Thrifting/vintage shopping has been a “hobby” (some may say obsession) of mine since I was around eight years old. Every weekend I would stroll into the charity shops in the village where I lived in England, armed with my pocket money and a determination to find the bargains. Hours later I would arrive back home with a massive smile on my face, clutching big bags of crap in my hands — 75% of which my Mum would promptly return. Charming. However, it didn’t deter me. Over the years I have honed my eye and my skill a little bit more, and I continue to love thrift stores, vintage stores, flea markets, and any other shopping experience that falls within this realm. To me, the thrill is that you have no idea what you are going to find, but you do know that your purchases are going to be different from what everyone else is wearing and have their own story. Plus it is an affordable and environmentally friendly way to shop.
When done well, it can give you the tools to define your style. As I want my closet to be filled with pieces that no-one else has, the freedom of creativity is the main reason that I love doing this kind of shopping. However, I know that a lot of people have negative feelings towards thrifting, or maybe feel overwhelmed when they see how much stuff there is to sort through. This is totally understandable (I also get overwhelmed!), so I wanted to put together a list of all my tips and tricks that you can refer back to when you start doubting your ability. (These tips & tricks are also available in video format here!) Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. And it is supposed to be fun, don’t take it so seriously.
Finding Thrift Stores
When it comes to finding thrift stores, whether you are trying to discover new local ones or are traveling and find yourself with the thrifting bug, Google is your best friend. Simply google “thrift stores,” “op shops,” “charity shops” or whatever they are referred to in that particular locale and Google will pull up everything that is in your area, supplying their reviews, ratings, hours, websites, Instagram profiles, etc. This is how I originally found the ones that are now my all-time favorites. When I am traveling, I will scan through reviews to see if there are any mentions of issues with cleanliness, size or price range, but if all that sounds good, I will wander over. I never judge them based off of reviews about the stock because every day is different in these types of stores. With Google as your starting point, you can efficiently plot out a plan of action. Often, in one area, there will be a clump of thrift stores close to one another aka an ideal scenario as it saves you from the dreaded disappointment of only having one option and not finding anything. Instead, you can be reassured by the fact that there is another one around the corner.
In terms of location, suburbs are always cheaper than those in the city center. People presume that the middle of a downtown area is where it is at and, while they may have great offerings, their prices will also reflect their location. Suburban thrift stores are the way to go! Whenever you find thrift or vintage stores in your city that you like, make sure to like their social media pages and sign up for their newsletters because often they will have special deals like $1 Friday’s or spontaneous 75% off all seasonal ware days. Social media is the best way to keep up-to-date with all these different sales in stores.
Preparing For A Vintage Extravaganza
When it comes to preparing for a vintage extravaganza, the first thing I do is to make sure that my car boot (trunk) is empty. You never know what you are going to find in the thrift stores, how big a piece of furniture may be, or how many bags of bangles and flowy dresses you are going to bring home. You don’t want to have to leave something you love behind because you forgot to take out all of the junk from your trunk. The only thing I make sure to have is some form of material or blanket to put on my back seats and the bottom of my boot, so that if I do get something that is dusty or dirty I can wrap it up and protect my car. It is also useful to have if you buy any glassware or kitchenware because you can wrap them up in it, ensuring they stay in great condition on the journey home.
Now what to wear? I am fortunate that the majority of my local thrift and vintage stores have fitting rooms, but that is not always the case. You want to make sure that you are wearing something that you can easily try things on with, which means no dresses! I recommend wearing a skirt and a neutral-colored fitted shirt with a loose blouse over the top so that you can mix and match when trying on items. A skirt works well because you can always pull other bottoms up underneath it, which isn’t the case with your fave butt-enhancing Mom jeans. Pull out your slip-on mules and aim for the whole outfit to be effortless to slip in and out of —this enables you to create your own dressing room wherever you are! And, a hands-free bag is a must whenever you are shopping. I personally like to go thrifting in the evening when fewer people are browsing (so I can use the fitting rooms for as long as I want)! I see thrifting as a relaxing, solo experience which is why I like the store empty. However, when I am traveling, I can’t necessarily plan my whole itinerary around my thrifting time (although sometimes it is entirely necessary) so, in these cases, I try to go early in the morning. This allows me to see everything before too many people arrive, and it gives me a bit more space to be able to look at everything.
