Mastering the Art of Secondhand Shopping

Everytime you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.

Anna Lappe

Wabi-sabi is the ancient philosophy of embracing imperfection and accepting transience. The intertwinement of simplicity [wabi] and beauty of age and wear [sabi] has its roots deeply buried in the Japanese culture. It brushes away the image of flawlessness and teaches gratitude for the power of the natural world and its constant state of change. Old is better not worse; history adds unique value which cannot be purchased, so speaks the word of wisdom. If you wish to experience wabi-sabi you may want to simply appreciate the old, the lived-in and worn-out, the preloved and used. Fix a broken bowl, repurpose a piece of furniture, spice up a dark corner with a vintage vase and add that retro cabinet to your reading nook.

Second-hand shopping has many faces. It can be a dusty antique store on a long forgotten side road, a vintage clothing boutique at Camden Town, a local charity shop or online selling platform accessible from wherever you are in the world. There certainly is no right or wrong to secondhand shopping, but I believe there are things that help make the journey – from flicking through hundreds of pages of online auctions to hitting the pay button – a little less bumpy. You may know of these ways around the retro world already, but perhaps I can inspire you to learn something new. I certainly prefer browsing old barns and vintage boutiques, but with the current world covered underneath a heavy layer of uncertainty (I am writing this during the COVID-19 lockdown) it seemed foolish not to shift the focus on the World Wide Web.

My personal favourite is ebay*, however there are many more platforms to buy secondhand and used products off individuals. Gumtree* for instance is particularly useful for large items (e.g. bikes, furniture) and people who prefer to shop locally as it is based upon the principle of picking up the product directly from the seller. It is important to add your hometown and preferred radius to the search bar as it can be disheartening to find exactly what you are looking for only to realise that it is located on the other side of the country (trust me, I speak from experience). Ebay* on the other hand is wonderful for pretty much everything – board games, toys, ceramics, clothing, home decor, furniture, books – the list is endless. Etsy vintage* is another tool I have only discovered recently but have not yet had the chance to use.

Wherever you prefer to shop, I would like to share my top tips for browsing any website and add a pinch of general insights that you can apply to all sorts of secondhand shopping.

Magical visit to the forest with our wonderful collection of selected secondhand pieces.

E B A Y

Ebay works for both, specific and generic searches. You may just wish to add a new vase to your window sill in which case a generic search works just fine. But perhaps you know a specific brand of shoes you adore or the name of a book you want to read to your children in which case it helps to search for the exact article or brand name to find what you need. Either way, this is what you want to do.

Set search alerts

Once you have typed in your article in the search bar, click onto the ‘condition tab’ (at the top of the page or on the lefthand sidebar) and select ‘used’. If you cannot find exactly what you are looking for while scrolling through the results, ‘save the search‘ for the future. Every time an item that matches your exact search criteria is added by a seller, you will receive an alert. This can either be through your ebay app or via e-mail depending on your settings. Ebay allows up to 100 saved searches which gives opportunity for a plethora of vintage finds.

Watch List

If you find yourself dreaming of an item that has no ‘offer’ or ‘buy it now’ button and another four or six days of bidding to go, it is wise to add the product to your watch list. It will save all your favourite items sorted by expiry date and will notify you a day and an hour before the item is sold. This is useful as you can watch the prices closely. If you want to buy the item for as little money as possible, submit your bid only shortly before the time runs out to minimise price increases by other buyers. The more interest, the more panic, the more bids which does not work in your favour.

Research the article

Researching in advance helps in a couple of ways. 1) It will save you time scrolling through hundreds of ads and 2) you know whether the deal is a good one or not if you know the selling price for the original product. We do this with board games, clothing and shoes, and pretty much everything else. Look up what you like, copy and paste the name or brand, perhaps try on that pair of shoes in-store so you know they will fit when you order secondhand because there is no return or exchange of goods.

Make an offer

At times sellers give us the opportunity to make an offer for both, bidding and buy it now items. This can help you skip the bidding part if they like and accept your offer. In the past I have found that the seller sets a minimum price they assume fair. If you submit an offer that is below that price and would hence be rejected, you will have a little pop-up note appear to say something along the lines of ‘increase your offer’. This sentence will disappear once you cross the minimum price (this has worked for me on the mobile app). Ebay gives you the chance to submit three offers per item and you can choose how long the offer is valid for before it expires. The seller has the chance to either accept, reject or make a counteroffer. Play wisely and fair if you want to win. Good luck!

Ending soonest

Sorting your results by ‘ending soonest’ will show you bidding items that expire within the next few minutes or hours. This can be a great opportunity for you to jump into a bidding competition last-minute and snatch that piece without the hassle of waiting patiently and watching the price, as well as amount of interested buyers increase over days.

Buy it Now

Sometimes it feels frustrating if you set your heart on an item (it is hard not to), start bidding and lose last second because your browser did not refresh in time. If this sounds like you, change the settings to ‘buy it now’, which will solely present you with items that match your search criteria and can be bought immediately. It is worth attempting to submit an offer if the option is available instead of just clicking the purchase button.

Teapot £6.50 | Wicker basket £6 | Linen baby romper £4 | Velvet baby set £8 | Monopoly £9 | Game of Life £7 | Codenames £10

E T S Y

Etsy is not only home to beautifully handmade products by the most talented people across land and sea, but a treasure basket for a variety of vintage pieces. From what I have seen, prices vary but seem more expensive than on similar platforms such as ebay, Gumtree or your local charity shop.

