Guerrilla Thrift Shopping: The 9 Laws of Profit

Thrift shopping for profit isn't dead. Online auction sites built a cottage industry for many of us and then promptly created competition so stiff that we sometimes wonder if it's all worth it. Thrift stores operate like Rodeo Drive boutiques, now, and online buyers have seemingly limitless choices. But with laser-like focus and a broader base of knowledge, I assert that money can still be made from thrift shopping. Here are my nine laws for profitable thrift shopping in a tight market.

1. Know your suppliers

Understanding the local thrift market in your area is key to scoring the best items. What days do folks typically have yard sales in your town? Unsold items tend to be donated to local charities the next day. Learning what days and times your favorite thrift store restocks can help keep you one step ahead of the competition. (See also: Things You Might Not Know About Your Local Thrift Store)

2. Develop a primary and secondary shopping strategy

Realize that you are not alone in your quest to turn a buck from thrift shopping. If you live in an area of any significant size, there are dozens of folks you can reasonably call your competition. Beating them to the punch is the secret to success. Consider your shopping strategy. Do you browse casually or do you dive right in and hit the high-profit potential items first? Over time, I've started doing a quick turn around the store, immediately. This is what I call primary shopping. I hit the item categories that have the highest resale value first — before they can be cleaned out by other shoppers. This approach saves time, increases good finds, and helps me chill out for the next shopping phase. Secondary shopping is digging deeper into each item category — taking my time and shopping for profit as well as for personal items.

3. Stay one step ahead of the store

In the halcyon of the "B.E.E." (or Before eBay Era) thrift stores were wonderfully naïve about the potential value of the items they carried. Now, stores research item values prior to sale and when in doubt, err on the side of "enthusiastic" pricing. This limits what you can reasonably profit from and limits the amount of profit. However, the stores' main business is selling high volumes of used items and they can't possibly stay ahead of every collectibles trend. Researching hot items and trending antiques is essential in discovering little gold mines of profit before the stores (and your competitors) catch on.

4. Become a generalist

It's wonderful to have a deep and keen knowledge of vintage bicycles from the 1980s, but then you are at the mercy of the vintage bicycles from the 1980s market. Become a generalist to broaden your base of potentially profitable items. I sell vintage musical instruments, Italian pottery from the 1950s and '60s, clothes, tools, shoes, rare Starbucks coffee mugs, and dozens of other items that I've come to learn about over the years. Use eBay to research the final sale price of specific items and create a mental list of what to look out for.

5. Check for quality

No great mystery here — always check for missing buttons, stains, tears, and defects of any sort. It's easy to be blinded by the adrenaline of a good find. Remember, buyers typically want as close to perfection as possible.

6. Think like a business owner

Hardcore and longtime thrifters have a tendency to want to save items from the landfill or to reclaim and restore an item's use or value. This tendency is admirable on a personal level, but investment of too much time and energy on a single item reduces your profit. Begin to think like a small business owner — each hour devoted to the purchase, listing, and sale of item impacts your bottom line. Replacing a zipper on that vintage wool coat may give you a sense of personal satisfaction, but it could completely erase your profit.

7. Understand the changing market of collectibles and antiques

Like any market, the antiques and collectibles world is fickle. Tastes change, trends fade, and whole new aesthetics seem to blossom overnight. Mid-century modern furniture used to be set on the curb 10 years ago; now, it's one of the hottest categories in resale. Understand what demographic has the largest amount of discretionary income now — these are the folks to tailor your sales to.

8. Capitalize on trends

A recent eBay search under the key words "Mad Men" resulted in 2657 items for sale — in vintage clothing. The Mad Men TV series phenomenon is just one example of a hot trend you can profit from. People are going crazy for vintage wingtips and classic hats à la Don Draper. Expand the search to include house wares and there are even more items — whiskey glasses, decanters, office accessories — all with the signature look reminiscent of the '60s style. Though it may mean being a little more plugged into pop culture than you'd like, embrace trends and stay ahead of the curve to increase profits. Don would agree.

9. Resist the urge to collect

Thrift shopping is in my blood. My mom got me hooked at the ripe age of seven and I've been an avid devotee ever since. I've built collections and sold collections, I've stumbled on treasures I swore I'd never part with only to sell them six months later. In the current rarefied atmosphere of thin profits and high competition, I've decided that collecting is just a distraction that bleeds time and muddies the waters. I do, of course, keep an eye out for items that I need personally (just picked up a great Chemex coffee maker the other day for $6.00). For the most part though, I thrift shop to make money while doing something I love. Resist the urge to collect (or collect temporarily), enjoy the items, and then liquidate at a profit and begin again.

Whether you're thrifting to supplement your day job or add another source of income to ease the budget a bit, don't forget to have fun. After all, thrifting is a way to make some cash while avoiding the cube farm and those painful Monday morning meetings. Grab a cup of coffee, hit the streets, and thrift on!

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Guest's picture

Great article, thanks for the tips...I'll keep them in mind the next time I'm thrifting!

Guest's picture

Very interesting! I do often find children's clothing of a rarefied brand priced just like any other kid's dress.