right thing to do. And you just may find that they’ll go out of their way to help you out. I frequently had workers who would go out of their way to roll out new donations from the back of the store that they new I would be like.
If you have the time and a little patience, thrift stores can do wonders for your pocketbook.
BMWK, do you take advantage of thrift stores? What are some of the tricks that you use to get great bargains?