Updated on 10.01.15

Guide to Consignment Shops

Saundra Latham

They can be a good way to buy or sell things secondhand - especially higher-end items.

consignment shops

Photo: Don Gunn

It’s a classic quandary: You have way too much stuff, but your wallet is empty. Selling your items on consignment can help solve both of those problems. You’ll get rid of things you don’t use while getting a little extra cash in exchange — a win-win.

We’ll cover the basics of consignment shops and sales, including how they differ from thrift shops, how you’ll get paid, what to expect from the process, and tips on boosting the chances that you’ll be able to sell your items.

And if you’re interested only in buying from consignment stores, we’ve also got you covered with a tip section toward the end (jump to tips for buyers).

How Do Consignment and Thrift Shops Differ?

Right off the bat, let’s differentiate consignment shops and sales from thrift stores. Though some use the terms interchangeably, there are big differences in how the stores obtain items, the quality of items you can expect, and the price you’ll pay, among other things:

Consignment Shop Thrift Shop
Merchandise Purchased outright from seller, or profit split upon sale Donated by public
Quality control Items inspected thoroughly for condition, style, age, etc. Items only lightly inspected; some flaws and out-of-date items typically acceptable
Price point Varies widely according to merchandise, but usually at least 40% to 50% off retail Very cheap, usually at least 75% off retail
Type of business Usually private (some consignment sales are run by nonprofit groups) Charity or nonprofit
Staff Mostly paid staff (some sales run by volunteers) Mostly volunteers


As you can see, thrift stores have bargain-basement prices, but they won’t put any money in your pocket if you unload your items there (although getting a receipt for your donations can help you come tax time if you itemize). Consignment is the way to go if you actually want to make a little money in exchange for your gently used goods.

How Do I Make Money Selling on Consignment?

Typically, you’ll make money one of two ways when you sell items on consignment: Either you’ll be offered a percentage of the profit when your item is sold, or you’ll be given a set payment before the item is sold. Note that depending on the venue, you may pay a small consignor’s fee ($5 to $10 is common) to cover costs related to selling your items.

Percentage of Profit

Some consignment stores don’t offer any money for your items up front. Instead, they take the items they want, assign a price, and give you some of the profit when they sell. So if the store prices your designer jacket at $120 and agrees to give you 50% of the profit, you’ll get $60 back in your pocket when that happens.

The major pro here is that you’ll probably get more money this way since the store doesn’t have to pay you unless your item is purchased. Of course, the big con is that you have to wait around to see whether your item sells. That may take awhile — and it may not happen at all. In that case, after a set period of time (usually a couple of months) you’ll be allowed to reclaim your item. If you no longer want it, some stores may donate it to charity on your behalf.

Flat Upfront Payment

When you sell to a store that offers upfront payment, you’ll be offered money right away for each item the store decides it has a good chance of selling. For instance, you might receive $30 for that designer jacket, and you’ll be able to immediately walk away with cash in hand.

This can be nice because you get something even if the item doesn’t sell — and you don’t have to wait around, either. The downside, however, is that the amount you’ll get will probably be relatively small.

In our example, you only get $30 for your jacket — even if the store is able to sell it for $120. That’s because the store is compensating for the risk that the item might not sell after all, or that they might have to discount it to sell it. Note that if you go this route, you might be able to get more bang for your buck if you’ll accept store credit instead of cash.

You may run across a consignment shop that uses both methods. A favorite haunt of mine from college, Mustard Seed in Bethesda, Md., pays up front for most clothing but holds back payment for some higher-end items such as handbags and shoes.

Consignment Shops vs. Consignment Sales

Consignment shops are pretty self-explanatory: They’re open year-round for set hours and you can bring your items any time. They are usually independently owned and operated. Depending on store policies, staff members will either sort through your items immediately, or you may set up an appointment with them to do so.

But in my area (Knoxville, Tenn.), consignment sales are even more popular, especially for children’s clothing and goods. These sales are seasonal — usually popping up in the spring or fall — and typically run for only a few days.

Some consignment sales are independent, while others are sponsored by churches, nonprofits, or other groups. Many of them set up shop in vacant big-box stores that have plenty of room for a quick flood of merchandise and people.