That being said, when it comes to flea markets some of my best purchases have happened because I have gone up to the seller as they were packing up and miraculously obtained a deep discount on pieces as they want to sell a few more bits before the end of the day. Typically I have seen these things earlier in the day and then have come back later to see what deal can be made. Flea markets are different in this way, as thrift stores won’t usually give you a discount merely because they are about to close! But, individual sellers at flea markets often will. When it comes to money, it is better to bring a set amount of cash or know in your head exactly how much you are willing to spend. I always have an exact, maximum amount that I am willing to spend on any particular day; otherwise, I would never say no! Even if things are cheap, they still add up, and it can be very, very hard to tell yourself no in the face of something epic.
Inside The Gem-Filled Store
The first thing I do when I go into a thrift shop is to make a note of which color tags have a specific sale or discount. Most thrift stores label their items with colored tags and each day rotate which colors are on offer, so you are almost always guaranteed to find a bargain. If you are unsure, go up to the staff to ask about discounts. This is also a great time to ask them about future sales and if they have a newsletter. Once a week, my favorite thrift store sends out an email with a 50% off everything coupon solely for newsletter subscribers. They don’t mention this coupon in the store on that day, so you have to be in the know! Another thing you can ask the staff is when new inventory comes out, the big thrift stores (like a Goodwill or a Salvation Army) will continuously be restocking, but the smaller ones will only restock on certain days of the week or at certain times of the day. Knowing when the new inventory comes out means you can be one of the first to see it!
One of the things I have learned about thrifting is that thrifting isn’t fun if you are not in the mood for it. And there are some days when I am just really, really not in the mood! I have to have a lot of energy and be in a creative, open mindset, as I don’t think thrifting is something that you can rush through. It should be an enjoyable experience, and I believe approaching it in this way helps increase the likelihood of you finding a gem. This leads me on to my main philosophy of thrifting, which is to have an open mind and get creative! I don’t particularly like to go thrifting with other people (this is me time!) because I don’t want to see them consistently roll their eyes and scrunch up their noses at some of the things I choose. Generally, when I buy things, I have already envisioned how I want to style and wear the piece in a setting outside of the thrift store. The fun of thrifting is that you can try unfamiliar things, new (to you) shapes and unique ways to style and layer. For this reason, I do not go thrifting hoping to buy specific pieces — which is lucky considering thrifting doesn’t work like that. It is basically the opposite of online shopping, you can’t control what you are going to find.
For this reason, don’t limit yourself to one area of the store; sizes have changed over the years, so look at them all. A lot of times I find things that are marked wrong or hung up in the wrong part of the store. People hide things (I know this because I have done it too!), so you may find a whole section of your size squeezed in between a different size. When I first look at things I try to figure out if and how it is going to fit; but, if I love the pattern or the print, I will still try it on as you can always get it tailored. Which leads into my next tip, when you are looking at pieces and trying them on you must assess your investment. This means to consider the additional costs that need to be spent on the piece (mainly dry-cleaning and tailoring costs). Whether or not a piece needs to be dry-cleaned often really affects my decision to purchase it, as those additional costs often change an item’s “bargain” status. The only times I allow “dry clean only” pieces home is if I think that I want it in my collection for a long time. I also don’t buy things that have missing buttons/holes in them/rips/stains etc., as experience shows that I will never get around to fixing them. If you are a crafty person this may not be an issue for you, but I know myself, and I know that ain’t happening. Also, if things really, really stink — stay away.
When you are perusing around the areas of the store, don’t overlook accessories. Belts, necklaces, bangles, and neck scarves are some of my absolute favorite things to buy because they are often fantastic quality and in a realm of their own. Accessories are also a great starting point for thrifting if you are not comfortable with diving headfirst into clothes.
Back At HOME
As soon as I get home, I make sure to split things up into piles to be washed instantly. I don’t wait. Normally things get separated into three or four piles. One pile for dry-cleaning, one for cold-wash, one for warm-wash and one for whites. Finally, I start building some outfits around the new pieces so that I can instantly start incorporating them into my day-to-day style and show the world the beauty of the thrift haul.
Those are my ultimate tips and tricks for successful thrift shopping! If you have any let me know in the comments, as it is always great to learn new things from those of you who are also thrift lovers! If you are looking for my favorite thrift and vintage stores in cities all over the world, I currently have guides for Los Angeles, Lisbon & Porto, and Berlin. Happy thrifting!
Originally published on July 27th, 2017