The Charity Shopping Bible
I’ve read many of these guides in my time, and they all seem to say exactly the same thing. Be patient, keep digging, have a list. And while yes, these things may be useful, they aren’t going to help you track down the real hidden gems I’m afraid. Charity shopping is a science, not an art, and approaching it as such means you’ll track down the best buys – buys that’ll outdo anything you’ll find on the high street, should you be willing to put in the effort.
I appreciate not everybody is on board with charity shopping. In fact, some people have told me they think it’s gross. I myself used to be funny about charity shopping, until I met my step-nana Barbara. Sadly she passed away a few years ago, but every time I step foot in one, I think of her and the gems she’d appear with every week – 'this one’s from the PDSA', 'this one’s from Dougie Mac!' she’d say with the glee you can only get from scoring a proper bargain.
If they’re not for you, then that‘s absolutely fine – the less competition, the better, frankly. But if you, like me, find the thrill of the chase too much to avoid, then not only can you score some actual gems (an incredibly truncated list of amazing finds I’ve had for under a tenner each over the years - Chloe bag, Realisation Par dress, Karl Lagerfeld blazer, Sandro suit, YSL boots, Chanel tweed jacket, vintage tea dresses, Ossie Clark trousers, Biba shoes, a pair of Pierre Hardy ankle boots I got when I was at uni and my mum promptly stole and still wears daily) but you’re also actually doing good for the world – womenswear sales alone brought in £13.6million for Oxfam last year. That's just one charity - think of how much the hundreds of other charities who’ve taken to the high street to get us to part with our hard earned have raised without us really noticing.
And in that way, they’re win-win-win. One man’s junk becomes another’s treasure, meaning items avoid landfill, we score some rarities and the charities see actual results from our bargain hunting. So, if you’re looking for my tips on getting the most out of your trip down someone else‘s memory lane, read on!
Look for Fabrics, not Labels
The list I gave above might have been label heavy, but those items aren’t actually my most-loved charity shop scores – it’s the ones who’s names I don’t know, who’s labels have been removed that I treasure the most. Usually when shopping, your eyes take centre stage – but when you go charity shopping, it’s all about your fingertips.
Run your hand along the edge of each rail and see what fabrics feel the most luxurious, which ones don’t feel instantly flammable – whether you’re usually on a budget or not, now’s your time to be as picky as you like. If the fabric feels cheap, there’s a reason for it. Don’t buy that ’vintage looking’ dress from Primark, when you can hold out for the real thing.
Sack off the List
Loads of guides to charity shopping that I have read say ‘take a list‘, but to be honest I have always found that going out with a definite idea of what I’m looking for is totally fruitless (bar one time when I wanted a velvet suit and found one, but I go charity shopping so often that a coincidence was bound to happen eventually).
The trick is to go with a flexible budget and to keep your eyes peeled – sometimes you might go home empty handed, and others you’ll drop on a gem that will be gone should you think about it and go home. Being decisive will serve you better than a list you need to stick to religiously. Buyers remorse works the opposite way round with charity shops than it does with normal shops – chances are you’ll only regret not buying something magical than going for it.
Try Stuff On
Charity shop changing rooms aren’t the well-lit, flatteringly mirrored dens you’ll find on the high street, so it can be a bit disconcerting heading into what’s sometimes a glorified curtain hung over a railing. However, trying stuff on will save you from buying something totally useless, something that may come in useful should you have ventured out of town. Just go for it – it’s only yourself you’ll be annoying should you go home with a load of gems only to find they don’t fit.
Ignore the Smells
I’ll come out and say it – very often, charity stop clobber smells. Whether it’s the stereotypical mothballs or something a little grimmer, what you’re buying is second hand. So don’t be prim and proper about the smell, you’ve (hopefully) got access to a washing machine and a bit of Persil, and should things really pong, a spray of neat vodka will get rid of it – should you be able to spare a bit of that.