That’s a good thing, because the most popular consignment sales can attract big, intense crowds of bargain hunters. Some will even have special private-sale or preview days that give sellers a chance to buy before the general public.

Consignment Sale Preparation

At their core, most consignment sales work the same as many consignment shops: You’ll get a cut of the profit when your items sell, and you can pick up or donate anything that doesn’t sell after the event.

However, there is a difference in how much work is required on your behalf when it comes to prepping items. With consignment shops, little is required of you beyond bringing items that are in good shape — the store does the rest.

With consignment sales, items flood in during a very short period. That means organizers typically depend on participants to make sure their items are ready to sell as soon as they’re dropped off. Procedures vary from sale to sale, but this checklist from one of the largest consignment sales in my area, Duck Duck Goose, is fairly typical.

When you participate in a consignment sale, you may be required to:

  • Bring clothing items on your own hangers
  • Tag items using your own supplies, such as index cards
  • Print barcodes or use markers, stickers, or some other method to categorize your clothes and identify you as the seller
  • Price your own items according to the sale’s guidelines

How should I price my own items?

Depending on your perspective, being able to price your own items is the biggest blessing — or curse — of consignment sales. Most sales will give you guidelines on pricing your items to ensure they sell. For instance, Duck Duck Goose advises sellers to charge no more than 25% to 40% of what they paid for clothing and children’s goods, depending on the condition.

Here are a few rules of thumb on pricing your own items:

  • Be realistic. Be as detached as possible and ask yourself what you’d be willing to pay for something if you were the buyer. Don’t charge more simply because a particular item has some sentimental value for you — it certainly doesn’t for the buyer.
  • Be willing to discount. Consignment sales often discount items at the end of the event in order to clear out merchandise (50% off is typical). You may be able to opt out of this, but you probably shouldn’t, especially if you’re just going to donate any unsold items in the end.
  • Name brands and new items can fetch more money, but only a bit more. Yes, you can charge a little more for in-demand clothing brands or items that still have their tags, but (in the case of clothing) that might only be a couple of dollars. Remember, there is a huge number of items at consignment sales competing for buyers’ attention.

Consignment Shops or Consignment Sales: Which Is My Best Bet?

In general, consignment shops are a better pick if you only have a few items, or if you have some particularly high-dollar items. That’s because your merchandise typically won’t be competing for space with a huge number of other items. Depending on the store, you may have to be patient enough to wait up to a few months for your item to sell, though.

On the other hand, if you have a lot of stuff that you would love to unload quickly, consignment sale organizers and buyers may be less picky — and buyers often come ready to throw down some serious cash in exchange for good deals. Just be sure you’re willing to put in the work preparing your items for sale and pricing them realistically.

Alternatives to Consignment Selling

If consignment shops or sales aren’t quite right for you, consider a few other ways to get rid of items you no longer want or need:

Yard Sales

An old-fashioned yard sale or garage sale can be a great way to get rid of clutter quickly, and you don’t even have to leave home. However, your town may require you to get a permit to hold one legally, and prepare to be low-balled for just about everything you’re selling: Yard-sale hounds expect rock-bottom prices.

Because of that, the time you spend organizing items might not be worth the money you make unless you have a wide variety of things to sell. Consignment may be a better choice if you have a narrow range of items, or things that are more valuable.

Sell Online

Just about everyone knows about Craigslist and eBay, but there are several other options to sell your stuff online.

One increasingly popular alternative is to use a Facebook resale group. You can find one in your area for just about anything that you would sell via consignment, and you might be better off selling collectibles and brands with a big, devoted fandom online, too. You may also be able to get a bit more cash for your items compared to consignment since you’re doing the work yourself.

Just keep in mind that mailing items or meeting up with buyers can be time-consuming, and you should always conduct meetings in public to minimize safety risks. If you’re pressed for time, consignment might be a better fit.

Donate Your Items

No, you’re not going to get any extra spending money in your pocket, but there are still several perks to donating to thrift stores instead of selling on consignment.

