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!