4 Ways Thrift Stores Aren’t Always So Thrifty

by Linsey Knerl · 13 comments

I love a good thrift store sale. If done at the right time, in the right way, it’s possible to really score some nice furniture, décor, or even a well-worn pair of jeans for a fraction of buying it new. I have seen too many people toss money away at many of these shops, however, assuming that because something is sold there, it must be a good deal. Take a look at these four traps that thrift stores are catching buyers in, before you take out your wallet.

Mistaking Designer for “In-Demand”
The people that price items at thrift stores may have a good idea of the value of an item most of the time. Other times, however, they just have a bad case of wishful thinking. Yes, a pair of Diesel jeans in great condition from last year’s line may be worth buying for $20-30 from a thrift store, but a pair from five years ago that fits poorly and looks like a mouse lived in them most definitely aren’t. Beware of clothes that have been pulled aside, prominently-displayed, and marked 4-5 times higher than the rest of the wares. Unless you know quite a bit about fashion, you may be taken for a ride.

Selling to a National Market
I fondly remember the days I could scout my local thrift store and pick up a toy from my childhood for a few dollars. The store was happy to sell me the junk, and I was ecstatic to add another piece to my collection. Now that many stores have taken their wares online, however, I’m competing with a much larger market. Now the “good” items are culled for sale to the highest bidder, and competition sends the prices beyond what I consider reasonable. Not all stores have participated in this tactic, but many stores have teamed up to sell the more unique items to buyers all over the country, leaving me to fight against 20-30 interested bidders. If you want to invest heavily in nostalgia, you may be better off with a reputable dealer or eBay.

Refusing to Make Deals
If I drop $100 or more at my local store, I would expect that there would be some room to haggle. While I wouldn’t ask for anything outrageous, I would imagine that I could get away with making an offer on a piece that was unmarked or perhaps be able to get a discount for something broken or incomplete. Lately, however, many of the stores I’ve visited have had a no-tolerance policy for haggling, leaving me to wonder how badly they need my business. The inability to knock 25 cents off a shirt with no button or requiring full price for something with a stain is baffling. If new stores can meet in the middle, why can thrift shops?

Being Excessive with Exceptions
I’m giddy when my local hospital auxiliary store has their large closeout sale. In an effort to get rid of inventory, they have bag sales, where buyers can shove all they can into a garbage bag and pay anywhere from $5-8. You would imagine that this would help them move some merchandise and raise some much-needed funds, but their process of explaining all the items that don’t qualify for the sale can be frustrating. “No plus-size clothing, no socks, no shoes, no accessories, no denim, no brand name, etc.” By the time they tell you what all you can’t buy, it leaves you without much desire to buy anything, at all. This same practice can happen with tag sales or days when they mark down certain departments by 50%. Be careful of sales that are too good to be true, and always read the fine print!

While I still like to frequent my local stores and pick up a few things every now and again, the overall pricing on most items is getting closer to what I can buy things for new. Unless you are looking for a unique vintage item that you can’t get anywhere else, or you just really dig the idea of sending money to the charities supported by the stores, you might find better deals elsewhere. (Try Craigslist or garage sales, for example.)

What has your experience been with thrift stores, lately?

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Bucksprout says:

    I’ve always had great experiences with thrift stores. I have noticed prices steadily rising in the past years because shopping at thrift stores is cool now. You will always find a good deal if you put time into finding the right stores and taking the the time to dig through everything. I’m a huge advocate of recycled clothing stores like Crossroads where I can sell my clothes to the store and also find affordable clothes.

  • Sita says:

    I grew up going to thrift shops, garage sales and flea markets. We were always broke so it was good until high school when I started earning money at a part-time job. Then I got sick of the musty smell and only bought crisp, shiny new clothes. Going back to them now and then to look for clothes for my kids. I was surprised by how high the prices are – $4 for a pair of kid’s shorts? I can buy the same thing, new, at a discount clothing place or second hand at an upscale consignment store. So if I’m near one I wander in, but it’s not worth my while to sort through all the junk.

