How to Find the Best Thrift Stores

4 Steps to Identifying the Best Thrift Stores

woman leaving thrift store with vintage lamp
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The best thrift store tips apply to nearly every shop, but the best thrift stores (for you) to shop vary. If you live in a small city, the choice is easy. Shop all of them. That’s not doable in a large urban area with lots of thrift shops. You might make it to all of them eventually, but not with the frequency crucial to getting great thrift store finds.

To narrow it down to the best thrift stores for you, find the answers to these four questions:

1. What Are You Hoping to Find?

The first step is deciding what you're hoping to buy. You can't identify your best thrift store options if you don't know what you want.

You don't have to make a detailed list of individual items, but narrow it down to something like: recently released books, craft supplies, vintage jewelry, and retro furniture.

Now that you know what you're looking for, you can figure out which thrift stores are the most likely to have it. That's where the other three factors come into play.

2. Where Does the Thrift Store's Merchandise Comes From?

The source of the merchandise matters because different sources yield different types of merchandise. There are three primary sources of thrift store merchandise:

  • donations made at the thrift store or at donation stations within the neighborhood
  • donations collected elsewhere and distributed to the thrift store
  • purchased merchandise

The easiest thrift stores to evaluate are those where the merchandise is donated directly to those specific stores or to nearby donation stations or drop boxes. Because you know which neighborhoods the donations come from, you can analyze the types of goods those residents are most likely to give.

It's harder when the donations are collected elsewhere  -- at a central donation station or multiple locations scattered throughout the city -- and then distributed to two or more thrift stores. You have to find out if the goods are distributed randomly or if different merchandise types are sent to different stores.

For-profit thrift store chains frequently stock their shelves by purchasing goods donated to non-profit organizations. Individually owned, single-location thrift stores may also purchase goods from yard sales, (including leftovers) or classified sellers.

The latter function more like single-stall flea markets or junk malls than traditional thrift stores. As with donated goods, your job is to find out whether purchased merchandise is distributed randomly or designated for specific thrift store locations.

3. Where the Thrift Store is Located?

A thrift store's location matters as it relates to the merchandise source. 

When the merchandise is donated in the neighborhood where the thrift store is located, shop stores in the neighborhoods most likely to donate what you want to buy. If you're looking for newish clothing and home accessories from upscale mall stores, for example, opt for suburban thrift stores in neighborhoods with lots of upscale, single-family new construction. 

If donated or purchased merchandise is distributed by type to thrift stores in specific neighborhoods, shop the ones where they send the type of goods you want. The time you invest in finding out pays off if you don't have to wade through stacks of toys and onsies when you're actually shopping for books and vintage lamps.

4. Who Else Shops There?

When donated or purchased merchandise is distributed randomly, the best way to increase your odds of scoring something good at the thrift store is to evaluate who else shops there. Then, go where there's less competition for the things your want or find out when the goods arrive and make sure you get there first.