Beyond Goodwill: The Different Types of Thrift Stores
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 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?