It's not hard to see why Miramar locals dub the local Salvation Army store "Kirkcaldies". On a grim winter's day the suburban Wellington op shop is welcoming and well-lit, with an enticing window display. Clothes are arranged neatly in sizes, with premium items hung on a special separate rack. There are no musty smells and lots of good loot to choose from, such as a Chanel-style Banana Republic jacket in immaculate condition ($10), an Ashley Fogel top in cream silk ($8) and a pair of brand new jeans with the swing tags still attached. There's an as-new Lululemon sweatshirt in blush pink, a sky-blue merino cardigan — no pulls or pilling ($8) — and a pair of practically box-fresh hot-pink Converse hi-tops ($12). You could shop in style here and still emerge with change from $50.

There are treasures to be found in Miramar's other op shops (a huge Opportunity for Animals, a jam-packed St Vincent de Paul and a cavernous Mary Potter Hospice shop just down the road from the Weta Cave), though they take a bit more finding. That kind of hunt-and-peck shopping is fine if you have the time and dedication but research by Otago University Associate Professor Lisa McNeill has found that a lot of young people find that kind of retail therapy too much like hard work.

McNeill, herself a keen op shopper, says 18-25-year-old participants in the study said it was difficult to find things in a sea of expensive second-hand cast-offs.

"It's not because they're lazy consumers or because they don't care about sustainability. The fact of the matter is that there are more and more textiles in op shops than ever but the quality has gone down over time."

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On paper, op shops should be the answer to fashion's sustainability problems, but McNeill says they are unwitting victims of modern society's fixation with image and the lust for new stuff.

"Times have changed and the way people represent their personal image has changed significantly," she says. "How someone looks on the outside has become increasingly important — the whole selfie phenomenon wouldn't exist if we didn't have such a focus on how people look — and with that comes a desire to keep updating your image. The trend is very much to reinvent constantly and have new things all the time. Most people can only afford to do that if they buy at the lower end of the market."

The flow-on effect has had a deleterious effect on op shops, McNeill.

"Young people say, 'Why would I buy a top from an op shop for $6 when I can go to Kmart and buy a brand new one for $4?'"

In the olden days — before the 1980s — updating your wardrobe took a lot more work. If you wanted new threads you sewed them yourself (or paid someone to do it for you) or saved for high-quality items that were designed to last. Now it's possible to order a dress from your sofa on Monday night and be wearing it to drinks on Friday. It will probably cost less than a round of drinks (and might not last much beyond the month), but who cares when it's so easy to get another one?

McNeill says the responses to her survey show a need to rethink both our shopping habits and how garments might be most sustainably reused.

"When you buy a brand new top for $4, wear it three or four times and then donate it, the probability of someone else paying $6 for it — or even buying it at all — gets very narrow. A bigger question is, then, what do you do with it? Because there aren't necessarily clear answers to that, maybe people have to take a step back before buying and think, 'What's the lifetime of this item? Am I doing the right thing by purchasing volume over quality?'"

McNeill has been working with Ric Odem, chief executive of Franklin Hospice, to look at both how charity shops can reinvent themselves and how to convince people to buy pre-loved clothing.

"The challenge for us — and the opportunity — is to rethink the delivery system. The layout needs to be thought out as well. At our shop in Pukekohe we've thought hard about that because we believe the experience is part of the selling. Not everyone likes shopping in a place that looks like Steptoe and Son."

Fiona Fraser knows exactly what makes a good op shop. The former magazine editor, who now lives in Hawke's Bay, is intimately acquainted with New Zealand's op shops after challenging herself to only shop from them for a year.

Fraser initially embarked on her op shop odyssey after she and close friend Robyn McLean committed to tackling their "reckless" shopping habit.

"We both needed to save money and break our addiction to the buzz of buying new clothes," she says.

They factored in a few escape clauses — they could buy new underwear and active wear, and two new pairs of shoes each during the year — and they set up "Polyester and Tweed" accounts on Facebook and Instagram to show how they were doing.

