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 instructed 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 except me?”
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 outlet, aka “the bins,” are goodwill’s last stop for donated goods before they are sent to the dump, recycled, or (in the case of textiles) baled for shipment overseas. 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 or 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 outlet 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 (update: 2021. Amazon now has a much cheaper alternative to my beloved MUD gloves that work great for buffering wet, sticky, and sharp things in the bins.
Avoid going after 2 PM. [exception: Outlets who adopted split opening hours. Click here to read tips on those] 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.
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 textiles directly to your washing machine and wash them thoroughly (sometimes twice, always with a good detergent, and adding a detergent booster as needed).
- 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 thrifted 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!
Are there certain things you should not buy at Goodwill?
Of course, Goodwill is not the place to shop for all your purchases but can be a “sporting” and low-waste way to acquire some of the items on your shopping list.
Things you shouldn’t buy at Goodwill include personal care items and food.
Do Goodwill Outlet employees get first dibs?
As an organization-wide policy: no. However, as a longtime shopper of the goodwill bins, I can tell you at shift change the checkout lines suddenly fill with employees making purchases.
Although Goodwill’s official policy is that employees do not have first dibs on donations, this is, likely, only partially true.
What is the difference between Goodwill and Goodwill outlet?
A typical goodwill thrift store is set up much like a small department store, with shelving, racks of clothing, end cap displays, etc. At many goodwills, the store is decorated and certain sections are artfully arranged.
The goodwill outlet is different because, while still sorted by department, there’s no display of products. Rather than an arranged store, the goodwill bins are typically in warehouse-type buildings that feature large bins of clothing, housewares, toys, and sporting goods slowly rotating around the floor.
Can you get bed bugs from shopping in the goodwill bins?
It’s documented that you can get bed bugs at luxury hotels and spas, so the possibility of getting bedbugs from Goodwill or the bins is certainly not outside of the realm of possibility.
In reality, there are a couple of checks and balances to prevent bedbugs from entering the Goodwill supply chain- Goodwill and other thrift stores have a huge motivation to prevent bedbugs in their inventory. One well-publicized infestation could make national news, require destroying an entire store’s worth of inventory, and have a far-reaching impact on corporate profits.
Goodwill’s donation receiving staff have basic training in recognizing bedbugs and will turn away, or isolate and discard after receipt, anything with any evidence of bedbugs. Some company policies- such as totally refusing any and all used mattresses- help protect thrift store inventory from common sources of bedbug infestations.
To protect yourself from getting bedbugs from thrift stores, you can adopt the following policies and procedures for thrift store shopping:
Five tips to avoid getting bedbugs from thrift shopping:
1. Learn what to look for so you can spot the telltale signs of bedbugs on items in a store, and if you see them tell a manager and leave.
2. Only buy items that can be sanitized or washed.
3. After shopping at the Goodwill outlet or another thrift store, place your purchases in a nonporous bag in your car such as garbage bags or plastic totes
4. If you live in a warm climate, leave your purchases in your car for a few days in the sun to zap any bedbugs with heat- one of the few effective pesticide-free treatments for bedbugs.
5. Take items from the plastic bag directly to a washing machine and wash items with hot water. To be extra careful, use a laundromat and an extra hot wash to be sure.
When I up-sized from my tiny home downtown Seattle studio apartment to a spacious suburban apartment, I saved thousands of dollars on outfitting a larger home by plucking luxury rugs, curtains, linens, and towels from the Goodwill outlet. To protect myself from bedbugs and other “yuck,” I just arranged my day so I always stopped at a laundry matt and thoroughly washed and hard-dried on high all new items that could potentially be hosting bedbugs. By adding this extra step, I was able to fully trust and be comfortable snuggling up with everything I brought home from the bins.
How it’s changed: Visiting the Goodwill Outlets Since the Pandemic
When the pandemic struck in 2020, one of the things I missed during lockdown was the thrill and intermittent reward of treasure hunting at the bins. Now that a vaccine is widely available and things are opening back up, I’ve begun regular trips to the goodwill outlet again – this time in St. Louis, Missouri instead of Seattle, Washington. Like many, I made a major life transition just after I got vaccinated, relocating from the Pacific Northwest to the Midwest.
Thanks to the fact I purchased a large portion of my belongings in Washington from the bins, and I knew I’d have access to a goodwill outlet in St. Louis, I sold or gave away most of my belongings before moving, and moved to St. Louis with little more than what fit in my CR-V. When I arrived, it was time to jump back in to thrifting- this time furnishing a larger space in an urban neighborhood in St Louis.
Now that I’ve been going to the goodwill outlet in St. Louis every week for about two months, I thought it was time to add an addendum to this post about how the goodwill outlet has adopted policies to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
New post pandemic Procedures
Although, according to some Professional thrifters on Reddit, some goodwill bins continue to operate with the same policies and procedures described above, both of my home outlets (in Seattle and St. Louis)- and many others in the country – have adopted a different method for bringing in new bands and removing old ones.
Now, being on time matters.
Before the pandemic, bins were progressively added and removed from the sales floor about every 20 minutes- you could arrive at any time of the day and have a shot at shopping a new-to-the-floor bin. Now, at many Goodwill Outlets, the bins don’t shift while the store is open. Instead, the store opens with a sales floor full of bins, and closes a few hours later after the bins have been picked over. The staff removes bins and adds bins full of new merchandise during a mid day break in which the store is closed. The store then opens for a few hours of shopping.
The hack for finding great deals while shopping at the goodwill bins with this Covid 19 prevention procedure in place is being at the store when it opens (either first thing in the morning or for the afternoon shopping period- 3pm in St Louis).
Now, you’ll likely find a socially distanced line extending from the front of the goodwill outlet store to the parking lot. Serious shoppers get in line up to an hour early to get that coveted front-of-the-line spot to be the first shopper in the door!
Here’s a few tips for shopping the goodwill outlet in 2021 with stationary bins:
- Get in line as early as you can, but don’t panic about being first. Lots of outlet shoppers go looking for very specific items (like clothing, books, household goods, or sporting equipment) so much of the line in front of you won’t be interested in the same items you are.
- Respect the hustle. Although you’re likely visiting for a one-off trip, some people make their living through the bins. The “regulars” have their own culture- for example, they may mark their place in line with a to-go cup or a pair of gloves while they take a break in their car. It’s best to respect these folks, and if you manage to strike up a conversation when they do take their place in line just before the doors open, you may even manage to snag a few tips or insight into your local outlet’s secrets (like this flipper shared recently on reddit).
- Don’t worry about a cart. Many people who line up outside waiting for the goodwill bins to open will spend their first few minutes inside trying to snag a shopping cart before they’re all taken. My advice? Skip the cart and go straight for the stuff. In the first few minutes of shopping the bins, grab a laundry basket, storage tote, or large bag and use that to hold any treasures. When that gets too heavy to carry, place it against an empty wall and cover it with a sheet from a textile bin. When, during the course of shopping, you see a cart come free, grab it and load your treasures.
- Focus on distance, not details. If you manage to arrive in the first 5 to 10 minutes after the goodwill bins open, try not to get focused on details. Instead, walk quickly and scan bins for big-ticket treasures. Don’t examine closely, just grab things that look interesting and keep moving (there’s plenty of time to inspect before finalizing your purchase). Once the obvious gems have been picked from the bins, it’s time to slow down and explore deeper.
- Just like my tips for shopping moving bins, follow the basic advice for shopping in Goodwill’s bins: wear gloves, stay hydrated, and be kind.