Frugal & Fabulous: Discovering designer finds on a dime

Cathie Elsbree, of Galena, Ill., made a conscious commitment two years ago to no longer buy new clothes. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed

Andrea Ginter PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed

We all know someone who scours listings for the best deals, who visit thrift stores and consignment shops with the obsession of a stalker and who can’t wait to tell you how little they paid for a fabulous outfit.

Thrift shoppers are passionate about the art of bargain hunting, and with consignment shops thrown into the mix, the odds of finding designer goods is significantly higher than it used to be.

Trendy phrases like “shabby chic,” “vintage goods” and “gently used” have replaced terms like “hand-me-downs” and “old.” Consignment shop owners and employees are experts at evaluating clothing and other goods, giving shoppers opportunities to score big when it comes to finding deals.

Heidi Hartwig, assistant manager at Stuff Etc in Dubuque, said experienced shoppers know when they’ve discovered a gem.

“If they’re the kind of person who shops for high-end brands all the time, they’re going to know when they’ve come across something good,” she said.

For example, Hartwig said a purse priced at $59.99 at Stuff Etc likely carried a $250 price tag when it was new. She recommends that customers use their smartphones to look up retail prices while they’re shopping.

“We get really high-end brands from people,” she said. “We don’t take items unless they’re of high quality and in good condition. It’s easy for customers to check and see what kind of a deal they’re getting.”

Cathie Elsbree, of Galena, Ill., is one of those shoppers. The 74-year-old made a conscious commitment two years ago to no longer buy new clothes. It was her way of leaving a smaller carbon footprint.

“I had lost 38 pounds and went from a size 16 to a size 10,” she said. “I gave all of my clothes away, and I just didn’t see the point in replacing them with all new things.”

Some of Elsbree’s best buys have been a $380 linen suit that still had the tags on it for $65 and a pair of blue suede Stuart Weitzman high heels for $5. The designer shoes retail for between $199 and $500 per pair.

“They’re to die for,” she said. “And because I wear a larger shoe size, I find a lot of good shoe deals because there aren’t a lot of people looking for that size.”

Elsbree meets with her friend, Lee Adami, about once per month for lunch in Dubuque. Then they spend the afternoon hitting consignment and thrift stores.

“It’s so fun,” Elsbree said. “It’s like a treasure hunt. And even more fun to do it with someone.”

Andrea Ginter, 50, of Dubuque, goes on thrift shopping dates with her husband, Sean.

“I look for clothing and household stuff, and he shops for his electronic gadgets,” she said.

Among some of Ginter’s finds have been Victoria’s Secret tops and Michael Kors jeans for $10 each and Blue La Rue jewelry pieces for 99 cents each. She’s also bought Skechers shoes and Eddie Bauer jeans for a song.

A quick search online reveals that Ginter chose her purchases well: Retail prices for Victoria’s Secret tops average $50. Michael Kors jeans sell for around $155 per pair. Blue La Rue jewelry will set you back anywhere from $25 to $100. And even the least expensive Skechers shoes or Eddie Bauer clothing starts at about $40.

Like Elsbree, Ginter rarely buys any of her clothing new anymore.

“Once in a while, I’ll check the clearance rack for a deal,” she said. “But I don’t pay full price for anything.”

Jennifer Neuhaus, owner of J&J Consignment in Dubuque, has created a boutique-like atmosphere in her store.

“We are a consignment store, but we do get a lot of comments that it’s like a boutique without the boutique prices,” she said.

Neuhaus said being choosy about the items the store accepts for consignment, keeping clothing color coordinated and organized by size, offering one-of-a-kind items and displaying new merchandise on a daily basis has helped the store with its boutique reputation.

Neuhaus and Hartwig both stress that shopping consignment or thrift is not the same as walking into a department store or clothing boutique.

“If you see it and you really want it, buy it,” Neuhaus said. “Most of our items are one-of-a kind. We don’t have 20 or 30 of them. People come in all the time and ask, ‘Do you still have whatever?’ We say no and they’ll say, ‘I know I should’ve bought it when I was here before.’”

“It’s always a risk,” Hartwig added. “If you find something you want, you should buy it. Not only could it be the only one, but shoppers move clothing from one rack to another, or they try it on in the fitting room and it gets put back in stock on a different rack. So even if it doesn’t get bought, you may have a hard time finding it if you didn’t buy it the first time.”

Elsbree said one of her favorite things about buying from thrift shops is getting compliments on her fashion sense.

“When someone says, ‘That’s a beautiful dress,’ I love being able to say, ‘Thank you! Five dollars!,’ she said.

Ginter said she makes the rounds of area shops several times per week.

“You have to keep looking, because what’s there changes all the time,” she said. “Look through everything, and pick a time to go when you don’t have to be somewhere else. Because you can spend a lot of time browsing and searching.”

“It’s the journey and the search that make it exciting,” Elsbree said. “It’s a much different experience than shopping for something new.”

Neuhaus said the advent of online consignment and thrift shop apps and sale sites hasn’t hurt her business.

“People still want to come into the store,” she said. “There are still lots of customers who want to come in, look around, touch or try on the items they want to buy.”

Hartwig said the best advice she can offer shoppers looking for a designer bargain is to never give up on the search.

“Check often, because we get new stuff in every day,” she said. “We put out new things every day. You never know when you’ll find that treasure.”

Michelle London writes for the Telegraph Herald.

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