Need to know
- Op shopping isn't just for vintage fashion lovers. You can score bargains on lots of practical everyday items by buying second hand
- Some of the best product categories for finding bargains include kitchenwares, kids products, books and seasonal items
- There are some things you should avoid buying from op shops, like baby car seats and power tools
In recent years op shops have been hijacked by hipsters, with the surging popularity of vintage fashion seeing the prices of op shop clothing skyrocketing in some areas.
But clothing aside, op shops are still full of bargains – as long as you know what to look for. Not only can you save an incredible amount of money over time, you also get the satisfaction of knowing you're making a more sustainable choice and giving an unwanted item a new lease on life.
I'm lucky enough to live in a tiny town with not one, not two, but six op shops, and I've made a habit of op shopping at least once a week. Along the way, I've picked up some insights into which products represent the best quality bargains, as well as some common op shop pitfalls to avoid.
If you have kids, I highly recommend hitting the op shop for everything from toys and books, to hats, shoes and towels.
Some of the best products in op shops are children's products. Why? Kids grow out of things quickly, and they often just outright reject items they've been gifted or even requested. The result is lots of high quality, barely used children's products just waiting to be discovered.
Here are some ideas on what to look out for when shopping for kids.
Look for high-quality kids tableware items made from stainless steel and bamboo.
Tiny easy-grip cutlery, those adorable divided plates, sippy cups – they can all be pricey to buy brand new, yet every child outgrows them eventually. And they often end up in the op shop. You may easily pick up all the tableware you need for your toddlers and preschoolers from your local charity shop.
Another clever way to save money is to buy high-quality kids' stainless steel drink bottles from the op shop and then simply buy a replacement lid or straw. The stainless steel part lasts forever and adding a brand new straw or drinking spout makes it as good as new for a fraction of the cost.
If you have a young child, you'll know they can be incredibly fickle when it comes to toys. One day it's all about cars, the next day they only want to play with dinosaurs, or Barbies, or Pokemon.
This means op shops are overflowing with once-prized toys that have fallen out of favour with their previous owner, but might be exactly what your child is looking for.
I personally have a one-in, one-out policy with my kids, so if they'd like to buy a new toy from an op shop (which they always do) they need to choose one of their toys from home to donate. Shopping this way keeps clutter minimal and saves a lot of money, as most op shop toys cost just a few dollars.
Just make sure you check the toy is safe for your child (watch out for things like unsecured button batteries, sharp edges and hinges that could trap little fingers).
Op shops are overflowing with once-prized toys that have fallen out of favour with their previous owner
Some timeless toys to look out for in the op shop include wooden blocks, figurines, wooden train tracks and dolls/doll houses. You can also find puzzles, card games and board games - most op shops will make sure these things aren't missing any pieces but if you're unsure, it's definitely worth checking.
Hats and shoes
If you have a baby or a toddler, you pretty much never need to buy them a brand new hat or pair of shoes, because op shops are absolutely overrun with these pint-sized accessories that are so temptingly cute to purchase, but so quickly outgrown. You can find very good savings on near-new or barely-worn items that would otherwise be quite expensive.
Keep an eye out for a favourite series or author. I collected these over the course of a few months.
While the library is obviously the most budget-friendly option for books, op shops are a great low-cost alternative to buying new.
You can find everything from best-selling novels to cookbooks and self-improvement books at the op shop. A well-chosen book makes a great gift, or you can always add some of your favourites to your own home library. Op shop books rarely cost more than a dollar or two.
Op shops also abound with classic children's books that, again, have been outgrown by their owners. If you're willing to be patient, you can amass an impressive home library of all your child's favourites.
Bedding and towels
Bedding and towels can be incredibly expensive to buy brand new, but if you're open to different colours and designs you may find what you need at the op shop.
Look for bedding that's 100% cotton so you know you're buying quality (check the little sewn-in tag on the inside of the sheet). There's also an abundance of knitted throws, quilts and rugs at op shops, if you need a few extra options for staying warm in the winter months.
Look for bedding that's 100% cotton so you know you're buying quality.
Towels may also be abundantly available. You can usually pick up those kids hooded beach towels that can cost $30 or more from the major retailers for just a dollar or two.
You can also nab some extra tea towels for your kitchen in a dizzying array of colours and styles.
I picked up these items for less than $20 total. Look out for cast iron and stainless steel items in the kitchen section for the best value.
