EXCLUSIVE: Tips on finding the best bargains in charity shops

How to restock your wardrobe from the charity shop: Experts reveal how homeless organisations have the most on-trend pieces and why you should visit weekly to find a gem

  • Fashion stylists share their top tips to snatching up a bargain at a charity shop
  • Experts recommend shopping in affluent areas to find the best items
  • December and April are the best times to find something in a thrift store
  • Check labels and seams, especially around the arms and crotch, before buying 
  • Washing with white wine vinegar and bicarb will remove stains and smells

Vintage clothes and sustainable products are growing in popularity among shoppers, especially in the UK. 

A survey, conducted by online marketplace OnBuy.com, found the UK, USA and Germany are the top three countries with the greatest interest in charity shops. 

Research found over 100,000 people search for second hand related topics a month, while almost 40,000 people are desperately on the hunt for their local thrift store every month.  

But how do you find the best charity shops, and know what to buy when you get there? 

Fashion stylists exclusively shared their top tips to snapping up a bargain, where exactly to hunt for great garments, and how to give their purchase a new lease of life with Femail.

 Word of mouth, as well as social media, are the best ways to find out where the most popular second-hand shops are (stock image)

Where to find the best charity shops

FoodWaterShoes founder Krista Canfield McNish insists word of mouth is the best way to locate well-stocked second hand stores, markets or vintage fares. 

The San Francsisco-based former PR will not only speak with locals, and fellow shoppers, but store owners too. 

She told us: ‘There are a few ways I typically come across my favorite haunts. When I bump into a fun thrift shop, I’ll typically ask what their favorite local haunts are. 

Top tips for charity shop shopping 

  • Shop in affluent areas
  • Go weekly. New stock is replenished often  
  • Try before you buy 
  • Check seams, holes and stains along the crotch and armpit 
  • Be confident when haggling
  • Stick to a set price if negotiating a price
  • If there is a smell, wash with white wine vinegar and bicarbonate of soda
  • Be patient because great steals are rare

‘For instance, when I walked into Pourquoi Moi in Milan, it afforded me the opportunity to chat with the shop owner. That conversation led me to another fabulous store, called Wait and See.

‘Instagram is another wonderful way I’ll uncover great local shopping finds.’ 

The founder of Mumala Club, Hester Grainger, who is from Reading, advised: ‘Finding the best areas for second hand shops isn’t as hard as it sounds. Think of the more affluent areas near you and head there. 

‘That way you’ll get better quality items. Get friendly with your staff in the local charity shops. That way when something fabulous comes in they will keep it to one side for you.’ 

Its all about timing

While it is down to each individual how frequently they want to go on a spending spree, at least two visits to a thrift store a year is a must. 

Shaunya said: ‘There are two times of the year you get really great stuff: December/ January when people are giving away for the tax deduction, and April when spring cleaning starts.’

While London-based eco-friendly businesswoman, Leila Vilvbert Stokes, who owns her namesake shop, believes more frequent shopping trips are needed because stock is always replenished. 

She said: ‘Shop often. You never know when good stuff is in store so doing quick regular visits to charity shops, flea markets and second-hand stores is the best way to get better garments.’  

The great thing about charity shops, or vintage sales, are that the garments are a one off, therefore do not be disheartened if one shopping trip is unsuccessful as the following week a restock could prove to be fruitful (stock image)

Where should you shop?

Blogger Jo Threlfall said that on-trend pieces are most likely to be found in charity shops that support homeless charities, because it’s a cause that encourages young people to donate.

If you’re wondering which charity shops – because youngsters will donate their clothes to organisations raising funds to help the homeless. 

She said: ‘In London I would recommend Shelter. The homelessness crisis is reaching heartbreaking levels, so people tend to donate. Traid also had an excellent selection, as well as Rokit or Beyond Retro. 

‘From personal experience, I would recommend thinking about the area and what the mentality of the locals might be. 

‘For example an area with an ageing population is likely to donate to hospice shops and cancer research, whilst younger areas will donate to homelessness shops and international causes.’ 

What to look for?  

Ensuring your purchases are free from holes, snags and stains is essential. Leila suggested: ‘I would advise to always try things on, and check the seams, especially hemlines, crotch, armpits to see if there are any threads loose, worn patches or holes.’ 

Katrina Victorino, who is the founder of Northampton based e-store Ellis James Designs – echoed Leila’s advice. 

She said: ‘Inspect the areas of the piece of clothing that would experience plenty of friction (under the arms for tops, between the thighs for bottoms) as those are the spots that would have high chances of pilling or discoloration or ripping, due to constant rubbing. It can reveal a lot about the quality of the fabric used.

‘Check for “do not wash” labels because these most likely mean that the items have never been laundered (therefore can be unhygienic), or that once you do wash them the colours will bleed into each other.’

Katrina insists patience is the key when thrift store shopping, as well as the price. 

Shoppers most frequently visit charity shops in search of vintage designer items, retro jeans, jackets and shirts. Stock picture

She continued: ‘Patience is very important. You aren’t going to find something right away, and most times it would require a good chunk of time sorting through racks and piles of clothing before you stumble on a Gucci shirt. But it all becomes worth it in the end, and the feeling is incredible when you find a great steal.

