How to Shop a Consignment Sale

Spring is approaching. It means time for new clothes for E. He is growing so quickly that he seems to outgrow things every few weeks. One way we try to save a few bucks is by going to consignment sales to pick up some gently used basics.

They are a great way save money on clothing, shoes, and toys for kids, and typically have a wide selection of options for less than retail price. Because of the abundance of items at consignment sales, they can overwhelm even the most seasoned shopper. Here are my 10 tips on how to shop a consignment sale.

Racks on racks on racks

  1. Shop without the crowds. It is worth it to check out the consignment sale's website ahead of time. You may find coupons or info about special pre-sales. Many consignment sales have special pre-sales for first time parents or grandparents and teachers. It pays to sign up for those if you qualify.
    I read about a special pre-sale where you can pay $10 to shop early. No requirements have to be met, just pay 10 bucks to get in. Pros: fewer crowds, bigger selection. Cons: it's $10 to get in.
    Another way to shop early is to volunteer for the sale. Give them a few hours and you often will get to be one of the first people to shop the sale. The downside is that you'll be giving up part of your weekend and probably during peak shopping hours. You will probably have to deal with grumpy customers.
    Conversely, you can shop late. Many sales will have additional markdowns (often 50% off) on the last day of the sale. If selection isn't as big of a deal to you as price is, it may benefit you to shop during the final sale.

  2. Get there early. Even if you get there right as the doors open, you'll be standing in a line to get in. Everyone wants the best selection, so you might as well get there early. You may want to investigate the pre-sale option if lines don't appeal to you. Or just pay retail and avoid the sale altogether.

  3. Be comfortable. It sounds like a no brainer, but I have seen plenty of moms in cute shoes limp out of the sale. It is not a good time to break in a new pair of heels. Comfy shoes are a must since you'll be on your feet the whole time. Be sure to bring a handbag that won't get in the way. Since you'll be carrying your finds, a small cross body style often works best. Bring a reseaable container of water and granola bar if you're allowed. These sales get hot fast and you're often in there for a while. I've never seen a sale that sells food or water.

  4. BYOB. Bring your own bags. The reusable store totes work best. I prefer the large Ikea totes. You'll be schlepping your finds around so you might as well be prepared. Some sales will allow you to "rent" a large bag for $1 or two, but I prefer to bring my own since it's easier to carry to the car. Bringing your own booze in a flask would be fun too, but I don't recommend it unless you want a misdemeanor.

  5. Put on your game face. Consignment sales bring out the real bargain hunters. They go after what they want and it usually involves getting into your personal space. Make sure you stand your ground if someone is trying to nudge their way into the area you're looking at. You don't need to throw an elbow; a firm "excuse me" usually makes them back off. Sometimes they don't even realize they're getting in your way. Conversely, try not to step on anyone or their stuff. If it happens, apologize and move on. I once stepped on a girl's beautiful red dress in a (shudder) communal dressing room at a warehouse sale. Thankfully I didn't leave a mark and she accepted my apology.

  6. Size matters. Have your kiddo's sizes and measurements with you. It's good to know in case you're looking at an item but aren't sure if it will fit. E is in one of those awkward between two sizes phases. If I see something for him for right now, I can make sure it'll fit. Most items at these sales are final sale and you don't want to be stuck with an item that won't fit. It helps to bring a measuring tape with you as well. If you're trying to convert your kid's measurements to a piece of clothing but forget the measuring tape, pull out a dollar bill. It's roughly 6 inches long.

  7. Stick to the list. This is the one I have the most trouble with. If you're on the hunt for shorts and tshirts for the summer, then keep going past the jeans. Focus on your agenda and then look at the extras. This will also help you stay on budget. Children's consignment sales can be overwhelming since there is so much stuff: clothes, shoes, books, toys, bikes, safety equipment, gear, and more. Even the most seasoned shopper can get frazzled at large consignment sales. If you take it one type of item at a time, it will help overcome the initial "whoa" reaction.

  8. Not everything is a good deal. Make sure the items you want to purchase are in good condition. Most sales penalize consigners for trying to sell poor quality items, but some things still get through. Check clothing, shoes, and toys for stains, tears, and wear. Don't buy things that are out of style. If you would never wear acid washed jeans, then why put Junior in them? There are usually item inspection tables set up along the perimeter of the sale. Dump your goods out on one of the tables and make your decisions.
    Another thing to watch for are clothes that are marked up more than their original value. At the last consignment sale I went to, I came across a little boys Gymboree shirt that still had its original store tags. Someone bought it on clearance for $4 and was trying to sell it for $7. That one went back on the rack after I had a good laugh. Some people are really proud of their shit.
    Consignment sales are a really good time to purchase high end brands you normally wouldn't spend money on. Pass on brands that are carried at the big box stores (Target, Walmart, Old Navy), and look for more prestigious names like Ralph Lauren Baby, Lacoste, and Ella Moss. Snag any Burberry or Little Marc Jacobs if you see it!

  9. Bring a friend. It helps to have another set of hands and eyes to scour through the racks at consignment sales. Your friend should also tell you honestly if what you're holding is worth the money. You will need to do the same for them.
    If you and your buddy are looking for two different types of items (clothing and toys, for example), it may be best to split up once you get inside and meet up before you hit the registers. This way you can both get what you came for, but get the valued opinion you need. It's also fun to make an afternoon of it, maybe have lunch after the sale and laugh at some of the stuff you came across.

  10. Cash, check, or credit. Check on the sale's website on which payment methods they accept. Some places only accept cash or check, while others take credit cards only. If you don't check, bring a backup method with you. Nothing is worse than scoring some great deals while staying under budget only to find out that you can't give them your money.
These tips also apply to warehouse sales and sample sales. Don't knock anyone out over a t-shirt. It's far less expensive to pay the retail price than it is to have legal representation in a court of law! Happy shopping!

Edit: I have seen numerous consignment sales in my area offering used breast pumps for significantly less than a new one. Please please read this article about used breast pumps before you purchase one. Many insurance companies are paying for moms to get a brand new breast pump with each pregnancy. Please contact your insurance provider for plan coverage specifics. Think twice before saying yes to a used pump!