Friday, July 31, 2009

What's Inside?

A few readers have been curious as to what’s in some of the holiday gifts pictured in the post photo below. Here’s a sampling:

· 14 Alfred Meakin England Royal Ironstone China, Tea Leaf pattern dinner plates purchased for $7 total. All plates are in excellent condition and usually have a Buy It Now price of $5 per plate (not including shipping) on Ebay. This is for a collector.
· A Cinnabar Lacquerware beaded necklace for $8. For a jewelry enthusiast.
· A 14” tall, engraved crystal vase for $3.50, purchased on a 50% off day.
· A vintage heavy copper-baking cake mold with lid made in Italy for $4. For a baker. There is a name for the type of cake this mold makes, but alas, I am not a connoisseur of European cakes. I just enjoy eating them. The baker I am giving this to will know and I am selfishly hoping I can eat cake.
· Two bestseller hardbacks for a total of $4. Both are amazing books.
· A new Neiman Marcus boxed set of holiday-themed cocktail forks, $3. For a person who loves to entertain during the holidays.
· A new scalloped French sandwich press that makes my daughters favorite grilled cheese sandwiches for $4. For a person who needs easy dinner ideas and loves my daughters.
· A still in the box handmade pewter ornament for $3 with a quotation from Coco Channel my friend will appreciate and can hang in a place for encouragement when she needs it. Retails $19.
· A new box of six English Pimpernel place mats for $4. For a person who loves afternoon tea.
· A set of three vintage enameled bowls for $5. For a person with a rustic cabin in the mountains.
· An Alan Stuart handbag with tag still attached for $4. This will make a certain teen quite happy.

Be assured, I didn’t wrap mustard-stained t-shirts and avocado fondue pots but for these prices one might think that's just what I did.

It would be wise during this deep recession to think of what people need and will use and give simple luxuries when possible. This year, more then many before, requires thought for a gift. Imagine a person who is financially scrapping by through the skin of their teeth receiving $250 dollar chocolate fountain. What a shoulder-slumper that would be.

I'll end this post with a noteworthy comment from a Ms. A from the Living Without Money blog on the March 7th Wow this is so you! What's happened to the fine art of giving? post:

"I found a first edition book of small prints all about the Virgin Mary and how she was depicted in art. It was .89 cents. It's out of print and was printed by a religious company early in the last century. I gave it to a friend at Christmas and couldn't believe how profoundly touched he was by it. It was a small book but he spent most of the morning going through it with his children. His mother has borrowed it too. I thought he'd like it, but I didn't realize it would end up meaning so much. I absolutely do not believe that there was any gift out there on a store shelf that he would have felt more touched by. It is very likely that more and more people will find that what's on a store's shelf or retail floor is not the most fulfilling option when it comes to gifts (or life in general)."

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Are you a holiday pioneer?

Pioneers thought ahead. Come spring, they started chopping wood for the next winter. Thanks to the availability of most products, we’ve lost that pioneering spirit.

Why is it that the events in our lives requiring use of the retail system tend to find us waiting until the last minute to settle such needs? I don’t have one answer but will say that retailers love it when people are stuck in a pinch. Shoppers tend to spend more money and usually end up buying an item that has a higher than average chance of finding it’s way to the customer service desk. And, isn’t it weird that during the holidays, stores automatically print exchange receipts? Do they expect us to return items? I’ll bet studies show that exchanged items boost sales because customers spend more than the exchange amount. Wow, this gives pinch hitting a whole new meaning.

Retailers tend to make it seem like holiday shopping is “fun.” Stores are decorated, windows are displayed, the television is bombarded with ads. Is driving around a huge parking lot looking for a place to park in the snow fun? Is standing in line at 5AM to get into a store the day after Thanksgiving fun? Is walking through an over-saturated mall, shoulder to shoulder with strangers moving en masse fun? How about those lines to the register only to meet an exhausted cashier. Fun? Standing in line to see Santa for over an hour with a little one. Fun? Wow. I want a Valium just after writing all that.

Now let’s go to the Post Office to mail off packages and stand in line with 10 teetering packages. Fun? I once waited one hour and 45 minutes in a post office, in a town I won’t name to save embarrassment, to mail off packages at the last minute. I spent over a hundred dollars mailing those gifts. There was nothing fun or festive about that and I need something stronger than Valium after reliving that postal experience.

So, on January 1st, 2009 I proposed A New Year's Resolution Revolution to readers. Karen Datko of MSN Money, immediately picked it up on her blog. The resolution is to shop birthdays and holidays year round at thrift stores. This eliminates the pressure and allows you time to really think about the people you buy for and give them something they just might really love or need.

