A Guide to Digital Thrifting: Expert Tips and Tricks That Other Shoppers Don’t Know

published Mar 7, 2022
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Credit: Photo: Shutterstock; Design: Apartment Therapy

So you want to secondhand shop from the comfort of your couch? Then fire up your phone or computer to unlock a seemingly unlimited supply of furnishings, furniture, and more without any borders — other than the ones you want to set by location, price, size, or design style. You can easily get overwhelmed, fall down a rabbit hole, or worse, get beat to the punch every time you try to make a purchase while online thrifting and vintage treasure hunting, so it’s a good idea to adopt a shopping strategy.

Shopping sight unseen for home decor has its challenges, particularly when it comes to pre-loved, pre-used items. Let’s get the basics out of the way: scale is important and hard to assess from photos, so pay attention to measurements and ask for dimensions if they aren’t listed. Scrutinize product images so you can get a sense of something’s condition, and request close-up shots if you want them to assess any damages, dings, or scratches. Look into local pickup for items to save money on shipping, and shop around so you’re aware of the going rates for different items. Ask questions, and be aware of return policies; many online secondhand stores or resale marketplaces either don’t allow returns, have stringent return windows, or will charge you return shipping costs and/or restocking fees if they take things back.

All those hurdles aside, tailoring your approach by platform will help you really up your online shopping game. That’s where the expertise of pros comes into play. With advice from thrifting pros, savvy sellers, and big brand insiders, you can unlock your best furnished space yet, all without ever leaving your home!

Credit: Erin Derby


Open up Instagram, and you’ll instantly have secondhand sellers and even brick-and-mortar thrift stores galore at your fingertips. Follow the local places you like to frequent in real life, if they have accounts, and set up alerts for your favorite handles. That way, you’ll get a heads-up when new merchandise drops. Some vendors even have certain releases tied to particular days and times, so you might find it handy to set reminders on your phone calendar for an extra nudge. Additionally, sellers often post new inventory on their feeds and in Instagram Stories prior to it being available in store; some items may never make it onto the sales floor, if someone reaches out via the app, ready to pay for a piece. So be prepared to move fast when something catches your eye, whether a given seller has a store in real life or not.

Purchasing doesn’t always take place in-app; you may be redirected to a seller’s website or another platform, or a vendor may ask that you Venmo, Paypal, or otherwise send payment to secure your item before you have it in hand. Do your due diligence here; if something feels off in your communication with a seller, it might not be worth the risk. Plenty of vintage vendors have Instagram-only businesses though, so it’s not a bad sign if a given person doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar shop or a fancy website behind their handle. It’s always worth a beat to google someone though to look out for any red flags.

One way to stand out in a sea of Instagram shoppers? Reach out to a seller to introduce yourself in direct messages. “I have built such lovely relationships with folks that have followed the shop from the start — who have DM’d, shared photos, etc.,” says Dana Curatolo, founder and curator of Instagram vintage shop Archive. “It just means we maintain relationships; they follow along sourcing trips, ask questions, and often get insights on what collections may be coming down the pike.” It’s also worth avowing your love for a certain popular piece or era of merchandise to a seller — vintage portraits, mid-century furniture, as examples — even if your dream object has already “sold.” Vendors are typically democratic, says Curatolo, keeping a waitlist in case payment for an item isn’t fulfilled and moving down that list for a replacement buyer. In the future, knowing your preferences and serious intent to buy, a seller could also come straight to you with a new acquisition you’d want ever before listing it.

Don’t be shy about asking for bundle discounts either. “I’ve done this many times before, after clients stumbled upon the ‘available’ story on our page and found some additional pieces that tickled their fancy,” says Curatolo. Sellers often have more available beyond their grids, so make sure you’re checking their full page for inventory.

You can certainly follow sellers beyond your geographic location, too, which ups your odds of finding gems at lower prices, particularly if you choose a less competitive market for vintage buying and selling. Shipping isn’t always a viable option, but if you make your own accommodations, vendors might be willing to deal with the slight inconvenience of selling to someone out of the area. “Shipping can be a total buzzkill when it comes to larger items, like furniture,” says Virginia Chamlee, a Florida-based artist, secondhand shopping expert, and author of the forthcoming book, “Big Thrift Energy: The Art and Thrill of Finding Vintage Treasures-Plus Tips for Making Old Feel New,” coming out this July. “Fortunately, there are options aside from white-glove services (which can run $500 and above for even a small table). uShip is kind of like Uber for freight shipping and connects you to drivers with empty trailer space who might be passing through your area.” Chamlee says uShip is generally pretty cost-effective and could be the key to snagging — and obtaining — a killer find out of state.

