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How to Thrift Store Shop like a Pro: Mastering the Goodwill Restock

It’s no secret that a great trip to Goodwill can be just as satisfying as a trip to any mall. we’ve all had a thrill as we discovered a treasure on a thrift store shelf- However, great thrifters have mastered the skills needed to get the most bang for their buck! Below, I’ll give you the inside scoop on these secrets. You’ll learn:

Keep reading for a guide to mastering the art of finding deals through thrift store shopping.

A woman holds up a vintage sweater at a thrift store, shortly after Goodwill restocked
A woman holds up a vintage sweater at a thrift store, shortly after Goodwill restocked

Secrets to Scoring Great Thrift Store Finds on Every Trip

You might think thrifting is all luck, but in my experience people who seem to have great “luck” thrifting, actually have a few secrets up their sleeves. Here are 14 of my top thrifting tips:

1. Get to know your Thrift Store Staff and other Regulars 

There is a wealth of information out there that you just have to ask for! If you find yourself visiting a certain thrift store over and over, it’s a great idea to make an effort to get to know other regulars and those who work there. More often than not, the employees will be open to chatting with you, and may even offer up information about when restocks take place, what types of items you can expect through each day of the week, and generally what demand is like over the week. There’s nothing better to supercharge your thrifting powers than the inside scoop! 

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2. Pack for Success 

On one thrifting trip, I discovered an old video game that appeared to be from the early 1980s. It didn’t switch on and I didn’t have a way to test it, but I took a chance on it and was later able to sell the game for almost $100 on eBay! I managed to get lucky, but more serious thrifters are prepared, with batteries and other tools, to test items before buying them.

If you shop to flip (i.e. resell for a profit) it may be worth investing in a thrift-store shopping kit so you can check products before buying. A purse or fanny pack loaded with the following can be a game-changer:

  • small screwdriver (for opening battery panels)
  • assorted batteries
  • latex gloves
  • neodymium magnet (an easy way to tell the difference between silver or gold-plated steel and pure precious metals- I like this keychain version)
  • tools for testing jewelery and flatware for the presence of silver or gold.

BE SURE TO CHECK OUT my Thrift store pro kit shopping list at Amazon for everything you’ll need.

3. Try Thrifting on Mondays or Wednesdays instead of Saturdays 

In my experience, Goodwills more often restock on Mondays or Wednesdays than other days, so those days may be the best time to hit the aisles. Plus, you are far less likely to be met with swarms of crowds during the week than you are on the weekend. Remember, while there are usually major restock days at the beginning of certain days at each location, many locations continuously restock throughout the day. We’ll touch on that more in a little bit. 

The following section may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.

4. Know how to spot actual thrift store gold

Thriters love to talk about “striking gold” and “finding treasure,” but only a small minority actually know how to spot gold, silver, and gems hiding among displays of cheap costume jewelry. Here’s what you should know about mining for gold in thrift stores:

Literal tons of jewelry pass through Goodwill donation centers each year and it’s stocked like any other product. The interesting thing about jewelry at a thrift store, however, is that both staff and shoppers tend to have a bias toward believing that all of the donated jewelry is cheap costume jewelry. In actuality, a small amount of the jewelry at Goodwill is real authentic gems and precious metals. Entire estates- including gems – are often donated when clueless relatives or caretakers are taking care of a deceased person’s belongings.

Here’s how to find and flip valuable jewelry at goodwill:

Be patient and willing to examine a lot of pieces before you, literally, strike gold.

Pay attention to weight, cheap alloys are usually lightweight, real gold and silver pieces will be heavy for their size.

Look for hallmarks. Quality jewelry often has a maker’s mark from the jeweler including the name and/or metal content. High-quality metals often include markings that indicate what the metal content is- keep a chart of the 30 most common metal purity hallmarks or just learn how to recognize them by studying this chart.

Pack a jeweler’s loupe (a small battery-powered device that works like a lighted magnifying glass just for jewelry. When enlarged, you’ll easily be able to see metal marks and tell which marks are from cheap casting and which are tool marks from a real metalsmith)

Bring a Neodymium Magnet. Strong, tiny neodymium magnets are perfect for discretely testing metals, and carrying one is an easy trick to quickly check jewelry. Fake gold and silver plated jewelry are usually magnetic, real gold is never magnetic.

