I recently appeared in The Times – or rather, my tips for hunting down charity shop bargains did. It was for a feature in the Money section, off the back of news that spending in charity shops hit a record of almost £1 billion last year. Those tips are hidden behind the newspaper’s online paywall now, so here they are in full, with some additional notes and snaps.
1. Today’s charity shops tend to smell of soap rather than armpits, and it is noticeable that over the past year or so, a lot of them have hiked their prices. Good for them! It does mean that hunting down bargains is tougher than it used to be, but it can be done.
2. When shopping for clothes, check the condition and the label carefully. Fashion is available so cheaply these days, and the people who run charity shops don’t always appreciate this. It is common to find used items from Primark, for example, selling in charity shops for higher prices than they cost new.
3. If you are looking for a fashion bargain, steer clear of the best-known labels: your chances of finding Burberry or Stella McCartney, for example, are slim because everyone recognises those labels and they are priced accordingly. Lesser-known labels are where the real bargains are to be had. I’ve picked up Ben de Lisi and Dries van Noten for knockdown prices. And there is always plenty of vintage Jaeger — much of it from the 1980s and 1990s, so not to everyone’s taste.
My favourite finds include a Dries Van Noten skirt for £10, a tweed dress from LK Bennett for £15 and an Edina Ronay blouse for £4.99.
You can find good high street bargains too. At the weekend I picked up a Debenhams trenchcoat for £5, a green polka-dot top from Marks & Spencer for £3 and a suede belt, still in its wrapper, also for £3. (Note: many of these items appeared in a recent post.)
4. Finding a good charity shop bargain has little to do with luck. It comes down to persistence! If you dip in and out of your favourite thrift shops frequently, and you have the patience to browse through the endless racks of clothes, sooner or later you will find yourself in the right place at the right time.
Here in the Thrifty household we start this training programme early:
5. My best ever charity shop buy was a pair of once-worn Manolo Blahniks. I found them in a glass display cabinet in Oxfam on Kensington High Street. The soft black leather gleamed; the soles were barely scratched. The shoes were my size, and had been left that morning. They would have cost £300 – £400 new. I snapped them up for £60. More recently, I found a pair of once-worn Gina shoes in my local Scope shop for £3.50.
6. I tend to haunt local, independent charity shops, run by hospices, cat rescues and the like. In my experience, the bigger charity shop “chains” such as British Heart Foundation and Oxfam are far more likely to charge the Earth for the bobbliest, most threadbare of items. However this general rule of thumb doesn’t apply to the charity shops located within the country’s wealthiest enclaves (see Manolo Blahniks, above). If you are in a London SW postcode, for example, all bets are off – and my advice is to rummage, rummage, rummage!
Here is a glimpse of my favourite local charity shop, which raises money for St. Michael’s Hospice:
7. I also tend to buy my household china from charity shops. I love the vintage items, and it doesn’t bother me that the items often come on their own rather than in sets – it’s a matter of personal taste but for me, it all adds to the charm. As with clothes, however, a lot of charity shops have raised their prices for household wares. They have also started splitting up tea sets, to sell them off in bits and pieces for more money.
8. Right now the crockery “labels”, such as Spode and Royal Worcester, carry high price tags. Utility crockery, which I adore, also commands high mark-ups. If, like me, you are a retro fan, I recommend going for royal memorabilia. You can get some gorgeous items from the 1950s, and some fun stuff from the 1980s, for next to nothing. At the St. Michael’s Hospice shop at the weekend I bought some pretty little gold-rimmed, bone china Coronation mugs for £1.50 to £2 apiece, along with painted glasses for 80p a pop and a Charles & Diana cup and saucer set for £3.
…Incidentally, one of the other charity shop aficionados quoted in the Times feature was a lady called Tabitha Teuma, from Midcentury magazine. She had some interesting points to make about homeware:
“Ceramics and glassware are perhaps the most likely midcentury finds. These have become highly collectable in their own right and it is worth looking out for the odd piece from one of the mass-produced dinner sets — for example, the distinctive monochrome ‘Homemaker’ sets produced for Woolworths by Tom Arnold or Enid Seeney in the 1950s and 1960s.
“I have often noticed colourful 1960s patterned glass tumblers, which are very collectable and can sometimes be found in their original boxed sets of six.”
These are the famous Homemaker pieces to which she is referring (image from the Woolworth’s Museum site):
I love this stuff. I don’t own any though, and if I spotted any Homemaker items in a charity shop, I think I’d give myself a good, hard pinch to check I wasn’t dreaming. But you never know. Keep your eyes peeled…!