The expert’s guide to second-hand shopping

Thrift shopping is possibly the one field in which I am well-qualified enough to call myself an ‘expert’. I’ve done some volunteering, but I think the ultimate source of my wisdom is years of experience pottering around charity shops, coupled with the sage guidance of my mother and late grandad. The above slideshow of pictures shows a couple of my favourite thrifted looks. Here you’ll find an amalgamation of tips for upping your thrifting game, as well as some insider recommendations for specific locations.

Some of you may have already read my post about thrift shopping in Hong Kong (if you haven’t and it’s of any relevance to your life at all, do check it out). Now, upon Annabelle’s request, I’ve decided to extend the category and write a general guide to second-hand shopping.

As a consequence of my procrastination, I’m posting this just in time for lockdown to be eased in the U.K., and directly after the black Friday sales which have left many of us disillusioned with unsustainable modern retailing. Seriously, who is really paying for your 50p pretty little thing dress? I’ve also unwittingly posted it just in time for the last-minute Christmas shopping rush to commence, which is most convenient! Why not redirect some of your spending to good causes, while benefitting from amazing prices and gaining a seat on a moral high horse?

*A note on definitions

My personal inclination is to equate second-hand shops with ‘charity shops’, but I understand that this doesn’t cover all categories of second-hand shopping experience – consignment, vintage et al. For the most part, this post will focus on the traditional charity shop, but with some honourable mentions of other categories.

My Top Tips

Be ready to rummage

With this I should add, be ready for disappointment. You won’t always find what you’re looking for, but that makes it all the more satisfying when you do. Unlike perfectly-curated retail stores, thrift shops rarely have the requisite manpower to organise stuff in the most aesthetically pleasing or catalogued manner. Finding a gem may thus require a bit of rummaging on your part.

Get to know the shop’s brand affiliations

The Catishop in Lugano has a deal with Sandro whereby they receive their rejected stock. Thanks to this arrangement, I’ve bought a handful of beautiful Sandro items for about a tenth of their RRP. I know that the British Red Cross on Byres road in Glasgow gets rejected H&M stock, and I’ve benefitted significantly from this in the past.

Brand isn’t everything

We’re all partial to certain brands, and it can certainly feel like you’re getting a better deal when something comes with an ostensible prestigious brand name. This may slightly contradict my previous point, but some of the best things I’ve found are totally unbranded. Go by what you like, rather than what you feel you ought to like on the basis of a label!

Commit to fairly frequent browsing

Unlike traditional retailers, thrift shops don’t follow a strict seasonal calendar for the replenishment of goods, and do so on the basis of donations. You thus never know what you’ll find on a given day, and sometimes you’ll get super lucky. Like buying ten raffle tickets as opposed to one, the more you go, the more likely you are to strike gold. I suppose you can’t force yourself to enjoy it, but the more times you get lucky, the more you’ll want to look.

Luckily for me, the Catishop sits near the end of my favourite river run in Lugano, so for a weekly treat I’ll end my run there. Weird, I know.

Keep an eye out for one-off events

I know that in the U.K., particularly in university towns, there are frequent vintage kilo sales. I personally got some of my favourite cashmere jumpers from a charity sale held at my Grandma’s church in Helensburgh!

In Hong Kong, charity fairs can be an absolute goldmine. I remember my mum buying a brand new, enormous trampoline for $100HKD (£10) at the GSIS fair one year. We kept that trampoline for about a decade. Other favourites include the Jewish Women’s Association fair and the Duchess of Kent Sandy Bay fairs (Italian and otherwise – these are fantastic for children’s goods and Christmas decorations).

In Lugano, there’s a second-hand market in town every couple of weeks – I’ve never actually bought anything there but I love browsing the weird and wonderful things people bring to the table. Keep an eye out for such events in your area, although they will likely be scarce this year (I know that some of the Hong Kong Christmas fairs have already been called off).

Wear your thrifted items with pride

It’s weird, but I remember my mum telling me as a child that she bought her clothes from charity shops growing up, and thinking that this was so sad. Despite this negative framing, my mother has loved second-hand shopping since I can remember. I mentioned in my Hong Kong post how she would drag me to charity shops in my childhood, which I loathed at the time but now adore. She’s also always been someone who would proudly declare the source of her thrifted goods, a trait she’s (evidently, given the extremely public blog post on the topic) passed on to me.

