Updated on 12.16.14

How to Find the Best Thrift Stores in Your Area

Trent Hamm

I have had a lot of success buying things at thrift stores, secondhand stores, and consignment shops. Here are just a few examples of things I’ve found.

Several years ago at a secondhand clothes store in the Ames, Iowa area, I found a new – meaning it still had the tags on it – replica Chicago Cubs jersey that would fit my oldest son. It was stuffed into a $2 rack of children’s clothing. At a jersey store, you would expect to pay something close to $100 for it.

Several years ago at a secondhand clothes store in the Chicago area, I found a Gucci dress for my daughter mixed in with a bunch of other dresses for $12. It looked as if it had never been worn. These often sell for hundreds of dollars.

About four years ago at a thrift store in the Des Moines area, I found about twelve Hudson Bay t-shirts that fit me perfectly. I’m still actively wearing them today and they basically still look new. The cost per shirt was about $4. They sell for at least $30 at men’s clothing stores.

Roughly three years ago at a thrift store in the Iowa City area, I found several vintage video games in their original packaging. The highlight of the find was a copy of Earthbound with all original packaging (though it was beaten up) and a functional cartridge to boot. It sold for $7.50. Copies of Earthbound without the packaging go for over $100 on eBay.

About two years ago at a different thrift store in the Des Moines area, I found a small pile of tall Cutter and Buck polo shirts that fit me well for about $4 each. They were basically new as far as I could tell – if I had bought them new at another store, I would have been paying $60 a pop for them.

About eighteen months ago at a thrift store in the Ames, Iowa area, I found an unpunched copy of the board game Civilization, published by Avalon Hill in 1980 and out of print for decades. Well-used copies sell on eBay for $50 or more; I haven’t seen an unpunched copy on there in ages. I paid $3 for it.

These are just the huge bargains. My son’s favorite shirt, which he’s worn many, many times, was purchased at a thrift store for $2. Approximately half of my pants – both jeans and dress pants – came from thrift stores. I’m pretty well convinced that our youngest child’s entire wardrobe is composed of gifts, hand-me-downs, and thrift store buys.

Whenever I talk about these kinds of successes, people always ask me the same thing: how do you find this stuff? They’ll tell me about how the thrift stores and secondhand stores in their area are full of junk and every time they go to those stores they find nothing useful.

First of all, most of my thrift store visits end up with me leaving with empty hands, too. I don’t find great bargains every time I’m there, but I find them often enough that it’s worth going to such stores on a semi-frequent basis to see what I find.

A lot of the stuff in these stores is useless, at least to me. I’ll find mostly clothes that don’t fit my family members… and of the items that do fit, most of them aren’t of interest. Many of the other items aren’t items that I would actually want in my home. Here’s the funny thing, though. I could say the exact same things about any department store. That exact description would apply to Target or Wal-Mart, for example.

Second, thrift stores are not the end of a shopping trip – they’re the start. Let’s say, for example, that my kids need some new clothes. They’re growing like weeds and the clothes they currently have just don’t fit them well.

Since I know I’m going to need a few pairs of pants in various sizes as well as a few shirts, I head to the thrift store first with that list in hand. I see if anything at the thrift store works for items on that list. If not, no big loss – I just go to another store. If I do find a match, though, then I’m saving some significant money.

A final tip: I keep my eyes open when I’m in there. There are several things that pop up in thrift stores that I can put a value on almost instantly. Vintage video games are one example. Board games are another. Beyond that, I usually have a few items I’m looking for if I see them at the right price. The last time I went into a thrift store, I was actually looking for grilling tools (and I found some).

Of course, all of this relies on having good thrift stores to visit. Here’s how I find them.

First, I head to Zillow. Zillow? Isn’t that a property value site? It sure is – and it’s a great way to get started finding the good thrift shops.

So, head to Zillow and look at properties within, say, a 25 mile radius of your home (or wherever you’re going to begin your shopping excursions). You’re probably going to find a wide array of home prices.

Study the map a bit and look for areas where home prices are consistently higher than other areas. You aren’t necessarily looking for the most expensive house. You’re looking for an area with a lot of fairly high properties.

Once you find a cluster of high property value sites, pick one of the homes in the middle of that cluster and note the address. This is where your real search is going to start.

Why would you do this? You want to know where affluent people live, because it’s those affluent people who tend to donate good stuff to thrift stores and take good stuff to consignment shops. These are people who tend to buy expensive things and then turn them over at a high rate. That’s the kind of stuff you want.

Once you’ve identified an address that’s right in the middle of an expensive area, go to Google Maps and search for “thrift stores near ….” and replace the …. with the address you found in your searching. So, you might search for something like “thrift stores near 1060 West Addison Street, Chicago, IL 60613”.

Now, look at that map and note the dots that are near the middle of the map and thus are close to your starting address. Those are the thrift stores you’re going to want to hit. Make a list of the five or ten closest ones to that address.

You can do similar searches, too. Try searching for “consignment shops near 1060 West Addison Street, Chicago, IL 60613” or “secondhand stores near 1060 West Addison Street, Chicago, IL 60613” or “secondhand children’s clothing stores near 1060 West Addison Street, Chicago, IL 60613.” You’ll find some overlapping results and some distinct results. Each time, note the search results that are closest to your target address.

At the end of all of this, you’ll have a list of five or more stores that are near that target address. These are the thrift stores that are closest to the area where that affluent neighborhood is, meaning those are the stores where the people in that affluent neighborhood are likely to take their secondhand stuff when they want to get rid of it.

I find great stuff in stores like that on a very consistent basis. I’m amazed at the high quality and nearly new things that people who are either high income earners or are overspending their income level are just willing to basically toss out. The stuff that they get rid of after maybe wearing it once or twice is of higher quality than stuff I would ever buy new.

Don’t get me wrong – stores like these can still be a real mixed bag. I just tend to find a lot of gems hidden away if I go to stores like these instead of completely random thrift stores.

One drawback: the prices do tend to be a bit higher at these stores. Rather than racks of $2 shirts, you’re more likely to see lots of shirts for $5 or even as much as $10. The difference is that the quality of shirts on the $5 and the $10 rack are much higher than the quality of shirts on the $2 rack at other thrift stores.

Basically, you can pay $2 for a $10 or $15 shirt (new) at the other thrift stores, or you can pay $5 or $10 for a $50 or $75 (or more) shirt at the nicer thrift stores. I’d rather have the nicer shirt because it’s almost always in better condition, it’s almost always made better, and thus it’s almost always going to get worn many more times than the shirt at the cheaper place. As a result, I’m more likely to find stuff I want to buy at the “nicer” thrift stores.

Even at these “nicer” stores, I don’t always walk out the door with something in my hands. I just have a much better chance of finding things that I actually want to buy and take home. Because of that, shopping first at a thrift store becomes a much more sensible decision.

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