Goodwill by the pound

Last Updated on October 17, 2019 by Dave Farquhar

Goodwill operates thrift stores all over the country, but most major cities have one Goodwill Outlet as well. These stores, nicknamed Goodwill by the pound, sell merchandise by weight. It’s the last stop for merchandise before being recycled.

Goodwill by the pound offers tremendous opportunity for bargain hunters with a sense of adventure. If you’re willing to dig, and fix up what you find, you can save a ton of money at these stores.

Goodwill’s hit and miss

Goodwill pay by the pound
At the Goodwill Outlet I found this bin containing a mismatched pair of computer speakers and a wooden heart that didn’t sell somewhere else for $2.

I’m not a huge fan of the regular Goodwill stores. For the last 10 years or so, Goodwill, at least in my area, has been selling a lot of merchandise online, at Ebay-like prices, rather than selling in the stores. I can still occasionally find something in their stores, but a lot of the interesting stuff that used to end up in the stores is only online now. I’ll stop by Goodwill when I’m out thrifting, but only when it’s on the way to somewhere else.

Goodwill by the pound sells the stuff that didn’t sell in the stores, or never made it to the stores in the first place. Keep in mind this may or may not be true for you, but oddly enough, I find better stuff there than in the regular stores, even though it’s cheaper. Everything that’s at the Outlet is there for a reason, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good reason.

I have more fun at the outlet than I do at their regular stores, and it’s not really close.

How does the Goodwill Outlet work?

The Goodwill Outlet is chaos. Imagine aisles of plastic bins full of junk to dig through. Some stuff is kind of sorted out. Bins with books in them probably are mostly books. Books with clothes tend to be mostly clothes. But there’s a good 800 square feet that’s just bins of random, assorted stuff to sift through.

Grab a cart on your way in, pull it up to a spot, and start digging. If you want something, put it in your cart. Keep an eye on your cart, as some people have more scruples than others. Some people will grab good stuff from your cart, while others will notice something in your cart and hand you part of it if they find it in another bin.

Wear gloves. It’s dirty. Some of the stuff will be broken, so be careful.

When you’re done, you wheel the cart up to the checkout. They weigh the items, and you literally pay by the pound. We’re talking $1.19 a pound for most items. For books, they charge by the inch, and furniture is individually priced. It’s strictly cash and carry, so bring a big vehicle if you think you might buy furniture or an appliance.

Furniture and appliances – not by the pound

If these $20 dryers don’t work, chances are you can fix one with $20 worth of parts. That’s still a bargain.

Yes, you can find furniture and appliances there. And a lot of it seems to end up at the outlet only because there isn’t room in the typical Goodwill stores for much of a selection of those kinds of things. Goodwill outlets tend to be in large venues, like old department stores, so they have room to deal in bulkier items.

The furniture and appliances you find there will be dated, but usually in usable condition. Don’t buy something if you can’t try it out, of course, but in many cases you can try it out. If it works, you can save a bundle. Just remember it’s cash and carry, so don’t drive your Honda Civic if you think you might buy a sofa.

On the last occasion I checked, I spotted two Kenmore dryers priced at $20. At that price, it’s worth the risk, as they aren’t hard to fix.

How to shop the Goodwill by the pound

Goodwill outlet
Goodwill outlets tend to be in large venues like old department stores. This one used to be the main warehouse for Famous-Barr, a St. Louis-based department store chain acquired by Macy’s.

There’s some advantage to being there when they open, but they put new bins out all the time, so there’s fresh loot all day. The first people to the new bins get the best stuff though, so get in position when you see they’re about to put new ones out.

If you see it and want it, grab it and put it in your cart. If you can, shop in pairs and take turns watching the cart, as stuff can disappear from it. You can always put an item back if you decide you don’t want it.

It’s overwhelming at first, because there’s so much there and it’s so disorganized. You’ll learn how to spot things as you go. My best advice is to watch for things you recognize, or things that seem unusual. Pick them up, see what they are, and if it’s good, put it in your cart. If it’s not good, there’s no shame in putting it back.

A lot of what you find will be in pieces, and possibly missing pieces. So if you find something good, don’t move on just yet. Keep looking to make sure you get as many pieces as possible. Look in the other bins in the row too. I’ve found things scattered across multiple bins before.

How to learn to spot

Spotting the worthwhile item in a bin full of junk is a skill. It’s hard to learn, and you may find it harder to learn under pressure. So here’s an exercise for you to learn how to do it in a lower-pressure situation. Take a walk, and pick up aluminum cans. Recycle the cans, whether you put them in a recycle bin for free or sell them to a scrapper. It’s not really about the money. It’s about learning to spot small objects in a sea of other objects. Eventually you’ll find that you can spot an aluminum can in your peripheral vision. That skill will serve you well when you’re sifting through endless bins of random stuff looking for one item you care about. It will also improve your health.

Look for smaller objects too. I look for screws and nails and pick them up. It’s a little scary how often I find them. It keeps my skills up, and it keeps them out of someone’s tire, contributing a little more good to the world.