Settings

Etsy is my go-to place for anything handmade and I have ordered countless products over the platform but have never had the opportunity to use it for secondhand pieces. You can switch from handmade to vintage products under ‘filter’ and ‘item type’. You have the option to sort by price, relevance and recency, set up a custom price range for the product you are looking for, as well as the shop location, which – especially with bulky items – may determine the shipping fees. Although typically similar to ebay and co., Etsy does not offer pick-up services but delivery only.

Add to favourites

You can save your searches if you wish to find them easily in the future. One click on ‘favourites’ and ‘searches’ on your mobile app will show you a list of terms you have been looking for in the past without having to type the same product repeatedly into the search bar. This setting is particularly useful if you cannot immediately find what you are looking for and have the time to wait for the perfect match.

G U M T R E E

A place for all things big and small. Gumtree is an online selling platform with products ranging from apple crates to bicycles and cars. Gumtree even offers jobs and apartments for rent. You never know what treasures you might discover around the corner of your home, perhaps at your neighbour’s house!

Location

Most of the previously mentioned settings also apply to Gumtree, such as search alerts sent to your registered email address or the opportunity to filter results by price, recency, and category. However, the most important aspect to Gumtree is the location tab. Search by town or postcode to find products close to your home. This is key if you do not wish to drive across the country to pick up a bedside table or folding ladder for your next painting project, as Gumtree does not offer delivery. It will filter matching results by distance and you can select from an area of 1 to 100 miles to find what you are looking for.

Contact seller

You can either call or email the seller directly. I would highly recommend doing so, in order to ask whether the featured product is still available as I have had instances where I found an item that had already been sold days ago but somehow still showed up as a valid offer. This is also useful to find out the seller’s exact address, as Gumtree usually only shows a broad area on the map due to safety reasons.

C H A R I T Y – S H O P | S E C O N D H A N D – B O U T I Q U E

Moving away from modern society and virtual shopping experiences, back to classic brick and mortar adventures. If I were to choose between either of those two, I would always and without a doubt, prefer the physical experience of browsing shelves and cupboards. There is nothing more exciting than visiting a space filled with beautiful antique and secondhand goods, not knowing what you might find.

Preparations

A truly different experience calls for a truly different approach. Browsing secondhand shops requires preparation and patience. Look up local flea markets, antique, vintage and secondhand shops before heading out on a mission. Wherever I live, I save such locations on a personal map on my phone (Google Maps* allows you to save favourite, want to go and starred places to your account. You can even personalise the labels and save as vintage shops so you always have a list to hand.) When we first moved into our small apartment, we owned no furniture except for an old, broken bed. We built our own TV stand, dining and coffee table from reclaimed wood sourced from a local recycling place (may offer incredibly cheap, repaired items) and visited five different second hand shops to find the right dining chairs – none of which match, but that is what gives this room character. Having a number of options to go to will save you time and tears.

Time

You never know what you will find, if anything, so plan for that. You might have to visit six stores until you find what you need or pay the same store daily visits for days or weeks in a row until they stock your desired item. Secondhand shopping takes time, so adapt your expectations to not feel disheartened or frustrated. Believe me, the effort will be worth the wait.

Measure

No matter whether you consider shopping online or in-store – measure your available space beforehand and be aware of the sizing. There is nothing worse than estimating measurements only to find out the cabinet you bought does not fit in your reading nook.

Space

Might sound obvious, but depending on the size of the items you are willing to buy, you should allow for enough space in your car. We had a tiny convertible when we got our chairs and played a game of real-life Tetris for about twenty minutes until we figured out a way to squeeze all five chairs in the little space we had in the car. You might need to rent or borrow a van if you are looking for larger, bulkier items. If you are looking for rather small pieces, do not forget to bring reusable bags with you or save up old delivery boxes to safely transport your goods.

Widen your horizons

Learn to be open for alternatives, lower your expectations and make compromises. If you have an exact idea of an item in your head, I can guarantee you will leave the shop empty-handed. Let’s say you would like to add a vase to your window sill. Keep it as simple as I need a vase. As soon as you add a specific shape or colour to your requirements, you limit the success of your treasure hunt. Instead, be creative. Imagine you find the perfect vase, adore its size and shape but are unsure of the colour – can you paint it? Imagine you see a lovely book shelf but the wood stain seems a shade too dark and the legs look a little too funky for your liking – can you cut off or replace the legs and sand down the wood to brighten it up? There are so many opportunities and less risks, considering the low prices of used items. A couple of chairs we found in an old horse barn perfectly matched our Scandinavian flair but the seats were covered in a horrible fabric. I bought the pair anyway and replaced the upholstery with a new fabric and today we love them.

Conclusion

Who would have thought that I could squeeze all my wisdom on one page? Secondhand shopping is time-consuming. It is friendlier to your wallet and incredibly kind to our environment. If I had to share one more thing, I would focus on the sustainable aspect of reusing, repairing and repurposing products. It takes 2,700 litres to make one single t-shirt and an estimated 10,000 litres of water for one single pair of jeans. This is what we call ‘invisible’ resources as you cannot see the amount used to grow the cotton needed for our clothes. Count the secondhand pieces in your closet – can you see how much water you have saved? I would probably mention how the rise of our ‘throwaway’ society has led to 300,000 tonnes of textiles ending up in landfill each year. And I would reveal that an average of 22 million pieces of furniture are discarded in the UK each year, most of which, guess what, end up in landfill. Perhaps I just did (pardon me, I couldn’t help myself). But I would like this article to be of a positive nature. An article that celebrates all the worn out and used rather than focusing on negative aspects. So tell me, no matter which channel you prefer to source your vintage items from, have you given something a second home yet?

*note: (unpaid) ad because brand mention | no cooperation or collaboration