If you find yourself lacking any kind of kitchen essential, from a rolling pin to measuring cups or a casserole dish, I highly recommend scouring your local op shops before heading to Kmart or Kitchen Warehouse. This is a totally underrated area where op shops absolutely shine and a lot of the items you find there can actually be higher quality than what you'd get from some of the cheaper retailers.
The key to shopping for quality kitchenware? Look at what it's made from. When I scour the kitchen corner I'm looking for stainless steel, glass, cast iron and ceramic. I don't bother with anything plastic, aluminum or non-stick (Teflon-coated) as these items generally don't last well and can often be bought brand-new very cheaply anyway.
Some of the good-quality items you can find at the op shop include:
- glass storage jars, mixing bowls and measuring jugs
- ceramic or Pyrex (glass) casserole dishes
- stainless steel kitchen accessories like spatulas, tongs, measuring cups and vegetable peelers
- wooden rolling pins
- silicone cake tins, baking sheets and muffin moulds
- full sets of wine, champagne or water glasses
- full sets of crockery – you can often even find matching plates, cups and bowls.
Every year without fail, all the major retailers wheel out their gimmicky seasonal items for Christmas, Easter, Halloween and more. It can be fun to get into the spirit with some decorations, themed clothes and specialty items like plastic eggs you can fill with tiny gifts for Easter, or DIY Advent calendars for the kids.
But these events come around without fail every year and the items immediately become unwanted once the occasion is over.
So instead of adding to landfill by buying new every time, head to your local op shop to find pre-loved versions.
Here are some of the seasonal items you may easily find at op shops:
- Decorations galore – from tinsel and baubles to giant fake spiders, Jack O'Lanterns and Easter garlands, you can find almost every decorative item under the sun.
- Themed clothing – it's not just Christmas shirts (although there is often a startling quantity of these available). You can also easily find things like Santa hats, bunny costumes and t-shirts emblazoned with ghosts and zombies.
- Speciality items – why buy a brand new plastic Christmas tree, trick or treating buckets or paper plates covered in bunnies when you can pick up somebody else's leftovers from last year for a fraction of the price?
Special interest items
Op shops can also be a great option for all sorts of hobbyists.
"I'm a big crafter and find lots of second-hand fabrics, yarns and general supplies at op shops," says CHOICE staffer Marg.
"As well as the local Vinnies and Salvos, charity Achieve Australia have four Sewing Basket stores in Sydney that sell donated fabrics and other haberdashery. These are new products that have simply not been used, so they're great value, costing a fraction of what you'd pay at Lincraft or Spotlight."
I'm a big crafter and find lots of second-hand fabrics, yarns and general supplies at op shopsCHOICE staffer Marg
"I also find activewear can be a great buy at op shops," says Marg.
Before you recoil in horror at the prospect of wearing somebody else's well-used gym wear, Marg is quick to point out that it's only garments still with tags that she buys.
"I think people go 'Yay, I'm going to be fit, let's buy some expensive clothes to sweat in' and then they don't follow through, feel defeated and donate it all. Whatever the reason, I often find brand new workout gear at my local op shops, which I'm happy to use."
In case you haven't picked up on it yet, I'm a massive fan of op shopping. But I'm also the first to admit that there are some products you simply need to buy new.
While op shops abound with good quality bargains, there's no denying they also contain plenty of junk that isn't worth spending even a few dollars on. What's more, some of the items can be downright dangerous.
Here are some products to be wary of or avoid altogether when op shopping.
Buying second-hand appliances can definitely be a good idea in certain situations, but when it comes to op shopping, you need to have your wits about you.
In my experience, buying appliances from the op shop is a bit of a gamble. They sometimes have important pieces missing or functionality issues that become clear only once you get them home.
I've found that staple appliances like kettles, toasters or vacuums generally only end up in the op shop because there's something wrong with them.
You're more likely to find a good deal on niche appliances like ice cream makers, juicers, popcorn machines and waffle makers. These are the kinds of items that people might have received as a gift or bought on a whim, but not ended up getting much use out of before donating.
Staple appliances like kettles, toasters or vacuums generally only end up in the op shop because there's something wrong with them
Of course, with that in mind, it's worth considering if you'll actually end up using the appliance yourself before you buy (we've done the ground work to help you decide if you should buy an ice cream maker, for example).
There are of course exceptions to this rule, but proceed with extreme caution where appliances are concerned. If you can, try to test out the item before you buy, or ask the store assistant if you can bring it back if it doesn't work properly.