While McLean faltered after a few months ("She's a woman who loves Karen Walker but she came undone at Glassons," her shopping companion hoots), Fraser soldiered on. She found all sorts of covetable items in op shops and recycled clothing stores — a Standard Issue cropped merino cardigan and a Michael Kors coat; two Andrea Moore cardigans, a blue velvet vintage jacket and many "beautiful" vintage frocks, among others. She was just two months short of completing the year when she fell off the wagon in style at an open-all-hours Anthropologie store in Los Angeles.

"I'd always been an op shopper, but doing Polyester and Tweed completely changed me," she says. "I wanted to break that addiction of buying new clothes and it actually worked. I don't recklessly buy things anymore."

Like all practised op shoppers, Fraser demurs when asked to reveal her happiest hunting grounds (except to praise the charity and recycled clothing stores of Hawke's Bay). She boycotted SaveMart after the stores were criticised for unsafe working conditions, "but there's only so long you can stay away from SaveMart, it's always full of such good stuff".

She says op shopping needs to be approached with a different mindset to strolling the mall.

"You can't say, 'Today I need to find a pair of jeans so that's the only thing I'm going to look for.' Op shopping isn't structured that way. You need to take your time and be prepared to rifle through everything. That's how you find the good stuff."

Fraser says a little fabric knowledge can help streamline your shopping missions. "I'm always looking for wool, cashmere and silk — I can tell the difference between silk and polyester in a heartbeat — and when you get to know how they feel you can run your fingers across a rack and find the good stuff more easily."

Even though she's now free to shop where she likes, Fraser remains keen on trawling her favourite haunts — and finding new ones — as a way of updating her wardrobe.

"Things I wear that I've found in op shops are always the ones that get the most comments from people."

Canvas fashion editor Dan Ahwa may have enviable access to sought-after local and international labels but that doesn't stop him from seeking out inspiration in pre-loved clothing stores. Ahwa regularly visits op shops and vintage stores, whether he's looking for pieces for shoots or gems for his own wardrobe.

"The best way to wear a vintage or second-hand piece is to mix it in with your existing wardrobe so it feels current," he says.

Ahwa says second-hand clothing stores should now play a greater role than ever
as people become more aware of sustainability: "They remind people that there is a more mindful way to shop for clothes — and there's always that excitement of finding something special. Plus, Salvation Army stores are always a great way to support the local community."

While Ahwa has built up good relationships with store owners who will save him special pieces, he says novice op shoppers should always assess a garment's quality before buying. "Is it worth mending or not? Will you wear it more than eight times? If not, don't buy it.

"Buying vintage or op-shop finds and re-working them, or perhaps mending and adding something else to them, encourages people to be creative and to pick up a needle and thread or a sewing machine and learn to do something other than stare at their phones."

HOW TO OP SHOP IN STYLE

Be strategic:

Op shops in affluent areas are often blessed with generous donations of designer duds. Some have relationships with High St brands and get regular dumps of unworn, brand-new stock from the previous season. Do your homework and try to visit mid-week rather than at the weekend.

Be eagle-eyed: Good-quality fabrics will stand the test of time. Look for natural fibres — cotton, silk, wool, cashmere, leather.

Be patient: Op shop stock comes and goes so don't be disheartened if it takes you a couple of visits to find clothes you love.

Be strict: Would you buy it if it cost twice as much? Will you ever really take up that hem or soak out that stain?

Be mindful: Fill-a-bag sales can be thrilling but there's no point in gathering stuff you'll never wear.

Be clean: If you find a dream vintage piece that has a strong scent of yesteryear, dry cleaning will help get rid of the pong. Alternatively, try soaking the item in white vinegar.

Be generous: If you're planning a wardrobe cleanout, think carefully before you dump it all at an op shop's door. If you don't want that stretched out T-shirt, it's unlikely that anyone else will pay for it. Cut it up to use as a duster instead.