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For quick cash or a great wardrobe fix try thrifting

Jan. 26, 2010 at 9:09 AM ET

From TODAY contributor and editor-in-chief of Woman's Day Elizabeth MayhewthriftingWhat’s good about shopping at consignment stores?
  • You save big. Expect to save at least 80 percent off retail prices.
  • Consignment shopping is environmentally friendly; better to sell your gently used goods to someone else for a fraction of the original cost than to see the item go directly into a landfill.
What to buy:
  • Buy brands you know. If you stick to buying brands you know and trust, then you will be more likely to actually wear or use the item.
  • Beeline to the hot spot. The best place to score quality items is in the “newly stocked” rack. Also check out the areas near the dressing rooms where people tend to leave great items that didn’t fit them.
  • Look for brand-new items. Frequently retail stores flip their merchandise that hasn’t sold to a consignment shop to sell for them.
  • Check each item carefully for holes, stains, working zippers etc. before you make your purchase. Most consignment shops don’t allow returns, so make sure the item is in good condition before you pay.
  • Dress to shop. Many consignment stores do not have dressing rooms, so it is best to wear thin, light layers of clothing that allow you to easily slip on and off anything you want to try.
What not to buy:
  • Stay away from buying toys if they are not in their original packaging -- consignment shops don’t have to test toys for lead the way regular retailers do (they are still not supposed to sell the items). Better to air on the safe side.
  • Don’t buy anything for which safety is an issue — no cribs, car seats, etc.
  • Don’t buy things you don’t need. Just because you are surrounded by $4 price tags doesn’t mean you should buy just because it seems like a good deal -- $4 for something you aren’t going to wear or use is $4 wasted.
What to sell:
  • Consigners are looking for nearly new items or items in seemingly new condition. All clothing must be clean, zippers need to be working, and all buttons must be present and firmly sewn on. Little things like ironing the clothing and placing it on hangers can make a difference. You can even label the hangers with sizes and slip them in salvaged dry cleaning bags. If you are selling housewares or toys it is best to include all of the packaging (if you still have it) as well as any manuals or directions. The better your stuff looks, the more easily it will sell.
  • Scout before you show up. The last thing you want to do is show up at a consignment shop with a truckload of household items only to find out that the shop doesn’t sell furniture or appliances.
  • Know your store's policies. Most stores prefer things dropped off on weekday mornings when it’s less hectic. Also ask how and when you will be paid. Some stores pay only after they've sold your goods; others pay you upon drop-off (anticipating what they'll get). If they pay later, ask if they will mail you a check or if you need to pick it up.
  • Look for chains that specialize in specific used goods. Play it Again Sports buys and sells only used sporting goods and fitness equipment (www.playitagainsports). Plato’s Closet is geared to the fashion-conscious teen customer. They buy and sell gently used clothing from brands like the Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch, Express and American Eagle (www.platoscloset.com).
  • Sell in season. If you have a sled that your kids have outgrown, then you should sell now while there is still a chance of snow. Clean out your closet before a new season begins; that way your item will be on the consignment rack DURING the season, not after.
  • Bigger sizes sell faster than smaller ones.
  • If you sell an item yourself on eBay or Craigslist, you will probably get more money, but with much more hassle and work. Expect to earn 40 to 50 percent of the selling price. Consignment shops run by charitable organizations tend to pay more — as much as 75 percent of the selling price.
  • Do not sell designer knockoffs. It is illegal!
Where and when to shop:
  • Look for stores in nice neighborhoods; you will be more likely to find better goods.
  • Scout sale days and special offers. Even consignment shops have regular sales — many shops have regular “sale days,” like every Wednesday, when items are 50 percent off the tagged price.
  • Go often, but don’t stay long. Consignment shops tend to turn their inventory over often, so checking in regularly is a good way to spot the new merchandise. If you stay too long, however, you may end up buying a lot of things you don’t need.
  • The best time of year for thrifting is the spring, when homeowners start cleaning out their attics, closets and garages.
TODAY contributor Elizabeth Mayhew is a lifestyle expert and editor-in-chief of Woman's Day magazine. To learn more you can visit her site at: ElizabethMayhew.comWomansday.com
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