Tips for running a garage sale

On a forum I frequent, the discussion turned to garage sales, and some people shared some horror stories. As someone who visits a lot of garage sales, I’ve seen the ways people deal with some of the pitfalls. In the interest of encouraging garage sales, I’ll share my tips for running a garage sale.

tips for running a garage sale
Quick: can you spot the common (but very serious) error in this photo of a table at a garage sale? Keep reading and you’ll find the answer. This may be the most valuable of my tips for running a garage sale.

One problem is people showing up at 5 or 6 in the morning wanting to get in early. The best way to prevent this is to be vague about your address. Be specific enough that they can find it, but vague enough that they can’t find it early. What do I mean? Don’t say “2329 Jefferson” in your ad and streetcorner signs. Say “single-family sale, 23xx Jefferson.” Then, when you’re ready to open your sale, put a sign in your front yard and open your garage door. Last of all, have a helper go out and put some signs on nearby major intersections.

The early birds can still show up if they want, but they’ll have no choice but to sit in the car and wait for you, since they won’t even know for sure which house is having the sale. Only the people really, really serious about buying something will, and those are the people you want.

Lowballers are the other problem. I’ll admit, I’ve asked for discounts before when buying large quantities of stuff, but I don’t demand them. I see some people demanding discounts on everything, no matter how low the initial price is. Yes, I know that’s annoying. I’ve actually had people running sales ask me if I’m interested in the same thing they’re getting lowballed on, in hopes of selling it to me instead. Garage sale prices are already pennies on the dollar, but some people insist on squeezing out every last penny.

The best tactic is to lower your prices late in the sale, say, after 10 am. Advertise that prices will be 25% or 50% off at 10 am, and maybe knock something else off at 11 am. When a lowballer tries to play games with you, just say, “no discounts until 10 am.” They can come back then, assuming the item is still there. If they really want it, then they’ll pay your asking price.

Do be realistic about your prices, though. I once went to a sale, picked out 10 items (unmarked) and asked how much. I was expecting $10, maybe $20 at most, based on what I paid at other sales. She asked $60.

What did I do? I went through the pile again. It turned out half of it was stuff I could turn a small profit on at $6 each. Half of it was stuff I couldn’t sell for $6 myself. So I put those back. I reluctantly paid $30 for the other five. I honestly doubt anyone else expressed interest in what I put back. If it ever did sell, I’m sure she didn’t get $30 for it.

If you don’t know how to price something, visit a few sales yourself to get an idea what stuff goes for. Or at least visit your nearest thrift store and see what they charge for the kind of stuff you’ll be selling.

Leaving items unmarked and soliciting an offer encourages lowballers to offer 10 cents for things that ought to be priced a dollar. Or it leads to awkward exchanges like mine, where someone puts most of it back.

Do keep in mind a significant number of people who come to your sale are looking for things to re-sell. They may have a booth at a flea market or antique mall, they may sell on eBay, or something else. You’ll have some bargain hunters and curious neighbors, but most likely the majority will be resellers. Their profit margin isn’t your main concern. But the general rule of reselling is that 3x markup is the minimum that works. If an item sells on eBay for $10, the most you’re going to get from a reseller is about $3. The reason is because eBay is going to take $1.50 in commissions. The government is going to take another $1.50 or so in taxes. So the seller spends $3 to make $3-$4. But of course the seller would rather spend $1, sell for $10, and make $5-$6.

I’ve seen old Marx train cars priced at $50 at garage sales because the seller claimed he saw one just like it go for $100 on eBay. In the cases I’m thinking of, it’s always been a very common car worth no more than $20, so I know the seller was either lying or mistaken. If you think you have something really special, my advice is to attempt to sell it on eBay instead. You’re not going to get eBay prices at a garage sale. Essentially, as a garage sale operator, you’re a wholesaler.

If you don’t want to hassle with eBay, take a name and number from anyone who shows interest.

One tactic I see sometimes (and my family used) is to advertise a sale as a moving sale instead of a yard or garage sale, in order to get better prices. Advertising a moving sale can allow you to get better prices for your highest-end stuff, like furniture or nice electronics or perhaps name-brand clothes in nice condition. But things like used toys and VHS tapes sell for about the same price no matter what you call the sale.

Some people post phone numbers in the ad. Unless the ad runs the same day as the sale, this is a mistake. It’s just asking people to call you and want to see your stuff early. I admit I’ve done it myself. There have been a couple of times that I couldn’t find a sale, the ad had a number, and I called for directions and ended up buying a lot of stuff. But if you don’t want people calling you all hours of the day in advance, it’s probably not worth it. Putting a nearby landmark in your ad is just as effective and saves you the phone calls.

Finally, I’ve seen people take out ads a week or two in advance of the sale. I don’t see the point. Most circuit regulars don’t plan beyond the upcoming Saturday. So placing an ad early just forces you to do a lot of explaining to disappointed people that the sale is next week. The best day to advertise is the Friday before. The day of the sale is often too late, as many people have already made their plans. An ad in Saturday’s newspaper can draw in people who change their plans on Saturday morning, or people who plan spontaneously. But if you’re paying for the ad, Friday is best. If you advertise on Craigslist, run your ad early in the week and refresh it closer to Friday.

Did you catch the mistake in the photo at the top? Arguably there are two, but one of them is worse than the other. Organizing the stuff into logical groups would help it to sell better. The toy cars, the tools, and the electronics ought to all be together, rather than making it look like someone dumped a box of random stuff onto the table.

But the bigger problem is no price tags. The box of miniature light bulbs in the upper right would easily sell for $10 online. Mark it at $3, and it will sell. Unmarked, don’t be surprised if someone offers 10 cents.

And those are my tips for running a garage sale. I hope they help you have a less frustrating, more successful sale.

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