Christina McKean, 13, of Old Town browses the racks at Hands of Hope Thrift Store on Thursday, Jan. 8, 2009. Credit: Bridget Brown / BDN

Thrift store shopping is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint while finding unique items at a much lower price for your home and wardrobe. Shopping for holiday gifts at the thrift store is a great way to get something meaningful for the person you love without breaking the bank.

There are a number of advantages to purchasing second hand gifts from the thrift store instead of seeking out something more conventional — and more expensive — at your local big box store. However, shopping for gifts at the thrift store can be intimidating. The inventory is constantly changing, and the sections are chock full with items. Plus, there can be a stigma about secondhand goods, so finding that just-right gift becomes even more important.

Here are some tips for finding that perfect gift at the thrift store, no matter who you are shopping for.

Give a gift “experience”

A 2019 study from the market research firm Mintel showed that the preference for both secondhand goods and “experiential” gifts has continued to grow since 2016. At the thrift store, you can combine several small things into an “experience.”

“One other thing about sustainable gift giving is that people tend to want experiences more than things,” said Heather Steeves, communications manager at Goodwill Northern New England. “If you can make a movie night or a game night or you can make your gift not just stuff but an experience. That adds a lot of meaning without costing you a ton. A board game will set you back a buck or two, but the night that you’re promising to give someone, that can be really meaningful.”

Consider combining a mug, puzzle and blanket in a basket with a packet of cocoa for a cozy night-in, or thrifted wine glasses with a bottle of the recipient’s favorite tipple. For a bread hobbyist (of which there are many now, after the quarantine sourdough surge), combine mixing bowls, linen towels with a loaf tin.

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Give a memory

This year, we have spent a lot of time by ourselves. Why not give the gift of a memory from years past?

Steeves said that her go-to, foolproof gift from the thrift store is a picture frame with a thoughtful photo inside. Frames, she said, will set you back about $1, while printing a photo only costs a couple cents.

“This one will always cost you less than $2 it’s good for everybody and it’s very thoughtful,” Steeves said. “I buy a nice frame and then i’ll just go on that person’s Facebook profile and pull a photo that they seem to like, and have that sent to Walgreens. That’s my go to if I don’t know what to get somebody.”

Mix old and new

Search in the thrift store for a way to display some homemade gifts. For example, a fancy platter for a tray of homemade cookies that you can safely deliver to someone’s door.

“I think a mix of new and old can help people appreciate a gift,” Steeves said. “You can thrift a really beautiful old plate, but make new cookies.”

Also look out for items that can double as gift wrapping at thrift stores.

“That’s a great old idea,” said Ingrid Kellas, manager at the Fryeburg Thrift Shop. “You just take a scarf and instead of using wrapping paper. You don’t have to use tape, you just tie it. Then you have two gifts in one.”

Look for winter gear

Winter clothes, especially things like ski pants for children, are also a great gift for the thrift store. This is a great gift in general because getting outside this winter will help people with their mental health.

“Now is a really good time to get your ski pants or coats,” Kellas said. “Kids outgrow them. They may not even wear them or they may wear them outside to play one time and they grow so fast they’re not going to be wearing them next year.”

If you are lucky, you may be able to find gear like skis and snowshoes. One piece of gear that you are more likely to find in any thrift store, though, is ice skates. With a little sharpening, they can be as good as new.

Try online

If you are concerned about shopping in person because of the coronavirus, thrifting online is a great way to shop. There are a number of platforms that are great for thrift store shopping online. Your local thrift store might even have their own online shop for you to peruse at your leisure. Goodwill of Northern New England has an eBay page and the organization in general Goodwill-specific auction site called ShopGoodwill, which will help you search for higher-value items like jewelry, laptops and vintage items.

Jewelry and luxury or vintage clothing items are especially good to buy online. This might be especially good for that one person who would normally turn their nose up at a secondhand gift.

“There’s just really beautiful stuff that’s just not made the same way today,” Steeves said. “Our Goodwill does have jewelry appraisers in Gorham, Maine. We test every metal, we test every gem and we have certain tools that can do that. For a designer bag we do have a tool that allows us to authenticate each item. No one I know would turn their nose up at that.”

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Know your store

If you are intimidated by the prospect of thrift shopping for gifts, plan ahead.

“If you knew you were looking for a frame and a plate for cookies you can kind of have a plan,” Steeves said. “There are some things that you know will always be at thrift stores.”

Even if you don’t know exactly what you are going to buy, knowing the layout of your local thrift store, as well as any special sections they might have, will also help you plan effectively.

Some thrift stores have special sections that will help you find higher-ticket items. Steeves recommended checking the “Handpicked” section at the Goodwill in Bangor.

Steeves said that some Goodwill stores in the area have a section called “GoodTech” with locally refurbished gaming systems and iPhones and package them like-new.

Joy Walker, manager of Miles in Motion Thrift Shop, which is run by the Miles Memorial Hospital League, in Damariscotta, said that knowing the store will help you know when the store is restocking, as well as the store is having specials that will help you to save even more money.

“We run daily 50 percent off specials on all three floors,” Walker said. “These change daily. Our particular ‘color of the day” alludes to merchandise with that color in it, and applies to most anything on one floor. We announce it the day before on our Facebook page.”

Keep abreast of your thrift store’s happenings by checking their website or Facebook page.

“I post it on our website and then a lot of people if they’re thrift shopping they can find it in the calendar section of their local newspaper,” Kellas said.

Ask questions

Thrift store owners are generally very familiar with what they are selling because they sort, stock and clean it. Do not be afraid to ask what you are looking for.

“If you’re looking for something specific it’s always good to ask maybe somebody from the sorting department,” Wycoff said. “They know where everything is. Maybe your grandmother wants a tea set but you don’t see one on the floor. You don’t know what people have seen throughout their day. They might have an idea, or they might say, ‘I saw one out back, let me grab it for you.’”

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Consider a thrift store gift card

If you can’t find what you are looking for, consider getting a giftcard to your local thrift store as a gift.

“We have a lot of people who just aren’t sure,” Matthews said. “They’re buying for a friend’s kid, buying for a nephew. They’ll say oh this is what they like. We’ve cautioned a lot of people to get gift cards because you don’t know everyone.”

You can even tie it into the promise of an experience once the pandemic is over.

“It’s sustainable and it does help your community by providing workforce programs which are in the most demand ever,” Steeves said. “You could make it an event. Once this pandemic is over we’re going to Goodwill and we’re going to get silly outfits or do a prom date at Denny’s. You could make it an occasion.”