Monday, 22 November 2010

Charity Shops - Top Tips for finding a bargain

I wrote in a recent post about ethical shopping for kids clothes, and highlighted a couple of retailers and suppliers with sound eco and ethical credentials.

This post is about my other favourite eco-shopping activity- 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.

Photo courtesy of The Children's Trust

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.

Always handy to have 2 similar skirts, in case of accidents!

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.

Couldn't resist this charity-shop outfit photo - just for the pose!

Shop smart

There is no point getting an absolute bargain dress for a quid if you have to then go out and buy a new pair of woolly tights in the right colour for a fiver! Think about what you're buying and whether is will go with other items you already have.

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.


  1. I used to run a YMCA charity shop and you would be amazed at the things that get donated. We had guideline prices, but they were ridiculously cheap. We had a Louis Vuitton bag for sale for £20!!!
    Charity shops are amazing places to find unbelievable bargains!
    I love what you did with the skirt, that's a genius idea!
    An you're right, only around 3-5% of what we sold in store was from direct donations. Most are brought, as you said, from a central depot :) x

  2. Lovely! It's my favourite pastime too, I've got to the point that I hate paying 'new' price for anything & my house looks like Steptoe's yard.. Don't cry :)

  3. Very informative post and some great tips :) I haven't been in a charity shop in a while, but might have a look round a few when I'm next in town, sounds like you can get some good bargains. :)


  4. Brilliant tips....and I agree, charity shops seem very expensive around here a supposedly "affluent" area.....I've made kitchen blinds from duvet covers and absolutely love furniture charity shops like Emmaus. Anything 1930s in treacle varnish rub down and paint in white/cream and shabby chic is your for a few pounds!

  5. Oh fantastic! I knew I wasn't alone :0)

    Thanks for your lovely comments.

    Denise, we must chat - forgive me, what's your twitter name?

    Elsie - Yay, we are Steptoes Yard too! I'm frankly amazed my bedroom ceilings haven't come down with the amount of 'retro' finds stored in the loft, awaiting a bigger house.

    Emma - thanks, hope I've inspired you. Make sure you report back!

    Fiona - love 'up-cycling' furniture. I giggled the other day watching Kirsties Homemade, when the antiques dealier showed his measurement trick (did you see it?). If I have a space I want to fill, I go to second-hand stores or auctions knowing its about 'elbow to wrist length'!!

  6. My twitter name is @_Dee_Marie_ :) x

  7. I love charity shopping, hardly ever buy anywhere else! Had withdrawal symptoms here in France till I found a great Red Cross shop in Issoire. Just got a brilliant leather bag for 50 centimes! They had a sale on, everything was 50c so I happily paid double and still got great bargains.

    Also used to adore jumble sales, especially in posh Cheshire. The stuff the WAGs chucked out in and around Alderley Edge was shameful!

    I don't do Christmas (pagan) but the only gift giving I do for Yule is to buy a goat or similar from Oxfam Unwrapped and send its picture round to friends (by email, much greener).

  8. Hello
    Great tips. We just got a Barnardo's for kids near us - it's fab. I agree where you shop can make a huge difference to the kind of bargains you pick up. We're in a huge concentration of under 5s, so loads of good stuff but you have to move fast!
    My tip - encouraging the kids to take something to donate so they get into giving to charity(and to make room for the toy bargains they find - generally hulking bits of plastic I refuse to buy new)
    Thanks for entering my Usborne comp btw :)

  9. Loved this article so much, Liz you are such a talented writer.
    Reminds me of way past when my little 'un was pre-school age. Spent my life in charity shops. Not just for everyday things, but christmas gifts too, in fact me and the little 'un (now 21 years old) spent lastnight going through the loft, seeking Christmas decs to donate to her new household, when we came across her first dolls house.., bought from the NSPCC (think that's the right name) in Bedford some 18 years ago, for £1.
    I would re-donate it, but Roxie wont let me. Grandchildren ahoy!
    Think I may be popping into Keech's soon x

    Liz Wanden

  10. Some great tips there, thanks! (not only for shopping, but for donating too).

    I used to buy loads in charity shops, then stopped for whatever reason. Now with baby on the way and cash shortages, I'm constantly looking for bargains! :)

