It was 9am on a Saturday morning when I saw it in a charity shop window on my way to the train station. The dark grey bomber was paired with a white tee and light blue jeans. I popped my head in the shop, “Could I have a look at that jacket on the mannequin?” The volunteer grabbed it for me – it was my size, and perfect for the spring weather.
Straight away I fell in love and didn’t even ask how much it was when I took it to the till. “£3 please,” she said. I passed over the cash and walked out with a big smile. This purchase was going to be one of those gems, the kind you can’t forget and definitely never regret. And it was – I’ve worn it weekly ever since.
My charity shop finds aren’t always this spontaneous, mind you. I usually make a whole afternoon of it: jumping on my bike and cycling 20 minutes to browse the rails at my favourite shop (Wandsworth Oasis, for your information – I’ve never left that place without a purchase). While in previous years, I merely dabbled in charity shop shopping, this year – in a bid to buy and waste less – all but two of my clothes purchases have been secondhand. When I asked others on Twitter, I realised I was part of a huge and passionate community.
And that community is growing. Shpock, in association with YouGov, recently surveyed 2,000 UK consumers and found that they were much more willing to buy and shop for secondhand clothes, than they were to reduce the amount they fly or go vegetarian, to reduce their impact on the environment.
“As awareness of sustainable fashion has continued to grow, we’ve seen clear evidence of charity shops becoming a much more popular choice,” says Hattie Lamb, community shop manager at Shelter’s King’s Cross Boutique. “Even in a negative high street environment, we’ve been going from strength to strength.”
What’s more, according to the Charity Retail Association, charity shops raise more than £295m for a range of causes in the UK every year – so you’re helping others, as well as the environment and your wardrobe. It’s a win-win-win.
I’ve given my fair share of rummaging tips to friends and colleagues – keep going back! explore different neighbourhoods! – but I’ve sourced even more from HuffPost UK readers around the country. So here it is: your ultimate guide to becoming a “chopper” (that’s a pro charity shopper to you and me).
Go as often as possible
Brighton-based Tamara Fletcher, 46, has been shopping secondhand since her mum managed a charity shop when she was 16. “I don’t like wearing the same things as dictated by the fashion industry,” she says, “and I’m much more aware of the impact of fast fashion on the environment.” Her favourite thing, she tells me, is finding that “hidden gem” – while also donating to a good cause.
Frequency is important, says Fletcher. “Charity shops send the clothes that haven’t sold to different areas, so there is always rotating stock.” And she’s right. “Go every day if you can,” a British Heart Foundation spokesperson says. “We process fresh stock to the shop floor every hour so you really have to be there to get the great bargains or designer labels as they are snapped up fast.”
For those who don’t have that kind of time, Oscar Stafford, 25, from Leeds, advises to “flick with speed”. “Nobody likes a ‘Slow Siddique’, so slide coat hangers across the rack quickly. Pause for something you know you’ll like; you’ll know you don’t like a pattern within two seconds.”
Get to know your charity shops
They really aren’t all the same. Establish which ones you prefer by going in a few times and comparing pricing on basic and premium brands, says Fletcher. “Sometimes prices on the latter are excessively high so if budget is an issue, you might want to go elsewhere.”
Jacqui Wright, 61, from Salford advises going to smaller, lesser-known charity shops. She finds her local hospice shops get better donations than the bigger ones. “Believe it or not the major ones have a set price for every blouse, skirt, dress, no matter what make it is. You want that charity shop where the little old ladies haven’t a clue what the labels are,” she jokes.
“Look away from just the high-street charity shops,” agrees Thomas Reed, 25, from Reading. “Sue Ryder do an infamous sale at their hospice once a month near Henley. People queue for over an hour before it even opens but it’s worth it. I’ve walked away with Burberry corduroy trousers for £3.”
Venture beyond your local area
Browsing a range of charity shops in your area is one thing – but exploring different areas is another. “You will find the best goodies in wealthier towns as the clothes people are giving away to charity shops are usually the decent brands,” says Reed. This way, you may pay more for clothes, says Abbey Grocott, 25, from Rugby – but they’re likely to be designer and high-end brands, not just secondhand high-street items.
Don’t see it as effort; exploring a neighbourhood should be part of the fun, says Sian Melonie, 35, from Hackney, who blogs at Little Miss Frugal. “My favourite part of charity shopping is going to new places and exploring new areas, even better if it’s on a weekday and you have the run of the shop with less people.”
Pick the right day
The weekends can be hard graft for real bargain hunters – shops are usually packed with unseasoned browsers making them much busier, says Elli Metcalfe, 38, from Manchester. However, they’re good for those doing a wardrobe clear out – Saturday is the most popular day for people dropping off their unwanted goods to the shops (hat tip to Marie Kondo, here).
“Throughout my experience, this new stuff is then displayed on a Monday or Tuesday in the shops,” says Metcalfe. “I tend to plan my work lunches around these days, so I can get to the shops and see what’s new.”
Don’t buy it just because it’s cheap
Make sure you’ll actually wear it when you get home, advises Toni Hargis, 58, who started charity shopping at university in the 1980s. Don’t buy it, only to shove it in your wardrobe and never wear it.
It’s worth looking at items, especially cheap ones, under natural daylight as well, to make sure they’re definitely up to scratch. “Quite often you won’t see a slight tint of yellow in a white fabric or a very faint grease mark under the shop lights,” says Hargis. “Take it to the shop window and have a proper look.”
