Tips and Tricks for Treasure Hunting at the Goodwill Bins
I’m a master thrifter and have been for decades. There isn’t an estate sale, flea market or thrift store I haven’t been to — that’s no small task, considering the size of Los Angeles, California. Virtually everything in my home is thrifted, down to the 1950s Inland “Magic Touch” aluminum ice cube trays.
As of late, because it’s close to where I live, I’ve been frequenting Goodwill’s outlet store, known informally as “the Bins.” Here, you can find some serious gems, but you'll have to dig. There is also some etiquette you should follow — not only for health reasons (we'll get to that later) but also to avoid getting kicked out of the store.
Everything has gotten more expensive in the past few years — even prices at thrift stores have increased. The Bins are a last-stop shop for many items that, for whatever reason, didn't sell in the retail store, but that doesn't mean you won't find some gems.
What Happens to the Stuff You Donate to Goodwill?
After you donate your stuff, Goodwill employees go through and sort it to ensure it's usable and non-toxic (i.e., not wet with mold or mildew).
It's separated by what it is (men's clothes, books, housewares, etc.), priced and sent out to the main store in your area. Items are color-coded for daily or weekly specials and to let staffers know how long an item has been on the floor.
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What Happens If an Item Doesn't Sell in the Main Store
If your donation doesn't sell within about a month, it's taken off the shelves and sent to an outlet store (aka "the Bins").
Here, customers can purchase items at a much-reduced rate — typically by the pound, but prices vary by location. Some outlet locations also have wholesale auctions throughout the day or week.
How Many Bins Are Rolled Out Each Day?
The number of bins rolled out every day will depend on the location, each of which has its own process. In Los Angeles' Goodwill Outlet Store, for example, workers are required to roll out 400 bins a day, seven days a week.At any given time, there are about 60 bins on the floor, so there's always merchandise coming and going.
For this reason, you'll find that if you go enough, you'll not only see the same faces, but you'll also find that some people spend several hours in the store, as most patrons are resellers who do business online. Many of them know each other, compare hauls and trade items in the store.
If there is a flea market in the area within the same week, you'll see more people stocking up on goods to sell for the upcoming weekend. Some resellers may stick strictly to the book bins, while others may be mainly vintage clothing buyers.
Are The Same Bins Rolled Out More Than Once?
You only see a particular bin and its items once and only for a short period, typically less than an hour. Once a bin's items are gone, they're off the floor for good. They will not come back around a second time. So, where do they go?
These items are sold to textile recyclers, according to Goodwill's website. I was told that there is one local recycler who works with the L.A. store and picks up all the solo shoes (ones not in a pair) and recycles them.
Goodwill aims to keep whatever items haven't sold out of landfills. While some things do end up there, the organization attempts to see that most of its items are reused in some way.
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Know the Schedule and How Items Are Divided
Depending on the location of the store, housewares are also available, as are toys. They are mostly separated but not always. Not all outlet stores have furniture, but if they do, it's usually in a separate area.
Stores have schedules they follow daily. For example, the Los Angeles store has all its items out by the time it opens. Bags, shoes and books then come out two more times at around 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. By 2 p.m., only clothes will come out until closing.
For the most variety in items, getting to an outlet earlier in the day is better.
Hold Onto to the Item You Want, Even If You Don't Want It
Bins are changed out frequently to meet a store's quota, and no two are ever the same. Therefore, if you see something you think you like, pick it up and carry it with you. There is no going back to find it — not only will someone else have gone through the bin you just did and move what you had, but they may also pick it up for themselves.
It's always best to carry the item with you until you're ready to leave the store. That's the point at which you can put things back if you decide you don't want them. (Note: The bins closest to the cashiers are best, as they are where people throw items they didn't want.)
Do Not Touch Anyone Else's Stuff
Whatever you do, if someone has an item you want in their shopping cart, do not take it. While all stores are run differently, this seems to be a common rule. The L.A. store frequently announces this over the PA — if you take anything that isn't yours (i.e., from someone else's cart), you could be ejected from the store for good.
If you have items in a cart, it is best to cover them with a blanket, signaling that what's in there is off-limits.
Some items do end up back on the floor — and what you find there is pretty much for the taking.
Wearing Protective Gear
Wearing masks is wise, as there are some moments when you'll get very up close and personal with others. And wearing gloves is an absolute must.
Why, you ask? Well, it's about to get grim.
People have found everything from dead rats to feces and sex toys while rummaging for items. Sometimes, the items come out wet, which means they were stored somewhere outside and in the rain before they made it to the floor.
Furthermore, everything gets thrown into the bins, whether it's assembled, broken, sharp or dull. Your gloves should be good enough to protect from cuts but not so thick that they impede your ability to dig.
But Wait ... It's Not All Doom and Gloom
While digging in a bin can be dangerous and yield some unwanted and/or disturbing items, shoppers have also found some positive surprises. In my purchases, I have found money, photos, pieces of jewelry and even undeveloped rolls of film.
There are also many items that offer fascinating glimpses into the past — for example, signed yearbooks and diaries are often in book piles and go largely untouched.
You Will Not Always Get a Shopping Cart Right Away
There are never enough shopping carts for everyone. When people come into the L.A. store, they'll sign up for a cart at the front. As customers check out and carts become available, a cashier will announce whoever is next on the list for a shopping cart.
It can take a while to get a cart — remember, some people are in the store for several hours — so if you need to bring a tote from home, do it or pick up one in the bins and start shopping.
Be Prepared to Battle
Again, this will depend on the store, but at larger outlets, people wait for the next grouping of bins to come out by securing a spot in the area where the bins will be.
Staffers bring out a few bins at one time (in Los Angeles, it's eight). No one can start going through items until all bins in a grouping are in place — jumping the gun will get you kicked out of the store.
Once everything is out, people grab whatever they can and worry about what they're taking after. So, you do have to be confident when picking items.
Remember to Dig, Dig, Dig
When looking through bins, remember that the best stuff may not always be in immediate view. You have to get your hands dirty (in some cases, literally) and dig to the bottom of the bin.
This is especially the case when you're looking for shoes — they won't typically be together. However, if you're lucky, a pair will be in the same bin or in a bin close by.
Resellers Reveal Treasure Can Be Found at the Bins
You can indeed find treasure at a Goodwill outlet store, but you do have to dig through a lot of junk to get to it.
Vintage enthusiasts and resellers have shared their hauls on social media sites like Reddit, YouTube and TikTok, along with their own tips and tricks. If you're thinking about becoming a reseller, its worth looking at these accounts so you know what to pick up and what to leave behind.
Before You Leave, Check All Your Items
What you find at Goodwill's outlet stores will not always be in the best of shape, and you won't have time to give it a closer look when you first grab it, but do give it the once over before you leave the store.
A lot of the time, you'll find something that is broken, ripped or stained, and if you don't have the ability to fix an item yourself, you may end up with something you can't resell.
Finding the Bins Nearest You
So, where can you engage in this thrift extravaganza? Goodwill has more than 3,000 stores across the U.S. While there are far fewer outlets than Goodwill retail stores, they are opening all the time.
You can find donation centers, retail centers and outlets by using the organization's store locator. Goodwill also has a few websites where you can shop online. While they are not as cheap as the bins, there are still deals to be found.