Beyond Goodwill: The Different Types of Thrift Stores

by Camilla Cheung on 8 October 2012 12 comments
Photo: pixeljones

If you’re just getting started in the world of thrifting, the enormous variety of thrift stores can be overwhelming. It can be daunting to navigate through the used TVs, broken alarm clocks, plastic picnicware, and worn-out shoes before finding a real gem (but what a rush when you find that diamond in the rough!). To make things a little easier, let’s break down the different kinds of thrift stores, the pros and cons of each, and how to find the good stores of each type. (See also: 10 Things to Look for Every Time You Visit a Thrift Store)

Chain Thrift Stores

Used-goods stores run by large national and international chains can vary greatly in their selection and pricing. For example, the chain thrift store in my neighborhood in Orange County sells new items from a popular discount retailer, priced at MORE than what the items were selling at the discount store. However, I’ve been to a thrift store from the same chain in a different town on the Central Coast that always had tons of vintage clothes, furniture, and knick-knacks for incredibly cheap prices.

Location is the key. Chain thrift stores in large upscale suburban areas tend to have the highest prices, and their inventory tends to be newer. They also tend to be picked-over quickly by local designers, decorators, and store owners, so finding something good can be a challenge. Chain thrift stores in smaller towns and in less upscale neighborhoods tend to offer lower prices and more unique vintage goods. This is where you are more likely to find a diamond in the rough (such as a midcentury teak lounge chair that needs an upholstery job).

If you’re looking for usable new items, chain thrift stores are a great place to start, because many of them have deals with local stores to obtain new items and sell them for a lower price. For example, one chain thrift store I visited carried clearance or overstock items from Target (such as barbecues, linens, camping gear, and kitchenware) and sold them for half-price. I left behind a new five-person Coleman tent there and have regretted it ever since.

Chain thrift stores almost always have fast turnover, so if you keep going, chances are you will find something good eventually (though on the converse side, if you’re unsure and leave an item, it’ll be gone before you can blink). Goodwill even has its own auction site similar to eBay where you can bid on more valuable or rare items (such as genuine Louis Vuitton purses, digital cameras, and antiques) and often obtain an amazing deal. That’s something you won’t get from a small or independent store.

Independent/Family Run Thrift Stores

Some of my best finds come from independent or family run thrift stores. I used to have a small vintage store on Etsy, and I would sell many of my finds from thrifting in my area. Once or twice a week, I would hit up all of the small, independently run thrift stores in my town to see what new items they had. I found tons of vintage Pyrex, milk glass, brass items, purses, and even an awesome midcentury wood coffee table that sits in my living room today and draws compliments every time someone comes over. Because independent stores are less well-known, your chance of finding something good before everyone else is better than at a chain store.

Not every independent thrift store is a good one, however; not every thrift store owner has a good eye or is proactive about getting new inventory. I’ve been to independent thrift stores where sad musty old dolls had been sitting for years next to yellowing Tupperware from the 80s and crumbling romance novels. You need to find a store where the turnover is fast. Independent thrift stores also tend to be smaller than chain thrift stores, so you might visit a few times without finding anything. Persevere, however, and you might just find that midcentury teak coffee table you’ve been looking for.

“Vintage” or “Antique” Thrift Stores

Owners of some thrift stores position themselves slightly higher than the average thrift store by only stocking items that are vintage (or at least interesting). These stores aren’t as carefully curated as true vintage or antique stores, but they can be less overwhelming than an average thrift store because someone has already sifted through the junk.

You can expect reasonable prices, but you will rarely find a screaming deal here. An interesting, unique item will be priced to match. Often, the purchaser combs the local chain thrift stores in search of interesting items, buys them, and resells them in his/her store. The price will reflect both the original purchase price as well as the trouble the purchaser has gone through to find the piece. The good thing is, if you’re looking for something specific, the owners of these stores can sometimes help you to keep an eye out for the item. You also have a better chance of finding complete sets of items — a complete dining set, for example, or a pair of nightstands instead of just one.

Specialty Second-Hand Stores

Specialty second-hand stores are incredibly useful if you buy a lot of one sort of thing (vintage clothes, sporting goods, or baby clothes; for example, and remember when used CD stores used to be everywhere?). Usually they have pretty high standards of what they stock — it can’t be too worn out — and they often wash items before they sell them (though it’s a good idea to wash them again). Prices are a little higher than what you’d find at a standard thrift store, but you have far better chances of finding what you’re looking for. Often, once you’re done with the item, you can sell it back to the store for cash or store credit. As with all thrift stores, however, keep an eye out for damage (moth holes, fraying edges, peeling paint), as not everything is a good deal.

