second hand shopper’s guide to: secondhand shopping!

(DISCLAIMER: The following information is all based on my personal experiences of charity shopping throughout the UK. A lot is opinion and speculation, and none is intended to offend, merely illuminate.)

Or more specifically, charity shopping. Because we really need to focus here…

So, I’ve been a secondhand fiend for over a decade now. I started trawling the charity shops with my friend Chrissie during our sixth form days – looking for an alternative to the affordable high street stores everyone in school favoured and the uniform look they therefore churned out. Instead, I opted for 70s cordurouy skirts and belted tartan coats, dresses that could be shortened to mini to wear with my Oh-So-90s platform knee boots, lace-edged slips and camis dyed bright colours to wear to the pub, and old-man trousers in seersucker or tweed worn with Converse rip-offs or faux Birkenstocks.

This was not a stage of my fashion development upon which I look back with pride or pleasure…

Still, over the years I’ve become something of a charity shop pro. I can walk into one and spot the bargains hidden amongst the trash. I can go out with a shopping list in mind and know exactly how to sniff out exactly the items I’m looking for. And I can put a fancy dress look together without having to stray into costume shop territory. It’s quite a skill to have developed, and one I’d love to help my readers to develop too!

Opportunity and break down

Lots of successful thrifters will tell you never to pass a charity shop without just nipping inside. I know that this is not realistic. Certainly, be opportunistic if you’ve the time and the inclination – but never try to thrift if you’re not in the mood. It won’t work, and you’ll leave disheartened. Instead, set aside time for charity shopping. Whether it’s a whole day, a couple of hours, a lunch break or just a trip into your favourite outlet, you’ll enjoy it much more if you’ve set yourself up beforehand.

I also find it helps to go into shops with an idea of the kind of thing I’m looking for. This isn’t to the exclusion of other bargains, but encourages sense of purpose rather than aimless drifting. When the new season style starts appearing in magazines, I will tear out items I like and make a list of certain looks I’d like to recreate. Successful charity shopping requires an understanding of your own personal style, as well as of the components that make up a whole look. So, rather than looking for that specific hunting red jacket and those exact lace-up boots, jot down elements that make up the equestrian look – browns, reds and creams, tweeds and wools, single-lapel suit jackets, leather gloves… and use this as a mental tick list. Flexibility is key here – you’re unlikely to find a brown tweed, knee-length, pleated, high-waisted skirt (although stranger things have happened…) but you might find a knee-length Harris tweed skirt, or a high-waisted, pleated brown kilt… Think in colours, shapes and materials rather than in specific pieces.

Your kind of charity shop

The key to charity shopping is in getting to know which stores suit your needs and tastes. Different high streets and environments foster different types of donations and pricing policies, so understanding location is key to successful thrifting.

Choose the areas in which you shop acording to the kinds of goods you’re hoping to find.  The pricing within charity shops can range from literally pennies to hundreds of pounds, depending on the label and clientele donations draw in. So, in Alderley Edge – favoured dwelling place of footballers and former Hollyoaks stars – I have seen designer labels (Chloe, Marc Jacobs, Moschino Cheap & Chic) listed for £100-200 with the tags still on. There you’ll find designer handbags, shoes and clothes, perhaps worn once and at a fraction of their selling price.

Meanwhile, towns with upper-middle class environs such as Chester and Kenilworth might offer the likes of Jaeger, L K Bennett, Karen Millen – top-end high street brands – within the £10-30 bracket. Middle-middle class towns such as Leamington and Stafford are real goldmines, as they provide the best of both worlds, with all elements of the high street, from Select to Ted Baker mixed in with the rare designer find.

If you want true vintage at bargain basement prices, you’ll need to exploit the rougher areas – city centre outskirts are goldmines in this arena. You’ll have to learn to brave the smelliest of shops and attack the mankiest of rails, and to recognise the potential in uncleaned and unironed items. These shops are usually run by folks who don’t necessarily know what they’re looking at when it comes to vintage, and frequented by those with no interest in retro style. Prices remain low, the vintage bargains stay on the shelves, and you have the opportunity to really clean up. These are the shops to visit for 60s and 70s retro – boxed velvet bow ties and shirt fronts for the men and unopened seamed nylons for the ladies, as well as the occasional, rarer 50s find. It was in one such shop that I scored a vintage Biba jacket for a measly 75p!