Some people may think giving thrifted items is gauche, maybe gross. Well guess what. Many of the thrift store items I give are BRAND NEW. In the midst of a deep recession and massive job layoffs, Americans are still buying new items and wastefully tossing them over their shoulders to land in thrift stores. Some habits die hard. Real hard. Take these candles I bought at Goodwill this Monday. All, new in the box, wicks never seen fire. The entire lot was $7. Price stickers were still on two of these boxes and together totaled $24. Who knows the total retail value.

Over time and some desperation, I’ve developed a routine of shopping year round. On some hot day in late July or early August, I pull out my bins of gifts for out of town friends and relatives. (We have an extensive family and many friends who have become family.) I wrap them up and box them up to mail at the start of November. Because I am in no rush, I mail them ground and even save money as I happily pony up to the mail desk with little or no line.

Speaking of postal rates, I love giving books to out of town friends. The US Postal book rate rules! And, it's very easy to find top notch books, recent releases, and signed books at thrift stores. These children's books, all in new or excellent condition cost me a total of $7.50.

That day of gift wrapping out of town gifts came and went. The top photo shows 20 gifts that were purchased for $129 total. That’s an average of $6.45 a gift. The majority of these gifts are brand new items or antique items from thrift stores supplemented with a few items from the last chance sale tables from Anthropologie and Williams Sonoma.

The ribbon along with enclosure cards where purchased at thrift stores. Sometimes I even find new boxes at thrift stores, the kind you purchase a office supply stores!

So, I spent six months searching out just the right thing to give someone and I found amazing treasures that I could never afford at the retail price. Consider the post, Wow! This is so You! What's happened to the fine art of giving? to ponder what retailers have done to us; especially during the holidays.

And yes, I’ve picked up some darling things for my immediate family too.

The day after Thanksgiving, my family will get up early and take the leftovers of our feast along with a large thermos of hot chocolate and head up to Buffalo Creek in the Pike National Forest of Colorado to select our Christmas Tree through a program sponsored by the Forest Rangers. All it costs is the gas to get there and a $10 permit fee for a tree. If there's snow, and there usually is, we'll go sledding. On the weekends we’ll play games and eat cupcakes. Come January 1, 2010, we won’t feel any financial pain from the holidays. Instead, we’ll keep on with that pioneering spirit.

Call me uptight. Call me manic. What will you be doing in December and what will be your stress level? Mine will be smooth and cool. Oh yeah, and how thick with that credit card statement feel come January, 2010? Mine will be so light, the wind just might deliver it, save for the purchases made at my favorite bakery.

Post script: Many readers wanted to peek inside after this post aired. Click here to peek.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Thrift Store Conventions: Repurpose & Renew

This is in response to a request regarding a plant hanger spied in my daughter’s thrifted room make over.

I love having hanging plants in my home but am not fond of the plastic store bought containers nor macramé constructs that envelope the plant behind 5 inch twisted cording that could possibly anchor the QE2. What I’ve done is quite simple and inexpensive.

Take a plain white enameled bowl from a thrift store. They can usually be purchased with or without lids for $3.99. For some reason, the speckled campy variety of enamel runs a bit higher in price. But, it’s simple that you’re looking for so stick with white. Last week I was in an antique store and they were selling small white enameled bowls for $8-$12. Amazing the difference the word “antique” does to a price.

Personally, I prefer commentary, but will attempt a go at technical writing. I promise it will be more concise than many of the instructions I’ve read on chopstick wrappers that write phrases like using chopsticks helps celebrate China’s “glonous histery.” Chopstick instructions are usually good for a laugh.

The process to make the pot into a simple hanging planter is quite easy:

1. Turn the pot upside down and use a drill bit to make a drainage hole in the center of the pot. I prefer to do this on the lawn so if the drill escapes to the other side it simply goes into the soil, nothing hard to damage the bit. Clear the hole of any stray metal pieces.

2. Keep the bowl upside down and estimate and drill three equidistant holes along the rim with a smaller bit.

3. The local mom and pop hardware store will sell a variety of chain gauges. I recommend a fine gauge. The heavier the gauge the less elegant the design. The length of the chain is based upon how high or low the plant is to hang. Purchase more than you think is required. One can always cut back the chain to the right length. It can be done but it is harder to connect chain loops.

4. Connect three chains equal in length with small S hooks to the three holes on the rim. It is wise to squeeze the hooks tight with a pair of pliers. It is also wise to consider the height of the plant when determining the length of these chains (i.e. a tall plant will require greater length to give the plant more room to spread).

