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How to Score Big While Thrift Store Shopping

8 secrets of finding great gifts to give on the holidays


spinner image women's clothing on a rack in front of shoes and bags on thrift shop shelves
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Thrift store shopping has become trendy. According to The New York Times, the U.S. market for secondhand retail was $174.1 billion last year. That number is expected to grow to $258.8 billion in 2027, fueled by consumer interest in sustainability and money savings.

No surprise. Who doesn’t love a bargain while saving the planet? But thrift store shopping has additional attractions besides massive discounts and good intentions: The thrill of the hunt and items that cannot be found at traditional retailers can land big scores for modest shoppers.

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As the holiday gift season approaches, try thrifting this year. Getting started can feel overwhelming. Here are eight shopping strategies to make this year’s gifts unique and cost-effective.​

1. Be patient

“My biggest tip is patience,” my millennial daughter advised after arriving at my house in a tony, quality leather jacket she had found highly discounted at the thrift store. “The most amazing thing isn’t going to pop out on the first rack. Be ready to spend a decent chunk of time going through the selections.” ​

Thrift store shopping requires multiple visits, time and luck. “It’s an endurance sport,” Aemilia Madden wrote in Harper’s Bazaar. “You can’t walk in with a single piece in mind, but put in the time, and you may come away with a whole bag of unique items.”

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Wear comfortable shoes, narrow your focus and limit the time spent in each store. Don’t feel disappointed if you don’t find what you’re looking for. Next time!

2. Do your research

Before you head out, identify the strengths of each store. The ideal thrift store is well-organized, well marked, has helpful staff and plenty of mirrors.

Big cities have some of the splashiest, well-curated stores that donate their proceeds to charities. National chains include Goodwill, Salvation Army, Buffalo Exchange, Savers, Value Village, Plato’s Closet and Crossroads. But shoppers can often find better selections in mom-and-pop stores in small towns. ​

​Do a Google search to locate nearby stores; evaluate their ratings and specialties. Inquire when they restock and plan your visit when inventory is highest.​

Broaden your search to estate and garage sales. If you prefer to buy online, check out Etsy, eBay and Depop. It might cost a bit more, but you won’t have to “dig” in person.​

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3. Consider your recipients’ taste and aesthetics

​​If you’re going to thrift for gifts, know your gift recipients’ styles and whether they will appreciate gifts that have been used a handful of times. Vintage is no longer “old,” so giving items new life is now hip across multiple generations. ​​

Kids’ clothes from national brands are often in good condition as children outgrow garments quickly — an ideal gift for a tot in your family who hasn’t developed stylistic preferences yet.​​

4. Be creative

I once found a set of mugs with my friend’s name on it, formerly the name of a donut store. I gave him a personal gift for less than $10. ​

I also found a wooden frame made in Italy with a black-and-white photo of a grade school class from the 1950s. I replaced that photo with a more meaningful one, and voilà, a significant and stylish gift.​​ Thrift stores are filled with coffee-table art books. Pair one with a vintage tray. Other choices are endless: cookbooks, glassware, throws, scarves, leather belts, costume jewelry, napkin rings. A cut-glass dish takes on new meaning once you fill it with their favorite mints or candy. A pottery bowl can easily transform into a plant’s home, perhaps one you’ve rooted yourself. ​​

5. Get even deeper discounts​

Watch for sales. Even thrift stores have markdowns!​ Senior Days abound, so bring your ID. American Thrift Stores offer 50 percent off sale items on Wednesdays. Goodwill and Salvation Army have daily senior discounts, deeper discounts midweek, 25 percent off entire purchases at select locations, half off on Saturdays and colored-tag discount days. Goodwill offers a discount coupon with each purchase to use next time. ​​

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6. Be a wise shopper​​

Check out products before buying. Does this board game or jigsaw puzzle have all its pieces? Inspect clothing; if you’re unfamiliar with a label or price, look it up on your smartphone. A clothing tag woven inside may be a more expensive brand. Search for identifiable brands like Lenox or Wedgwood. ​​Head for the rear of the store, known as the “go-back rack.” Others have deemed these items desirable but decided not to buy them. Now, it’s your turn.​

Test electronics. “Keep a pocket full of different-size batteries on hand to test toys and gadgets. Most thrift stores have outlets available,” advises The Krazy Coupon Lady.​​

7. Shop early​​

Thrift store shopping is hit or miss, requiring multiple visits. Plan ahead so you won’t feel rushed into choosing just anything. After the holidays, keep shopping year-round to collect gifts that will still be perfect when the holidays arrive again.

8. Treat yourself to a gift​​

With the money you’ve saved, reward yourself with a small gift. I’m always on the lookout for a T-shirt with a cool logo or a designer purse once worn by a celebrity. On a recent foray, I enjoyed trying on a bowlful of $7 whimsical bangle bracelets. I had a feeling friends would compliment my taste, making me feel like a million bucks.

Share your experience: How do you take advantage of deals at thrift stores? Let us know in the comments below.

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