The holy grail of thrifting locations is the working-class high street situated near to an upper-middle class area – particularly if the high street is on a through-route to the city centre. While the shops themselves price for the local clientele, the donations often come in from further afield, from generous types who would rather give their goods to the shops they feel have more need than their local, over-priced Oxfam.

As a rule, the better sorted and staffed a shop, the better the stock and the higher the prices. So, the new “boutique style” stores are likely to charge in the environs of £14.99, for, say a Next workwear dress, against £5.99 in a shabbier-looking shop. The key question to ask yourself is, can you face rifling through racks of cheaper clobber to find your bargain, or would you rather pay that little extra to know that your dress has been thoroughly cleaned, lovingly ironed, and made as accessible and easy to find as possible? For many, starting out in the nicer shops, which feel more akin to T K Maxx than thrift, allows you to progress to shabbier shops once you’ve developed an eye for the racks.

Oh, and if you are frequenting the higher class of shop, keep an eye out for Atmosphere (Primark) goods priced at more than the original asking price!

Charity shop policy

As well as location, you’ll need an understanding of how individual charities work. Oxfam sends a lot of stock to a central location to be sorted, and to ensure nothing is underpriced. In fact, a lot of charities do this now, at the very least for stock they’re not entirely sure about. Oxfam Books, on the other hand, has recently started to use AbeBooks to price their stock in store (it pays to keep your ears open when charity shopping too – the staff can offer great insight to the behind-the-scenes workings of a company: I overheard this snippet in a training session in Oxfam Books in Leamington a couple of weeks ago!). As a rule, the smaller the charity, the less likely they are to employ a central pricing policy.

For this reason, I often have more luck in local, independent charity shops over centralised big names. Hospice shops in particular are great for bargains, particularly those situated in less wealthy areas, as items are priced at local rates. They also seem to pull in decent stock, as do-gooders (like myself) like to give to local causes!

Top tips for: Clothing

  • Learn your labels. Do you know what Secret Possessions, Papaya and Evie are worth? Don’t be duped into over-paying for something you could pick up more cheaply, brand-spanking new in the local mall.
  • But, don’t be put off something because of the label. Yes, it’s a Matalan dress, but if it fits like a dream and doesn’t look cheap, does it really matter?!
  • Check for rips, holes etc carefully before buying. If a seam is torn, it’s easily fixed, but a hole in the middle of a shirt is less so.
  • But do be creative – if you love an item with a hole, consider applique or adding a band of fabric or ribbon detail. Or, if something has a stain on the hem, ask yourself whether you could shorten it. My favourite red cord skirt was bought in a charity shop back in 1997. In 2005 I spilled an entire pot of liquid superglue on my lap. Which is why the skirt is now embellished with a huge applique flower!
  • Always check for armpit staining and smells. I know, sounds horrible, but neither will come out, no matter how you wash them. And trust me, there is nothing worse than getting a beautiful vintage jacket home and wearing it for the first time, only to discover the delightful aroma of someone else’s sweat surrounding you the moment you warm up. The trick to check for smells is simple (though not an exact science) and quite disgusting (the squeamish may wish to skip onto the next point now…) and involves rubbing the armpit area on the item in question between your hands for a few minutes to get it nice and warm. I know several thrifters who carry hand sanitiser with them for this very reason.
  • Always check the “bad taste” and fancy dress rails (particularly relevant in student areas!): one woman’s trash is another woman’s treasure! (And it was the 50p bad taste rail that provided my beautiful 70s velvet, circle skirt back in my own student days!)

Top tips for: Crafting supplies

  • Learn the locals – know which shops sell notions and which don’t bother with them. Save the Children on Regents Street in Leamington, for example, has notions galore in clear plastic box shelves at the back of the store, not to mention piles of vintage sewing and knitting patterns, vintage fabrics and balls of wool. Meanwhile, Age Concern, at the bottom of Brunswick Street, has a huge tin of buttons and beads, and more cross-stitch magazines that you can shake a quick-unpick at!
  • Don’t be afraid to ask. Many charity shops keep knitting needles, crochet hooks, etc. out back for safety reasons. Equally, you’ll often find only a fraction of their wool selection actually on display. Ask whether they’ve anything in – and don’t be surprised if a volunteer appears with a suitcase or bin bag full of goodies for you to rifle through!
  • If you’re looking for buttons, don’t forget to check out the clothes too: a tatty looking cardigan might be bobbled beyond redemption, but the buttons might be exactly what you’ve been looking for!
  • Equally, don’t rule out clothes and bedding for other projects. Barely worn pajama tops make lovely soft single pillow cases and often come in delightful gingham or vintage patterns. Bedding can offer great scrap for retro-inspired patchworking and bunting. If you just LOVE that 70s shirt, consider making a cushion cover with it (you can even utilise the existing shirt-front fastening), and just think what a lovely tea cosy that kitchsy toddler’s dress would turn into!