Consignment Stores

Consignment stores are slightly different from thrift stores in that they do not own their inventory. Instead, the store acts as a middleman between the seller and the purchaser, and takes a cut of the profit when the item sells. I’ve found that prices in consignment stores tend to be higher, but the quality tends to be better and you don’t have to wade through piles of junk to get to the good stuff. There are good deals to be had; in my most recent foray into a consignment store I found huge gilded-frame mirrors for $40-$60 — not as cheap as you might find in a thrift store, but comparable to an item you might buy off Craigslist.

Where is your favorite place to go thrifting? Have you found any amazing deals?

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Guest's picture

After reading your story I see why so many people would rather chose their local thrift store vs. a department store. I remember a few years back a former friend wanted a gift card at Goodwill and I looked at her with a puzzled face. Nevertheless I purchased the gift card and I was so shocked of how full the store was when I entered. This article has definitely persuaded me to go to my local thrift store to find good deals.

Guest's picture

Thanks for posting the differences among thrift stores. It really helps to classify thrift stores before you shop, so you know what you're getting into.

Guest's picture

I live in Tampa, Florida and there seems to be endless thrift stores around the city that are perfect for finding vintage pieces or even cool old clothing. It may be because there are a number of older people who end up moving and having to get rid of old thing, but I've been to a couple of thrift stores (usually around Halloween looking for things to make a costume) and have noticed that they are either hit or miss.

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Jessica Fleek

Nice article! It ha a fantastic point! Not all thrift stores are the same. Did you know that by shopping at your local Goodwill, you are not only getting great finds at great deals, but you are also supporting your local community? My local Goodwill store provides employment services and training and 26 other programs and services provided to the community free of charge. All supported by donations of used clothing and household items. I like shopping at many different thrift stores, but I love shopping at Goodwill. It is a way to give back to your community with your donations of used items and by shopping!

Guest's picture
Guest

Re Target merchandise at Goodwill: GW BUYS discontinued and returned goods from Target. Target sets the sale price as part of their agreement. The items are usually marked for more than the final clearance price, so not such a good deal.

Guest's picture
Guest

Some thrift stores that use the name of a charity are often actually for-profit. In Dayton Ohio there is a Vietman Vets store that uses a phone bank to solicit donations for pick up. It is actually a for-profit store, and returns 5% of it's NET profit to a veterans' organization in return for use of the name.

Guest's picture
de

Lest you think Target is making charitable donations to Goodwill, please know that expired clearance items and unsellable returns are SOLD to them, and Target dictates the selling prices. I have seen items that were unsuccessfully clearanced at 75% off, selling for 30% off retail at the GW.

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JudyL

I too lived in the Clearwater/Tampa Bay area. Great Thrift Shops abound, however some of my best buys were at a Salvation Army store in Clearwater. I purchased great art prints with excellent frames, a rattan dining room set -table w/four chairs for $40.00, multiple clothing items (a Lands End bathrobe that I still wear after 10 years), a set of dishes that matched a set my sister had in the early 1960's - the whole set was $3.00 - we were hysterical to see the dishware in perfect shape. A pair of dress slacks for my husband are still in excellent shape and fit him the best of anything he ever bought off a rack. Currently with all the bedbug scares I am leery about buying furniture though.
I agree location matters. Areas that abound with retirees and beneficiaries that don't want their elderly parents or other relatives' stuff will be the place to look for good household items. Can be time consuming but it is fun !

Guest's picture

Where do charitable thrift stores fit in? There is a charitable thrift store chain near my home that benefits struggling single mothers. They typically have a good selection and pretty cheap prices.

Guest's picture

Most thrift stores are charitable.

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Guest

Not all thrift stores are charitable. There are dozens of "thrift" stores in my city that are for profit resale stores. And some, like Vietnam Veterans, lease their name to for profit stores for a tiny percent of the profits.

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Guest

I live in an area with dozens of thrift shops, some are nationally recognized and some are local. I delight in not paying taxes, our local sales taxes are high. Some thrift shops have higher prices than I would pay at department stores. So I have an idea in my head of what I would be willing to spend ahead of time. It is easy to buy things you don't need because some prices are so low. We have found hundreds of excellent items at very affordable prices. I go there if I'm feeling like spending money. I usually don't spend more than ten dollars, and I feel it is going to a good cause. Also, I donate to these same organizations, sometimes the same items I purchased.