Charity Shop Tips from an Industry Insider

2 January, 2013

So, January, eh? Only the biggest month EVER for charity shopping! The shelves are BENDING under the weight of not-quite-right Christmas presents, and the rails are rallying in protest at being crammed with gorgeous clothes as all the New Years Resolution Keepers declutter their wardrobes. (Are you one of them? I wish I was but minimalist is never going to be my bag.)

A few weeks ago I posted my own best Charity Shop Tips and today, as a thrifty treat for you lovelies I am going next level with six MORE tips from an industry insider and charity shop queen. Welcome, Missie Lizzie of the wonderful blog Me and My Shadow who is guest posting below. Not only is Liz a crafty and thifty wizard but she is also one of the nicest people you’ll ever come across, and here she reveals her strategy for nabbing great bargains for toddlers…Tips Charity shopping

I love charity shops. Can’t get enough of them. Every time I go to a new town or visit a new place, I’ll pop in to their charity shops to see what they have on offer. To me you can’t beat the satisfaction of finding a vintage gem, a bargain hand-knit or a budget price designer piece.

In the UK, approximately 1.5 – 2 million tonnes of textile waste is generated each year and of this, around 1.2 million tonnes enter the household waste stream and end up in to landfill. Textiles present particular problems at landfill as synthetic fibres don’t decompose and although woollen garments do eventually rot down, they emit methane gases which contribute towards global warming.

Charity shopping is ethical, cheap and original.

Before I had my daughter, my job for 4 years was in this sector and I managed two charity shops – one the traditional shop selling clothes, books and bric-a-brac, the other selling second-hand furniture. I could tell you plenty of stories, but that’s perhaps for another time.

I’m going to share my top tips for getting a bargain. These are mainly aimed at purchasing kids clothes, but could equally apply to adult clothes or other bits and bobs. For some reason there always seems to be a shortage of kids clothes for the 2-4 age group, and I’ve never figured out why. You can get any number of sleepsuits for babies, or high-fashion outfits for 8 year old girls, but the toddler age group always seems to be thin on the ground. I still however manage to buy quite a few bits for my daughter, and intend to make the most of it before she gets to the ‘I wouldn’t be seen dead in second-hand clothes’ stage! Here are my tips:

Visit regularly.
Most shops have a ‘rotation’ policy – typically around 2 weeks. If an item hasn’t sold within that time it is taken off the shop floor and sent off to another store, usually a ‘sale’ store. You need to call in as often as you can or you’ll miss out on items. When I worked in charity retail, there were a hardcore of people who ‘did the circuit’ popping into every charity shop in town every day. No matter how well we thought we’d integrated fresh stock into the rails, they would seize on it! These people can spot a ‘new’ jumper or jacket at 50 paces. For this reason, the best items don’t hang around long, and if you only go into a charity shop once in a blue moon you are unlikely to find many real gems.

Be friendly.
Most shops are staffed by volunteers who are giving their time freely (although many have a paid manager). Take the time to say hello or good morning. Not only is it nice to be nice, but if you build up a relationship with the staff, they will generally see you right. If there’s something specific you are looking for, then let them know. I often used to keep bits aside for regulars who I knew were looking for a particular item. We referred (privately of course!) to people whose name we didn’t know as ‘teapot lady’; ‘linen lady’; ‘gold lady’ or ‘toy car man’ depending on what their purchasing habits where. We also had a ‘stockings and bra man’ but I won’t go into that.

Dropping donations in is also a great way to build up a good relationships, so have a clearout and take some stuff in to your local shop. While we’re on the subject of being nice, you’ll find a packet of biscuits or a cake never goes amiss with volunteers!

Look outside of your size-range
Most charity shops now will have presentation standards which include size cubing on hangers. These generally go by the label in the clothes, but if there is no size inside the garment, it will be a pure guess. Go by eye – you know what size your child needs. Just like adult clothing where one manufacturer’s size 12 might be smaller than another’s size 10, the same applies with kids clothes. Also, you can often buy completely outside the usual size range. For example my daughter is 2 and a half, but she can happily wear a top for a 5 year old as a dress over jeans or leggings. I also recently found a beautiful needlecord floral print skirt that was for an 11 year old. I cut it in two horizontally, re-elasticated it and got 2 skirts for the price of 1. Easy, a moron can (and did) do it.