Diamond Testers. Cheaper and more discrete than gold testers, diamond testers (like this thrift-friendly handheld version) allow you to test stones in jewelry to tell the difference between real jewels, manufactured gemstones, and costume jewelry

Gold Testers. Good gold testers aren’t cheap, but if you plan to make thrift store jewelry sections a regular thing, this small battery-powered gold tester is a great investment that should pay for itself. Gold testers aren’t discrete, so most jewelry thrifters run easier tests on the metal (magnets, checking for hallmarks, etc) in the store and then purchase the piece to test later. Gold testers paired with a small scale are a good investment because they give you the information you need to not be taken advantage of by gold-buying storefronts.

BE SURE TO CHECK OUT my Thrift store pro kit shopping list at Amazon for everything you’ll need

5. Restocking is always happening 

Goodwill is a continuous cycle of shoppers bringing things in and others taking them out (the best and highest form of recycling, in this thrifter’s opinion!). If you stick around long enough, you will most likely see an employee bringing a new item or bin out onto the floor – many locations will bring out new items as quickly as every thirty minutes! Remember, when it comes to shopping (among other things), patience is a virtue. More on that later.

6. If all else fails, head online

Perhaps you’ve tried out different thrift stores and have eagerly shopped restock selections as they hit the floor, and have still not found exactly what it is you’re looking for. Sometimes higher value donations never make their way into an actual store – they are posted on the online goodwill auction site. If you find yourself with some free time at home, the site is almost always worth a look – you never know what you mind find. 

7. Look for DIY projects 

An item might not scream your name off the bat, but there are often items that just need a little TLC to become exactly what you’re looking for. A quick paint job on an old frame, or conditioner on wood can do wonders for a piece and turn it into exactly what you’re looking for without breaking the bank. Better yet, if you are shopping on a high-volume thrift store restock day, you could strike gold with an item that others haven’t had the chance, yet, to shop. 

8. Check for additional discounts 

Goodwills often have coupons or email loyalty mailing lists that can help you save. Furthermore, if you are in the military, are a teacher, or are currently a student, there could be more discounts waiting for you. Usually, all you have to do is ask and perhaps show a form of identification. 

9. Learn how pricing and sales work 

Every item in the store will have a sticker or other tag with a designated color. Each week, for at least a few days, a certain color will be on sale. That’s when it’s ideal to get to your location as early as possible. On sale days, items with that color will likely be picked over before the afternoon.  

A sign advertising a thrift store sale

10. Inventory is seasonal 

The items that you’ll find on thrift store shelves during a restock tend to fall opposite to the current holiday seasons – In other words, winter likely isn’t the time to go on the hunt for your perfect new winter coat. Summer is typically a hot time for donations, as is early spring as people are going through their spring cleaning. Busy times such as the early fall or the holidays will likely see a lull in donation cadence, which may mean less inventory. Shopping in the offseason really is the way to go if you want to save money on beach essentials, snow gear, or holiday decor. 

11. Try a new location 

It’s easy to keep returning back to the same location over and over, but you never know what you might find if you just venture a little bit further. A new location means new opportunities and a new restock cadence, increasing your chances of finding something great. 

12. Look at racks in their entirety

Teams will definitely do their best to sort by size and color, but with the day-to-day commotion of the store, it’s possible that things are mislabeled and misplaced. By taking your time and going through each of the racks slowly, you can make sure that you aren’t missing any pieces you might love. It’s always possible that a team member put something on a rack too quickly during a busy restock period. 

Many shoppers even recommend disregarding size entirely when picking through pieces – sizing is inconsistent, so the organization of the racks may not be entirely accurate – a “large” in many brands is a “medium” in others. 

13. Purchase staples 

While we’re always on the hunt for the coolest new piece, goodwill is also a really great place to find staple pieces that can so often be overpriced in the regular market. White tee shirts, jeans, and simple jackets are pieces that we often overpay for without even realizing it. 

14. Give back! 

At the end of the day, goodwill shopping is a cycle! As you return from your trips (which we hope, with our help, have gone well!), take a peek in your closet or home and see if there are any pieces that you can stand to part with. After all, you likely have something you’re ready to part with that someone else would be thrilled to bring home as a part of their next thrift store haul. 

