Everything You Need to Know About Consignment Stores

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A rack of clothes at a consignment store.

“Hand-me-down,” “used,” and “second-hand” are all terms that make people uneasy when purchasing home furnishings, but if you’ve ever been to a consignment store before, chances are you came out with a completely different attitude. Often confused with thrift shops, consignment stores provide a unique buying experience that’s impossible to find at most run-of-the-mill discount retailers.

The Defining Differences

Thrift shops get all of their goods from the public, which is why they tend to be barely inspected, generally outdated, and very cheap (typically marked down by a minimum of 75 percent). These stores are also run by charities or non-profit companies and staffed by volunteers.

Consignment stores, on the other hand, buy items from sellers using great discretion, either making out-and-out purchases or arranging to split the profit with the original owner when the article ends up selling to a third party. If certain items don’t meet a consignment store’s standards of quality, age, condition, etc., they are rejected. These stores are generally private businesses operated by their owners or hired employees, and most of the items in them are offered at least 40 to 50 percent below the original retail price.

Consignment store shoppers often find items for sale with the original tags on them, but don’t be alarmed. These typically come from people who previously purchased them but for some reason never used them or returned them to their original places of purchase.

How to Get the Best Deals at Consignment Stores

Do Your Research

Research local stores to find out what they carry. Some specialize in clothing, others deal solely in jewelry and accessories, and others still only sell furniture and other major household items. Research often also reveals the brand names and designers regularly featured in these stores, saving you time on your actual shopping.

Keep a List

Keep a list of what you’re looking for handy, preferably on your phone. If you’re browsing for furniture, have the dimensions ready to go so you don’t accidentally buy something that’s too big for your space. If possible, you should also keep a floor plan of your home on your phone. That way if you run across an unbelievable deal on a unique accent table or side chair, you’ll know exactly where it fits.

Closely Examine Everything

It’s easy to get caught up in an item you’re sure was sent from heaven, or something you’ve pictured in your mind for years on end. But before you buy that item, and especially if it’s a high-ticket item, inspect it closely. If the designer is known, do a quick online search for consumer feedback on their other products.

Make sure any sofas you buy have hardwood constructions, not fiberboard, and eight-way hand-tied seat support, not springs. Unzip pillows to ensure the foam is solid and squeeze the other parts to check for fullness.

Determine whether or not the finish on tables and shelves is veneer, a thin coating used on wood to hide a lesser-grade material underneath. Check joints on other furniture pieces to make sure they’re not held together with glue, nails, or staples, all of which are big indicators of inferior construction methods. Check the quality of tabletops by lightly drawing a small line on the wood. A lingering, visible mark left behind indicates a lot of wax hiding a damaged finish.

You should also check for wobbles and instability, too, especially on tables and chairs. Slight instability can often be easily remedied, but some types of incongruities may be so costly to repair that even the sale price is not worth it. Don’t be shy about negotiating the price down if you find flaws that may not be readily noticeable, either.

Lastly, be cautious of furniture with perfect symmetry. Wood with equal grain patterns or no signs of natural non-conformity is almost always mass-produced and machine-made.

Compare Pricing

Items that are one-of-a-kind are rare, so before you make a major purchase, take a few minutes to research your find online. You may discover a better price elsewhere, or perhaps one in better condition. Plus, looking all this up after the purchase will only bring you buyer’s remorse.

Be Diligent

Once you find a consignment store with an inventory that matches your tastes and has appealing prices, be sure to visit it often. Consignment inventory is in constant flux, after all, so that end table you fell in love with could be gone in the time it takes to grab a quick lunch. Becoming a regular customer also lets you build rapport with the staff, who will often personal notify you if something you’ve been looking for comes in. Many consignment stores also have websites and social media accounts that keep their followers informed of new inventory on a daily basis — a great convenience to both busy and remote customers.

Shopping at consignment stores not only saves you money on nearly new or lightly used quality merchandise, but it also allows you to imagine the former lives of the wares. It’s also intriguing to find items that perfectly match your needs that someone else once enjoyed, emphasizing the philosophy that we are actually much more alike than we are different.

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