Consignment Shop vs. Thrift Store: What’s the Difference?

Would a consignment shop take your collection of fuzzy scarves?
Would a consignment shop take your collection of fuzzy scarves? / Jon Cartwright/Moment/Getty Images

In its most general sense, thrift shopping or thrifting can refer to buying items—particularly apparel—secondhand. Someone might colloquially mention going thrifting at a flea market, a yard sale, or some other secondhand establishment.

But a thrift shop (or thrift store) isn’t just any secondhand establishment: As Current Boutique’s Craving Current blog explains, it’s typically a non-profit that diverts its earnings to charitable causes. Housing Works, for example, is an organization that operates a number of thrift shops in New York City and uses the money for community-based programs that combat homelessness and HIV/AIDS. This differs from a consignment shop, which is usually for profit.

It’s not the only distinction between the two. If you’re bringing a box of old clothes to a thrift shop, don’t expect compensation: Items are donated to a thrift shop, not sold. What you can do is claim your donation as a tax deduction, as long as you’re willing to go to the trouble of itemizing it.

You shouldn’t necessarily expect to walk away from a consignment shop with a wad of cash, either. Some do pay up front for whatever they take, which they then sell at a mark-up. But it’s more common for you to get paid after the store sells your item—assuming it ends up getting sold. If it does, they’ll take a cut of the profits and turn the rest over to you, whereas if an item never sells, the store will probably return it to you. Consignment stores also typically have different rules regarding how long they’ll keep something before giving it up. 

Because consignment stores are trying to turn a profit, they’re often selective about what items they’ll accept. There are even luxury consignment stores that only take designer goods. If you’re trying to offload a closet-full of couture—and hoping to recoup some of what you spent on it—you probably want to find a high-end consignment store near you.

That said, thrift shops have their advantages, too, and they often go beyond tax benefits. For one thing, it’s really easy to drop off a bunch of stuff at a thrift shop; you don’t have to wait for someone to sift through it all and decide what’s worth trying to sell. And it’s always nice to bid adieu to your old belongings knowing that you’re helping your community by doing so.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by