Find Your Spot
My personal favourite charity shopping spot is Leek, the town up the road from my house in Stoke. There’s about 10 charity shops in total on one road, and it’s here I’ve found most of my gems because I know the route I want to go and what each shop entails. Finding a trail that you can follow is really key to getting your charity shop flow – my mum’s fave spot is Alderley Edge as here they have more designer items, my stepdad likes Macclesfield because the record collections and menswear is better, whereas I like Leek because it’s where all the old people live so you tend to get more vintage pieces.
Think about it logically about who donates where and work out what you want to find or what’s most your style, then find the high street nearby that has the most spots. People are likely to donate where it’s easy to get to – so bear this in mind too. There’s a standalone Douglas Macmillan charity shop up the road from me that always has gems because people are able to park easily outside, meaning more frequent and often larger donations.
Be Extra Friendly
A lot of guides will tell you to befriend the shop staff, but unless you live in a tiny village which has zero visitors yet is always being pumped full of goodies, this probably won’t suit you – the staff in charity shops are incredibly busy people (my cousin Lucy runs the Douglas Macmillan shop in Stoke and I’m not sure she has time to breathe never mind remember everyone who comes in and what their dress preferences are).
What will help you, though, is being extra friendly. Obviously, they’re not on commission like you’ll find in department stores, so their friendliness is genuine – meaning that reciprocating it can often mean they’ll suggest other items you may not have found or go and pick something up from the back they think you’d love. This has happened to me a couple of times, and I have always bought what they suggested because they were bang on. One thing to bear in mind, too, is that charity shops sometimes employ people with differing abilities – so whether you can visibly see disabilities or not, always be patient.
Take Your Time
Charity shopping is a leisurely activity, and where there may be 50 styles in a boutique the same size, they’ll stock ten of them – which means in a charity shop of the same size, there’s 500 styles to rummage through. Be patient, give items the time they deserve. Take a minute to look at the belts, the shoes, the tubs of hats, the boxes of scarves – there may just be a Hermes awaiting a new home.
And don’t be snobbish about shoes – people often wear them once and get blistered, so while it’s not wise to go for a battered old pair (unless that’s your thing, I’m not here to judge), then new or nearly-new ones can be perfectly fine.
Think Outside the Box
Charity shopping is not a time to go for your favourite section – in fact, you probably can’t, charity shops do not abide by your rules I'm afraid. So use this opportunity to dive head first into something more out there than you’d usually go for. The financial outlay is likely to be less than dropping three figures on that dress you'll only wear once, but you won’t love it any less if it’s perfect just because it's from a charity shop – in fact, you’ll probably adore it for being such a damn bargain.
Statement items and one-offs are what you should be looking for here, basics (plain tees etc) stick to the high street unless you drop on a silk-cashmere blend tee or something extra fabulous. But head to the menswear section for t-shirts, boxy white shirts and cashmere, and to the kidswear section for vintage accessories (not forgetting the homeware section that often is full of gems you’d pay a fortune for at Liberty).
The trick is to picture it washed, on it’s own. Imagine it's on a mannequin in Selfridges – would you lust after it? Being able to mentally see it outside of context and being able to partner it with what you’ve already got in your mind should save you from making too many errors and also keep you experimenting in a safer space than Harvey Nichols.
Look for Partner Charity Shops
High street shops often partner with local charity shops to donate surplus stock to save them sending it to landfill. I found the store that the Manchester branch of And Other Stories donate to the other day (the Red Cross in Knutsford FYI), and although all the tags had been cut out, I recognised the clobber straight away.
Brand new, never been worn and at about 80% off RRP. Macclesfield’s Oxfam had racks of brand new, tags on Ted Baker suits and prom dresses, and the Save The Children just off Oxford Street takes supplies straight from Vogue House’s wardrobe department. It’s not about who you know, it’s about where you know.
Don’t Give Up
The number one tip is to not give up. I’ve got all those gems, sure, but the times I’ve come out of a charity shop empty handed far outweighs the number of times I’ve dropped on by a factor of about 500. They’re treasure hunts, and the thrill of the chase is almost exciting as catching the prey itself. Enjoy it! It’s the best way to spend a Sunday afternoon (providing you’ve checked they’re all open – villages shutting every door on a Sunday has stung me more times than you’ll ever know…).