Just like gyms, thrift shops can intimidate first-timers. You might be unnerved by the idea of buying secondhand. The setting might feel unfamiliar. The task ahead might feel too daunting to be worth your time.  But, as any great athlete can attest: patience, dedication, and a little coaching can help you clear those initial hurdles.

If you don’t know where to start, or you’re looking for a way to ease a reluctant friend into the sport of thrifting, let my (very comprehensive) guide be your personal trainer.

Step 0: Get your head in the game

Before you dive into thrifting, make sure you’re mentally prepared. You (or your friend) may have some hesitations about the cleanliness or quality of the items available in thrift shops. For this, I recommend some light background reading (like this piece by Patrice Williams) to dispel common myths. 

Some people may need an environment that is more akin to the traditional retail experience before walking into a thrift shop. If that’s you, go check out some consignment stores first, which tend to sell more high-end pieces in nicer digs (but at higher prices). This will help you get comfortable with trying on and purchasing secondhand items. Think of it like playing on an intramural team— it’s the perfect way to prep for the big leagues!

It’s also important to keep this in mind: temper your expectations of what the first attempts will be like. Not every trip will yield a perfectly cut blazer in your favorite color. Has a previous trip left you empty-handed and disillusioned? That happens to me all the time! But for every one of those days, another one will come along when you’ll score that truly unique piece, #gains.

Step 1: Make a game plan

Strong arms and stronger morale – qualities to look for in the ideal thrift buddy.

Once you’re ready, lay out a plan. First, identify an accessible thrift shop. Whether you’re driving or using public transit, know when the store opens and closes, how long the trek will take, and the tastiest restaurants around it. Trust me, that last one is important. You’re an athlete in the aisles — you deserve sustenance at the end!

Next, find a buddy for emotional, styling, and logistics support. Cheering sections aren’t just for the stadiums. Need to take turns in the dressing room while someone watches the carts? Phone died and you can’t figure out which bus to take home? Want a second opinion on that dress? That’s what a workout thrift buddy is for.

This piece is critical: make a thrift wishlist ahead of time. The amount and variety of things in thrift shops can feel overwhelming when you don’t have an idea of what you’re looking for. On the flip side, it can be tempting to jump at every unique piece you see. Having your list handy can keep you on track (do you really need another white button-down?) and help cut down on fashion FOMO.

Step 2: Gear up

Don’t get caught without your thrifting essentials.

On game day, you’ll need the right uniform. Wear the tightest, sleekest base layer that won’t make you feel naked. You’ll be able to try on many clothes in the aisles, reducing the time you need to spend in the dressing room. Wear slip-ons to make trying shoes on easier.

You will also need to bring the ”thrifting starter pack”: your wishlist, a reusable tote bag (or five), a refillable water bottle, your (legal) stimulant of choice, and snacks.

First-time thrifters might not think it’s all worth it, but these essentials will help you stay focused, and longer, on finding the cashmere of your dreams. And trust me: bring tissues. After a couple of hours of browsing, even pro thrifters get the sniffles from dust. Come prepared!

Step 3: Warm up

I came, I saw, I nabbed a cart.

At long last, you’ve arrived at the thrift shop. You’ve made it this far: now what? Grab a cart, at all costs. Baskets don’t cut it, so don’t be afraid to (intensely) monitor the checkout line and then (politely) jump in as soon as someone moves to abandon their cart.

With the proper tools in hand, take a lap around the store and take note of how it is (or is not) organized. How are the sections labeled? Is each section sorted by size, color, or both? Where is the jewelry? Is there a “boutique” section of curated pieces hiding off in a corner?

If going straight for the clothes feels a little hardcore, warm up at the home goods section (I always start with glassware). Alternatively, browse the handbags. Completing one section thoroughly right off the bat will give you the momentum you need.

Already feeling winded after all this? Go back to Step 0, and trust the process!

Step 4: Switch it up

Eagle eyes and nimble fingers.

After getting into a good headspace, I recommend you choose one or more of my thrift shopping “strategies” based on your mood. Here are your thrift workout options:

  • The Marathon: Dig deep into one section at a time. Look at and touch every single item. Every. Single. Item. This one is best for when you’re not looking for anything in particular and have plenty of time to let inspiration strike.
  • The Sprint: Power through multiple sections, skimming for a specific color, length, or material. I recommend this for when you have a clear, visually obvious idea of what you’re looking for. Powder blue wool coat? Sprint for it!
  • The Circuit Training: Give yourself timed intervals (25 minutes on/5 minutes off), for instance) and use those breaks to assess what you have in your cart and decide if you want to move on or revisit the section in a Marathon. Best for when you have a time limit or if you need lots of style feedback from your buddy.

No matter which strategies you employ, there are a few things to keep in mind to maximize your chances of enjoying yourself and finding something worth taking home:

  • STAY POSITIVE: This one is in all caps for a reason. You won’t make every shot, but you will miss every shot you don’t take. If you have fun playing the game, you’re a winner even if you lose. Etc, etc, other quotes from Friday Night Lights, etc.
  • IGNORE SIZES: Another all caps tip. There isn’t a thrift store out there whose medium sweaters all fit like medium sweaters. Sizes vary radically depending on the brand, era, and the previous owner’s laundry habits. Don’t limit yourself to just browsing the size section you would in a department store, and do your best to not look at the number on the tag.
  • Get a second opinion. Not sure how to style something? Unsure if it flatters you? Your buddy can help you see that item in a different light or look at how something fits from the back. Convinced you have to have those boots? Tough love from someone you trust can keep you from overwhelming your own closet.
  • Respect the space: Mind your cart. Be mindful of how you’re leaving a section or the dressing room. Don’t be the thrifter who leaves clothes on the floor, or stretches the clothing out when you put it back on the hanger. If you find a coat in the t-shirts, pay it forward and restock it or put it on the put-back rack. Speaking of which…
  • Don’t sleep on the put-back rack. That messy rack near the dressing rooms can be a goldmine of pre-curated pieces that weren’t right for someone else but might be perfect for you.
  • Take hydration and mental breaks. Browse Twitter, chug water, text your friends again to say “omg I’m finding cool stuff, be jealous.” You need to reset now and then.

Step 5: Cool down

Take a step back and soak it all in.

You’re almost done, but don’t slow down yet! Finish strong. After the rush of going through the whole store, think about whether you actually need to try on every item in your cart. I’ve had to let a lot of sweaters go during those cool-down sessions, but I’ve never regretted narrowing it down. Never settle!

Proceed to the dressing room. Try everything on that you didn’t try on in the aisles, but be respectful of what might be a long line. Don’t spend an hour in the dressing room, and consider taking turns watching the carts with your buddy.

Next, make your final decisions. Don’t forget to double-check for any holes and stains, and make sure you know if there are any store discounts. Maybe that coat that seemed a little expensive is actually 60% off with the yellow tag?

Finally, head to the checkout. Have your reusable bags out and ready to go, and know your rewards number if you’re signed up for a loyalty program. Don’t fuss about how the items get bagged – you can always repack your items once you’re through the line.

WHEW. You pushed through, you fought to the finish line, and you gave 110% one day at a time! On to the next thrift haul. Everyone say THRIFT TEAM on three. One, two, three…!


About our fabulous guest blogger:

Catherine of @cccstyledc is a healthcare strategy consultant, self-proclaimed “sustainable fashionista” and a secondhand shopping pro. Follow Catherine for key insights on how to level up your style game (in and out of the office) without compromising your values.