  • aRenegade2 says:

    The stores have become con-artist paradise for the unsuspecting, they have high prices for crap that should be in the trash,

  • Trini Rae says:

    We adore thrift stores, but sadly many have closed where we live too.
    And I agree that the ones left charge more now and are much more savvy with collectables and toys. I still enjoy shopping them. I find such interesting drinking glasses, and old bowls and cool shaped glassware. It is fun.
    I don’t find many great cloth items anymore. But thrift stores are fun. I write articles on being frugal on my blog and those are my most visited articles.
    People love to learn how to shop wisely and find great bargains.

  • Sasha says:

    There’s a great local thrift shop that does a once-a-month bag sale: $3 for a grocery bag full of absolutely whatever you can find in their basement from kid’s toys to adult jackets. The thing I love most is that the shop is often stocked by local “society” women who give away things that still have tags! I’ve gotten some great designer items and brand new clothing for 25 cents a piece!

  • donna says:

    I have learned , that i set a price limit on what i w/pay for something that a thrift shop got from someone else for free. Mine (just up the road)…gets a LOT of designer and new items and sometimes the picking is good, sometimes it isn’t. I got a set of dinnerware @ 50cents per , 4 dinner plates, 4 salad plates and 4 bowls , i gifted my sister with them. I also picked up a set of Pfaltzgraff for the same price…you learn, that if you don’t find it to your price one day, then something else w/b there another. My life is what is most important…without it, the thrift stores wouldn’t matter, nor would a paycheck. You have to set your own limits. there is a dump table, where i go through and find all sorts of sweaters and items to share with my friends and family (@ $1.49 each) i can afford to gift someone a new item….i agree some items are overpriced, but if i don’t agree then i don’t buy. There w/b something else, some other day.

  • KM says:

    I am not a fan, to be honest. The few I have been in one of those stores, it feels like many of the items are so used that some should even be thrown away, others I wouldn’t really want to wear. I would rather buy new (I don’t care about brands and I shop at surplus stores like Ross), but I think that if you need something cheap, garage sales are much better. Some items are new with tags, but sell for pennies on the dollar.

  • Jon - Free Money Wisdom says:

    Sometimes it is a better deal to just go with brand new clothes. They often last longer and give you more bang for your buck. You often don’t get home and think–why the heck did I buy this? But there can be deals to be found at thrift stores!

  • Andrea Karim says:

    Our local thrift stores collect all of the good stuff as it comes in, and hold a “Glitter Sale” once a year where they sell it all at high prices (and you have to line up and fight other people to get the good stuff). I try to shop at the thrift stores that are out of the way, in smaller towns. I mostly buy jeans, because paying full retail price seems silly to me.

  • Frugaljoe says:

    I find that Thrift Stores vary in their pricing. Some stores are in the it to make the most they can get out of every item. Others run by charity’s seem to offer the better prices. I search around and know which Thrift Stores in my area offer the best variety and best prices that is were I shop. Some people think that Thrift Stores and Yard Sales should give their stuff away for next to nothing, that attitude has hurt yard sales because lot of people who used to have yard sales have given it up, because of obnoxious buyers, Thrift Stores may well go that route also.

  • Herbert says:

    I’ve always enjoyed even the idea of a thrift store, but I’m afraid the concept has gone by the wayside as so much of nostalgia has. In my area, there are no longer thrift stores. Oh, of course, the businesses are still there. “Thrift” continues to be spelled out up on the signs. Unfortunately, now they are chains that advertise on TV and radio, and get that extra $$ with the guilt factor by convincing customers that they are “helping others”. These places are big businesses with 7 figure budgets. Nowadays, I have a couple of favorite flea markets for the ordinary, and every few weeks, I take a road trip down a different blue highway, with an eye on the lookout for the old timey type dealer. They’re still out there, just don’t tell too many friends, because supplies are limited. Mapping out a garage sale route from the classifieds is also sometimes profitable, and fun.. It’s all about a little effort for that possible treasure find. The only rewarding thing about a thrift store these days goes into the owner’s pocket.

  • Marcia says:

    Our local thrift stores are pretty pricey. There is one that’s not too bad, and if you go south 30 miles, I hear they have better ones.

    I understand that they are pricey because of cost of living here and that they are raising money for charity. But…if I can buy a set of new Corelle bowls for $25 and used ones are $19 at the thrift store? That’s not the best deal.

    I am looking for more cups, bowls, and flatware right now for my office (our company has gone from 20 to 90 in 3 years, and the forks and spoons keep…disappearing). I think I will just hit up yard sales for them. More work, but better deals.

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