  11. Thanks for the tips. I love charity shopping! But I don't go often enough. I had no idea there were people who go every day and snap everything up! Once I found a brand new dress with tags was £34.99 now £7.00 :o) xxx

  12. Thanks for all your comments. Great to hear so many of you already enjoy shopping in charity shops :0)

  13. Brilliant, informative post and one that I will remember. Vey useful tips. I already trawl the charity shops around here, but this has honed my skills even further, lol!:O)

  14. Brilliant tips ;-)

    We love charity shops too although I mostly buy books from them at the moment - I might try and grab some other bargains after this though x

  15. Hi Liz! Yes I love charity shops too. I found them invaluable when I was giving my daughter a Alice in Wonderland themed tea party, I bought tea pots and cups and saucers, linens and fabrics to make madhatter hats. The china was so gorgeous I have made the tea cups into candles, for Christmas presents this year.
    We too have a Banardos childrens shop, which I recently gave some childrens furniture, and was able to gift aid as well.

    My town has a fab cancer research shop, which has recently hit £1.5 million. It even boasts Ken Clarkes wife as a volunteer!!
    Great, and informative blog...gorgeous model too!!

  16. Thanks Cass and Kay. So great to hear it is not just my secret passion!

    Gidders1 thanks for your lovely comment. Not sure about the gorgeous model! She loves pulling faces for the camera.

    Wow your tea party sounds fab. I love old china too (much to my other half's annoyance). Candles look great made this way - I saw a set already done in a charity shop the other day - priced at £10 each!!! I've got some pretty chintzy cups and saucers that I plant hyacynths and other spring bulbs in, they make a lovely display.

  17. great post, i was walking down castle road in the week and one of the charity shops had a Louis Vuitton bag for 30 quid in the window! i wish i had bought it but didn't have my purse on me. If they are bargains like that to have i'm def going hunting!

  18. I love chazzing! My tip is not to be afraid of rummaging in the baskets of toys/kids clothes, you can often find a gem amongst the junk and there is usually a set price of 50p or £1. Also agree about getting friendly with the shop staff - they know where the good stuff is out the back! Great post :)

  19. I thought I was a seasoned pro at charity shop shopping, but you prove otherwise! Great tips, beautifully illustrated by your gorgeous girl! I always search children's book boxes at around £1 for 4, my Boo is regularly indulged with new ones to add to his collection. I look for picture frames (especially decorative 'gilt-style' frames) to frame Boo's artwork. Always grab kilner jars when I see them too. Rather than just looking for my own size, I'm on the lookout for materials which grab my eye in my own size or above - my v handy friend who can sew helps me out with alterations in that department!

  20. Rock n Roll Mummy - Wow! Erm must have missed that bag! Did you go back for it? Maybe another tip should have been 'always keep an emergency £30 in your shoe/down your knickers in case of emergency handbag bargains'! Thanks for your comment x

    Make do mum - Thanks for dropping by and taking the time to comment. You're so right about rummage baskets, I have trained my little girl to do the low down rummaging (saves my back lol).

    Yummymummyquest- Hi there, hope you enjoyed the post. Ooh, hope we're never in the same town - it would be handbags at dawn as you seem to love te same stuff as me! lol. I almost never find nice gilt frames though, I'd snap them up like a shot. What a great idea to use them to frame kid's art work. I bet Boo feels all important seeing his pictures framed :0)

  21. I have brought some of the most popular toys from charity shops, today I brought a booster seat for the kitchen table for £2. I go in the charity shops every day to have a nosey

  22. Thanks for the tips! It will surely give information for the readers.

  23. Great tips - have just shared link on twitter
    I can't go in every day cos I work full-time, but I do go in our local charity shops every chance I get

  24. I always search children's book boxes at around £1 for 4, my Boo is regularly indulged with new ones to add to his collection.
    Horizontal Blinds

  25. A charity shop is an excellent venture, and it should be celebrated for offering a sort of lifeline to the environment and community in so many ways. I admire people like you who fully understand and support its advocacy. I hope your continuous support will raise more awareness in the future. Thanks for sending us some tips in finding a good bargain!

    Norman Watkins @ Giving Works eBay