Don’t dither
If you see something you like, buy it there and then if you can. Don’t assume it will still be there tomorrow. Of course, unlike regular shops, these items are one-offs – they don’t have an endless supply of similar items out the back! Going back to my earlier point, if you’ve built a relationship with the staff, you may be able to ask them to hold the item for a few days if you don’t have the money on you. My advice would be, if you like it, buy it! Check if the shop has a returns policy, so you can bring it back with a receipt if it’s not right.

Look out for hand-knits
Hand made jumpers look great on kids, however I’m pretty useless with knitting needles. Many shops have knitters who donate beautiful new jumpers, cardigans, hats and scarves etc. I often think they’d be horrified if they saw they were being sold for a couple of quid. Some shop managers have a personal dislike of hand-knitted items (goodness knows why!), so its worth asking if they have any ‘out the back’. And if you’re as naughty as me, once you find a gorgeous hand made Aran jumper, you’ll put in on your child and pass it off as all your own work.

Visit them all!
It is often said that charity shops in more affluent area have better quality of stock. I don’t necessarily agree with this, but they do generally have higher prices! A lot of the national charities’ shops are stocked centrally, with items coming from bag-drops (doorstep collections), and these are usually from outside the area. Only a small percentage of the items on sale within a shop will have come via local people donating directly to the store. Don’t be put off visiting a shop because of the area it is in.

Don’t be put off unduly by imperfections
You may think this controversial, but before an item reaches the shop floor, it will have been sorted and met certain standards. Most shops don’t have laundry facilities, so perfectly good quality clothes which are not clean will often end up being sold on to a rag merchant rather than being sold to customers (so if you’re donating, please please wash the clothes first!). For this reason, you will rarely find an item with a mark or stain on, or a missing button. But if you do, they are well worth considering. I have bought many items at knock down prices because they have pen marks or paint on. Most will come out in the wash or with a bit of stain removal – but it is a gamble so think carefully. Also, haggling in a charity shop is not de rigueur! The price on the ticket will probably already reflect any imperfection with the item.

Those are my ‘insider’ tips, hope you find some of them useful. If you have any of your own, please do share via the comments box, and I’d love to hear about your fab finds.

THANK YOU! And do pop over to Liz’s blog where you will find thrifty and crafty posts galore! 

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  • Gill Crawshaw 2 January, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    These are great tips and really useful! I had no idea most charity shops were stocked centrally – I really thought it was all done from local donations. Also had no idea about the rotations.

    • Lucy 2 January, 2013 at 1:55 pm

      Me neither, actually 🙂 It explains why popping in regularly is so worthwhile! She has the know-how fo sho! xx

  • Molly - Mother's Always Right 2 January, 2013 at 9:44 pm

    I LOVE charity shops – and one of my resolutions this year is to visit them more often. There’s nothing more satisfying than finding a beaut bargain and knowing the cash is going to a good cause. I’ve yet to find any decent clothes for my daughter (aged 2) in a charity shop as there never seems to be anything in her size – NCT sales and those big second hand kids sales seem to be better for those kind of finds for us – but we’ve bagged some amazing books. In fact, some of her book bargains made up her Christmas present bounty this year.

    • Lucy 3 January, 2013 at 9:37 am

      Yep, we have found some amazing stuff for Ramona at car boot sales! I haven’t braved an NCT one yet, I’ve heard horror stories!

  • Make do mum 2 January, 2013 at 10:29 pm

    I’ve noticed that it’s harder to find secondhand clothes for my 3 year old… she always ends up with holes in her knees and rips and paint stains so if other kids are the same then maybe less is in a state to be donated! I’ve had luck with looking outside our usual sizes, some things appear to have been shrunk by the previous owners (that’s my excuse anyway!)

