Six Tips to Keep Thrift Bargaining Fun

In the world of thrift, the bargain is the name of the game.  It doesn’t make a difference what it is, if the Thrifter can get if for less than its popular value, less than the original asking price, and less then the maximum they were actually willing to pay for it, they’ve scored a home run.

Unfortunately, shows like American Pickers have made it hard for the little guys to score as often as they’d like.  Everyone selling anything these days seems to be under the impression the common “picker” has the resources of a television network behind them or is even interested in coming close to offering the perceived value of any particular treasure.

But even with this obstacle, here are a few simple tips for both sellers and buyers that can make the bargaining process go more smoothly regardless of your level of involvement.  And they will help keep the experience fun as well.  Above all else, bargaining and thrifting should be fun.

Tips for Sellers:

1) Don’t be offended if someone tries to talk you down on your asking price.

Know what game you’re playing when you list something on a selling website or are having a rummage sale.  You are catering to people looking for bargains and should expect everyone you deal with to try to get it cheaper than the price you have marked on it.  There are few things that can sour a fun day selling or buying like a seller who has a negative attitude toward haggling or is unwilling to be flexible on what is probably an arbitrary value they’ve applied to an item.

2) Don’t expect to sell your item for its popular value.

The only people willing to pay popular value for something are real estate speculators and fine art investors, so don’t think you’re going to get that for your grandmother’s dish set or uncle’s comic books.  Basically, the value of any item is set by the buyer and is what they are willing to pay you for it at that given moment.  The reason you’re selling it is because it no longer holds any value for you or you need the money.  Ask a higher initial price than what you’re willing to take and haggle down to your needed price.  If you don’t care what price you sell it for, make the buyer’s day by accepting whatever lowball offer they give that will still put an acceptable amount of money in your pocket.

3) Have reasonable sources for the values you are applying to your items.

Saying that it’s old, or arguing that it has been in your family a long time, or telling them what someone is asking for the same item on Ebay means nothing.  Things don’t warrant value just because they are old, no one really wants to pay for your sentimental attachment, and anyone can ask any amount they want on Ebay.  None of those things prove anything regarding value of an item, so don’t hold on to that belief.  However, printing a recent sold listing and having it available is not necessarily a bad idea.  It shows the potential buyer what the item has actually sold for (not necessarily what you can expect to get for it) and will give them some confidence in deciding to make higher offers.

Tips for Buyers:

1) Be polite.

Don’t expect everyone to be on the same wavelength as you.  A nice way to start a bargaining transaction is to establish if there is even an opportunity to bargain.  “Are you willing to come down from your asking prices?” is a good way to break the ice.  You’ll immediately know if you are dealing with a savvy and motivated seller or if you are in the presence of someone who seems more interested in just opening a retail store in their garage for the day.  “Would you accept (fill in the offer amount) for this?” can be used next to form your first offer for any particular item.   It is non-threatening and gives the seller a measure of  how that and future bargains will go between the two of you.

2) Keep communication open, honest, and light.

People appreciate it when you’re up front with them.  If you’re looking for items to add to your collection, tell them.  If you are looking for good deals you can buy and resell on an auction site or at your antique booth, tell them.  Many times, the more you tell them, the more they trust you not to take advantage of them, and the more they are willing to deal with you.  I’ve had some people ask me how they would go about doing the same thing themselves.  Not only do I tell them; I also tell them what I’d ask for the item I’m trying to buy from them.  They appreciate the advice and sometimes bargain with me more generously for the effort.  Sometimes, however, they may completely remove the item from the bargaining table in hopes of pursuing my suggested sales path.  But even on the rare occasion when that happens, they usually try to go out of their way to give me a substitute bargain as  replacement for the one I just sacrificed with my honesty.  If not, I’ve still made a friend, even if for only a couple of minutes.

3) Give reasons for your lower offers.