First, there’s the feel-good factor — you could be helping out someone in need. Donating also means you can get rid of your unwanted items quickly, which can be a huge relief if time or clutter is an issue.

Finally, don’t forget about the tax write-off. Just be sure to determine fair market value so you don’t tick off Uncle Sam; if you need help, the Salvation Army’s Donation Value Guide can offer some guidance.

Tips for Consignment Sellers

Ready to try your hand at selling on consignment? Avoid some rookie mistakes and boost your chance of making a few bucks by heeding the following tips:

  • Don’t bother unless it’s in good condition. If your clothing has flaws like rips, stains, or missing buttons, it’s not ideal for consignment. Toys and electronics should be in full working order with batteries. You have a bit more leeway with furniture, since buyers often intend on refinishing less-than-perfect pieces, but be careful with upholstery — it should be clean and odor-free.
  • Know the difference between vintage and out of style. There’s a big market for truly vintage items: Buyers may love that mod 1950s swing dress, but they’re probably going to bypass your scratchy early ’90s blazer with its huge shoulder pads.
  • Don’t get offended if a shop or sale rejects your items. They know their market better than you, and if they don’t think your items will sell, they’re probably right. Ask what flies off the shelves so you have a better shot at making more money next time.
  • Stick to stores and sales with an established clientele. More well-known consignment stores and sales that have been in business for a long time will have more foot traffic. They’ll also have a better sense of what their shoppers want to see, and they’ll know how to make your items look good and boost the chances they’ll sell.
  • Focus on specialty shops if you can. Most consignment shops or sales focus on either clothing, books, or furniture and home goods, and some specialize within those categories (for instance, children’s clothing or antique furniture). Taking your items to a place with a more narrow niche will give you a better shot at connecting with a buyer who actually wants what you’re selling.
  • Get everything in writing. Make sure you know all the important details: exactly what cut of the profit the consignment store or sale will take, whether there are any fees on top of that, how long your item has to sell, what happens if it goes unsold, and when you’ll see your money.

Tips for Consignment Buyers

If selling via consignment sounds like a pain, you can still reap the benefit of big-time savings as a buyer. You can buy all manner of things on consignment, including books, sports equipment, and even musical instruments.

Here are a few things to keep in mind, especially if you’ve never bought from a consignment shop or sale before:

  • Target consignment stores and sales in wealthier neighborhoods. It sounds obvious, but if you want higher-end stuff, you’re more likely to find it at shops and stores in areas where people have a bit more to spend in the first place.
  • Inspect items thoroughly before buying. Most consignment shops or sales worth their salt will make sure items are clean and in working order before selling them, but this is still your ultimate responsibility as a buyer of secondhand goods. Most sales are final, so you’re out of luck if you buy a dud.
  • Be careful of recalls or other hazards. Consignment shops and sales are bound by the same laws that prohibit the sale of recalled items as other retailers, but some might not be as up to date as others. If you’re shopping for children’s goods, be particularly aware of potentially dangerous items such as drop-side cribs and expired car seats.
  • Get the inside scoop. If you find a consignment shop or sale you like, make friends with the owners or organizers. Sign up for any mailing lists or follow them on social media. This way, you’ll be among the first to hear of any desirable new items or sales. A retro furniture shop may not have your perfect mid-century modern dresser now, but they might be willing to give you a buzz as soon as one comes in.
  • Be realistic about what you’ll wear or use. Buying at consignment shops and sales means you’ll be saving a healthy chunk of change over normal retail, but don’t lower your standards just because the prices are lower. Paying $3 for a shirt you’ll never actually wear or $20 for a funky mirror you’re not sure you really like is just as wasteful as overpaying for something at its normal retail price.

Where Can I Find Consignment Stores Near Me?

Ready to sell (or buy) on consignment? You’ll need to find some great local stores or sales to tap. While an Internet search may yield decent results, don’t ignore your own network of family and friends, who may be able to point you to a store in the corner of a strip mall you never knew about.

You may also want to join Facebook resale groups or scour Craigslist, since consignment shop owners frequently advertise on both platforms.

If you’re more concerned with buying quality, upscale goods, check out our past advice on how to find the best thrift stores in your area to get started.

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