Consignment vs. Thrift: Knowing Your Options

I’m taking this week off to spend with family for the holidays, so here’s a tidbit from the archives!

* * * * *


When it comes to my outfit posts, I tend to list anything that’s been bought secondhand as “thrifted,” which isn’t quite fair. Yes, items purchased at consignment shops are used and yes, I had to do some digging to find them. But thrift stores and consignment stores are really quite different.


Weeellll, some will work differently than others. But here in the U.S., the vast majority of thrift shops are donation-based and center on a charity or non-profit organization. Community members donate used goods – including clothing, shoes, and accessories – to the organization in question. Although donating truly ruined items is discouraged, damaged, heavily worn, and flawed items are relatively common. Items are sorted and priced by volunteers, then sent to the sales floor where they are bought by shoppers.


Again, there are several models. But in most cases, consignment stores keep buyers on staff. Community members bring in gently used items for evaluation, and the buyers look them over to determine if they are likely to sell well from that particular shop. If the items are deemed a good risk, the shop sells them on behalf of the original owner, takes a percentage of the sale price, and gives the remainder to the original owner. Some consignment shops will take the items, price them, sell them, and THEN pay out the consignee’s portion. Some will pay up front.


Thrifting is a crap-shoot. You never know what you’ll get because stock is constantly rotating and donations may range from high-end designer goods to wacky vintage duds to fast-fashion castoffs. But here are a handful of instances in which thrifting may be the better secondhand option:

You’re broke: Thrift shops are almost universally cheaper than consignment shops. This is not to say that you can’t get bargains at consignment shops or that some thrift stores aren’t grossly overpriced. But thrift stores are utilizing donations and trying to sell as many items as possible, while consignment stores are choosy about what they accept and must split profits with garment owners. Consignment shops will charge more. If you’re truly broke, you’ll likely do better shopping thrift.

You’re looking for casual items: Again, plenty of great office-appropriate and formal duds can be found at most thrift shops. But since thrift shops accept flawed items and since some folks might choose to keep or consign fancy garments that are still in good shape, thrift stores are a better bet for casual wear.

You’re shopping for accessories: Scarves and belts can be nabbed for pennies on the dollar at thrift stores, and they’re small enough that you’re likely to spot any damage or wear. Jewelry and shoes are catch as catch can here in Minneapolis, but hats and gloves are abundant and cheap. You’ll get better deals on perfectly good stuff if you thrift for accessories.

You love the thrill of the hunt: Thrifting takes time and patience. If you love searching for amazing finds or breathtaking bargains, you will adore this type of shopping. If the process is as much fun as the finds you take home in the end, you’re a born thrifter.

You’re a secondhand shopping expert: I’ve been thrifting since I was 13. I know how to find what I want, and what my deal-breakers are. I can tell from feel if a fiber is something I’d want to wear and know how to spot good construction from 30 paces. If you’re new to secondhand shopping, consignment shops might feel less overwhelming. If you’re an old hand, you can hit the thrift racks with confidence.


Since consignment operations sift wheat from chaff at the outset, you’ll find higher end labels and garments with less wear and tear.

You’re looking for work clothing: Lots of fun casual items on the racks, too, but consignment shops are generally stocked to the brim with work-appropriate garments in good shape. You’ll spend more, but you’ll get newer items for your investment.

You’re looking for something specific: Consignment shops tend to have smaller inventories and are better organized than thrift stores, plus they stock classics pretty consistently. Now, if you’re on the hunt for a red leather jacket with fringe and rhinestones, thrift stores or even eBay might be better bets. But if you’re looking for button-front shirts, skinny jeans, colorful cardigans, or simple sandals and you aren’t willing to hunt through multiple shops to find them, try consignment.

You want updated versions: Some of you may be saying, “Hang on. What about the whole ‘thrifting for classics‘ thing?” Good point! And here’s why I’m sending you to consigment: Thrift stores will have classic items in abundance, and some will be exactly what you want. But they’ll also have skirts from the 80s and blazers from the 90s, which may look just ever so slightly “off” to your eye. Most consignment shops only accept items that were made in the past 3-4 years, so you’ll have an easier time finding current iterations of classic items.

You prefer mid-market and high-end clothes overall: If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Banana Republic girl, you will occasionally luck out at the thrift stores but you’ll find BALES of great stuff at consignment shops. If you love Eileen Fisher clothes but hate the prices, consignment shops can help you out. Naturally, mid-market and high-end brands turn up at thrift stores, too … but not quite as often.

You’re easing into secondhand: I want everyone I meet to unlock the joys of thrift shopping … but I also understand that it can be overwhelming. (If you’re local, you can always set up a personal shopping session at Value Village to get you started!) If you get overwhelmed easily, are working on a tight timeline, or just don’t enjoy the shopping process all that much, starting with consignment shops can make the transition to secondhand shopping a bit smoother.

Related posts:

Do you tend to do more of your secondhand shopping at thrift stores or consignment stores? A bit of both? Do you go to one source for certain needs, the other for different needs? What do you see as the advantages of one over the other?

Next Post
Previous Post

3 Responses to “Consignment vs. Thrift: Knowing Your Options”

  1. Joyette Kendig

    May I post this beautifully written explanation in our shop? Consignment and Thrift are apples and oranges. Both have their advantages and perks… but most people don’t understand the difference. Thanks for helping to encourage re-sale shopping and de-mystifying the confusion. Treasure hunters always welcome! đŸ™‚

  2. Annabeth

    I’ve mentioned this before but will do so again: If you’re looking for consignment store quality at thrift store prices, see if you can find a thrift store run by an opera guild, the DAR, or any other group of – let’s just say it – rich old ladies. The things donated to this store will be very conservative generally, but this is ideal for basics (the navy slacks, the gray cardigan) and office wear; they will also be of the highest quality, and generally fairly lightly used. Those thrift stores will not offer much that is trendy, but for basics and work stuff, they’re hard to beat.

  3. Esther's consignment

    Sally, this article is wonderful! You successfully detailed the pros and cons of both thrift and consignment shopping. It amazes us sometimes how many women come into our shop with bargains in mind, and are disappointed when they leave the store. Though we do have affordable, lower-end pieces available, we also cater to the women looking for exquisite designer pieces in impeccable condition.

    P.S. Annabeth, that’s a great recommendation!