How to Find Good Stuff at Goodwill (and Other Secondhand Stores)

I’ve mentioned quite often that I tend to shop at Goodwill/consignment shops/secondhand stores for various items. Whenever I mention this, I tend to get a bunch of responses along the lines of this message from Tessa:

How do you find anything good at Goodwill? Whenever I go into one, all I find is a lot of junk. I can’t believe you find anything good there.

There are a few basic tactics that you should use if you’re shopping at Goodwill.

First, visit Goodwills that are located in upscale areas. Don’t visit the Goodwill in the poor part of town or even the medium income part of town. Look for the Goodwill stores and secondhand shops that are located as close as possible to the rich part of town.

What happens is that people in the rich part of town often have more money than sense, so they’ll often get rid of very nice clothes having only worn them a time or two – and they do the same thing with other items. I’ve been in Goodwill stores in the peripheries of rich neighborhoods that have had far higher quality stuff than almost anywhere I shop at. I’ve filled up my book collections, my video game libraries, and, yes, my wardrobe thanks to such visits.

I’ll give you an example. Once, I stopped into the Goodwill store at Washington and Racine in Chicago and walked out with about fifteen video games and about ten new shirts. The store was nicer than many Wal-Marts and Targets I’ve been in and the quality of the merchandise and prices were fantastic.

Second, be picky. If you go into a Goodwill that seems to mostly be full of junk, you don’t have to buy that junk. Walk out and put that one on your “avoid in the future” list.

However, having said that, there are a lot of gems to be found, particularly in areas of income disparity. A college town is a perfect example of this. A college town often has a wide variety of incomes and perceptions of money, which means that their Goodwill stores tend to include a lot of cheap stuff and a fair amount of good stuff.

You often have to dig for those gems, though. What I often do is look for examples of high-quality things, even if I’m not particularly interested in buying them. If I see some high-quality items, even if they’re not perfect for me, I know that there are some diamonds hidden in the piles here.

So, how does that really work? I’m often willing to try a Goodwill that’s in a decent neighborhood that I’ve never been to before.

The first thing I do when I go in the door is look for items that I know really well. I’ll look at their men’s shirts or their smaller youth clothes or their books.

I look for items that fit me or that will fit my children, of course, but I also simply look for quality items of any kind. If I can find good items with some consistency while looking around, then I know the store is worthwhile even if I don’t specifically find items that match my needs.

So, with men’s shirts, I’ll look for items that look like they’re reasonably close to new, not faded, and are well constructed. I don’t necessarily expect to find a treasure trove in my size (like I did at that Chicago Goodwill several years ago), but I’m much more likely to stick with it if I’m finding some indication of quality items.

If I don’t find anything that seems of reasonable quality, or if I only find maybe one item in forty or fifty that looks worthwhile, I leave the store and often don’t look back.

The trick is to investigate lots of Goodwill stores, consignment shops, and secondhand stores in your area with these tactics. You should fully expect that some of them are going to be of poor quality and not worth visiting again.

However, if you’re like me, you’ll eventually find a series of stores that you’re happy to visit time and time again because the prices are excellent and you often find incredible discounts on nearly-new stuff. Such discoveries are well worth the time invested in finding them.

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