Buying parts of items

At the Goodwill Outlet, no one will stop you from buying just part of an item. If you see a small appliance with a detachable power cord and just want the power cord, no one will stop you from just buying the cord. I see someone at my local location from time to time who opens every computer she finds and yanks out the hard drive. She told me she and her friend buy hard drives to mod game consoles. No one stops her, even if she damages the computer in the process.

It’s bad behavior to intentionally damage items you don’t want. And it’s certainly better behavior to spend 30 seconds unbolting a hard drive rather than prying it out with a crowbar-sized screwdriver and ruining the case. But if you just want part of an item in the bin, Goodwill seems perfectly fine with that.

What kinds of things you’ll find

A lot of the stuff at the Goodwill Outlet is merchandise that didn’t sell in the regular stores. Oddly, I find things with price tags on them from other thrift stores too, so maybe other stores have some kind of arrangement for Goodwill to liquidate their unsold stuff too.

Some of it is stuff that never made it to the stores, because it was too broken or damaged. If you’re good at fixing stuff, you can find a lot at the outlet, and it’ll be cheap.

Some of the stuff is there for no good reason. If they try to sell it online and it doesn’t sell there, maybe it goes to the outlet rather than cycling through the regular stores first? It seems odd, but for example, I’ve found Lionel train stuff at the outlet. That stuff never makes it to the floor in the regular stores. My wife finds good clothes there too.

I think some of it is just stuff they didn’t know what to do with at the regular stores. While I certainly don’t find a prize every time I go, I find more at the outlet than I do at the regular stores. I can find more model train and vintage computer gear at the outlet in a month of going than I’ll find all year at the regular stores.

Shopping Goodwill Outlets for fun or profit

Goodwill pay by the pound
You never know what you’ll find in the bottom of these big blue bins. Some of the bins are sorted, but even the sorted bins usually aren’t sorted very well.

Plenty of the stuff at the Goodwill Outlet has resale potential. I rarely shop for resale anymore, so I can’t do what some people do and brag on what I spent and what I later sold it for. But I can tell you on my most recent trip, I spent $20, and what I bought would easily sell for over $150 after I put another $20 worth of parts in it. And if I’d been buying for resale, I would have grabbed a wet/dry vac that appeared to be super easy to fix.

Why so cheap? Because everything I found was missing parts. That meant if I’d been shopping for resale, I would have had to either part out my loot and sell it as parts, or replace the missing parts to make it whole for resale. That’s why most of what I found was at the outlet, rather than going to a store where it could sell for a higher price.

As far as shopping there for fun, it’s a treasure hunt. There’s a thrill in finding something I like, or something my sons will like, and paying pocket change for it. It’s cheaper than going to the movies. Maybe we’ll come home with something and maybe we won’t. I may find something I can fix and use. I may find something I haven’t seen in 30 years.

One time I found someone’s stash of old computer memory from the mid 1990s. I paid $1.52 for it, so it must have weighed almost a pound and a half. It was just sitting loose in the bottom of one of those blue bins. Each module would sell for $1-$4 each as long as it works.

Reseller margins

The general rule when shopping for resale is that you need to make $2 for every $3 you spend. One dollar covers taxes and your resale venue’s cut. That leaves a dollar for you. Keep in mind all of your expenses are deductible, including the purchase price, mileage, and sales commissions. When you pay by the pound, it’s easier to exceed that margin.

Splitting the profits evenly like that may seem unfair. But let’s say you pay $1 for something and sell it for $10, which is certainly possible. At those margins, it works out to $1 to Goodwill, $1.50 to the venue, a maximum of $2.25 in taxes, and at least $5.25 to you. The times when the margins are high makes up for the low-margin deals. And at Goodwill-by-the-pound prices, it’s easier to find 10:1-margin items. At the retail stores, you frequently can’t find 3:1-margin items anymore.

Shopping Goodwill by the pound for need

You can pick up necessities there too, and pay by the pound. A lot of random household stuff ends up there that’s perfectly usable, it just doesn’t have enough resale value to be worth bothering with. Some of the bins I see there suggest that when someone empties their house to sell it, they just tossed everything from the kitchen they didn’t want into a box, donated it to Goodwill, and anything the employees didn’t cherry-pick out of the box ended up in a bin in the outlet. If you’re willing to take it home and wash it, you can save a bundle at Goodwill by the pound.

I see a lot of college students when I go. Dishing on college students and calling them morons and financially irresponsible is trendy right now. I think it’s smart to manage your finances carefully so you can afford to get an education, and it makes me happy when I see people doing that. What I see is young people playing a game that’s much more expensive than it was when I was their age. They haven’t given up on the American Dream, and I admire their grit and resourcefulness.

Most thrift stores have moved upmarket a bit in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. That means some people who could afford to shop in thrift stores 20 years ago can’t necessarily afford the prices at regular Goodwill thrift stores today. Goodwill by the pound provides opportunity for those left behind, and I think that’s a good thing.

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