Second-hand shops are great resources for clothes, toys and household items. However, sometimes it seems just too hard to visit them with kids in tow. Here are some lessons that I’ve learned along the way to make an experience of op-shopping with children a joy.

Exploring an op shop's toy collection
The girls dig through all the toys available for sale, setting up impromptu games before finally packing away as I move to the cash register to pay for my purchases.

Today we took our visitors on an op-shop-run and introduced them to some of southeast Queensland’s best second-hand shops. (In Australia, second hand shops are called op shops with the “op” short for “opportunity”.) It was fun to find bargains together and to look out for items that I knew would interest my friend.

I first started my avid op-shopping in August 2005, when I visited Renée’s family in Perth, Western Australia with Aisha — then seven months old. Renée is the doyenne of op-shoppers, and she taught me the skills that I use in my pursuit of second-hand bargains.

Know your op shops

When I was first discovering the op shops in Perth, I’d mark each location with a little sticker in the street directory Renée kept in her car. Back in Brisbane, I also did the same — locating each second-hand shop through directory listings and websites. I learned about more op shops through friends, asking questions in op shops (“Are there any more op shops around here?”) and always keeping an eye out.

Once I discovered a new Salvos very close to my home because I was picking up my brother-in-law from a car-rental place. I was in a part of a neighbouring suburb that I usually never ventured into, and the op shop was new enough that it wasn’t registered in the directories I had checked previously.

With each new op shop, I placed a sticker in our street directory clearly marking its location (and sometimes even who it was run by). The end result was that I had a comprehensive list of op shops in our metropolis. This was handy when I needed to run errands for David’s business — I didn’t mind driving to Woop Woop if I knew there was a new op shop I could visit in the locale.

The more modern equivalent would be to mark each one in your GPS. Someone, somewhere should sell GPS add-ons that detail all the locations of second-hand shops. Surely that program would be worth squillions! (Maybe I’ll auction off my op-shop-marked street directory on ebay… Do you think it will sell?)

Start small

Because Aisha was just a baby when I started, she’s been op shopping with me for a long time. So she knows the drill. We enter a shop, she identifies the toy location, the girls play with the toys (carefully), then finally they pack away in anticipation of going to a new location with different toys!

If your kids aren’t familiar with playing with toys at a shop, packing away and then moving on, it will take a while for them to get used to the idea that you’re not going to buy the entire toy collection for them to take home. I’ve often used the phrases “we’ll leave it here to play with next time” or “someone else may want it” to fend off any requests for purchases.

While I’m assessing toys for purchase, I talk about what I’m looking for — value for money, longevity, rarity and (mostly) something that we don’t already own. My children have now learned that it’s unlikely I’ll even consider buying something if we have a similar one (especially baby dolls!) at home.

Plan for the day ahead

Once you know where all the op shops are, you can plan an attack strategy. Choose a route that will give you flexibility, food and facilities for toileting the kids. You may need to add a playground or two to keep them happy.

If you’re going to be out for a while, pack a lunch — whatever you would eat at home — to accompany you. It’s not worth saving money at an op shop if you’re just going to eat the equivalent while you’re out! Add fruit and snacks to give your children incentives for being happy while out.

Remember, the key is to give yourself flexibility and permission to bail if everyone isn’t happy. If the baby falls asleep in the car and you know that you can’t wake her up without several hours of tears, you may need to detour to a park where the kids can play on a playground while you watch from the car.

Know what you want

If you don’t really know what you want, sometimes you can find yourself wandering aimlessly in the shop. A little list will remind you to look in the electronics section for an amp, the toy section for dominoes and on the children’s shoe racks for “sandals in the right size.

I’m always interested in children’s books and often browse the non-fiction adult bookshelves too. Now I’m looking for cheap sleeping bags (David found one today for $4!) for the truck, and so I head to the bedding section.

Go often

The bargains are either there or they aren’t. The trick to successful op-shopping seems to be to visit the shops frequently — even if it’s only for a couple minutes to do a quick scan. The more often you go, the more quickly your children will know the routine of playing, packing up and moving on.

Make friends

Most op shops are staffed by volunteers. They can be your friend (“Yes, we finally got some maternity clothes in!) or your foe (“Please supervise your children while you’re in this shop!”).

Be friendly and courteous. Greet them as you come in, thank them for the work they do and reassure them that you’ll be making certain your children tidy up the toys before you leave.

If you’re going to be a regular client, chat with the staff, get to know their names and family. Discuss the things you’re looking for — they’ll know if there’s something like that in their shop.

Have fun

Op-shopping isn’t just about saving money. It’s about being on a treasure hunt. Sometimes you’re never sure what the treasure will be, and that uncertainty adds to the pleasure of finding a real bargain.

And if you’re not having fun in op shops, if it’s stressing you and your children, stop going. No money saved is worth any detrimental effects to your relationship with your children!