Maybe it’s because I’m coming from a position of relative privilege (here, I think of the viral ‘classy if you’re rich and trashy if you’re poor’ tweet from earlier this year), but in this day and age, buying second hand certainly shouldn’t be something to feel ashamed about. In fact, for me, it’s a source of pride that I’m getting a better deal on better products while diverting my money from ethically compromised fast fashion brands. Who doesn’t love that sense of moral superiority, even if not wholly altruistic?!

Don’t limit yourself to clothes

In my experience renovating & furnishing U.K. flats with my mum, as well as setting up house in Lugano, second hand shops can be an incredible source for pretty much everything furnishing-related. See an after and before of her Glasgow flat’s living room below, in iPhone 5 quality (hopefully you can tell which is which). Still, if you want to skip Ikea and get furniture that’s a little different, usually higher quality (though I do love me some Ikea here and there) without crazy price tags, second-hand is the way to go.

Books and bric a brac also deserve an honourable mention!

Online can be good too

I’m personally a bit of a luddite. Other than a phase of buying loads of stuff (mostly cheap tat) from eBay in the first year of Edinburgh uni, I rarely purchase second-hand clothing online. Frankly I’m a total boomer, but I know that Gen Z-ers adore Depop – I don’t personally see the appeal of that one, with silly prices for cheap clothes, but it is a genius business idea and I’m behind anything that encourages a more circular economy. There’s also the higher-end vintage stores like Vestaire Collective, which I can’t afford, but seem good!

I’m more open to second-hand furniture sourcing online; Gumtree and Facebook marketplace are great resources in the U.K. In Hong Kong, Asiaxpat and Carousell can be amazing, particularly with so many people unfortunately leaving the city at this time. and Facebook Marketplace are the only two sources I’m aware of in Lugano, and unfortunately I haven’t had a great deal of luck with either.

Know your areas

The conventional wisdom is that you’ll find better items in richer areas; this is subjective and depends on what you’re after. I’m aware that this area class-based segmentation of charity shops is based on only circumstantial evidence and may be slightly problematic, but here goes:

I actually find the best areas to not be the super rich areas (think Chelsea or Kensington) but those in which the upper-middle classes reside. Fulham road will forever be one of my favourite charity shop stretches (with the bonus of it ending at North End Road market); here, I’ve found all manner of gems, often from contemporary luxury brands such as The Kooples and Joseph, as opposed to the stuffy old Chanel items you’d find in Kensington. Prices in these charity shops also tend to be more reasonable.

Which brings me to my final point…

My global recommendations:

Global is possibly a bit of a stretch, but here are some of my favourites in the places I’ve lived and loved. Note that I haven’t been to some of these places in awhile, and given this year’s circumstances there’s a chance that some have closed down.

For clothes:
Fulham Road (starting from the Fara at 841A and heading in the opposite direction of the Thames), Parsons Green, Hammersmith, Hampstead, Wimbledon Village
For furniture: Putney, Wandsworth (Wandsworth High Street, near Southside Wandsworth)

For clothes:
Stockbridge, Nicolson Street (very hit and miss but good for students), Armstrongs Vintage (various – great for cashmere and leather)
For furniture & homewares: Morningside Road (good for clothes too!), British Heart Foundation Furniture & Electrical (Dalry), Edinburgh Furniture Initiative

For clothes: Byres Road (we literally have a family history of charity shopping here – head down in the opposite direction of the botanics, stop in for a coffee somewhere, know that I’m feeling endlessly jealous of you)
For furniture & homewares: British Heart Foundation, 467 Dumbarton Road.

For clothes: S2 (vintage / consignment – good value for amazing designer goods and owner Monica is lovely).
For clothes and furniture: Catishop Via Merlecco (amazing for clothes, fabrics, china, furniture, artwork – its absolutely enormous, I love this place), Ricompralo – il mercatino dell’usato Via Piodella 12 (full of incredible kitschy antiques plus some very cool vintage clothes at charity shop prices)

A goldmine

For furniture: l’in-utile – Cooperativa Area – Via Cantonale, 6915 Noranco

Hong Kong:
See my other post for a full guide!

Happy shopping!

I love seeing people’s finds, so feel free to hit me up. Please also do so if you have any tips that I’ve failed to include. To me the content of this post seems a little self-evident, but apparently there was demand for it (so complain to Annabelle if you hate it).


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