So you know your way around a thrift store. Maybe you've been a few times, maybe you've been a few dozen times. When push comes to shove, though, you're still more comfortable in a retail store, and thrifting is more pleasure than business. How do you step up your game?
1. Sign up for club memberships
Of course the little mom-n-pop shops don't have them -- although they might have an email list! -- but the big chains do. If you're not sure if a thrift store has a club membership / rewards program, ask! You might get special coupons, a discount off every purchase over a certain amount, or access to special sales.
2. Go thrifting in another city
If you live in Boston and have a car, trek out to Natick or Framingham. If you live in Portland, take a day trip to Seattle (get thee to the Goodwill on Dearborn -- my grandparents shopped there! It's a Seattle institution!). If you're traveling to NYC, hit up Housing Works. Different cities have different thrift stores, different thrift cultures, and different styles. There are things you will find in, say, Montreal, that you'll never find in Phoenix and vice versa.
3. Make lists
Keep a running list in your head, in your smartphone, in your glove compartment, or wherever of things you want or need and which might be found at thrift stores.
4. Hit sale days and shop sale items
Many thrift stores have sales on major holidays. Many also have weekly sales working on the "color tag" model. Since thrift stores get new inventory all the time, color tags track how long the inventory has been in the store. In the last week a particular round of inventory is to remain on the sales floor, stores discount those items by 50%. Check with your local stores to see what their sale calendar is. If you sign up for a club membership, you might just get this notifications automatically, too. Like regular retail, thrift stores also often have sales on major shopping holidays, so check in about President's Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, etc.
5. Trust your gut
If you don't like a store, don't keep going back! Lots of thrifters who offer tips online tell you to hit as many different stores as you can. Well, if the Salvation Army near you is smells of eau de pee and you can't deal, don't force yourself back. This is your time. Don't waste it going places you hate. Yeah, there might be some great gem there one day (although maybe with the frequency we get to see Venus transit the Sun), but who cares? There are gems everywhere -- trust me. Go elsewhere.
6. Find a tailor and a dry cleaner you trust (or bite the bullet and DIY)
Let's be real for a second: not everyone can afford to have their clothing tailored -- even thrifted clothing -- or have everything that is marked "dry clean only" actually dry cleaned. If you can, however, find specialists that won't ruin your clothes. If you know you can take a great pair of pants to get hemmed for $10, then you'll feel more confident purchasing items in thrift stores that are almost perfect, but not quite. If you can't afford these extras or don't want to deal with them, consider how much risk you are willing to take to, say, dump that stained shirt in a bucket of OxyClean for a day or to drop the hem yourself.
7. Give back
If you love a store, review it online. Don't be greedy; spread the love and tell other thrifters about it. If you love and a store and love what it stands for, definitely give it your donations! Encourage other people to give, too. And, again, if you don't know what cause a store supports, if any, ask.
8. Buy only what you love
It bears repeating. The better you get at thrift shopping, the more things you will find and want. The more efficient you are, the more you'll throw in your cart, and you probably really don't need that lime green sweatervest even-though-it's-cashmere, right?