I felt equal parts fascination and horror the first time I walked into a goodwill outlet. Although I’d heard about the outlet by word of mouth, I found myself there by accident. It wasn’t until a GPS told to “take us to Goodwill” routed us to the outlet instead of the Goodwill mega-store a mile away, that I actually saw one for myself.
“What is this place?” I thought walking in for the first time, “and what are the strange rules that everyone seems to know here but I don’t?”
In the two or three years since that first bewildering expedition into what regulars call “the bins,” I’ve become a little bit of a pro at this, my now favorite, shopping destination.
What is a Goodwill Outlet?
The “bins” are goodwill’s last stop for donated goods before they are dumped, recycled, or baled for shipment overseas (in the case of textiles). Things end up at the bins for a number of reasons: not selling through stores (due to being broken, overpriced, or just weird), overflow of donations, etc. The outlet is Goodwill’s last effort to turn a profit before dealing with the costs of disposal.
How it works
Every 15 minutes to an hour (depending on the store, the volume of goods that day, staff availability, etc) staff will roll out a giant bin (about 4 ft x 10ft) of products. These products are loosely sorted into broad categories: housewares, shoes, accessories (belts, purses, suitcases, hats), clothing, toys, and textiles (rugs, sheets, towels, etc). Some locations also have furniture and books, though these typically aren’t sold from bins. Customers have about an hour to sort through a bin before it is rolled back into the staff area and disposed of.
How Items are Priced
Most items sold from a bin are sold by weight. Checkout stands have small scales to weight products are checkout or, if you’ve only shopped from one category, your entire cart can be weighed on larger scales.
Category names and the price (per pound) are posted high on the wall around the shopping floor. In Seattle, toys and housewares run about 60¢ per lb, while clothes and accessories run about $1.15/lb.
Things NOT sold by the pound: rugs, some blankets, furniture, and books. If the item does not have a price sticker on it, check the signs on the walls. Prices for books (usually 25¢ paperbacks/50¢ hardback), rugs (in Seattle outlets 99¢ for doormats and $9.99 for large 8×10+ rugs), and blankets (Often $1.99 each, although often priced differently, in my experience, according to cashier’s discretion) are posted on the wall.
Give everything a once over before checkout. I review these questions:
- Was this fun to find or do I actually need/want it
- Is it fully functioning? Check thoroughly for holes, cracks, stains, etc.
Once you decided you definitely want it, go ahead and:
- Divide your items by category before entering the line to check out. Free reusable totes (usually near the exit) are a good way to organize your treasures into categories to make checkout simple.
The #1 Rule No One Tells You
The most disorienting part about shopping the goodwill bins is the unspoken rule about shopping in new bins. Unfortunately, most new shoppers learn by getting yelled at by staff! I’m here to save you from that. Here’s how to shop a fresh bin:
You’ll notice that around the tracks where they place bins there is a yellow line painted on the floor. When staff begin to roll old bins away, customers will line up along these yellow lines, getting in position for the first grab at whatever rolls out next. As staff roll new bins into place customers are expected to stay behind the yellow line and not touch anything in the bin until the workers give the all-clear– usually with the instruction “Shop!”
Tips for making the bins more fun:
BRING GLOVES: It’s not unusual to come across something sticky in the toy bins, a sharp edge in the housewares, or soiled linens in the textiles. Latex or cotton gloves can provide a thin layer of protection, but my go-to gloves are these MUD brand gardening gloves which are waterproof, washable, and thin enough to keep most of my sense of touch.
Avoid going after 2 PM. Although there’s less competition later in the day, bins are refreshed less often later in the day as staff focus on finishing up their workday in the back. In the case of the downtown Seattle outlet, typically no new product is placed out on the floor after 2 PM, so morning or very early afternoon is the best time to go.
Don’t Rush – This is not the place where you can scan shelves and leave! Plan to hang out for an hour or so, at least. Although treasures can be found anywhere in the bins, the real deals can be found when new bins roll out, so plan to stay for a few cycles until you get the hang of it and can join in the fun.
Grab first look later. The best technique for shopping in a fresh bin is to have a shopping cart handy and place anything you think you might want into your cart, quickly. It can be tempting to grab something, inspect to see if it’s broken, check the label, etc before putting it in your cart, but in the first 5 or 10 minutes when a bin is fresh and potentially crowded, you might lose other finds in the delay. If you think you might want something, just put it in your cart and plan to give everything a good inspection before moving to check out.
Bedbugs, Dirt, Bacteria, and Viruses: How to safeguard your hard-fought bargains
Items purchased at the outlet often aren’t clean. While donation staff are trained to turn away donations of dirty or obviously broken goods, some make it through and when they do they often end up in the bins. Here are my tips to reduce potential contamination with “unwanted purchases” like bugs, bacteria, etc:
- Wear gloves at the bins. Use your hands and eyes to inspect goods for obvious problems first.
- Review the EPA’s guide to recognizing bed bugs & evidence of infestation.
- When you buy linens or clothing, take the goods directly to your washing machine and wash thoroughly.
- Toys and washable housewares should go directly to the dishwasher. This dishwasher basket + lid is my secret weapon to making sure the small toys I pick up at the bins are safe for play.
- Clean other items with heat, sunlight, or cleansers.
- UV light from the sun kills many unwanted organisms. Leave items on a porch, backyard, in a sunny window, etc- and flip once or twice- to use the sun to clean.
- In the summer, you can use the heat generated by the sun on your car to get a bit more peace of mind about the goods you are bringing home. Just leave your treasures in the car for a few days, being sure to park in the sun during that time.
- Finally, clean with a basic cleaner appropriate to the item. Often, finding what emerges under layers of dusty neglect is half the fun!