Secondhand Shop Like a Pro with These Tips

Melissa Daniels

Image via Getty Images

My introduction to secondhand shopping came early: I have an older sister, and hand-me-downs were our way of life. As I grew into making my own fashion choices, my sister and I would often head to the Goodwill store and spend the afternoon sorting through racks of clothes.

There, the joy of discovery was always afoot—if we went shopping at the long-gone local mall, everything looked pretty much the same. But at the thrift store, thumbing through color-sorted clothes of every material and many eras, it was like a treasure hunt through time. I didn’t know it then, but I was building the habit of making sustainable fashion choices.

I’m far from alone in my enjoyment of thrift store shopping: online marketplace ThredUp projects the resale industry is expected to more than double from $20 billion to $41 billion in 2022. In addition to finding one-of-a-kind pieces, the personal finance benefit is substantial. When I started working as a professional journalist, workwear brands like Banana Republic, J. Crew, and White House Black Market were far out of my entry-level salary price range. Thrifting (and some key clearance rack additions) allowed me to make sure my bills were paid, and I could still treat myself to items from the same stores I couldn’t otherwise afford.

But it wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles in 2016 that I realized how deep the secondhand rabbit hole goes. In a city with plenty of fashionistas, resale, thrift, and vintage stores offer an amass of high-quality items and brands– think Joe’s Jeans for $9 at a Hollywood Goodwill, a $90 Rebecca Minkoff bag at a Pasadena Crossroads, or worn-but-worthy Ferragamo pumps for $20 in Echo Park. In addition to donation-based stores like Goodwill, Salvation Army or Council Thrift Shops, you’ll find plenty of independently run vintage and secondhand shops that specialize in funky items and offer super-low prices. I’m particularly fond of the rummage party that is JetRag’s Sunday sale, where the La Brea-facing parking lot gets filled with heaps of clothing you can sort through for $1 per item.

If you’re looking for higher-end items without the treasure hunt, a good bet are consignment stores, where sellers get a portion of the sale price. There are also flea markets: a once-a-month destination like the Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena, just north of L.A., for example, has a plethora of vintage vendors to sort through (where else can you find racks of lacey and ruffley actually vintage gowns and a cute fast fashion romper on the same rack?), while a smaller weekly event like Melrose Trading Post, a well-known celebrity hangout, has plenty of quirky finds (a visiting friend picked up a pink faux fur vest on a whim that decked her out for the rest of her vacation).

Possibly the biggest benefit to thrift shopping is saving yourself (and the planet) a spree through the mall where cheap-to-produce fast fashion pieces abound. By reclaiming those vintage finds, you’re helping to reduce the often-sketchy resources needed to produce those pieces.

“Part of the sustainability of buying secondhand clothes is that as a consumer, you aren’t contributing to the environmental hazards of creating a new piece of clothing,” says Jen Zmrhal, the co-founder of Los Angeles-based children’s vintage seller Storied. “You help to save the 2,000 gallons of water that it takes to make a pair of jeans by simply buying a vintage pair of Levis.”

While a single Saturday trip to the Goodwill won’t put an end to the churn-and-burn of fast fashion, buying secondhand is one way for individual consumers to make a difference: a shirt that’s donated and re-purchased, or scouted out by a vintage hunter like Zmrhal, also stays out of landfills. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says landfills received 10.5 million tons of municipal solid waste textiles in 2016 alone.

And you can find great resell stores and unique finds anywhere, especially if you know where to look. While your usual suspects—like Goodwill–are nationwide and flea markets can pop up practically anywhere, you can often find the best deals (and the coolest pieces) by getting creative. Zmrhal has scouted pieces for Storied at a vintage army surplus warehouse located just outside of Los Angeles where she once found $10 vintage army jackets that she gave as Christmas gifts. “It’s filled with piles of old military clothes and you can get lost in there for hours,” she says.

Resell and vintage shops are also a growing part of the online retail space. As a busy working mom, much of Zmrhal’s personal secondhand shopping is done online. She recommends curated sites like Imparfaite, Virgo Downtown, and Shop Future. I’ve been slowly dipping my toe into the larger marketplaces like ThredUP and Poshmark. These sites offer the convenience of being able to sort by size, brand, and style– something you can’t do while digging through $1 bins in a vintage shop. With Poshmark, where the sellers are individuals who run a “closet”, you can even negotiate deals for multiple items.

It takes some investigating, but finding the best goods often comes down to finding that perfect thrift store location. Not all are created equal, even if they carry the same nationwide name. Two of my favorite pieces, an $8 flower-patterned wool coat from Free People and a cream-colored Levi’s silk blouse I can dress up or down, both came from the same Goodwill. I suspect it may be due in part to a nearby reseller location where people can sell clothes, and hopeful sellers may be donating their non-purchased goods. Location, location, location!

You can also find even better deals by knowing when to shop. Many thrift stores run regular sales and clearance deals at the end of a season. I often try to make it to my local Goodwill on a Thursday— it’s when all items tagged with the color of the week are only $1!

In addition to scouting out the best locations, a solid thrifting trip requires an open mind. Above all things, a shopper must be curious and patient enough to sort through racks of clothing not organized by style or size. It’s also helpful to be willing to try on sizes you might not usually reach for, since sizes can vary greatly by designer and have drastically changed over time.

It’s also important to carefully inspect an item before taking it home. Just because something is only a few dollars doesn’t mean you’ll be any less disappointed if you find a rip or stain after purchase. That also goes for checking for any laundry instructions. I’ve brought home a silk blouse or two only to realize they were dry clean only, which means those items found their way back to a thrift store within a year.

Recently, I went to three different secondhand stores looking for a pair of black closed-toe shoes to wear to a wedding next month. So far, I haven’t found anything that fits. I wouldn’t blame someone for calling it quits and heading to a DSW, a Nordstrom Rack, or the clearance section at Macy’s to spend $40 on a new pair. But I’m going to spend a few more hours hunting at the surprise-filled secondhand stores of Los Angeles, or searching through online marketplaces to find a fellow size 7 looking to free up some room her in her closet. I might save some money, and I’ll definitely stay mindful of where my belongings are coming from.