Strategies & Tips for Successful Thrift Store Shopping

I’ve been thrift shopping my entire adult life. At first, it was mostly for clothing and records, but now I focus almost exclusively on decorating my home. For me, thrift shopping is meditative and also extremely rewarding. I’ve scored so much cool stuff over the years. I’ve also developed some strategies:

• If it’s your first time to a thrift store, scope it out, making a mental note of how it’s organized and what the clientele is like. If the place is teeming with hipsters and other stylish sorts, the goods are probably pretty picked over that day.

• I’m a freelance writer so I have a flexible schedule. I take advantage by getting up a little early on occasion to knock out the morning’s work so I can enjoy an hour-long shopping excursion to the Goodwill near my house. I try to go at least once a week. The more often you go, the more easily you’ll unearth treasure. I also find that the more I go, the more discerning I am about what I buy. If you’re a nine-to-fiver who shops on weekends, try to get there right when the doors open.

• Ask an employee how frequently dropped-off items are moved to the floor. If they hold items for a day or two to price, then Monday is an ideal day to shop. Most people drop their stuff off over the weekend.

• When digging around familiar thrift shops, I always hit up aisles in the same order. I’m most interested in finding cool furniture or lighting right now, so I beeline to that area. Then it’s on to kitchen wares, ceramics, linens, and so on. I have specific items I’m always looking for — vintage enamel pans, for example, and wool blankets — which I scan for quickly, and then I slow down to see if I’ve missed anything special that’s not on my list.

• Visit thrift stores that are off the beaten path. When I lived in San Diego, I headed east of the city to a place that always had interesting midcentury finds and heaps of great fabric.

• Shop alone. Unless you’re mad for modern and your best friend is strictly shabby chic, you might end up grabbing at the same prize. No big whup unless you’re a serious hunter. Thrifting, for me anyway, works best when it’s a solitary endeavor.

• Learn how to recognize quality. My dad, by profession, is a numismatist — or coin dealer — and the man can spot a fake from 50 feet away. Perhaps it’s genetic, but I can often pick out the good stuff with a quick glance. I also test for weight, examine materials and manufacturing, and check for informative labeling. That’s how I found a Tiffany silver heart necklace for a dollar. It looked nicer than the other jewelry around it and I acted on a hunch. When in doubt, I use my iPhone to do a little research.

• If you find something amazing, don’t leave it alone. You’d be amazed at how quickly another eagle-eyed shopper can swoop in. I have literally dragged a heavy chair — along with my shopping cart — to the cashier lest someone else snag it before me.

• Feeling unsure about an item? Put it in your cart and walk around with it. Mull it over. Ten minutes later, you might have thought of the perfect place/use for it. I am still kicking myself for not buying a pair of gorgeous caramel leather bookends. I couldn’t think of anywhere to put them, so I passed them up, even though they were only $1.99. When I got home and opened the kitchen cabinet where I stash my cookbooks, I remembered: I need bookends.

• Consider the potential. I'm sure you've seen all the amazing DIY projects here on Apartment Therapy and around the Web. Many of those began as junky but promising thrift store finds.

• If you find something incredible that just isn’t you — maybe not your style, or perhaps not your size if it’s clothing — don’t necessarily say no. Would it make a good gift? Can you sell it? I once found mint-condition vintage Chanel shoes four sizes too small for me. I paid $5 and unloaded them on eBay for a couple hundred bucks. I generally don’t sell stuff, because it’s too much effort for the payout, but in certain situations, you just know it’s a no-brainer.

• Don’t pay too much. Thrift stores are increasingly savvy about pricing, but not always. I’ve found Ikea junk listed close to original prices (not worth it!) while a Steelcase office chair in excellent condition was practically free.

• Edit. As my design interests shift and I pick up new items, I make sure to get rid of older items in exchange. I always drop my stuff off at the thrift store, too. Somebody else is certain to think it’s the find of the day.

Pictured above are a couple of my latest scores, which are only paired for the photo. I found the typewriter, which has become my inspiration for my home office design, while visiting San Diego (I always visit thrift stores in other cities) and lugged it back on the plane. Security had a blast dusting it for explosives. ("What is that ma'am?") I've been looking for a small pedestal table for ages and found this last week at the Goodwill for $4.99. It has a nice heavy base and is Made in Canada, eh.

Image: AnnaMaria Stephens