I've been shopping at thrift shops for years. I've saved a ton of money on clothing and managed to find some great buys which would have cost me many times more from a retail store, and in the process I've also lessened my impact on the earth by buying clothing that might otherwise go into a landfill. However, thrift shopping takes a bit more mindful effort than scouring your local department store or mall. Here are some tips to get the most out of your thrifting experience.
Get accustomed to the idea that you probably aren't going to find exactly what you want right away. For example, if you have to have a black wool skirt that is exactly 23" long and a size 6 for a big job interview two days from now, a thrift store probably won't have what you want unless you are very lucky. The range of merchandise at thrift shops depends entirely on what has been donated and to which individual shops the clothes are distributed if it's a larger chain like Goodwill. Unlike a mass retailer, your average thrift is not going to carry any one item in every size and color. If you do need something specific right away, you should probably just bite the bullet and go retail.
Keep an open mind. You might not be looking for a new-to-you blazer at the moment, but if you happen to find one that looks terrific and goes with your other clothes, snap it up. It might not be there next time you visit! Some of my best purchases have been unexpected lucky finds, like the Ralph Lauren coat I got for under ten bucks. Think of thrifting as akin to going on a treasure hunt. Chances are that you'll find something you like for the right price, but it may not be at all what you anticipated when you came in.
If you are the sort who absolutely has to wear the latest fashions and trends, thrifting may not be for you. If, on the other hand, you are content with classic pieces and things which are slower to go in and out of style, thrifting will do your wardrobe good. Usually very trendy items don't wind up at thrifts until long past their "coolness" has ended -- as of the time of this writing, for instance, there are a lot of gigantically bell-bottomed, faded, embroidered women's jeans at the thrifts in my town, whereas skinny jeans in a dark wash are what's currently in fashion. However, basic, classically-cut slacks, shirts, blouses, sweaters, jackets, dresses and skirts can be had everywhere and at all times. You can always make your outfits more modern by updating things like shoes, belts, neckties, jewelry and handbags.
Thrifts often have great vintage finds. If you like 1960s style bags reminiscent of Mad Men, for instance, right now thrifts seem to have them a lot. Occasionally you'll even find something truly remarkable, like the Bakelite 1950s purse I found at a Goodwill when I was in high school. Thrifts also often carry items that aren't quite "vintage" but will be soon enough if you're willing to wait a few years. However, as more and more people get turned on to vintage fashion, the really sought-after items usually wind up at consignment shops where they might still be a great buy but not nearly as inexpensive as they would be at your local thrift. Some thrift store chains do have "boutique" shops for high-ticket items like vintage clothing and antiques. I used to patronize one run by the Salvation Army which had many bargains despite being a bit pricier than the regular store.
Thrift stores often have sale days, thus making their merchandise even cheaper. A thrift I used to frequent had 50% off storewide sales on a regular basis. Some stores tag each day's new arrivals with a certain color and have specials based on color coding -- for instance, Monday all pink tags might be discounted, Tuesday all the blue-tagged items are on sale, Wednesday everything except green tags are marked down and so forth. Learn when your local thrift shops have sales and plan to visit during these times to save even more money.
Thrifting takes time but is worth the effort and patience. Unless you're talking about a very small thrift store, plan to spend at least an hour going through the racks -- even more if you're going into a large thrift with hundreds of items for sale. If your list of needed items is a long one, make a point of visiting the thrift shop on a regular basis -- maybe weekly or monthly, since thrifts get different merchandise in all the time, often daily. You might walk out empty-handed from time to time, but more often than not you'll be amazed at what you can find if you become a regular.
Be comfy and Earth-friendly while you thrift. Wear slip-on shoes and simple clothing so that you can easily try on items. Don't wear anything too bulky so you can try on sweaters and coats over your clothes. Ladies, you might think about carrying a wristlet or just sticking your cash, credit cards and phone in a pocket for ease of movement -- a big purse is often a hassle in the crowded, narrow aisles of your typical thrift. If necessary, you can use a small backpack so you're still hands-free, although some thrifts might not let you bring a backpack inside due to shoplifting concerns. Bring your own shopping bags for your purchases. Some thrift shops even sell reuseable bags if you've neglected to bring your own.
Check over items carefully. Are they in good condition? (If not, that's not always a reason to pass them on; see below.) Are sweaters and knits badly pilled or do they have pulls or holes? Are there holes in the armpits or crotch? Does the item seem stretched out, the elastic shot, the seams pulled to within a hair's breadth of bursting? Are there rips or tears in places that aren't immediately visible? Does the item actually fit? (You can't always tell from the tags.) Is the color exactly what you think it is? Although you aren't paying much for your purchases most thrifts do not allow returns, so be certain the item is actually all that you want it to be before you buy...or at least, close enough to make it worth your while.
Don't reject something that can be easily fixed or altered. Sometimes it's just a matter of changing the buttons, shortening a skirt or pant legs, or dyeing the item a different color to make it perfect for you. If it's missing buttons or hardware, has a loose hem or seam, or is stained but looks like it might wash out, consider buying it anyway. It's easy enough to repair or clean a great piece of clothing and make it look brand new, and you've still saved money and prevented it from going into the trash. On the other hand, if an item has permanent stains, tears or rips that can't be fixed or is otherwise unsalvagable, pass it on. Sadly, some donors use charities as a means of getting rid of all of their unwanted items rather than donating things that someone else might find useable.
Check every section. Even if you aren't interested in men's shirts, plus-sized skirts or outerwear, it might be worth it to stroll over and look around. Items in thrift stores are often miscategorized or else put back in the wrong place by other impatient shoppers. I've sometimes run across women's sweaters in the men's section, or seen girly pink T-shirts hanging among flannel lumberjack shirts. Taking a look around the thrift might lead you to something you otherwise would have missed.
I probably don't need to tell you this, but there are some things you will want to buy new no matter what, these being underwear and other intimate apparel, socks and swimsuits. Yes, of course you can (and probably should) wash whatever you get from a thrift before wearing it...but do you really want to wear someone else's skid-marked tighty whities just to save a few bucks? (Don't tell me if the answer is yes. I don't want to know.)
Also, the question of whether or not to buy used shoes is highly debated among thrifters. Some people feel there's nothing wrong with it, others are squicked by the idea of wearing footwear that someone else may have sweated in and which usually can't be washed, unlike a piece of clothing. Also, wearing shoes with other people's wear patterns already established might be uncomfortable. Use your own best judgment.
Finally, don't stop at just clothing. A thrift can be a great place to find inexpensive, gently used furniture, books, household and kitchen items, toys, exercise equipment, tools and sporting goods. Think of it as being a giant, ever-changing garage sale. The same rules apply here as they do to clothing -- be open-minded and not too specific about your desires, check back regularly and take advantage of sales, and you just might come up with something you really need for an amazing price. There's also the satisfaction of knowing that you are reusing perfectly good items that might otherwise get thrown away and, depending on who runs the thrift shop, you're contributing to charity as well. It's pretty much a win-win situation.