But also, don’t dilly dally around
Charity shopping isn’t about umming and ahhing over a single purchase. Julie McGuigan, 41, from Birmingham, says don’t dally around. “The stock changes very quickly so if you find a piece you like at the right price – even if it is the wrong season, or as recently happened to me you bought a pair of work shoes last week but this pair of work shoes [in the charity shop] are also fabulous – buy it! The piece will not be there tomorrow.”
You can always store nice pieces away until you need them, she adds. “I bought a fantastic vintage Christmas jumper for £8 last week. I’ll pop it away until December.” And if you don’t end up wearing something, give it to someone who will or back to charity.
Patience is key – work your way around a shop
There is an art to charity shopping. “Shop the window first,” says Jamie Collier, 32, from Gloucester. She’s been charity shopping for as long as she can remember – her grandma volunteered in a shop and her mum always went when she was a child. “I find it very difficult to shop any other way!”
Many of the best items are displayed in the shop window, she says, so take a minute to browse before you step into the shop. Next, walk in and see what your eye is drawn to. “I am always attracted to colours and patterns and this helps me to find items that excite me.”
Are there any places in the shop where you can rummage around? Many charity shops have bargain buckets full of items being sold off at a reduced price. Taking the time to look through can mean you uncover some gems.
“You really do need patience,” adds McGuigan, who started buying all her clothes from charity shops 18 months ago. “You will not find a piece every time you visit. You need to be prepared to look through the rails. And if you visit and don’t find anything, keep trying.”
Lamb, from Shelter’s King’s Cross Boutique, agrees that patience is key. “Make sure to take your time and look through everything thoroughly from top to bottom – you never know what treasures you might be missing,” she says.
Go in with an open mind
Naturally, there’s going to be a lot of rubbish, says Grocott – so keep an open mind. As a student, charity shopping meant she could buy “new” things without feeling guilty. “I went to university in Manchester – the home of fast fashion – so going to the charity shops felt like the antidote to all of that.”
It’s all about thinking creatively about how you can adapt an item, not just whether it fits. “If you love the material of an item or the shape but not the colour, think about how you can alter it to make it how you want,” she says. “Think about taking things up or in, wearing a belt, or even dying it to your favourite colour.”
Stafford agrees: “You might be looking for t-shirts, but there’s a reason you can’t keep your eyes off that orange hooded fleece with bear ears!” You’ll find the best purchases this way, says Hester Grainger, 41, from Reading. One of her favourite purchases is an amazing sheepskin coat she wasn’t even looking for. ”It was a bargain and I wanted to wear it forever.”
Look at different sizes – not just your own
Lauren Demspter, 26, from London, who runs Thrifty Londoner, got into charity shopping as a teenager eager for unique clothes that no one else was wearing. Dempster goes through all the size rails available – and has found some of her best finds by shopping in different sections.
“I found a beautiful backless 70s evening gown in the size 12 section when I’d usually buy a size 8 on the high street,” she says. “Also, check different sections, too – I found that gown in the nightwear section!”
Chat to the staff
Get to know the volunteers, says Dolly Theis, 28, from Cambridge, who was inspired to charity shop while working for her former boss, Baroness Anne Jenkin in Parliament – “she always looks amazing and yet everything is secondhand!”
“The volunteers are not only always super lovely and make the whole shopping experience huge fun (one used to put music on when I went in so we could all dance while trying clothes on!), but they can also look out for items too as donations are brought in.”
Flora, 49 from Northumberland, agrees: “Build a good relationship with your favourite shops. They often search out and keep items for you, give you better service, and give good advice if you’re shopping alone!”
Always ask if you can’t find what you are looking for, advises the British Heart Foundation – they might have it just waiting to come out to the shop floor. Lamb agrees: “Don’t be afraid to ask the sales assistants for help getting things down, out of the window, or off a mannequin. And if you’re after something for a special occasion, let them know – they may have something in the stock room and will be happy to help.”
Don’t be shy about where you bought your clothes
“It’s important to spread the word,” said Sophie Timms, 45, from Sunbury on Thames. “We’re in an age of harmful disposable fashion and raise funds for good causes at the same time.”
Grainger says she always jokes that she suffer from price disclosure disorder, “meaning I just have to tell people that comment on my outfit, just how little it cost! It makes it all the more exciting if you found it in a charity shop!”
Dress to shop. Shop to dress
It might sound strange, but Metcalfe has a good point. “When you are hitting these shops, don’t wear anything that will make you too hot,” she advises.
You need to wear lightweight clothing, she says, so you can squeeze around the rails, get to the ground shelves where the shoes are displayed, or reach to the high shelves to the handbags. “And don’t carry lots of bags,” she adds. “It’s important to keep your hands free to rummage, so take a backpack, you can shove your purchases in there and you’re free to go on to the next one. Plus the less you wear makes it easier for you to try on and off faster!”
“Charity shops are, after all, collections of things people no longer want, but if you’ve got the time to search, finding a gem amongst the rubble is one of the most enjoyable parts!” says Grocott. Hear hear.
Any more for any more?
• Visit on a whim as all the best purchases are impulse buys - Mark Burlton
• Don’t be put off by the charity shop smell – Thomas Reed
• Rather than always following current trends, look for things in good condition that will last longer and are more timeless, clothes that would be a staple in the wardrobe – Dr Pragya Agarwal
• Befriend a tailor or alterations person. If there is something you love but it doesn’t quite fit, then finding someone who can work it to your shape and make it fit like a glove is money well spent – Sian Melonie
• Unless something’s faulty and you still want it, don’t haggle for a better price. All the money goes to charity, after all. – Toni Hargis