‘It’s important to really consider the overall cost you’re putting into a thrifted piece of clothing. More often than not if we find something cheap, we purchase it just because it’s a steal. So, step back and have a think about it. Would the additional cost for alteration make the item truly worth it?’

What items to keep an eye out for

Thrifty shoppers are desperate to find the vintage designer pieces when they are shopping, whether that is shoes, bags or clothes. 

People often have an eye for leather, biker, aviator, fur jackets, tweed blazers, Levi shorts or jeans, thick knitwear and glitzy tops too.

Katrina shared: ‘Look for cold weather items (sweaters, jackets, coats), because these tend to be pretty expensive in actual stores. Just make sure to be meticulous in looking for flaws/tears/discolorations before you purchase because sweaters can have a lot of pulling, and coats/jackets experience a lot of exposure to the elements.’ 

Jo said: ‘Most people tend to look for branded items in charity stores such as Ralph Lauren shirts, polo tops or designer bags.

‘However, I know some people who have managed to grab themselves some items which have never been worn before including some boots from Topshop.’

Leila believes the fabrics are the most important element when hunting for a new purchase in a second-hand retailer, more so than the actual garment. Stock picture

She added: ‘I tend to shop by fabric – so look at colours, patterns textures first, the look at shape and finally fit. 

‘A high street item isn’t going be better quality because it is £3 in a charity, so I would always look out for high quality labels. 

‘If you are lucky enough to be in a shop that arranges by size, obviously don’t bother looking in the section more than a size up or down. Don’t trust sizes but look at the piece itself – a baggy size S might fit a curvy M. More than anything, it is about your own personal taste.

‘Be creative and think outside the box. The number rule of charity shop shopping is to keep an open mind but know what suits you.

‘On the whole I think shoes/bags/accessories tend to sell well.’

While checking the label can reveal a lot more than whether the garment is designer or not. Hester said: ‘When buying pre-loved items, always check the labels so you can see how much it has been washed. If it’s faded then it’s obviously been worn a lot. 

‘Also check that seams are in tack and that zips work. Buttons can always be replaced and hems taken up. Don’t buy something unless you think you will wear it a lot and get a lot of love from it. Vintage and retro pieces can be kept because fashions always come back round.’

How to revamp your purchase

Shoppers often avoid charity shops and most commonly blame the ‘smell’ of pre-owned items as to why they avoid the stores, while others struggle to find their perfect fit or wallow over missing buttons –  but these can all be easily resolved.

Jo said: ‘Sometimes you’ll find an item in a charity shops or vintage shop that doesn’t fit your body quite right. But don’t be disheartened or feel like you can’t wear it! 

Sometimes you just need some guidance on some useful styling hacks which will transform the way the outfit looks on your body. For example I wear waist belts to help me cinch in my waist and allow baggy clothes such as dresses, jeans, shorts and skirts to fit my curvy but petite frame.’

Leila added: ‘Learn basic sewing – seriously it’s a lifesaver. It is such a shame it is not a more common skill. You will save so much money in the long term if you know how to put a button back on, do a rolled hem or close a hole in a seam. Belts solve a lot of problems as well. 

‘Unless you know how to make clothes or are willing to spend money on a tailor, don’t go anywhere near an item that has fit issues in the armholes or crotch.’

Discussing her solution for the odour of clothes, Hester shared: ‘I try to keep to natural materials, such as cotton or wool, because it’s easier to get smells out of them, as opposed to rayon or polyester, which is basically plastic and those stains never go away. 

‘To remove smells, I usually soak in white vinegar overnight (one part vinegar, three parts water). I also add baking soda to the washer before washing.’ 

Do you haggle?

Charity shops often have fixed prices on them, in which case haggling isn’t necessary – unless you have noticed significant wear and tear to the item.  

‘Most items are at a reasonable price, but on some occasions, I have asked for a discount due to make up stains or missing buttons’, said Jo.

However, vintage fares or markets can be a whole other story.

Leila explained: ‘Don’t feel awkward. Sellers know EXACTLY how much they have paid for each item, and won’t sell it to you if they won’t make a profit. You are not ripping them off by haggling.

‘Don’t show your interest. If a seller sees you jumping for joy then they know they can play hardball.

‘Get an idea of your top end price before you even start the conversation. Being unsure of how much you want to pay for an item is a sure fire way to pay more than you wanted. The price of the item is what YOU feel comfortable paying for it. 

‘Don’t get caught up in the idea of ‘getting a good deal’.

‘Don’t walk away from something you really love because you couldn’t get £2 off. Your first offer should be way under what you are willing to pay. The seller’s first counteroffer will be way over what they are willing to accept.

‘The walk away technique gets the best results. If the seller isn’t cooperating, then just say thank you and walk away. They’ll chase you if they want to compromise a bit more.’ 

Hester added: ‘When it comes to working out how much you should pay, it depends on how much you want the item. Obviously vintage/retro items will cost more. If you are unsure have a quick look on sites like eBay and Depop to see what similar items cost.

‘When it comes to charity shops I don’t haggle, but with pre-loved stores it’s worth asking nicely if they can give you some discount. If it’s an item that has had a lot of interest, they may not. But if you don’t ask, you don’t get.’                  



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