5. Experience has taught me that the best way to marry the three chains is to use a simple key ring, also purchased at the local hardware store. Just slide the ends of the chain onto the ring.

6. Add a chain to hang from the ceiling to this ring and add a another ring at the top to hang from a ceiling hook.

7. If you have a lid, this can be used as a catch plate for water run off. I use a plate hanger and connect the lid to the pot handles to hold it in place. This technique was invented on the fly; I’d just purchased a load of plate hangers. I’ll bet there are many other ways to attach a catch plate. String would even work.

Many items found at thrift stores for pennies on the dollar can morph into plant hangers. Like this teapot. I love it how the fern fronds are growing out the spout.

One can also take teacups or apothecary jars found in thrift stores and turn them into miniature terrariums. Below is a small jar growing my favorite plant, moss. The key to a successful terrarium is lining the bottom of the container with small bits of charcoal to absorb excess water and prevent mold and plant decay.

Visit the mom and pop hardware store. The older the store the better. We just lost our mom and pop neighborhood store. They knew the needs of the neighborhood. For example, when we were tearing up the five layers of linoleum in our kitchen we hit this horrible, goopy stuff on the next to the last layer. We couldn’t get through it. Off to the neighborhood store we go only to hear, “Oh, you’ve hit the layer they laid in the 1920’s. The black stuff is roofing tar, they used to lay that down under linoleum because it is water resistant.” Now compare that wisdom to the look on the kid’s face at the new hardware store when I asked where I could find jute. I think he thought I was looking for an illegal drug deal by the look on his face.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Thrift Store Tips #3: I'm in the thrift store. What now?

After reading Thrift Store Tips #1 and #2 (scroll down for the two previous posts), you are now ready to visit the store.

Thrift stores are diverse and are not for snobs. Some may be very clean and some may not. We’re there for the merchandise and not the atmosphere. Breathe deep before opening the door and remember the thrift store market requires one to Dump that retail mindset to be successful.

I believe thrift stores are not places to shop to lists. Often times when I see tips on thrift, one of the first things I read is “Make Lists.” No! No! No! Shoppers make lists when they go to the grocery store. Making lists is so retail! It’s thrift passé. Why? Because we know that apples, butter and cream will be in supply at the grocery store. Who knows what will be available on any given day at the thrift store? Making a list closes the mind to just items on that list and treasure is lost. I believe what you need is a instinctual "knowing" of what is truly needed in your life, not a list.