    • Lucy 3 January, 2013 at 9:39 am

      Hehe, Ramona has cupboards full of brilliant clothes but only wears about 4 items, she is so particular. She still wear them until they are rags I think!

  • lally young 4 January, 2013 at 9:27 am

    I am trying to keep out of them!!! My wardrobe is 80% charity and mum often tells me I have a nose for bargains. But maybe I have too much of A nose for them. I love china dont ask me why, and if it has a tiny chip tell the person behind the counter, the manager in the local age Uk shop will normally knock these babies down as she doesnt want them hanging around. Pls dont barter or make rude comments about pricing. It comes from head office. My friend who is an assistant manager showed me the price guidelines, but refuses to stick to them as our area is very afulent.
    Were as you go to the money areas you will pay for your second hand goods. I also think of different ways I could use an item. I like doing that as well.

    • Lucy 4 January, 2013 at 9:41 am

      Yes- I am all for your last tip- looking at something a few different ways and working out how I could use it. Especially if it is going for pennies. I often by wool jumpers and felt them for crafting – often these have already been shrunk and are going for 50p!

  • Lakota [Faith hope and Charity Shopping] 4 January, 2013 at 3:56 pm

    Happy New Year! Hope you had a lovely Christmas. I must get to the charity shops once my two are back at school, can’t rummage properly with them whinging! I agree with Make Do Mum, I think toddler clothes just get too trashed to donate, whereas sometimes you end up with more baby clothes than you know what to do with – despite all the pooing, weeing and sicking that goes on!

    I find the bric-a-brac tends to be local – do they trundle that all round the country too?

    New Year’s Resolutions of the Stars!

    • Lucy 5 January, 2013 at 10:08 am

      Happy New Year!!! Loved your celeb post 🙂 Im not sure about Bric Brac *calls: LIIIZZIIIIIEEEEE*

  • mum of all trades 4 January, 2013 at 10:12 pm

    Very useful tips! Especially the dithering one, I’ve lost a few good items by doing that.

    • Lucy 5 January, 2013 at 10:07 am

      Ooh me too *sobs* cant think too hard about those now though, i tend to think of every purchase as a donation and that way i can biy willy nilly!!!

      • Chloe 29 April, 2013 at 4:24 pm

        I think many people usually pass pre schooler clothes on to people they know personally and parents usually will know of other parents with younger children of whom they will offer the clothing to first. I have 3 boys 7, 5 and 3 so we have a handmedown system, though with anything that is far too trendy and not timeless enough to use in the short future I will always offer the items to people I know first. Though in Balham, where I used to live is full of wealthy new mums, there is a Fara orphans charity shop that deals with NOTHING but baby and childrens clothing, toys and furnature up to 12. You would find Bugaboos, huge Silvercross prams, bespoke nursery furnature, Brio toys, well looked after books, formal wear, clothes from the likes of Boden, Ted Baker, Dior, John Lewis, etc. Gorgeous hand knitted blankets, etc. Its just a great shame that despite the goods being used, Fara charge almost identical prices to the RRP if bought new. Quite shocking.

        Anyhow, I’ve moved to rochester last year and it has a wonderful high street dominated by charity shops. They are so cheap compared to london. There is even a charity store which sells nothing but high end, I think it is Mind, I am not sure, there is a pair of Louboutins in there for £45, a shame they are not my size. Today I picked up a BRAND NEW pair of Morgan wedges for £4.50, they were completely unmarked and the soles were unmarked too with the stickers still on. A John Rocha shirt for my 7 year old for £2.50 I couldn’t believe the quality and it seemed to have been laundered and pressed too. And for £3.75 I got a Peter Pan collared swallow print top, brand new with tags, I was eyeing this top up in the new year, but it was nearly £30 in the local boutique, I couldn’t believe my luck when I noticed about 5 of them on one rack in the charity shop next door to it a couple of months down the line. I also saw a few other multiple items from the shop next door – Am I right in thinking some charity shops get the end of line/ old surplus stock from nearby local shops? Because a charity shop I used to frequent a lot was next door to a ShoeZone and you would find ShoeZone stock in there all the time. Paperchase was nearby to and you will always see their stock too.