Our closets are brimming with finds from thrift and consignment stores: a slip from the 1960s that we pair with a denim jacket, a beloved sundress in an unusual windmill print, silk scarves and vintage boots that still have tons of wear.

Why do we love shopping second hand?

Plus, it’s the best way to find storied treasures or unique pieces to breathe new life into — which you can’t often do in contemporary retail stores.

Despite the thrill of the hunt, secondhand shopping can be overwhelming. The racks aren’t always orderly, treasures are often buried among unappealing pieces, and quality items aren’t easily distinguishable from fast fashion. Secondhand shopping can feel fruitless, especially on a tight schedule.

After years of trial and error, we’ve gathered some proven tips for shopping second hand. It takes perseverance and patience, but you’ll reap the rewards — and help the Earth.

Glossary of Secondhand Shopping Terms

First, decide what kind of shopper you are. Do you love vintage styles of bygone eras? Do you prefer to shop and drop off your used clothing at the same time? Is price important to you or do you care more about brand names?

No matter your style of shopping, there is a secondhand retailer to meet your needs.

Here are some useful terms for secondhand shopping:

  • Thrift Store: typically, a store that accepts donated goods and uses their proceeds to benefit charitable causes. These stores tend to have the lowest prices, but may also require more searching, as their offerings aren’t as curated. Goodwill, Salvation Army
  • Consignment: a retailer that sells on the behalf of an individual. These stores let people sell them their clothes in exchange for a percentage of the items’ profits upfront. Consignment clothing goes through a rigorous review before making its way to the racks and prices tend to be a little higher. Buffalo Exchange, Beacon’s Closet, thredUP
  • Vintage: boutique retailers often with highly curated offerings from past decades. Vintage finds are generally at least 50 years old, but no more than 100 years old (at that point, it becomes an antique). Shopping vintage is a great for finding truly unique pieces and lasting craftsmanship.
  • Clothing Swaps: events big and small to which individuals bring used clothing and exchange items with other attendees. Swaps are fun social events that often include food and drink. You can often walk away with a lot of wonderful new-to-you clothes at no cost — not to mention some new fashion-savvy friends. Global Fashion Exchange

Pildora’s Tips for Shopping Second Hand

  1. If shopping online, diversify your search terms.

Online secondhand shops like thredUP may offer more options than brick-and-mortar stores. While a big selection is a plus, it can make it harder to find exactly what you need.

Search for brands that you’ve liked in the past or have wanted to try. Then search for styles using new keywords each time. Instead of “white shirt,” try to be more specific:

  • “white button-down shirt”
  • “white Everlane shirt”
  • “neutral shirt”
  • “long-sleeved white shirt”

Many online retailers allow you to save your searches so you can come back and look another time. You can also get email alerts when matching items are added.

2. Bring a list.

Our most successful shopping ventures have been driven by purpose. Before heading out a store, we like to examine our closet. What is my wardrobe missing? What do I have too much of?

Create a shopping list on your phone and review it before you head into a store. You won’t always find exactly what you’re looking for, but at least you’ll have some guidelines. Plus, if you’re on a budget, this will help you keep costs in line.

3. See how it feels.

This comes with practice, but after some time, you’ll be able to distinguish durable clothing from cheaper stuff that will fall apart — all by touch. Run your hands over the clothes on an overstuffed rack. If the feel of a particular item brings you joy or piques your curiosity, pull it out and examine it further.

This isn’t a foolproof method, but often, good clothing feels different. Quality fabrics are thicker, softer or more study. If you’re looking at an item with a lot of stitching or embellishments, run your fingers gently over those elements to see if they pull apart or feel flimsy.

4. Try it all on! Be discerning in what you take home.

Trying on clothing is essential to a productive shopping trip. If you bring home only things you love and will truly wear, you won’t find yourself discarding them in a month. Making sure that items fit and flatter before you buy them will save you time later: You won’t need to sell or donate items that aren’t a perfect fit, nor go back out to find an item that works better in your wardrobe.

So, before you shop, make sure to dress in clothes that make the dressing room an easy in-and-out. Wear loose layers you can take on and off easily to try on new items. And wear separates — like a tee with a skirt — so that you can try on tops and bottoms matched with items you’re already wearing. Slip-on shoes are your best friend here!

Once you have your items on, look in the mirror from multiple angles. Walk around in your clothes and shoes. Bend down and reach up. Sit down, cross your legs. Clothes are made to be lived in. You should feel comfortable in whatever you take home.

Another pair of eyes is always helpful. Shopping with a friend is a nice way to spend time together and get a second opinion! Sales associates at these stores can also weigh in and give advice on where to look.

5. Look over your selections closely.

Depending on the store, you may find items that have visible wear, such as stains, ripped zippers or missing buttons. It can be disheartening to bring that lovely cocktail dress home only to discover it has a large stain near the hem you have no idea how to clean. Thoroughly examine items that make your final cut to save yourself some frustration later.

We find that while zippers can be fixed and buttons can be replaced, stains and rips are not as easy to overcome. Stains are often set-in over the years and can’t be treated well. Similarly, some rips are irreparable.

Be realistic about what you’re willing to do to make an item wearable. If you are not one who takes the time to replace buttons, you probably won’t with a new item.

6. That said, don’t be afraid of visiting a local tailor.

If you’ve picked out an item that speaks to you, but has a small flaw — it’s slightly too big in the waist, it’s missing a button, the hem is too long — a tailor can probably help.

They’ll take an item that is “almost right” and make it fit you perfectly. While this is an extra expense, it comes with benefits: you’ll probably still be saving money because the item was purchased second hand, you’ll invest in a piece that has character and will last, and you’ll have a wardrobe that feels custom.

That said, it’s much harder (and more expensive) to size an item up. If something is too small, don’t invest. Let that piece bring joy to someone else!

7. Find joy in surprises.

Knowing your silhouette and style is important for successful secondhand shopping, but part of the thrill is finding an item you weren’t expecting.

Recently, one of our editors went into a secondhand shop knowing she only wanted to come out with a warm-weather skirt. Instead, she stumbled across a cropped black silk blazer. At first glance, it was the least seasonal thing in the store. But she couldn’t stop looking at it. And it was a perfect fit. Once she took it home, she found that it was perfect for wearing over a dress on unseasonably chilly days. She wore it for coffee runs, date nights and even on the playground with her daughter.

Surprises are part of the joy of shopping, so leave yourself open. Our instincts are stronger than we know. If an item calls to you, give it a chance. It may become your next wardrobe staple.

Our Favorite Online Resources

Most likely, there is a local consignment store or thrift shop nearby that will make for a fun adventure. If you prefer to do your shopping online, here are some of our favorite resources.

Happy secondhand shopping!