5 Tips for Shopping at Thrift and Consignment Shops

by Susan Johnston

The recession has largely erased the stigma of buying used clothing at thrift or consignment shops. But smart, budget-savvy fashionistas have been thrifting since long before it became trendy. Melissa Massello, an avid thrifter and founder of ShoestringMag.com, remembers the thrill of finding a pair of late eighties/early nineties designer jeans for $12 at a Cambridge, Mass. consignment shop. “I realized I can have the castoffs of people who buy things brand new, I can get them for a fraction of the price,” she says. “I’ve never turned back.”

Here are her tips for buying clothes at thrift or consignment shops.

1. Go with an open mind.
The fun part of thrifting and consignment-shopping is that you never know gems you’ll fine. You might go in hoping for a new-to-you cocktail dress and leave with a killer jacket or boots. “Expect for it to be a lifestyle choice and don’t expect to find everything you need in one week,” Massello says. “Make it part of your routine. That’s how you’re going to find the treasures.”

2. Ignore the size on the label.
Search all the racks, even in sizes you wouldn’t normally wear. Items are sometimes re-racked in the wrong size, especially in busy thrift stores. Also, brands have changed their sizing over time, so a vintage size 6 (or even an Old Navy size 6 from five years ago) isn’t the same as the size 6 you’re used to wearing today. “I ignore all sizing altogether,” Massello says. “You have to try it on.” It’s relatively easy to take in something that’s too big, but letting out an item that’s too small is more challenging.

3. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Thrift and consignment clothing has usually been worn before so it may have some imperfections. Look beyond minor flaws and you may find something you’ll love but would otherwise overlook. “My mother was an amazing seamstress so I’m willing to take things to the tailor to be altered,” Massello says. “I go for textures and colors and fabrics before I go for fit.” If a shirt is missing a button on the placket, see if you can move one from a cuff or other less conspicuous place to replace it. Missing buttons or minor repairs are an easy fix, but problems like moth holes or sweat stains can be harder (and more expensive) to remedy.

4. Befriend store staff.
Store staff can be your ally in uncovering great bargains. I chatted with a store manager about my love for a certain pricey yoga brand and she pointed me right to a like-new tank top they’d just gotten in. If there’s a particular thrift store you frequent, Massello suggests asking when they get in new inventory so you can go before it’s picked over (and if you’re new to a city like Massello was recently, ask store staff which location is their favorite). Often, consignment shops get in merchandise on a rolling basis as consigners bring it in.

5. Wash everything in hot water.
To avoid bringing home bed bugs, wash your new finds in hot water or throw them in the dyer (spot clean first if needed) before adding it to your closet. Massello says she’ll throw items in a hot dryer for 10 minutes, and then decide if they need more cleaning.

Photo Credit: iStock

About the Author

Susan Johnston has contributed to print and online publications including AOL Jobs, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, Learnvest.com, Parade Magazine, and SELF. She's also a regular contributor to the money section of USNews.com.