Charity Shop Rail

Bargains lurk within

I rarely buy clothes new. I guess it started out of necessity when I was a student, but it’s evolved into a habit that prejudices me against the high street (£29.99 for a TOP?! Really?). Of course we know the plus points: it’s cheaper, greener to reuse fashion, benefits charities, etc, etc but although the planet-saving altruistic glow is nice and all that, the best part for me is the thrill of the hunt.

There are those that will tell you the golden age of charity shopping is over. That since the recession everyone’s plundering the stock and there’s no bargains left. Either that or they are selling on Ebay instead of donating.They will remind you of the Mary Portas effect, and insist their local shops are full of bobbly Primark rejects priced higher than they were new.  Whilst there is some truth in these claims, there are still real bargains to be had; it’s just that the hunt is a little harder these days.

There are other ways to source second-hand clothes of course. The afore-mentioned Ebay can still turn up a gem or two. You need to shop outside of popular times (mid-morning and mid-afternoon during the week are best) but when you factor in postage and the risk that you might not quite get what you are looking for, it becomes less tempting. Elsewhere online, local Facebook pages often have clothes sellers, but in my experience individuals can be unreliable/dodgy/downright crazy. Mind you, maybe that’s a reflection on my local area…

For bottom-dollar pricing, it’s hard to beat car boot sales, especially if you can overcome that peculiarly British squeamishness about haggling. Now I love car boot sales, and I’ll buy anything at them, but generally not clothes as I prefer to try things on. The other downside to such sales is that they are seasonal, whereas the chazzas trade all year round.

So here are my top tips and advice on maximising your chances of a successful haul as you hit the shops.

Forget what you already know

For many years the golden rule of charity shopping was that you should visit the most expensive areas to pick up the best quality donations. So well-known is this adage, that the charities are wise to it and price their stock accordingly and you will often pay more for the same item in a posh town than a rougher district. Which is completely different to new fashion, where a top costs the same in Dorothy Perkins no matter what branch you’re in. Remember, this kind of shopping is a bit like fishing; if everyone is casting their rod in the same pond, you won’t all find what you’re looking for. Charity shops are evolved, sophisticated businesses, assessing and transferring stock regularly, meaning donations don’t always stay at source. I prefer city suburb shops, and particularly scruffier independents, as they can be where you unearth the real treasures.

Another generally accepted piece of advice is that you shouldn’t buy shoes or basics (vests etc), presumably because the former will be moulded to another’s foot and the latter is cheap enough anyway. Regarding shoes, the days where people owned four pairs in strict rotation are long gone. Retailers like New Look pioneered the way in cheap fashion for feet, and now you’re highly likely to come across shoes that are unworn. If you can’t justify spending £50 on some brand new mustard ballet pumps to wear with one outfit, maybe you’ll get lucky in the chazzas! I regularly buy vests from charity shops. They may only be £2 from Peacocks, but this way I can source higher quality labels for a similar price. I have a fantastic little red Mexx vest that has been a staple for some five years or more.

Some things you should avoid though

Whilst it’s a fact many charities don’t habitually sell random bottles of toiletries, the true cannot be said of gift sets, which are often displayed with the bric a brac. As a former manager for The Body Shop, I can date a White Musk body lotion from a mile away, and its not unusual for me to spot things I sold in store up to ten years previously. These unwanted items often languish in people’s bottom drawers for years before they hit the donation box. Don’t be tempted by health and beauty products, you might get a nasty rash. At best, they will have lost their potency or fragrance, even if sealed.

Lots of people donate items that they have incorrectly washed so they no longer fit. Whilst you may not see that as barrier to purchase if you’re a smaller size and it fits you now, I would approach with caution. Shrunken or faded garments rarely look good on. Sizing is so complicated, that just because that size 16 skirt now fits your size 12 frame, it doesn’t mean it will hang correctly or have an even hem, particularly if designed on the bias. Always, always try things on and get another opinion if you can.