If you are going to really lowball the asking price, make sure that you have good reasons other than just wanting to get the lowest price possible.  Point out issues that may not have been considered in the original pricing.  Mention any flaws (always remaining polite), lack of rarity, or any other aspects of the item that might impact its value.  Condition is extremely important in the reselling business and remind the seller of that.  Know important condition points on different types of items and speak of them openly.  Saying a book is in bad condition doesn’t have the same bargaining impact as discussing the separated binding, the yellowing pages, and the foxing.  Sellers are more likely to deal with you and understand your bargaining process if you can give them better information as to why the item should be let go for the price you’re offering to give them.

This is not a comprehensive list of tips by any means, but it is a fair representation of the basics needed to help any bargaining process remain civil, effective, and enjoyable.  Though many retail thrift stores have adopted the “marked price is the selling price” policy, there are still opportunities out there to incorporate these tips into many of your future thrift treasure hunts.

Try them and see what happens.




The Goodwill Outlet is not for the faint of heart.  Nor do I think you should be able to call yourself a true Thrifter if you haven’t at least stuck your toe in one at some time in your life to see what it is like.

I found my own local Goodwill Outlet (I adopt ownership of all things I love) quite by accident while trying to map out a thrift store circuit in the early days of my thrift life.

I had been to stores calling themselves “outlets” before, but always felt they were just glorified retail spaces at glorified strip malls that somehow convinced millions of people they were worth the hundred mile drive to get to them.  People forget gas costs money.  That whopping 40% discount you got on that $40 shirt from the Van Heusen Outlet doesn’t seem so “whopping” when you factor in the $60 you spent on gas to get there.  Hell, I can buy a shirt made out of money for that kind of money!  My Goodwill Outlet, on the other hand, is only about two miles out of the way from a direct drive between work and home.  That’s a gas expense of about thirty cents per trip.  Take THAT Van Heusen!

Besides, the Goodwill Outlet is a whole different animal than those fancy outlet pretenders.  It is not just a shopping destination; it is a shopping experience.  And it is not just a shopping experience; it is an ANTHROPOLOGICAL experience.  Sounds scienterrific, right?  Well, it is.   I challenge you to find a place that teaches you more about humankind than a Goodwill Outlet.  It is almost guaranteed you’ll come out of it faster, stronger, and wiser than when you went in.  It’s better than a bite from a radioactive spider.

It’s all about the bins.  The long, blue plastic bins — heaped full of shoes, or clothes, or toys, or junk, or stuff, or whatever — are swapped out hourly with new bins full of different heaps of stuff and are probably responsible for making your average Goodwill Outlet visit seem more like a zombie dumpster dive than a stroll through Tiffany’s can ever hope for.  This is the adventure of it.  Yes, Goodwill Outlets are about the adventure, not about what you actually get there. Take THAT Tiffany’s!

But most of my visits to the outlet are to peruse the decrepit furniture lining its interior walls and replenish my wife’s furniture repurposing needs.  It is not uncommon for me to find an antique chair for a dollar or an executive desk for five.  I’m not joking.  Stuff is that cheap there…and cheaper.  Granted, most pieces usually need a little love, but that’s what all this is about  — taking something that seems used up, giving it a little love, and making it feel like living again.  That’s not just a good way to treat furniture; it’s a good way to treat people as well.  See?  The Goodwill Outlet is already making us better people.

Anyway, only the larger items (electronics and furniture) have price tags.  All the other stuff — the stuff from the bins (which I think would make a great title for a horror movie) are paid for by the pound.  Yes, you heard that right.  By. The. Pound.  It’s like buying deli meat that other people have already played with.  Well…maybe not quite like that.  Regardless of the disgusting metaphor, you can find some pretty good things in the bins and pay very little for them.  You just have to catch the bins at the right time or be willing to swim with the big fish.  The big fish are the veteran Goodwill Outlet bin shoppers who I suspect spend hours there with their ever-growing shopping carts, vying for pole positions around the perimeter of the area where the new bins are brought out every hour.  You can tell they take it very seriously by the look in their eyes as they wait, shoulder to shoulder, for the new bins to arrive.  Don’t even try touching something from a new bin before all the bins in that line have been swapped out and the attending Goodwill employee has given the “ok”.  Premature grabbers are not tolerated by the other, more experienced grabbers.  And they have no qualms about letting interlopers know they are breaking rules that aren’t posted anywhere, but are understood and followed by anyone in the club.  I call that club the Outleteers.

