Note: This article is from J.D. Roth, who founded Get Rich Slowly in 2006. After a year off, J.D. is once again writing here at GRS. His non-financial writing can still be found at More Than Money.
Last weekend, I hosted a garage sale with my brother, my ex-wife, and my girlfriend. It was a raging success. We cleared out tons of Stuff, and we netted over $2500 in the process.
I’ve hosted many yard sales over the years (and shopped at dozens more) and have developed some strong opinions about what works best. I’ve heard people complain that garage sales aren’t worth the time. But they can be quite profitable if you do a few simple things.
Here are some of my top tips and tricks for making money with yard sales.
- Differentiate yourself. All garage sales are basically the same. Find a way to set yours apart. Last weekend, for instance, I billed ours as a “geek garage sale”, and emphasized that I had graphic novels, board games, and computer gear. My Craigslist ad brought folks from far and wide because of this. They bought the geeky stuff, but they also bought kitchen gadgets and yard art and clothing.
- Use clear and simple advertising. I’m shocked at how ineffective most garage sale signs are. It’s like people don’t care, or as if they don’t spend twenty seconds putting themselves in the shoes of their customers. Keep signs clean and neat. Make sure everything’s legible. Make sure nothing’s ambiguous. Clear signage is worth its weight in gold. Our signs included the address, the date and time of the sale, and an arrow pointing the way. I hung a dozen of them along the major traffic roads in the area, funneling people onto our street.
- Engage the customers. Be friendly. Chat up the people who stop by. Be engaging. When parents with young children visit, I always find something to give the kids for free (often it’s whatever they’ve gravitated toward). I also throw in freebies for folks who buy lots of Stuff. This builds goodwill, especially among the other customers who are watching things transpire. I believe we sold more because Kim and Kris and I were friendly and fun.
- Partner with your neighbors. If possible, hold a neighborhood garage sale. People are more likely to drive out for a street with ten sales than a street with one. If you can’t have a neighborhood sale, you can still work with nearby families. Before our sale started last weekend, I stopped by a house down the street where the owners were setting up their own sale. I offered to send customers to them if they’d send customers to me. It worked like a charm!
- Keep your cash on you. Never ever use a cashbox. A cashbox might seem convenient, but it’s a disaster waiting to happen. I hear tales all the time of con artists who run distraction games and make off with hundreds of dollars. Instead, buy a 99-cent cloth tool apron from the local hardware store. Carry your cash with you at all times. Put big bills in your pants pockets and small bills in the pockets of the apron.
- Know your purpose. “There are two types of garage sales,” an old man told me last weekend. “One is to make money. The other is to get rid of Stuff.” Know which type of sale you’re holding and why. Your purpose will affect how much you negotiate and how much you give away for free.
- Use merchandising tactics. Too many garage sales are a haphazard collection of Stuff piled every which way. Don’t be like that. Take lessons from supermarkets and department stores. “Organize things so they’ll catch the shopper’s eye,” Kris says. “And don’t have depressing music playing.” (At the start of the sale, I had some New Age music on the stereo. “It sounds like a funeral,” she told me. She had me put on Elton John’s greatest hits instead, and people loved it. Sales improved!)
- Don’t bad-mouth your items. A decade ago, Kris and I held a garage sale with a group of friends. One guy constantly told customers what was wrong with the items they were purchasing. “Oh, that book is awful. That’s a terrible movie. That skillet doesn’t heat very well. That game is boring.” Needless to say, we sent this friend inside to drink beer ASAP. Your goal is to sell the items. Don’t lie — just emphasize the positives. “Oh, that book is very popular. That movie won three Oscars. That skillet is great for pancakes. That game is fun for kids.”
Each time I host a sale, I learn something new. This year, for instance, it became clear that CDs don’t sell anymore. I sold maybe ten. Yikes! In the era of Pandora and Spotify, they’re now obsolete. They all went to Goodwill. Furniture doesn’t sell either, which surprises me. We were selling some nice stuff from Mom’s house, but nobody was interested, even at drastically reduced prices. I put most of it out with a “FREE” sign at the end of the sale. Even so, a couple of the pieces ended up going to Goodwill.
We’d only intended for this to be a two-day sale, but we did so well that we decided to open Sunday too. This time, we re-branded. Because we still had shelves filled with classics, graphic novels, and photography manuals, we billed ourselves as a “book sale”. Surprisingly, this still brought folks in. Traffic was much lighter than previous days, but we still cleared $400.
In the end, we sold $2454.90 worth of Stuff. Kim and Kris and Jeff didn’t do as well as I did — none of them spent a lifetime making foolish financial choices and “collecting” books and records and comics and other toys — but everyone seemed happy with the money they earned. And as for me? After years of battles, I think I’ve finally won the war on Stuff!
While preparing this article, I polled my contacts on Twitter and Facebook to ask for their top tips for money-making garage sales. Here’s some of the best advice:
- @NoAcctWaste wrote: “Have low expectations re: the value of your treasures. That blender ain’t worth what you think it is. Price it right.”
- @Onlinst wrote: “At a certain point everything for sale is half priced, some money is better than no money.”
- On Facebook, Todd Herrbach wrote: “Post key items on craigslist in the appropriate category (furniture, etc.), and write that anyone interested should come see it at the garage sale. Once it sells, delete that listing immediately as a courtesy.”
- Also on Facebook, Lazy Man (from Lazy Man and Money) wrote: “It’s like they say about real estate… location, location, location. It applies to both the location of the signs and the location of the sale. Get signs up a day or two early so that the early bird (serial yard salers) will put your place in their queue.”
- And one final Facebook commenter says to skip the garage sale at all. Gina Pogol wrote: “My best tip is to skip the GC, donate the lot, get a receipt with *generous * values and deduct the whole shebang on your taxes. Easier, you make about the same amount, you accomplish some good and you have no strangers casing your space at 6 am on a Sunday.”
Do you have any garage sale tips or tricks? How do you attract people to your sale? How do you get them to buy your Stuff? And what are the best ways you’ve found to make money?
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