Updated on 12.22.11

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

Trent Hamm

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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  1. Riki says:

    “What happens is that people in the rich part of town often have more money than sense . . . ”

    Man alive! You really have it out for people who happen to have some money. It’s tired, Trent.

  2. Aerin says:

    I agree with Trent – a person with more disposable income is more likely to donate items that have a lot of life left in them.

    Also, it helps to keep a running list (in your head or in your wallet, depending on how good your memory is) of things you want to buy IF you can find them used. I am slowly replacing kitchen tools this way, and have found a small food processor and a nesting set of pyrex mixing bowls recently. Not things I was in a hurry to get, so I could afford to wait until I found them second-hand.

    Finally, if you are clothes shopping, keep in mind that you are not likely to find things that match a very specific set of criteria. If you go looking for a kelly green v-neck sweater with bracelet-length sleeves and ribbon detail at the neck, you will likely be disappointed. However, if you go looking for a “nice sweater that goes with at least 2 pairs of pants that I already own and that I can wear to work” you are more likely to find something!

  3. Another Katie says:

    I agree with a lot of the tips, but I wonder if Trent has actually met a wealthy person who donates clothes after using them once or twice. Most people I know who live in the rich part of town got there by careful money management and frugality.

  4. Gretchen says:

    I not only find thrift stores generically more picked over now that they have lost their stigma, but the ones in high end areas to be overpriced.

    This is the third post I’ve read since the “fed-ex man can’t afford this kind of neighborhood” that’s been filled with judging (out of three). Not a good percentage.

  5. Carole says:

    In our area the thrift stores aren’t in the “rich” part of town. They’re where the “poor’ can get to them easily. Which is as it should be. I sometimes wonder if it’s fair for people who can afford to pay retail, but choose not to, to snap up the good stuff before the truly needy can.

  6. Daniel says:

    I have found some great deals at Goodwill, including a $1000 wool suit, many nice Stafford and Brooks Brothers shirts, and even some Ermenegildo Zegna stuff.

    It is not just rich people who donate. Up until 6 months ago, I would buy stuff that was just too big for me (not sure why). Since then I have donated all that stuff so I do not look frumpy, and so others can enjoy it. Also, most of my replacement clothes have come from the thrift stores. I love them, and my wife and me will often go looking at Goodwill together for a good time.

  7. Tizzle says:

    To expand on this idea: if you’re a short person, go where immigrants live and donate, they are often shorter. Or, as it were, if you’re tall, don’t. Or if you only like trendy clothing (guilty), then don’t go to a store where frumpy people donate.

    I find all goodwills in my state/county to be overpriced. I recommend getting on their email list and going when there is a sale. And losing weight, because f*ing skinny friends of mine always find great stuff! :)

  8. Steven says:

    “people in the rich part of town often have more money than sense”

    Oh good God, Trent. Get over yourself.

  9. deRuiter says:

    “What happens is that people in the rich part of town often have more money than sense,” Was this drilled into you by your parents who were not successful due to their poor money management? A. They were wrong. B. Get over it. Read “The Millionaire Next Door” and learn that “The Rich” in America are usually self made millionaires due to hard work and thrift. People who are stupid don’t hang onto their money long, and people who are rich are usually smart enough to earn the money, invest it and conserve it.
    “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.” Still ending sentences with a prepositions? Gotta love that passion for writing, and the new bosses who don’t care about grammar either, only the myriad ads.
    As for shopping Goodwill, and even better, locally run thrifts in upscale areas (I’ve mentioned hospital thrift shops run by doctors’ wives), of course you go to where rich people donate. When John Dillenger was asked why he robbed banks, he said, “That’s where the money is.”
    Carole #5. Middle and upper class people who shop the thrifts do so because they AREN’T getting government largess in the form of welfare, WIC, Aid to Dependent Children, Section 8 housing vouchers, free health care, free Government cheese, ad nauseum. They’re the ones who are working, and producing income so the non producers get to live a relaxed lifestyle with no pressure from work. All those dismal government figures about “The Poverty Class” are quoted BEFORE the government largess (i. e. taxes confiscated from the working class to give to the non productive, and no I don’t mean special needs children.) The Government is very careful not to publish the income figures of “The Poor” AFTER adding in all the benefits of being poor in America. The poor in America have cars, washing machines, dryers, color flat screens, and we know from the news a lot of them now have Air Jordan sneakers. Now you want to take access to thrifts away from the working / productive class? Move to Cuba kid and see how fifty years of Communism has been for a once prosperous country. Look at North Korea / South Korea from a satelite. One country (guess which!) is dazzlingly lit, the other country (guess which!) is dark except for a small cluster of lights around the center of government. Look at the difference between the Eastern section of Germany (still recovring slowly from Communism) and the bustling Western portion of Germany with all the industry, expensive, well maintained housing, and prosperity, and hoardes of East Germans who fled their depressed portion of the country as soon as the wall went down. You punish the rich long enough and hard enough and they will move taking their money with them, or they will stop producing and concentrate their efforts on conserving their cash, and the economy will stall.

  10. deRuiter says:

    Take that look at the side by side Koreas AT NIGHT, of course!

  11. Kate says:

    I agree that this is a sweeping generalization: “…people in the rich part of town often have more money than sense.” While it is often true, it can be said of any income group.
    deRuiter–your argument about the poor being aided and abetted in the USA linked to comparisons of countries makes no sense. Is Rush one of your favorite radio personalities?

  12. MP3 says:

    deRuiter – it must be tough to go through life with such a chip on your shoulder.

    After everything America has been through the last 4 years regarding the economy, will you at least admit that the deck has been stacked against a good many people for a very long time, and the game is rigged for those who are already wealthy and want all the subsidies (tax cuts for the wealthy) to stay that way.

    Remember, trickle down is just a theory and it’s been shown not to work.

  13. Jules says:

    @ deRuiter: Oh you poor little rich man, victimized by all those nasty welfare-grubbing poor people! If only everybody worked as hard as you did at jobs that don’t exist because the super-rich screwed up the economy…oh wait, that won’t work. Let’s try again. *ahem* If only poor people didn’t spend their money on $200 sneakers, they’d be able to get ahead in this world, never mind the fact that average discretionary spending in the US decreased by about 20% in the last 30 years…oh wait, sorry. Can’t let facts get in the way, right? All righty then, one more time: oh you poor little rich man, getting screwed over because the government thinks that everybody should have access to health care and no responsibility for their own health! Why, the government is SO TOTALLY in the pocket of the little people–they should really pay more attention to the big corporations, because they have the welfare of the country in mind!

    In the meantime: As for shopping in thrift stores, I agree with Trent that how lucky you are depends entirely on which neighborhood you shop in. But I disagree on rich neighborhoods having better stuff. It depends, IME, on the selectivity of the store. Where I live, thrift stores are all privately owned and operated, so the merchandise they have out tends to be pretty nice across the board.

  14. valleycat1 says:

    deRuiter seems to have the same knee-jerk reaction to people on welfare that Trent has to anyone with more money than he has and to people who like to buy stuff without exhaustive analysis.

  15. larabelle says:

    Learn to sew!!! I have found lots of really good quality clothing at the GoodWill as well as other thrift stores that was either too small, too large, too long or too short. I alter it to fit. I look GREAT and save money.

  16. PawPrint says:

    “You punish the rich long enough and hard enough and they will move taking their money with them, or they will stop producing and concentrate their efforts on conserving their cash, and the economy will stall.”

    I feel like the economy has stalled, and the rich certainly have not been punished in the last decade. CEOS receive millions after running companies into the ground and laying off the middle class workers. The middle class workers receive jobless benefits and are criticized for being “lazy” when they can’t find one of the mythical jobs that are being created by the wealthy getting great tax breaks.

  17. I have to say on Thrift store shopping that I do shop thrift stores for a number of reasons. For young children, the child tends to often times outgrow the clothing before they wear them out. If the family only has one child, then they often try to rummage the outgrown clothes or donate it, and you can find some great children’s clothes at thrift stores. Now that my son is out of the smaller sizes at 14, it is harder. For adults, there are many who donate clothing because it fit wrong, or they lost weight, or gained weight, so you can find adult clothing in good shape too. But I think it is a bit harder. Oh, also when someone dies, the widow/spouse will often times donate the clothing that may even still have tags on it. So you can find good adult clothing, but I do find it harder. For me though, I tend to look for jeans at my local thrift stores, as I like nonstretch and sits at waste jeans which are getting difficult to find at regular stores, but is easier to find at thrift stores. The other reason I was thrift shopping more, as I was loosing weight and not at my final weight/size. IE why pay $20 to $30 for a pair of jeans when you are only going to be able to wear them for 2 to 6 months?

    What I can’t stand though is that I sometimes find stained clothing, or clearly wornout clothing at thrift stores and rummages. I really wish they would weed this stuff out. And I hate thrift stores that don’t have a try on room. How can I pick out clothing as I am loosing weight without trying it on?

    Lastly, if you are going thrift store shopping, plan a fair amount of time for it. As it takes awhile to find that diamond in the rough.

  18. SLCCOM says:

    Jules, EVERYONE without exception will die eventually. Those who die young of trauma run up humongous bills at the time of the unwanted event that injures and kills them, unless they have the courtesy to die immediately. Everyone else will get sick and eventually die. It doesn’t matter how well they eat, how much they exercise, how often they get their immunizations, etc.

    So, dude, unless you plan to off yourself in a cost-effective way, get off your high horse on the issue of access to medical care.

  19. donna says:

    where are my 2 comments?

  20. Jules says:

    @ SLCCOM: It amazes me that people can miss sarcasm in something as blatantly non-sensical as my retort to deRuiter.

  21. SLCCOM says:

    Well, Jules, it wasn’t coming across to me as sarcasm or nonsensical. Sorry if I misinterpreted.

  22. Debbie M says:

    @Skirnir, some thrift stores do have dressing rooms; bummer that yours don’t. We have a huge garage sale in my area once a year with no dressing rooms–what I do is wear something tight or at least thin that you can try things over. I’ve also seen people trying things on under their skirts.

    Frankly, I have trouble finding clothes I want everywhere. If I don’t like the styles or colors of the season, a mall is useless to me. I actually prefer the variety at thrift stores, and of courses the prices are much better. The part I don’t like is how some thrift stores spray everything with perfume, so you have to smell it all the way home until you get it into the washer.

    The prices mean you can take more risks, too–if it turns out something doesn’t wear as well as you hoped, it’s not as tragic as if you had spent ten times as much.

    I don’t really have tips for thrift stores other than keeping a list of things you are looking for so you don’t forget to check for those things.

  23. Brittany says:

    “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.”

    “A person with more disposable income is more likely to donate items that have a lot of life left in them.”

    Two ways of saying the same thing, one incredibly rude and judgmental, one straightforward and factual-sounding.

  24. Great advice for any second hand store! I’ve recently found two near my house that had really great items for amazing prices, I am six feet tall, so any clothing store that has pants in my size that I like will get my repeat biz! I am sooo over the mall, just a bunch of over hyped, over priced crap, I be happy if I never have to go there again

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