I remember the first time my wife saw the Outleteers and the Swapping of the Bins.  We had gone in on a Saturday afternoon to see if any viable furniture had survived the morning.  We found nothing we could use, but before leaving, she noticed a group of people standing in a semi-circle and asked me what they were doing.

“It’s the Swapping of the Bins,” I said.  “We can stay and check them out, if you like.”  My wife is a a big fan of the Discovery and National Geographic channels and I told her if we stayed, she’d see something better than either of those.  Intrigued, we waited.  It being her first time, I suggested we maintain a safe distance.  She looked at me to see if I was kidding and took a few steps backward when she saw I wasn’t.

The Outleteers stood quietly as the old “picked” bins were removed.  Occasionally, one would say something in a low voice to one standing next to them, but in general, they all remained focused and on task.  As the Goodwill employee brought out the first new bin and parked it in its designated spot, a woman walked over from somewhere else, squeezed between two Outleteers, and picked up a metal tray.  She was quickly reprimanded by the group and told to put it back and wait.

“How in the hell was I supposed to know I can’t do that?” she shouted with an embarrassed voice and slunk back where she came from.

“She’s a phony,” I muttered to my wife as if I were her travel guide. “She got way too upset for someone who just didn’t know the rules.  She knew the rules.  She’s just mad she got caught trying to break them.”

“I see,” my wife replied, taking it all in.

The second bin came out.  No trouble.  Everyone seemed to nod in unison.

There was a palatable excitement from the Outleteers as the third bin was rolled out and the wheels locked in place.  They had enjoyed a couple minutes of viewing the heaps of stuff in the first two bins and had their strategies planned.

“Okay,” the Goodwill guy said and walked away.

Bedlam.  Mayhem.  Chaos.  Havoc.  Yes,  I just googled synonyms for pandemonium and I don’t care.  Anyone would need  help describing the energy and the dynamics of an Outleteer picking frenzy.  There are just no specific words for it in the English language.

My wife looked on with wide eyes.  I could tell she found the scene horrifying and strangely alluring.

“So, what do you think?”  I asked.

“It’s like the Animal Kingdom, Epcot, and the Magic Kingdom were all stuffed into a bag of potato chips and fed to a flock of highly intelligent seagulls,” she replied.

HA!  Take THAT Disney World!

The Wool Slipper

slipper 2

If Cinderella had been a balding and middle-aged man, we could have been twins.  Her life changed when the prince put on the slipper of glass and mine did when I put on the slipper of wool.

I am a footwear guy.  Long ago, I developed an appreciation for keeping my feet comfortable and safe. I have hiking boots for hiking and I have hiking boots for walking.  I have tennis shoes for walking through dirt and I have tennis shoes for walking on pavement.  I have dress shoes to be worn at meetings with people I like and dress shoes for meetings with people I don’t.  For these and other reasons, I have more shoes than I probably should have and definitely more shoes than my wife thinks is reasonable.

But the one type of footwear I hold above all others is my house slippers.  If you can’t be comfortable walking around the sanctuary of your own home, you have no need to ever imagine Hell.  You are already living in it.

Just before Christmas, I noticed that my old house slippers had hit the wall of their usefulness.  Though still comfortable and structurally sound (generally), they had gotten to the point of holding such a level of toxic effluvia as to render them uncomfortable for bystanders.  In a word or two — they stunk.  No amount of washing could change the fact. The stink of time had gotten into the slipper DNA.

Around that time, while taking care of some shopping for the grandchildren, we fell upon some possible replacements at a discount retailer.  Slippers are one of those items that if you buy second-hand or inherit from someone else (a loved one or otherwise) the experience can go horribly awry.  So, slippers, by their nature, scream to be bought new even by the thriftiest.  Kind of like chewing gum.

The store was busy and our patience meters were running low.  I was looking at a nice pair of slip-ons and my wife said “get’em and let’s get out of here.”