Facebook Marketplace

It’s amazing what you can find on Facebook Marketplace, from authentic mid-century furniture to more recently released products from home stores like West Elm or CB2. The prices tend to be fairly good, but the pool of shoppers is far-reaching and competitive. To score the most coveted items, Yulie Kwon Kim, vice president of product at Meta leading commerce efforts across the Facebook app, suggests searching often and reaching out to a seller the second you see something that catches your eye. It’s all about standing out with your communication. “Since sellers with popular items might receive many inquiries, start with a personalized upfront message,” says Kim. “For example, ‘I love your item! Can you give me a few dates/times that could work for pickup?’” Take the time to view a seller’s commerce profile to see what else they have available. If you like the overall style of a seller’s merchandise, follow them so you’ll be alerted when they list additional items.

Other than setting aside time to browse daily, which can help the algorithm learn your preferences and aesthetic, and being proactive but respectful in conversing with sellers, much of the luck with Facebook Marketplace comes down to the process of searching. Certain strategies can give you a leg-up in the hunt. First, consider what you’re looking for and set up filters for the most logical way to shop that item. “If you’re looking for a large piece of furniture, you may want to see what’s for sale nearby,” says Kim. “But if you’re looking for smaller accents, like decorative trays or books, you might consider filtering by items available for shipping.” Whatever you choose, play with the filters regularly; broaden your radius to see more items. 

The savviest Facebook Marketplace shoppers also know to save their searches, which leads to notifications when new items that meet your search criteria get listed. The best searching hack of all, though? Be broad with your search terms. “This runs counter to most of the tips you’ll see about online shopping, which advise you to be as specific as possible to narrow your search,” says Chamlee. “I actually find the opposite is the best way to find a great deal on a special piece. If you use hyper-specific terms to search — say, ‘Vladimir Kagan Serpentine Sofa’ — you might find exactly what you’re looking for, but the seller will know exactly what it is and it will be priced accordingly.” Try searching with broader descriptors like “curved couch” instead, and according to Chamlee, “you could find an amazing piece at a steal, from someone who is simply looking to make room for something new, rather than make a profit.” It’s a proven strategy: Chamlee herself once found a Goyard Trunk for $90 that was just labeled “old trunk.” 

Kim agrees and also suggests searching with synonyms to find mislabeled items that could be falling through the cracks. “Many vintage items are passed down, and the seller may not know a lot about the item or how to describe it,” says Kim. “Try searching synonyms or layman’s terms for the item. For example, when looking for a table with a pink marble top, search ‘stone top’ or ‘granite top’ in case sellers misidentified their table.”

Lastly, don’t forget to pop into your local Facebook Buy and Sell Groups to scout for potential product leads. “If you’re searching for something specific, like a vintage camera or typewriter, or mid-century modern furniture, there might be an interest-based community filled with people who are interested in buying and selling the same thing,” says Kim. Reach out, and you just might score your new favorite piece. 

Credit: Design: Mally Skok; Photo by Brittany Ambridge


If you’re not already acquainted with Chairish, then you’re missing out on a ton of premier merchandise, all centered on designer-approved vintage and unique antique finds for the home. Many Chairish sellers are seasoned pro dealers though, so keep in mind that prices can reflect that. With such a plethora of offerings, it’s easy to get overwhelmed in the search process. Noel Fahden Briceño, vice president of merchandising at Chairish, recommends kicking off every Chairish shopping session in the “New Arrivals” section, where you’ll find the latest and the greatest items. While the bulk of merchandise on the site is pre-owned and vintage, you will see newer pieces and artwork, too.

As a marketplace, curation is a point of distinction for Chairish, and the most successful shoppers on this platform have learned to leverage the site’s hand-selected collections, which also get updated frequently with new additions. The theme of these collection pages run the gamut, from “Affordable Vintage,” where every item is less than $500, to “Direct from Europe,” an assortment of one-of-a-kind pieces from European sellers. Fahden Briceño suggests exploring these collections and bookmarking the ones that resonate you for ease in browsing, since they get updated regularly.

Credit: Home of Lauren Santo Domingo; Photo by Brittany Ambridge

To streamline your shopping experience further, you’ll want to use the tool bar on the left hand side of the collection pages. “Simply use the sidebar to narrow down your query by style and price,” says Fahden Briceño. “You can dig even deeper by narrowing down by size, color, quantity, and location.”