Be fearless

About trying things on. Not many charity shops welcome refunds, so be sure about what you are buying. If you’re lucky, you might shop in one of the swankier stores with fully functioning fittings rooms, but more often that not it will be a curtained off area on the sales floor. My local one has wonky saloon doors that don’t fasten properly. There’s no point worrying about them swinging open at an inopportune moment, since any passing perverts can peek through the louvred doors and have a good gawp. I still try things on though. A bargain £3.99 dress is not a bargain if you get it home and it doesn’t fit.

Charity shops have a unique ambience. All human life is there. Embrace the random conversations with octogenarians, have patience with the volunteer cashier who is clueless when operating the till, singlaong to the Everly Brothers classic on Smooth FM (every charity shop plays Smooth FM). It’s all part of the fun.

Hunt, hunt, hunt (but play it smart)

First of all, the best time to shop charity is early to mid-week. Most donations come in on a weekend, so allow a day or so for things to be processed and hit the shop floor. Some people complain that the staff glean off all the best bits. That’s probably true, it’s a perk of the job (wouldn’t you?), but there’s no guarantees they are the same size as you, or have the same taste.

Maybe it goes without saying that you need time for an effective charity shopping trip.  Time is money; and you can only save one or the other. The advantage of new (rather than newtoyou) shopping is that everything is laid out nicely and your size easy to locate. Chez chazza you will need a broader approach. Check the sizes either side of your own; sometimes things are mislabeled, Gap US sizing is a frequent casualty of this, and labels vary so much anyway.  Check the mens section too and consider all styling options, but don’t go crazy.

This is probably the most controversial thing I have to say on the subject, but please exercise some sartorial caution with your choices. I do quite a lot of mooching on the internet about this subject, and Youtube in particular is a joy. There’s lots of ‘ haul videos’ where invariably bright young things show off their finds. The 90’s are BACK, and although these hipsters look fantastic in their oversized men’s check shirts and cut-off denims,  I am writing this as a 37 yr old squishy mother of two, and believe me reader, I would not. I did the grunge trend before, but back then I was a size 8 and drunk on lemon Hooch; these days I have no excuse. Shopping second-hand does not exclusively mean fashion forward, eclectic looks, any more than it used to mean tired and sad. A strong sense of identity and what suits you will really help before you throw yourself into the melee. The advantages of my age and style is that a lot of my contemporaries have disposable income to buy (and subsequently donate) clothes I like. Having said all of that, I am on the hunt for a little green velvet skater dress as I reckon I could still rock the Lisa Loeb look.

Lisa Loeb

Lisa Loeb looking lovely.

One more note if you are looking to build yourself that eclectic wardrobe; be aware that old does not equal vintage. Many shops now keep special vintage rails. In my experience these are unequivocally disappointing, and are full of polyester smocks with ‘Edna Potts’ care home name labels and dinner medals down the front. The best true vintage pieces are almost always snaffled up to be sold by specialist boutiques. Stay clear of these rails and look for repro or sympathetic high street pieces in with the main stock.

My best piece of advice here is to shop with an agenda, but keep it loose. At the moment I am shopping for clothes in Autumnal shades, with a particular focus on printed skirts and knitwear. I stand a good chance of picking something up, rather than limiting myself to a particular colour, print or item.

Don’t be begrudging

Don’t become one of the ‘How Much!?’ brigade. Charity shops are there to make money, not to furnish your wardrobes for pennies. Whilst it’s true to say that prices have risen recently, that’s true across the board, and a couple of extra pounds on a second-hand jumper is still going to be a significant saving on new, where even a Tesco acrylic cheapie wouldn’t come in under a tenner. Griping about pricing seems petty and churlish, so even if you do keep a healthy awareness of where the best bargains are to be found or who maintains a higher pricing structure (I find British Heart Foundation markedly more expensive), keep quiet about it when instore.

Lots of charity shops cluster together in the same parts of town, so you can make an afternoon of it. Take a friend, have some lunch and a giggle.

Have fun and be sure to share your bargains, I’d love to see them!