15. Keep an eye out for items put aside

Now, this may be more of a controversial one, but it definitely happens in every thrift store. Customers frequently hide away items that they have their eyes on while waiting for a better deal to strike. Top locations include under linens, on high top shelves, and even under lampshades.

Sometimes, great thrift store items are cast aside after a difficult decision is made. A lamp might get put down in the clothing section, or an amazing piece of jewelry abandoned near checkout. Often, thrift store treasures get abandoned when someone changes their mind, so it’s worth shopping sections you might usually ignore.

Keep an extra eye out after restock periods for great finds that have been hidden away by other shoppers. 

16. Expect that Prices can (and will) vary 

Individual Goodwills can set their own prices, so it can be difficult to try to match prices across locations. If you are to shop at the end of the week or the weekend, a few days after a restock, you may not have your pick of the litter but you will likely find a great deal or a hidden gem. 

17. Choose Stores Strategically

Some people stay in their own neighborhoods when thrifting, while others insist thrift store inventory is better in wealthy suburbs. Still others insist that the real gems come from thrift stores in low-income areas, where no one expects to find treasures. As you shop around, you’ll develop a better feel for the thrift stores near you and what their inventory is like. I will concede, however, that name-brand clothing in generally easier to find in thrift stores in wealthy communities, as families clean out closets full of high-end brand names like Banana Republic, Gap, J. Crew, Abercrombie, and other recognizable names.

When Does Goodwill Restock?

This is the question everyone asks when I post about pro thrifting hacks, so here’s the lowdown on what I know from experience and conversations with goodwill employees. Goodwill restocks at predictable times- here’s how to time your visit to find freshly restocked Goodwill shelves.

Your Goodwill Restocks Just after Delivery Day

Goodwill restocks after the blue box truck delivers new merchandise from a donation distribution center. This restocking delivery arrives once a week, on a scheduled day that’s different for each goodwill. To take advantage of the fresh inventory right after goodwill restocks, try to drive past goodwill on your commute or visit regularly to learn when your goodwill gets their restocking deliveries.

But just seeing the blue truck might not mean the restock is immediate- trucks have to first be unloaded, and inventory brought into the back of the goodwill- where it might sit for a while.

HINT: A really good clue to finding out when goodwill restocks in your neighborhood is by paying attention to sales. If, for example, pink-tags go on sale on Mondays and Tuesdays, it’s a strong signal that after the store closes on Tuesday, staff remove any unsold items with pink tags (to send to the outlets) and put out the bulk of the new inventory from their restocking shipment.

Goodwill Restocks when Rolling Racks Come onto the Sales Floor

While you are learning when your goodwill restocks, look for this sign of new inventory: rolling racks. Goodwills restock from rolling racks with blue plastic bins filled with new merchandise.

Goodwill regularly releases new stock from the back, about every 30 minutes throughout the day, As long as you aren’t actively impeding a goodwill employee from doing their job, it’s generally ok to shop from these restocking rolling racks- they’re guaranteed to have the freshest inventory.

Goodwill Restocks Slowly through Every Day

Goodwill’s restocking policy actively tries to avoid one super-busy day by releasing new inventory steadily throughout opening hours. To get the first crack at new inventory, try slowing down and waiting for new racks to roll out, or break up your goodwill shopping trip by leaving to grab a coffee and coming back to shop from the new restocking cart.

Learning How to Thrift like a Pro

Some people are experts at shopping for the best deals on the market, while others pay full price for most everything that they buy. Personally, I always idolized the latter. In fact, with the price of everything skyrocketing, thrifting is a skill that anyone can use to help a budget stretch and the rise of inflation hit a little less hard.

Goodwill is not only an ideal place to save on the things that you buy, you can also find high-quality items that people donate. From gold jewelry (some pro thrifters bring a gold-tester) to full-size sofas and couches, it is a gold mine that many people may look over, especially if they do not know the secrets to thrift store shopping.

Generally, the operations of Goodwill stores can vary from one location to the next. As a general rule of thumb, the best time to go shopping is early in the day on a weekday. The store’s opening is considered to be the golden hour. This is mainly because new merchandise is available on the shelves, and no other customers have had a chance to see them. Monday morning is a coveted hour for the most fruitful trips, especially since employees are busy restocking the shelves after the busy weekend

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