Follows are detailed guidelines on etiquette and practice for a successful thrift experience. Remember, the key is to go frequently.
  1. Upon entering the store, always grab that shopping cart; 80% of the time, I end up with at least four items that total under $10.
  2. Do not worry if the cart if empty upon leaving the store. Keep a regular thrift shopping routine and the cart will overflow during different visits.
  3. Check to see if there are any sales that day. Sales are simple; 50% off purple tags, blue tags, etc. I have never seen anything but 50% off in thrift stores. Ever been in a department store where the rack sign reads, “Take an Additional 20% off the Already Reduced Price.” The tag has three prices but which price? We think we have it straight, but at the register we learn the 20% had already been taken off or worse, that item was not in the right place and does not count towards that promotion. I don’t like playing guessing games when I shop. I don’t like doing calculus either.
  4. Many thrift stores have 50% off most merchandise on Saturdays. This can be a mob scene and one might stand in line for 20 minutes to save $5. If thrifting on Saturdays is a must, go in the early evening when the mobs have died down. There will still be plenty of fresh merchandise because, unlike most stores, thrift stores stock all day.
  5. Thrift stores are not placing items on sale because the product is unpopular and not meeting sales expectations. Given this, a store-wide sale is going to have good stuff, not fourth-hand pickings. They just simply must move inventory.
  6. Seniors, check to see if there are additional senior discounts the day you are there. Some days offer an exclusive 50% off for seniors.
  7. Thrift stores might be cheap but they are not archaic. The big boys take plastic. Many stores have converted to bar coding and scanning.
  8. Do not worry about unmarked items. The cashier will offer a price and will be very fair.
  9. Cashiers take no offense if an item is put back at check out. Thrift store cashiers are not snobs and respect personal budgets.
  10. Learn the store different pricing structures. Of the major thrift retailers, many have different pricing structures - a good thing to know. For example, one thrift retailer prices all adult womens sweaters at $4.99, no matter if it originated at Target or Nordstrom. Other's price by quality.
  11. Don’t shop by season! Shop with reason.
  12. Don’t be intimidated by glass cases. Items in the cases are often not as pricey as one might assume.
  13. Don't ignore the racks of items packaged in clear plastic bags. Great stuff can be found in those bags.
  14. Don't go down the clothing racks looking at each, individual item. Think about clothing preference like fabric and color and learn how quality fabric feels.
  15. One thing sometimes leads to another. Once I found a gorgeous cashmere sweater in perfect condition in my size. A few items down, I found another and another. I really liked the style of the sweater's and was grateful she was so generous to the store. It's interesting to see how collections flow through the store. The same applied to the two suits that perfectly fit my husband.
  16. Even if the price seems a little high, buy it. The money goes to charity and stays within the community. Thrift store shopping is a sustainable practice. Sustainable is a popular word these days and for good reason.
  17. Don’t fall prey to brand name mania. Sure, it might be a DKNY sweater for $4.99, but will you wear it? Does it really fit?
  18. I’ve seen some people successfully negotiate prices. It’s rather uncommon. I don’t do it.
  19. Some cheaters attempt to hide merchandise in hopes they can grab it later at an upcoming half price sale. That’s one reason to poke and prod the shelves, which leads to the next item.
  20. Empty arms are a requirement to poke and prod the shelves; the shopping cart is a personal island.
  21. Some stores have sports and outdoor equipment outside. It will be obvious if this is the case and the area will most likely be marked with traffic cones.
  22. Thrift stores are snooze and lose places because most items are one of a kind. On the fence about something? Better take it. For example, I was not that excited to spend $250 the day I found the Pottery Barn sofa sleeper. But I quickly dive-bombed that sucker like I was five–year-old Superman, spread out wide and yanked that sales tag right off the back. I could hear the woman lurking in the shadows curse me.
  23. Putting it in the cart is like licking it or calling dibs.
  24. Stay close to the cart. For the most part, thrifters are a friendly lot that cast a wide net of diversity. Everyone has his or her own business and needs. However, I have had single items taken from my cart. Whoever took that pristine first edition hardback of Gump & Co. (the sequel to Forest Gump by Winston Groom; I wanted that for my personal library! If you read this, I figure you need to send me the copy! They retail $80, that’s probably why you took it. Shame on you. Bet you even read it! Wait a minute! That book was autographed too. Triple dog shame!
  25. Another reason to stay close to the cart is that the floor staff in thrift stores are some of the world’s fastest stockers. If they notice a cart left unattended for five minutes, they’ll restock it. I wonder if they’d make a good Olympic Cup Stacking Team. Is cup stacking an Olympics sport?
  26. When going to the dressing room, park the cart by the door. Carts by dressing rooms are on base. However if the cart is left unattended for a good long while it will be subject to restock. I think these stockers have some kind of radar on cart activity.
  27. Nice finds on clothes can be found by the dressing room. Someone liked it and pulled it out for a reason. That's where I found the Banana Republic vintage style jacket with $99.99 tags still attached.
  28. As previously mentioned, thrift stores stock all day. Once the grey/blue bins and clothes racks roll out of the backroom, they are fair game. Go and sort through them to get first pick. Stockers do not mind, in fact it makes their job a little lighter.
  29. Remember grabs from bins are okay but grabbing from a cart, no matter how full, is not playing fair. I believe in thrifting karma.
  30. Look up. There are items on high! Look down. Items down low.
  31. Be prepared to break personal rules. I had a rule about not buying upholstered items at thrift stores. Upon spotting the condition of that sofa sleeper, that rule was immediately filed. Some people have hang ups with shoes. Then they’ll spot those like new Via Spiga strappy sandals and it’s all over but the shouting. Besides if you have a shoe hang up, buy inserts. I bought four bags of three sets of anti-stinky feet inserts for $2.99 at, guess, the thrift store.
  32. Before checking out, check cart inventory. We are here to buy what we need. While going through the store it’s very easy to go nuts with these prices and very easy to end up with duplicates or items that were clutched in a psychotic break. Give the cart a once over.
  33. Check any clothing to see if it’s dry clean only. Is the added cost of dry cleaning worth the item? Do you think possibly this item could be hand washed? If you ruin it you're only out a few bucks not a couple hundred.
  34. Direct all questions to the cashiers.
  35. Once home with the booty, check Ebay on items that seem like they might be of high retail cost and don’t forget to add the cost of shipping. I’ve found vintage books that sell for $180, shirts in great condition that retail $185. I have never sold a thrifted item it’s just not my game.
Remember, the market may set the price but YOU determine the value. Some of my most treasured or valued items do not have a high retail cost.

Above all else, thrift for a few months and you'll soon find that you now have a set of Snake Eyes along with a good dose of Thrift Pride that will serve you well.