Finally, Fahden Briceño also offers a word of advice on pricing, the elephant in the room when it comes to any kind of vintage shopping. “In the vintage world, there’s a lot of guesswork around what an item is worth,” she says. “Chairish offers a free resource to solve this exact problem. It’s called The Chairish Pink Book.” The Chairish Pink Book shares real-time selling prices for all items to help educate buyers and sellers on accurate pricing. “Simply type in a quick description of the item, and The Pink Book will show you what similar items have sold for on Chairish,” says Fahden Briceño. This kind of resource helps with transparency when it comes to cost, and you can use these figures as a baseline for any type of secondhand shopping.

Credit: Courtesy of Shawn Peters

Other marketplaces like Etsy, eBay, Mercari, and Poshmark

Like with Facebook Marketplace and Instagram, Chamlee suggests reaching out to sellers directly on other popular marketplaces when an item catches your eye, even if it’s unclear whether the listing is still active. “If you find something really great at an online marketplace like Mercari or eBay, message the sellers and see if they have anything similar,” says Chamlee. “You could get lucky and find they have an entire collection of special pieces.” Shawn Peters, the owner of an Etsy vintage store, compostthis, agrees. “Etsy sellers have done their research, and we’re here to help you with any questions you may have about the products we offer,” says Peters. “I help customers with questions ranging from shipping costs to production dates to artist information — and that’s what we’re here for, so don’t be afraid to shoot us a message.”

On Etsy, going broad with your searching actually isn’t the best technique. “Etsy sellers use tags on each of their listings to make it easier for shoppers to find what they’re looking for, and I always suggest being as specific as possible when navigating the platform,” says Peters. “Using search terms like ‘mid-century’ will get you a lot of hits, but narrowing it down to ‘mid-century ceramic table lamp’ will lend you more specific results.” 

Like other platforms though, search filters are key for finding diamonds in the rough. “Etsy allows you to narrow your search using specific filters ensuring the results you see are what you are looking for,” says Peters. “These include designating between handmade and vintage, sale items and free shipping, design style and even price range.” Because Etsy in particular has so many brand new, handcrafted items, using the “vintage” filter may be the most useful thrifting technique of all. Just be sure to investigate what you’re buying before you pull the trigger; it’s easy for a vendor to mistakenly tag “vintage” or to occasionally mis-categorize something, but usually it’s just an honest mistake and could happen on any platform.

Credit: Courtesy of 1stDibs


Often the choice marketplace of decorators and serious dealers, 1stDibs specializes in rare finds, high-end designer pieces, and even blue chip artwork. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give shopping on this site a whirl; you never know what you’ll find amongst the million-plus beautiful objects available. Because 1stDibs’ inventory cuts across a bunch of different categories, including fashion and jewelry, you’ll again want to use filters to tailor browsing to your needs and wants. “You can shop by price (lowest to highest, or highest to lowest — but how many of us mortals click on the latter?), by dimension, by period,” says Anthony Barzilay Freund, editorial director and director of fine art at 1stDibs. “You’ll be surprised how quickly you can narrow down a very large search to a realistic number by smart filtering.”

For best results, Freund also advises honing in on a furnishings period that really resonates with you and your home style. “Focus on a particular era to help refine your search,” he says. “If you know you love Art Deco but can’t relate to Art Nouveau, then filter to the style — or styles — that appeal to you most.”

Credit: Courtesy of 1stDibs

Education and curation are also important aspects of the 1stDibs experience, so let the site do that work for you when shopping. To that end, you can visit 1stDibs’ in-house digital magazine, Introspective, which spotlights established and up-and-coming talent in the world of design. “At the end of each profile, the designer ‘shops’ the site for roughly a half dozen things they covet — and then shares a sentence or two on why they love the piece or how they’d deploy it in a room,” says Freund. “When knowledgeable tastemakers share what turns them on and the reasons why, it can shine a clarifying spotlight on material culture.” You can sign up for alerts for Introspective, too, if you enjoy geeking out on the vintage market, want to learn more, and have first access to pro picks.

1stDibs also taps their network of dealers for similar inventory spotlights. “Interior designers have higher profiles, but it’s the dealers who can be the real tastemakers and scholars,” says Freund. “There’s nothing more educational than hearing from them in digestible, bite-sized nuggets on history, provenance, materials, condition, and aesthetics.” If a lot of what you see is out of your price range, not to worry. You could always save up for a special piece, and there’s an intrinsic value in learning what you like and how to describe it for pretty much every vintage shopping experience you’ll have in the future, whether in person or online.

Happy shopping!

This post is part of our Thrifting Package, a celebration of all things secondhand. Head over here to read more about everything from how to restore a thrifted item to the best thrift shops in the U.S.