“They’re twenty bucks!”  I complained.

“It’s Christmas.  The season of giving.  Give yourself a gift.  Besides, if we don’t get out of here soon I’m going to kill someone.”

Knowing my wife to be the gentlest of souls, I decided not to tempt her by being that  “someone”, tossed the slippers into the cart, and moved on.  Before the end of the day, I would regret my slipper flippancy.

Even though I had chosen the right size (according to the box), the slippers never fit like I wanted, but instead, kept creeping toward my toes with every step.  They would fall off every chance they could.  If I ever made it up the stairs without one falling off and without getting a foot cramp from curling my toes in a feeble attempt to hold them on with my feet,  I felt like it was a good day to play the lottery.

Eventually, my wife noticed that I avoided wearing them.  I didn’t have the heart to tell her I was convinced they were like the ring of power from Lord of the Rings, always trying to find their way back to the evil master that created them.  They cost twenty bucks!  I couldn’t admit it had been for nothing.  Instead, I just acted like I forgot to put them on.

Until yesterday, when my wife and I were making our thrift store rounds to find furniture to repurpose, I thought I would just have to accept being one of those slipperless people you hear about in fairy tales.

We were at Goodwill, meandering around the furniture section, but finding nothing that met our needs (cheap, unique, and in need of some TLC).  I decided to check out the men’s shoes to see if there were any treasures to be had.  I had picked up a brand new pair of Timberlands a month or so prior and was hoping for an encore.

Shopping footwear at a thrift store doesn’t usually take long.  Once you’ve narrowed down the choices to the ones in your size that you aren’t afraid will give you hepatitis, you only have one or two pairs to try on.  But on this day I saw woolen gold sitting there on the end cap like they were waiting for me.  Slippers.  Weird slippers.  Looking brand new.

I checked the inside.  My size.  I checked the condition.  No wear spots.  I played the hero and checked the smell.  Like…like…nothing.  Perfection.

I kicked my boot off and slipped on a slipper.  They had velcro that allowed for an adjusted fit.  I walked around, pretended I was climbing stairs, gave them every chance to run back to Sauron.   But they didn’t go anywhere.  They loved me and I loved them.  Bliss.

One catch.  There was no price tag.  The only thing that could get in the way of me and the best slippers on the world was an unknowable.  Some places won’t even make a sale if there is no price tag.  I couldn’t remember if Goodwill was one of those places. I asked a clerk for some help.

“I’ll have to ask a manager,” he said, taking the slippers.

NO!  Why can’t you just make a totally irresponsible executive decision and tell me they are one dollar?!

“Okay, I’ll wait,” I said courteously and waited for my slippers to return.  How high was I willing to go on them?  They were priceless as far as my feet were concerned.

A few moments later, the manager came back with a smile.  “Here you go,” he said and handed me my prize.  I flipped them over and looked at the barcoded tag that now adorned one sole.

$7.99!!!!!  WHAT THE HELL?  That’s how much my brand new Timberlands were that I found the month before.  This is Goodwill, for pete’s sake!  These are slippers!  That price is a travesty!

“Thanks,” I said and carried them away.  All I had to do was convince my wife that I needed them because the one’s we bought before were evil.  But she’s reasonable.  She gets the importance of slippers.

So now my life is back on track.  My original dismay at the $7.99 purchase price for my slippers was tempered when I googled them and found out they retail for about fifty bucks!  Another great find!  Not only did I get a great deal, but now I can walk around the house secure in the knowledge that my slippers will stay on, keep my feet warm, and will always fit the way I want them to.

Of course, now I have a pair of other slippers that are a month old and hardly used.  If anyone wants to torture themselves with them, I’ll send them to you for the price of postage.  This deal is only good for a short time (let’s say a week) because I can’t let them go to waste.  My ethics won’t let me donate them to another thrift store (I’d never intentionally put another human through what I had to go through), so if I don’t get any volunteers to take them, I’m going to cut them up and use them for patches and bookshelf shims.

Even the detestable things in life can still have a use.