From Here to Eternity, and Beyond: The Garage Sale

Just in case you didn’t know, we have recently made some huge changes. In the planning since the beginning of this year, we decided to relocate to a warmer climate. The cold weather in Denver last year was just too much for me and Kevin, being from the south, was also ready to move on. The end of July found us in transit to Charlotte, NC – our new home.

One of our major goals was to… thin out our belongings. We just didn’t want to own all that “stuff” anymore and we really wanted to reduce our expenses. We decided to sell as much of our things as possible, because really, this is the ultimate form of recycling. It breaks my heart to landfill something which someone else could use, or benefit from.

Formulating a multi-prong attack, we decided on a series of garage sales followed by donation of unsold items that we did not want to move. Years before, we’d had a garage sale with a friend of mine. We sat out all day on Saturday, from 8:00 to 4:00, and made a whopping $75. I was kind of hoping for a little better show this time around, so I decided to do some research.

Everything I’d heard said that Friday was the best day, and an early start was crucial. I also thought that posting a notice for our garage sale on Craigslist a week in advance might help out our attendance. I included in the listing a summary of the different item types we were going to be selling. (In the past, clothing never really sold for me, so I didn’t focus on it at all. Instead, I noted the gardening materials and pots, home decor and accessories, kitchen items, fine art supplies, etc.) I also put up hours and directions. Come the day of the sale, we put up dated signs for traffic going both directions at each of the leading intersections which were most heavily traveled.

I got an email from one woman who asked if she could come by on Friday night to look at the art supplies as she was going to be busy all day Saturday. This was my first experience with an early bird, and I didn’t care for it. She was nice enough, but it was really a waste of time, so after that I politely refused and said we were too busy and couldn’t accommodate a special showing. But more on what we learned later.

Armed with a little knowledge and signs, the first garage sale started as early on a Saturday morning as I could drag Kevin out of bed, which was about 7:00. Sadly, he’d been unable to get Friday off, so we were going to have just the one day sale on Saturday. When we set up, I laid everything out with a plan – all the gardening and plant materials here, all the kitchen stuff there, etc. My experienced friends said they didn’t think there was any point being out later than 3:30, so that was our goal for closing up shop.

The traffic was pretty good, and by the end of the day, we were pretty pleased with ourselves. We didn’t sell everything, which was fine, but walked away with about $180.

More importantly, we observed some interesting patterns. First off, earlier is not necessarily better. For the first 1.5 to 2 hours, all our traffic was bargain hunters. People who wanted to beat you down on the price of everything, till you were ready to give it to them just to make them leave. Ugh! Then the real shoppers started coming around. They were nice, they didn’t bicker, haggle obscenely, or try to tell us the stuff was crap (which it definitely wasn’t). It was a much more pleasant group of people, and they were bringing in money. We also noticed that starting at about 2:00, the traffic really thinned out and the hagglers were back. It was like a competition to see who would win. They didn’t actually want the stuff, they just wanted to beat you at a game and they never bought anything. We made virtually no sales between both the morning and the afternoon haggling sessions. Everything was made during 9:00-2:00.

So, to experiment with the next garage sale we again stuck with Saturday, but we had new hours. We also decided that if an item had value, we weren’t going to give it away just for the sake of getting rid of it. For one thing, we knew there were going to be a couple more garage sales in the future, and if an item didn’t get sold we’d look at other options. And realistically, if someone didn’t want to pay $15 for a large, beautiful asian glazed pot from Shaver Ramsey, someone else would – and did.

So the second garage sale again went off, with the modifications noted above of reduced hours and more resistant to haggling, and no early birds. Another of my close friends well versed with garage sales also told me, put anything out there. Even if you think no one would ever pay money for it, put it out. So we did! Out came the spare lightbulbs I didn’t want to pack and move. Out came the empty binders and a ziplock baggie of of paper clips, the half used bottles of cleaning products we weren’t comfortable using anymore, the open bags of paper plates and plastic utensils from a birthday party a couple years prior. We also, partly through shear laziness, didn’t tag anything with a price.

