Professional Thrifting Tips: Surviving the Goodwill Outlet


In earlier posts, Emily discusses both beginner and intermediate thrifting tips. Today I get down to the nitty-gritty about thrifting at the Goodwill Outlet, which is not for the faint of heart. Some might even say that the Goodwill Outlet is NOT even for the novice thrfiter, and I tend to agree. In fact, I'm a die-hard thrifter and it took a few trips before I was hooked.

A brief explanation of how a typical Goodwill store works is necessary here. So, the Goodwill Outlet is the last stop in the journey of donated second-hand items. This journey begins when the item is donated - either to a brick and mortar store, a donation center, or to a free-standing donation bin often seen in the parking lots of grocery and other stores. Either way, the items end up being sorted by the semi-trained Goodwill behind-the-scenes employees. These employees are the gatekeepers so to speak - they sort and price the items that are donated based on a rudimentary system that varies store by store. This is why the items at say, a Goodwill in a more wealthy, are priced differently than those in a less affluent neighborhood. Goodwill employees have a list of designer labels and price-points for each. They also have guidelines for "boutique" items, which is why you'll often see new with tags items from Walmart brands next to bonafide designer pieces. After being sorted, priced and color coded, the items are placed on the sales floor where they remain for up to one month. Once a week a new color goes on 50% sales to make room for the constant influx of fresh items. SO where do items go if they don't sell, even at 50% off? The Goodwill Outlet! It's sort of like a second-hand item's purgatory. If an item doesn't sell at the Goodwill Outlet - it goes to hell. Kidding. Seriously - if items don't sell at the Goodwill outlet they are either bundled and shipped to third world countries as clothing, they are compacted and salvaged (sent to landfills), or sometimes they are even sold as fabric to places that make rag rugs! Occasionally items donated actually circumvent the sorting and pricing steps altogether and are sent directly to the Goodwill Outlet. This is at the discretion of Goodwill store managers and often occurs when the volume of items that need to be sorted exceeds the manpower to complete the task.

Okay so now that you have a cursory understanding of how items end up at a Goodwill Outlet, lets DIVE into what happens once they're there. Pun intended!

Items arrive at the Goodwill Outlet after being discarded by the regular Goodwill retail stores. They are already semi-sorted but before the BINS are brought out they are further sorted into a few categories:

  • Clothing and fabric items
  • Shoes
  • Glassware
  • Luggage
  • Furniture
  • Appliances
  • Book/Magazines/Records
  • Accessories (Purses, belts, ties)
  • Miscellaneous (EVERYTHING)

Once sorted items are wheeled out onto the sales floor. The bins are rotated approximately once per hour. Pricing items individually isn't neccessary because a flat, per pound price is charged. The more you buy, the cheaper it is! Seems fairly simple right? WRONG! Here's were thrfiting goes from being a novice level activity to a PROFESSIONAL one. There are many unspoken rules at "The Bins," which is what the regulars call the Goodwill Outlet. Some of these rules are enforced by store management and fellow shoppers, while others are more common sense than common law. Here's a rundown:

1. Shop at your own risk - some people opt to wear rubber gloves while digging through the bins and I've even seen a face mask or two.

2. DON'T touch anything in the bins until all they're all rolled out, usually in groups of 4 or more.

3. Be polite. Give other shoppers their personal space. Don't remove things from other people's carts. Don't get into a tug-of-war over items. Don't be greedy.

To be continued...

In our next post we'll share personal stories of heroism from the bins in Hamden, CT!

How to Thrift: Intermediate Tips

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?

Wearing Vintage: A Primer

You know it from our sidebar:  here at Vintanthromodern Vintage, we believe in wearable vintage. We might sound like a broken record, but we really believe it. A 1950s cocktail dress, a 1930s hat, or a 1970s stretchy jumpsuit might be an amazing piece, but it isn't exactly wearable day-to-day. One fun part of vintage fashion -- and one part that makes it accessible to anyone -- is mixing and matching pieces from across eras. Going full-on post-war pin-up may fun in its own right, but for most people, it isn't a practical way of dressing for, say, grocery shopping.  (Gals and guys who are totally committed to this sort of style can and do pull off daily vintage looks with aplomb, but y'all don't need a 'how-to' guide for wearing vintage, right?)

1. Start small

The easiest way to begin incorporating vintage into your wardrobe is through accessories, particularly vintage bags, belts, scarves, and jewelry. If at the shop we can't make a sale of a dress or a sweater to a vintage skeptic, we know we can make a sale on a handbag or amazing pair of boots.

2. Prize versatility

A straw bag or a burnt orange scarf will tie you to a season. A rhinestone and velvet bag will tie you to date night (or maybe just being fabulous ...). When you're first trying out vintage items, go for items that would function well in all seasons are in colors that you match your existing wardrobe, and fit into your lifestyle. The more you wear something, the more you'll love it. Vintage is way more than costume or one-time wear:  you can wear vintage every single day without looking like you're wearing vintage every single day.

3. Pick a neutral base

Let your vintage accessories shine against an easy neutral base -- gray shift dress, white t-shirt and jeans, cream top and black pencil skirt -- that doesn't compete for attention. Don't worry about juggling too much at once!

4. Add one item at a time

You don't need to wear a bunch of vintage items all at once; everything in moderation. If you're unsure whether an item clashes or not, just take it off! You'll feel better. Try it again by itself.

5. Just do it!

What's great about accessories is that you can take them off in the middle of the day if you simply can't bear to wear them anymore. This means they are relatively low-risk items to wear. So what's the risk? Try it out!

6. Remember everything new is old, too

Designers love vintage. Ever wonder where, say, Marc Jacobs gets all of his shapes? You guessed it -- vintage! If you love modern items, from Prada to Anthropologie to F21 -- structured bags, charm necklaces, watercolor print scarves -- chances are very, very good you'll love the vintage items from which the designs were lifted. Your current wardrobe may be full of "vintage," yet you don't even think of it like that! True, some shapes are modernized, but let's be real:  the high slits on tight skirts and body-con dresses you're seeing for this fall are straight out of the mid-90s. Fashion recycles. For vintage newbies, take a look at the places in your wardrobe that are already vintage inspired, and work from there.

7. Be cheap

Those of us in the business of actually selling vintage clothes probably shouldn't encourage this tidbit but ... if you're just figuring out how to wear vintage, don't feel the need to drop $240 on a pair of 40s paste earrings. There is a lot of very affordable vintage out in the world, particularly vintage accessories. If you spend $5 or $10 or $20 on something, you'll feel a lot less bad when it doesn't work out ... and like a damn smart lady when it does.

Need more tips?  Check out these great resources: