4 tips for thrift store shopping

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In a tough economy, everything frugal is “in.” That includes roaming the aisles of consignment shops and thrift stores.

There are currently more than 25,000 resale, consignment shops and thrift stores in the United States, according to the National Association of Resale & Thrift Shops in St. Clair Shores, Mich.

Savvy thrift-store shoppers know how to distinguish a great product at a bargain price from a mediocre purchase. Following are four things to think about before shopping for that steal of a deal.

Compare prices

It’s tough to find bargains at second-hand stores if you are not familiar with the average retail price of particular items.

Before heading to a thrift store, comparison shop at brand-name stores or online so you can see what a product or item of clothing might be worth today.

Because most items at thrift or consignment stores have been used, the price generally should be lower.

“As time passes, the prices are reduced, so it pays to come back.”

Karen Schlusberg owns The Maizie Consignment Boutique in Scarsdale, N.Y. Items at her store typically sell for one-third their cost when new, she says.

Schlusberg urges thrift-store shoppers to be ambitious when looking for merchandise.

“Look for great designers and quality merchandise,” she says.

At her store, a Chanel silk scarf originally priced at $360 might sell for $160. Other typical sales prices include a Nicole Miller black gown for $10, a Burberry skirt for $3 and an Oscar de la Renta sweater for $16.

Wait for sales days and price reductions

Thrift and consignments have low prices every day. However, they also have special days when merchandise is marked down even further.

“Learn your local stores’ sales schedules,” says Michael Gold, the Vero Beach, Fla.-based owner of TheThriftShopper.com, an online directory of thrift stores.

For example, some stores may cut prices 50 percent on Columbus Day, while others reduce all prices by 10 percent on certain weekdays.

Seasonal bargains also abound, according to Gold.

“When you buy items out of season, you’ll always get a better deal,” Gold says. “Look for gardening tools in the winter and fur coats in the summer.”

Schlusberg says that in many cases, a little patience can pay off in even bigger bargains.

“As time passes, the prices are reduced, so it pays to come back and see if that handbag you wanted is still there,” she says. “It could be 20 percent less than it was last week.”

Don’t be afraid to haggle. Sharon Todd, owner of the online shop Once in a Blue Moon Online Thrift and Consignment Store, says one way to get a discount is simply by naming the price.

Her online store offers a “name your price sale” policy that allows customers to control how much they pay — although, as Todd acknowledges, “surprisingly, not many customers do.”

Make sure you really want the item

Typically, shoppers at thrift stores are not allowed to return items after purchase. So, it’s wise to look over the merchandise carefully and be certain you are happy with it before buying.

“It’s important for shoppers to inspect clothing before purchasing because flaws can often go unnoticed,” Gold says.

Stores generally wash clothes and inspect for stains, tears, missing buttons or broken zippers. However, procedures and polices vary from store to store, and some shops are less vigilant than others.

“If an item is in need of repair and you still want to purchase it, ask the manager for a discount,” Gold says. “They might be willing to reduce the price.”

Shop early and often

It’s usually best to shop early in the day or whenever the new shipment typically comes in. This allows you to have first pick of a fresh selection.

Also, visit the store frequently. Many shops have new items arriving nearly every day. Gold says thrift stores vary in their policies of inventory rotation.

“Some thrift shops never remove old items that don’t sell, but most shops use a colored tag system with a four- to six-week inventory rotation and sale schedule,” he says.

Schlusberg says her consignment boutique receives more than 100 items each day. Typically, she gets a mixture of 60 percent used and 40 percent new items.

“Many people find collectibles, especially vintage jewelry pieces that their grandmothers used to have,” Schlusberg says. “They find very unique things that they cannot get anywhere else.”

Gold recounts a story of one dogged shopper who may have found the bargain of a lifetime.

“There was a woman who found a Jackson Pollock painting at a thrift store and they made a movie out of the debate over whether it’s authentic or not,” Gold says.