How do thrift stores set prices? Long-Time Volunteer Reveals Insider Secrets

Written for Daily Hive by Jan Wintonyk, a voluntary non-profit thrift store who has spent hundreds of hours appraising, sorting and appraising second-hand goods and antiques.


Many people volunteer at nonprofit thrift stores, donating their time and expertise to create a source of income for their favorite charities.

Many of these people are retired professionals who have some experience in appraising or assessing the value of the many donated items that a thrift store acquires every day.

Many more are willing to lend a hand and support the storage, cleaning, steaming and repair of ready-to-sell items.

Donation bags at a Canadian thrift store /Jan Wintonyk

Every day, especially in the spring, donors bring in wagonloads of items they no longer need or want. Often we receive the entire contents of a home where the owner has been taken care of or has died, and the family simply packs up the things and is relieved to have a place to dispose of them.

Many boxes have not been opened for decades and are very interesting to unbox and evaluate. Recently we unboxed a beautiful china set wrapped in newspaper dated 1965!

Thrift Store Glassware Prices

Glassware for sale at the store /Jan Wintonyk

Will the item sell?

The items are sorted into different categories, clothing, hardware, decoration, toys, small electrical appliances, paintings, clocks, etc. and handed over to individual volunteers for treatment.

Garments are checked for rips, stains and salability (is it fashionable? showing too much wear?). Items are then priced according to brand and quality. Expect to pay more for an item from Banana Republic than Walmart.

Hardware is sorted by use and sale (computer cords, curtain rods, extension cords, etc.), toys are cleaned and packaged according to categories such as Lego, Duplo, clean stuffed animals, dolls, transformers, sports equipment, as well as books and games.

Children's items for sale in a thrift store.

Children’s items at the thrift store /Jan Wintonyk

Small appliances are first tested and if in good working order they are marked as “in working order”, cleaned and prepared for the sales floor. Lamps are also tested and cleaned.

Trendy items are more expensive

Many donated items are unique and defy description or category. For these items, the volunteer must rely on intuition and a lifetime of experience as to what will sell in today’s market.

It’s easy enough to search for a Black Forest clock online and determine its value, but how about a mid-century modern plastic clock with flamingos?

Paintings are cleaned and appraised for their value through online searches. We are able to find the value of an oil painting by the artist’s signature, or course. Impressions by colors, trending topics and general appeal are also priced accordingly.

Thrift store prices

/Jan Wintonyk

Decoration is divided into several categories: Kitchenware (pots, pans, cutlery, dishes, glasses, bakeware and gadgets), vases, garden accessories and designer pottery and statues. Everything is cleaned and assessed.

Reading current decorating magazines sometimes provides a clue to today’s trends to determine what’s ‘hot’ and what’s ‘not’.

Sometimes it’s a guess

On each shift, several people are responsible for pricing, some are more familiar with certain types of donated items than others. They try to be objective, but the human element plays a role.

Ripped jeans look old and worn to some, to others they are the latest fashion statement! If the volunteer does not like the purple curtains, the price can take this into account, for example.

While every effort is made to correctly price all items in a thrift store, some mistakes are inevitable. Each item is unique and is not always for sale in a conventional retail setting, so there is a high degree of subjective guesswork.

Thrift store prices

/Jan Wintonyk

While some of the guesswork is educated, using experience from previous sales or non-sales, many items will be presented for sale with a value that will be determined by the consumer. If it’s not selling quickly, the item may be priced too high. It’s that simple.

Who can determine the value of a slightly worn wedding dress with pearls and lace? He may have a slightly dirty train and skirt from a wonderful day, and for some that means he’s full of emotional memories. For someone else, it’s just used clothing.

The dirty difference between a non-profit and for-profit organization

Of course, not all thrift stores are created equal. What we discussed here is a non-profit thrift store. The staff are mostly unpaid volunteers and all profits are donated to a designated charity. There are other “for-profit” thrift stores that are run in a slightly different way.

If you set up a thrift store with a business plan to maximize your profits, the stores are often larger to allow the items offered for sale at the highest possible price to stay on the shelves long enough for the right buyer to come.

It is important to remember that they are not here to provide an affordable alternative to high priced retail operations. They are in business to sell their donated items for the highest possible price to increase their profits, just like any other retail business.

So if they see an item on their shelves that is priced too low, they will of course remove it or refuse to sell it at a lower price. It’s their business plan.

Small nonprofits need to price items to move quickly and rotate inventory and displays.

Thrift Store Prices, Items, Items

/Jan Wintonyk

Treasures hide in the lockers!

If you’re looking to set up your first home or apartment, I encourage you to check out your local thrift store before buying your basics.

Thrift store prices

/Jan Wintonyk

Every day, thousands of dollars worth of kitchen staples are sold for a fraction of their value, including stainless steel cookware, crystal wine glasses, and every “Epicure” gadget imaginable.

Good shopping!

About Frances White

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