Income from second sale, $200. And what was the biggest seller? All the stuff we thought would never, ever sell. We immediately went back inside to try and find more crap! Selling the stuff like that was actually shockingly easy. First off, we bundled it together so all the cleaning stuff was in one box – everything in the box was $.50. And if they bought a lot, we’d give them something else with it. The bundling also made it much easier to carry out.

Again, comparing notes afterward, pricing became our main issue. Although we had a substantially reduced haggler count the second sale, one woman in particular left a very sour taste in my mouth. For the second sale, the books came out. We had a pretty extensive collection of books, and had specifically a large selection of hard cover gourmet cookbooks. Kevin wasn’t around in the very beginning (making a dire breakfast burrito run), and I wasn’t really prepared for pricing the expensive cookbooks. I was just going to ask $1 for the hardbacks and $.50 for the paperbacks, according to what my friend and guide told me. A woman drove up in her shiny new Volvo, and immediately descended on the book boxes. She asked me the prices, which I told her as above and she asked for a box. She proceeded to clean out all the $35 and up cookbooks, heaping over the top of her box (they were big books), and offered me $5 for the box. I stood there, dumbfounded. I said, “No, the price is $1 for hardbacks and $.50 for paperbacks. Your box is full of $30+ dollar cookbooks and I think what we’re asking is fair. You have at least $8 worth of books. You can sort it out if you like, or give me $8.” She decided to count it out and it came to $8.50. But after that, we were talking a new ball game.

Overall, we asked what we considered fair prices for our stuff. They weren’t cheap, they were fair. A dollar amount which we felt comfortable parting with the items. And we found that if we maintained that monetary value, the item itself maintained that value for the serious customers. The haggling was over.

Now quickly, let me plant a little bug in your ear. The first garage sale was from effectively 7:30-3:30, or 8 hours earning $180. The second garage sale was from 9:00-2:00, or 5 hours earning $200. You do the math.

By the third and fourth garage sales, we felt we were making progress. Again, we put up the Craigslist ad, dated signs, shorter hours, but this time we had Friday and Saturday! Friday was just not nearly as good as Saturday. We still made about $200 on Friday, but Saturday we got rid of a lot of stuff, no haggling and we cleared $240.

In the end, we really did sell a ton of stuff. What was left over was sorted into two piles – one to be donated and was dropped off prior to our leaving town, and the second which we ended up moving to be sold via ebay or some other venue after the move. Our favorite place to support, the library received 6 boxes of books. The items to be sold filled about 3 boxes.

So, to summarize what we thought were really key items:

  • Longer hours, in our experience, aren’t better hours. We really found that the peak time for quality traffic was between 9:00 and 1:00-1:30 on Saturdays.
  • Labeling or not isn’t going to make you or break you.
  • Ask a fair price which you’re comfortable with and stick to it. You’ll feel better and the customer will treat you better.
  • Anything that isn’t screwed down can be sold, and probably even that as well if they or you have the right tools handy.
  • Although I can’t prove it, I think the organization and dated signs were good. In our area, people weren’t very good about taking down their signs, so you never knew if that sale was still going on or not. We put up signs with that days date and took down the signs every time.

Some other takeaways. We also ran concurrent Craigslist ad’s for some of the larger items we wanted more money for, and if someone emailed about those items, we’d mention the garage sale. There were a few individuals whom we even developed sort of a working relationship with. They attended each garage sale, left their names and numbers for specific items they’d seen if we decided to sell, or were willing to wait until we were at the final stages of packing before they picked up. Just to give you an idea, one “regular customer” waited until three days before the move to pack up and haul off our compost bin, complete with finished compost pile, as well as our finished leaf mould pile. Anything will sell.

Net result from our recycling efforts: We eliminated a third of our belongings and made enough to pay for moving the other two thirds. This includes donated items after the sales were done.

Thoughts, feelings? I’m curious what other people have found to be really beneficial in their garage/yard sales experiences.

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Backyard Ecosystem began as an expression of my determination to make a difference in our own backyard. Literally and metaphorically making a difference at the micro level of my yard and to operate at macro level of treating the entire planet as something I am an integral part of and whose destiny is shaped everyday by what I do in my corner of the world.

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