Thrift Store Savvy: 10 Treasure-Hunting Tips from a Seasoned Shopper

You don't need a second mortgage to piece together a stylish home interior with finds from your local thrift stores. Learn the secrets of successful secondhand shopping from an insider who's been there and back again.

Tips for Thrift Store Shopping

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As the force behind the home decor business and DIY blog Miss Mustard Seed, Marian Parsons knows a thing or two about spotting treasure among other people’s castoffs. Thrift stores have long been a favorite hunting ground for collectors like Parsons, but in recent years many establishments wised up on the value of their vintage merchandise, resulting in higher price tags on anything old. Nevertheless, she reports, bargans still abound if you know how—and when—to look. Read on for her hard-earned advice.

1. Take your time.
Gone are the days when you could make a thrift store trip a one-stop shop, filling up the entire back of a pick-up with furniture, textiles, and trinkets. But if you’re willing to put in the time and visit the same shop casually but regularly, your purchases will add up to a collected home that you love and that fits your budget.

2. Find out about a store’s schedule.
Ask the store owner if there is a day of the week when sales are typically held, or a day of the week when new donations are rotated in. Parsons has found that Mondays and Tuesdays can be good times to shop, after yard sale leftovers are brought in on the weekend.

3. Buy within your ability to fix.
A low price tag on a piece of furniture might seem tempting, but consider the feasibility of rehabbing the piece before you buy it. If you’re not ready to tackle a full upholstery job, resist picking up that reading chair in need of a total overhaul. Start small with simple fixer-uppers before tackling anything with significant damage.

Thrifted Dishes for Bulk Pricing

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4. Look for bulk pricing.
When it comes time to clear shelf space, thrift stores often offer bulk pricing—for instance, ten cents apiece for all dishes or cups. Watch for these sales on the your favorite collectibles (Parsons’ penchant is white ironstone) to scoop up deals.

5. Be discerning.
Don’t buy things simply because they’re bargains; otherwise, your house will fill up very quickly with odds and ends. Instead, choose only items that speak to you.

6. Pack a measuring tape.
Keep this tool handy to determine whether a larger item would fit in your house—and in your car—before you buy. Many thrift shops have no-return policies, even if you’ve only taken your purchase as far as the parking lot before realizing it’s too large.

7. Bring cash.
Not all thrift stores accept credit cards, so make a quick stop at an ATM before heading out for a day of shopping.

8. Don’t haggle.
Thrift stores often send proceeds to charities, so haggling down prices is generally frowned upon. The only exception might be if you are buying multiple items, especially any large or bulky pieces whose purchase would clear out space in the shop. Even then, Parsons stresses, ask politely and be prepared to take “no” for an answer.

9. Visit stores in new places.
While regular excursions to your local thrift store can uncover gems, it’s also fun to peek into shops in other towns, especially when on vacation, to see a new selection of thrifted items. Plus, whatever you pick up while out of town doubles as a travel souvenir.

10. Shop with an open mind.
For Parsons, this advice is the key to finding real treasure in a thrift stores. Sure, it’s fine to enter a shop in search of a particular type of item, but it can be more rewarding to stumble upon a great piece you weren’t expecting. Keeping an open mind makes you much more receptive to seeing the potential in any given furnishing.