It’s been years since Andrea Pelzel has seen the inside of a mall, and still, she’s having trouble controlling the jumble in her closet that has her husband begging for a purge.
The reason? Thrift stores.
Pelzel, a 28-year-old Gaston County mail carrier, is one of the region’s most-followed thrift store shoppers, with thousands of followers on Instagram and Pinterest (@keepinitthrifty). She’s been named a “brand ambassador” by Goodwill of the Southern Piedmont, thanks to her ability to share the great finds she sniffs out, from Anthropologie tops to Hunter boots.
“You can always go to the mall and find $100 jeans and a $50 shirt. But I can go to Goodwill and pay way less,” she says. “I’m saving money and getting the exact same look.”
Thrift stores, the catchall for America’s obsession with overbuying, have lost their stigma in the fashion world, thanks in part to millenials raised on the concepts of Craigslist and eBay.
(And lest you feel any guilt that thrift stores should be reserved for shoppers who can’t afford retail prices – don’t, Goodwill officials say. “Our stores exist so that we can generate funds to support our mission,” says Tonya Nations, vice president of store operations at Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont. “The money we are generating in our stores goes to support all the training in our centers.”)
Goodwill of the Southern Piedmont test-drove a new concept last Christmas, opening a pop-up “boutique” location called GW at the EpiCentre uptown for one week, featuring designer items and styles that would appeal to a hipper, younger, clientele – but at typical Goodwill prices.
Sales were so good, Goodwill officials say, they opened a brick-and-mortar GW boutique this summer in the new Goodwill Opportunity Campus on Wilkinson Boulevard in West Charlotte.
The GW space looks more like an upscale boutique than a charity reseller, with trendy, new-looking clothing, jewelry, shoes and home accessories, organized by color scheme. Cheery staff greet guests and even the shopping bags have a boutique feel – heavy brown paper with handles and the “GW” logo, instead of the white plastic grocery-type bags at the regular Goodwill stores.
Prices may be a few dollars higher than typical Goodwill prices, depending on brand names, but we found serious deals during a few summer visits to the GW. (Best find: a merino wool and cashmere V-neck sweater from luxury brand The Row that retails for more than $800 – for $7.99.)
Pelzel says it’s one of her favorite places to shop these days. (She laughs at the name – she says that in in high school, she and her fellow thrift-store loving friends used “GW” as a sort of code name for when they planned to shop at Goodwill.)
So how does she find the good stuff? Here are Pelzel’s top tips for shopping for clothes and shoes at any thrift store:
Hit the shoe racks first. Because shoes are displayed in a way that makes them easier to see than, say, clothes on a rack, they get picked over quickly, Pelzel says.
Then, go to the area where employees are bringing racks of new merchandise out onto the floor. The rolling racks may be holding a few categories of clothes, but they are worth looking through because you’ll be able to get your hands on things before any other shoppers, she says.
Go as often as you can, and stay for as long as you can. Thrift store shopping depends on a shopper’s willingness to sift for treasure. Most stores don’t organize by size, so you need to sift through long racks looking to see what will fit you. And because inventory changes hourly, the more you visit, the more likely you’ll strike fashion gold. Pelzel says two hours is the length of her ideal visit, and she likes to go on her two days off each week, almost always on Sundays.
Yes, you can buy bras and swimwear at thrift stores. Many carry brand-new-with-tags underwear and swimsuits. Pelzel says she’s seen racks of new swimsuits that Target has donated after bathing suit season. And she says when she comes across new-with-tags bras, she asks other shoppers nearby if they can use them.
Whenever possible, try clothes on. If the thrift store has a dressing room, use it, Pelzel says. “I try all my finds on. Sometimes you can’t see a hole or a rip until you try them on,” Pelzel says. “And you never know how certain items will fit. It might be labeled a large, but will fit like a small. This happens a lot,” she says. (Perhaps why it was taken to the thrift store to begin with?)
Scan magazines or Pinterest boards before you go. Thrift shopping can be overwhelming, so planning what pieces you need or the look you’re going for can help focus your shopping. Pelzel likes to find looks she likes and try to recreate those with pieces from thrift stores.
Learn the discounts. Some thrift stores, like Salvation Army, have systems where certain-colored tags are half price to move older merchandise. Pelzel frequents the Salvation Army in Gastonia, where clothing is always half price on Wednesdays.
Thrift store shop on vacation. Affluent areas are often thrift store goldmines, Pelzel says. Pelzel and her husband love hiking and traveling and pop into thrift stores while on the road, she says. And her sister recently moved to Boca Raton, Fla., where “she finds so much good stuff.”