Wednesday, February 19, 2014

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The Bargain Hunter's Guide to Goodwill


I've been shopping at Goodwill since elementary school. I bought my first pair of dress-up cowboy boots at Goodwill (which I still wear, by the way) around age 5. That was in the early 90s, way before people began nodding with appreciation when I told them, "I bought this at the thrift store." (They were more likely to feel sorry for me, in my sparkly Goodwill vests.) And it was definitely before there were songs glorifying thrift shopping. 

As a child, I hunted for Barbies and Beanie Babies. As a teen, I shifted my search to anything bearing the Abercrombie label. Now, it's housewares and designer clothing. I have learned a few success strategies along the way...

1. Know your Goodwill employees

There are three types of Goodwill employees: 1) Teenagers who are there only because they need a job (or perhaps got in trouble) 2) The power trippers, who wield the pricing gun like a weapon 3) The people who truly love what they do. The power trippers are the ones to avoid. Overpricing is their M.O., and store policy is their law. If an item doesn't have a price, you should approach either the teen or the passionate employee. 

A few months back, I found an adorable Madeline doll I wanted to buy for my niece. It didn't have a sticker. The power trippers would have told me no sticker means no sale (or named some ridiculously high amount). But a teenage boy at the desk sold it to me for a quarter.

2. Look for $_.99 stickers
If the price ends in .99, it means the item is salvage, purchased in bulk from a store like Target. Goodwill buys pallets of salvage for a set price, without knowing what's inside. Usually, it's from Target, although I suspect one Goodwill in my area buys from Forever 21.

Sometimes the items are slightly damaged. I found, for example, a mercury glass lamp from Target that was slightly rusted on the bottom. Other times, salvage goods are just clearance items that never sold. (At the end of a holiday season, I often see Target decorations at Goodwill.) And finally, if you hit the jackpot, you'll find items that simply have damaged packaging. I once found a perfectly intact lampshade that was still for sale at Target. A few months ago, I bought a Target starburst mirror with a damaged box for $12.99. 

Not every Goodwill sells Target salvage. So before you drive all over town, give your local stores a call. The employees will be able to tell you if they receive surplus shipments. 

3. Time your visits.
My Goodwill usually restocks in the evening. That means I find the best stuff around 8 p.m. Others load up the shelves in the A.M. (My mom says her best finds happen at 9 a.m., when the store first opens.) Figure out when your store's staff does most of their work, then swing by around that time to secure the best stuff. 

4. Hit more than one location
Don't give up if your local Goodwill is subpar. Inventory varies from location to location, so take a trip across town to scout a better thrift shop. Some stores focus more on furniture, others on clothes. Some carry Target salvage, others don't. My general rules: Goodwill's in wealthier areas are best, and the longer the store has been open, the better the selection. (In the words of my mother, "It takes 'em a while to get junked up.")

5. Find the right brands
Goodwill employees recognize moderately expensive brands, like Banana Republic of Express, and super high-end brands, like Prada. They mark both up. (I've seen stretched-out, faded Polo shirts for ten bucks. Ridiculous.) The in-between, less recognizable brands, like Free People or French Connection, are the bargain hunter's sweet spot. Because employees don't recognizes the names, these garments are often cheap. I once found a brand new Nanette Lepore blazer for $8.

6. Check the garment return rack. 
Outside the Goodwill dressing room you'll find a garment return rack, inevitably loaded down with designer goods. Somebody has already rifled through the aisles of clothing for you, and pulled out the most stylish stuff to try on. (And lucky for you, it didn't fit her.) 


  1. This is really helpful! My dad is an awesome thrift store shopper, I wish I inherited his talent! Haha.

    1. It's in the genes, so you just need to practice your skills!