Top tips for: Books

  • Keep a list of titles you’ve been looking for in your wallet – and don’t forget to tick them off as you find them. If you’re a book fiend like I, you’re likely to end up with more than a few duplicates if you don’t.
  • Check that all pages are in tact, and check for scribbles.
  • Dust jackets often seriously increase the value of a book.
  • Meanwhile, inscriptions can seriously lower the value. Unless, like me, you’re sentimental – I actively look for books with inscriptions, because I like my books to have history! If I ever have to sell any I fear I’ll be horribly disappointed by their actual value.
  • If you’re collecting, choose one or two series and stick to them. Otherwise, well, you end up with exceedingly full bookshelves!

Final word

The key attitudes you’ll need for successful charity shopping are perseverance, flexibility and acceptance. You’ll need to persevere if you want to find a bargain. You’ll need to be flexible enough to work with what you find. And you’ll need to accept that, no matter how good a shopper you are, you’ll always pass over bargains at times. I have been shopping with fellow thrifters who’ve pulled items out I wouldn’t have looked twice at, only to find them a perfect fit, perfect colour and perfect price (take the green Limited Collection dress that Lauren forced me to try on a thrifting adventure in March). The universal truth is, when it comes to charity shopping, two pairs of eyes are better than one.

So, dear readers – are you thrift-shop-savvy? Do you agree with my points? What are your tops tips for secondhand shopping? I’d love to hear from you!

Useful links:

Charity Shop Tourism
Blind Lemon’s vintage and charity shop finder app – only on iPhone as yet, but coming to Blackberry, Symbian, Windows and Android very soon!


8 thoughts on “second hand shopper’s guide to: secondhand shopping!

  1. Thanks for taking the time to write this excellent guide – I’ve completely grossed out friends with the armpit test before!

  2. This is a very interesting post, and the point about bigger charity shops is a good one. Oxfam’s pricing is ridiculous and the quality doesn’t always reflect the price. In Oxfam books the other day I was looking at India Knight’s book about living thriftily, and found it was £6.99! This is far too much for a second hand book that isn’t collectible. Like you, I have had much better luck in smaller shops and especially local Hospice shops. I think the Myton Hospice shop in Leamington is the best for books and unusual clothes, and the branch in Warwick has an excellent dress rail where you’re more likely to find Monsoon or Boden than Evie or Atmosphere, but at low prices.

    I’m also going to shout out for the Recycling Warehouse at the tip on Prince’s Drive, which is an absolute treasure trove for books and homewares. I collect Illy espresso and cappuccino cups and found one there today for 20p!

  3. Thanks for some great tips! I read others blogs who do thrifting so well and yet whenever I go into the charity shops I can never find anything….although I do rue the day I didn’t buy this highly embellished black blouse that could’ve been turned into a 40s number!

    My local “village” (speech marks because it is technically called a village but has become a suburb I suppose!) seems to have some good items but they’re priced mid range and not what I want to pay. Plus, like you say, there is usually an abundance of Evie or Atmosphere! I don’t think I’ve come across any charity shops in my area that sell things for pence rather than pounds! :o(

    I need to head north! LOL!

  4. Such a great guide! I would like to add some helpful tips from my years of charity shopping, but I think you have covered everything, so instead I will tell you about my greatest bargain.

    I found some 1960s examples of Arne Jacobsen’s Series 7 chair. There are cheap copies of these everywhere, but I always had my heart set on having a ‘real’ one. I was so excited to find two in a local charity shop. As I was paying a lady came out of the back of the shop and said they had four more but the condition wasn’t very good. I had them all and for only £20, it was a bargain and I paid them twice what they asked for as I was so happy.

  5. I’m new to 2nd hand shopping, bought my first 2nd item of clothing at the weekend. Your guide is well timed for a beginner like me. Thanks.

  6. Fantastic guide! I’ve been doing charity shopping since I was a wee child traipsing round after my dad on record collecting expeditions, & this covers almost everything I’ve learnt about buying second-hand clothes.

  7. Pingback: How to charity shop « Mannequin World

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