The Tip Jar: Why thrift stores are an untapped goldmine

They are chock-full of bargains.

I wasn't expecting to find much when I went looking for bargains at the Salvation Army "Amazing Deals" Thrift Store in the North Loop this week, but five minutes in the store proved me wrong.

The ground floor of the store sells clothes "by the pound" ($1.49 per lb regularly, 99 cents on the day I went) and used electronics, furniture and kitchenware for ridiculously low prices.

Not just your knock-off brands either. Within a few minutes I'd found a new-looking Banana Republic sweater and a pair of American Eagle Outfitters jeans for less than a buck, and an Instant Pot that retails at $100 new for less than $5.

If buying secondhand isn't your thing you can head downstairs, where the store stocks a whole floor of new items they buy at discounted prices from retailers like Target – which includes clothing and new kitchen appliances (a new Crock Pot was $20, compared to $50 in Target).

I understand some of you may be reticent. The Salvation Army Twin Cities Marketing Director Michel Wong said there's a stigma involved with thrift shopping that seems somewhat unfair.

She says the SA's thrift stores are used by a broad range of shoppers, including the hard-up, students, vintage goods seekers and wealthy bargain hunters.

So if you've never gone thrifting before, either because you're nervous or don't know where to start, consider this a beginner's guide to finding some real diamond in the rough deals.

Know when to go

Knowing the best times to go doesn't just help you get the first refusal on new stock, it can also help you take advantage of discounts on already cheap stuff.

The Salvation Army, for example, runs 25 percent monthly and 50 percent weekly sales at its thrift stores, with the weekly sales starting on Monday and ending on Saturday, with discounted items identified by colored tags.

Other thrift stores will run similar discount deals, so it's worth following their social media pages to see what offers are on and when.

This is also useful for finding out any new stock the stores get in, giving you the chance to get down there ASAP when some decent merchandise hits the shelves.

Know what to buy

There are a few no-nos when it comes to thrift shopping. Don't buy mattresses or baby equipment secondhand. But if you're looking for some real value buys when you hit the store, here are a few things to look for: 

Cookware, particularly cast iron: Cast-iron skillets were built to last a lifetime and they get better with age. Organic Life suggests those built in the late 19th, early 20th Century are the best to snap up. New ones now cost anywhere from $15 to $200, so why not spend much less on something that's even better?

Glassware: Before forking out double figures on a mason jar, know that thrift shares are overflowing in an abundance of glass jars, vases and beverage glasses that will save you a bundle compared to buying new.

Wooden furniture: While Ikea has made a fortune out of making cheap but hardly robust furniture, thrift stores are excellent places to pick up vintage tables, chairs, sideboards, dressers and buffets that were manufactured back when they were made to last.

Books: Whether you're just looking for a good story or want some trendy, dog-eared books to fill your shelf, save yourself the trouble of buying from Barnes & Noble by checking out your local thrift store. (I'd still urge you to patronize your local independent bookseller, however.)

Clothes: Clothing can be hit or miss at thrift stores, but if you go in without high expectations and not looking for something really specific, there are bargains to be had. I suggest checking out this guide by GetRichSlowly about buying used clothes.

Research as you go

A smartphone is your best friend as you head around the shop floor. 

Why? Because it can tell you instantly how much you can expect to pay for equivalent items in regular retail stores, ergo you can figure how much of a bargain you're getting.

Damaged doesn't mean it's not valuable

If there's one thing I've learned from my wife furnishing our house is that nothing's irredeemable – particularly when it comes to home decor.

A scratched and dinged up table? Refinish and repaint it. Tarnished metal? A buffing and polishing could sort it out. Faulty lamp? Get it re-wired.

Freshome has 20 tips for anyone buying furniture secondhand, which you can check out here.

And if you're looking to make money, Buzzfeed has a guide of 26 ways to cash in by flipping thrift store pickups.

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