Most op shops also perform safety testing and tagging of electronic items to ensure they're safe to use (note, this doesn't ensure that they function as intended). But double check that any electrical items have this tag before buying.
There's no doubt that op shops are a great place to pick up baby clothes, bibs, hats and blankets, but there are some baby products you should really buy new, or at least closely inspect before buying.
Cots sold in op shops may be so old that they don't meet current safety standards (and even many newer cots fail these standards when tested in our labs).
Cot mattresses should also be bought new, as older ones can be full of dust or mould and they may be too soft and saggy to be safe.
If a car seat has been in a crash previously, it's not safe to use. So you should never buy a second-hand car seat without knowing its full history. Plus, older car seats might not meet new safety standards.
I know, I know, I just said op shops are great for buying toys, but you need to proceed with extreme caution with children under three. Why? Because young children tend to put anything and everything in their mouth and older toys might have small loose parts that can present a choking hazard.
If you're shopping for baby toys, check they're in good condition and have no loose or accessible small parts.
Baby bottles and dummies
Anything that's going in your baby's mouth should be pretty damn clean. And the reality is with old bottles and dummies, you don't know where they've been and how well they've been cared for. You're better off buying new.
When most people think of op shopping, they think of thrifted vintage finds. But nowadays the clothes section of op shops are overwhelmingly filled with fast fashion and low-quality, synthetic fabrics. There is no doubt there are still good-quality clothing items available, but you'll have to have an eagle eye to find them.
Check the tags before you buy and avoid synthetic materials that don't age well, will make you sweat, and will likely carry the odour of their previous owner until the end of time.
Faulty power tools can cause serious injury or death, so it's really, really not worth taking the risk buying these from an op shop. You'll rarely see them sold for this exact reason.
So now you know what to look for and what to avoid, here are some other quick tips for getting the most out of your op shopping experience.
Location is key
It's no secret that op shops in affluent city suburbs are more expensive than those in obscure country towns (like mine). If you live in the city, do a little exploring to find the suburbs with the best op shops. And if you're willing to travel further afield, you might even find an op shop warehouse or 'factory outlet' that will be home to even better bargains.
Also, if you're travelling away from home, it's always worth taking the time to visit the local op shop – you never know what gems you might find. I've also found that independent op shops are usually cheaper than the big chains like Salvos, Vinnies etc, so keep an eye out for these.
Try, try, try again
Op shopping is not for the faint of heart, or those who seek instant gratification. So many times I've had friends ask me how I manage to find so much great stuff at op shops, saying "every time I go to the op shop all I see is junk". And I'll tell you the same as I tell them: you have to make op shopping a habit.
If you pop in once or twice a week, over the course of the year you can amass yourself a lot of bargains
If you pop in once or twice a year, you're not going to come away with armfuls of high-quality products. If you pop in once or twice a week, over the course of the year you can amass yourself a lot of bargains.
Op shop first, shopping centre second
If you find yourself in need of something, get into the habit of checking your local op shop before heading to the shopping centre. If you can afford to wait a week or two, chances are it might turn up.
Even if you need the item straight away, you're always better off checking if you can nab it for a dollar or two before handing over wads of cash for a brand new item, complete with plastic packaging.
Get to know the staff
All the staff at op shops are volunteers, and they're generally lovely people who love a chat. It's worth getting to know the staff at your local op shop as they're usually very happy to help – that's the whole reason they work there.
I've asked my favourite op shop staffers to keep an eye out for certain products for me and they'll often hold it aside until my next visit, or point me in the direction of the new stock.
Op shops are actually there to help people in need and the prices are usually flexible
Also, if there's something you really need and you genuinely can't afford it, you can always try asking for a discount. Remember that op shops are actually there to help people in need and the prices are usually flexible. My kids ruthlessly take advantage of this and are often gifted the book or toy I am refusing to buy for them by the friendly staff.
Be respectful and give back
Op shops are there to help people buy things they might otherwise struggle to afford and to give items the second life they deserve. Just because something is a good bargain, doesn't mean you should buy it yourself. If you see something that's a great quality steal but you don't really need or want it, don't buy it just for the sake of it. Leave it there for somebody else to discover.
And if you have good-quality products you don't need or want anymore, donate them if you can, instead of selling them. But don't donate items that don't work, are broken or missing essential pieces.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.