In New England we call them “tag sales”; I grew up in a suburban neighborhood where they were called garage sales. Whatever you call them, they’re a good way to earn a little cash for the sellers and save some for the buyers. I’m a third-generation yard saler, and I’m what could be called hardcore – I peruse Craigslist and the local classifieds each week, then stick Post-it flags on the local map(s) in my Western Mass street atlas to map an efficient route.
I also do nearly all of my tag saling by bicycle, and have done so for the last 25 years. This has kept me in great physical condition, helped me learn the layout of the five cities and towns in which I’ve lived, and – most of the time – made me think twice about buying furniture. I have at various times, however, carried home on my bike a small vacuum cleaner, at least three folding bookcases, 6-by-8-foot rugs, bulky baskets and organizers, small tables, and hundreds of books. If folks in the poor nations of the Global South can use their bikes as pack animals, there’s no reason I can’t. When the load is too heavy and/ or unbalanced, I walk the bike home.
Over the years I’ve learned the tricks of the trade that make this informal economy staple easier for everyone. Here’s the laundry list:
- In most places, the three best marketing tools available are the local newspaper, Craigslist, and signs on the street.
- Newspaper classifieds cost a bit of money, although some papers offer them for free. Some papers also offer free calendar listings for sales that are nonprofit fundraisers.
- Craigslist is free, but you’ll draw more customers if your ad tells what you’re selling, and includes one clever sentence that makes people laugh – this makes them recall your ad and feel some curiosity about your sale. I’ve seen comments like, “Early birds will be sprayed with the garden hose” that made me chuckle. But at least once a month I see a Craigslist ad that consists of two words: “Tag sale.” This is a red flag – it means that the seller doesn’t care, which means that their partner is forcing them to have a sale, or they don’t know what they have and you’ll show up at 9 a.m. to find them just starting to remove years worth of dirt-covered junk from their grandfather’s garage. Be honest: if you’re selling video games and nothing else, let people know. If you’re selling great-aunt Marisa’s 70 years of accumulation, advertise it – some of us love poring through such treasures.
- On Craigslist, spelling and grammar count, so if you’re terrible at it, get a friend to help you write an ad. I can’t tell you how many people in Massachusetts advertise dressers and bureaus with “draws.”
- Make and hang signs, and make them as visible, brief, and clear as possible. In the neighborhood, what works best is a large piece of fluorescent (neon color) posterboard with “SALE” in letters as large and dark as you can make them (think paint or jumbo-size permanent markers), and an arrow pointing in the right direction. If you live in a warren of streets, add the street name and house number as needed. Don’t include sale dates or contents – you’re not writing a novel; you’re making signs that drivers and cyclists can read. The biggest mistake people make is using a small black marker to scrawl a paragraph on the bottom of a brown cardboard box. Even bicyclists can’t read those things.
- Start on time. If you advertise your sale as starting at 8, don’t crawl out of bed at 7:50. Many of the serious buyers who will be your best customers plan our itineraries, and they won’t wait around while you rub the sleep from your eyes, drink your coffee, and try to figure out how much you want for the desk. We’ll be off to three more sales while you’re trying to remember where you put the price labels.
- Pricing items is a really good idea. It gives buyers an idea of where to start if they’re into bargaining, and lets shy people off the hook. You’d be surprised how many people might be interested in an item but are too shy to ask the price, or are in a hurry and can’t be bothered.
- Price realistically. Yeah, we know you paid big bucks for that Lord & Taylor blouse/ state-of-the-art TV set/ designer whatever back in 1997 or 2007. But it’s been hanging around in your closet or basement for years, and you’re never going to get what it’s “worth.” If there’s a local consignment shop through which you can sell it, great. Or put it on Craigslist. But if you’re selling it at a yard sale, you’re going to get a yard sale rate for it. If the designer whatever doesn’t sell, you’ll have to hold another sale, or donate it to the local thrift shop, or stick it back into your basement. Wouldn’t you rather drop the price and get rid of it? A rule of thumb: most items are going to sell for less than half of what you paid for them new.
- On the other end of the scale, don’t sell yourself short. If your items are clean, well-cared-for, and genuinely useful, don’t sell them for 25 cents. If you have the time, go to a few yard or rummage sales before you hold your sale, and get an idea of the going rate for used goods in your area. Don’t be afraid to price things a few dollars higher, and be open to bargaining with buyers.
- If you’re working with your roommate, spouse, or partner, talk before the sale about price ranges. I’ve been to plenty of sales where the wife wants $5 for an item and the husband sells it for 50 cents. I walk away with an incredible bargain, and they get into an argument at their yard sale. Not pretty.
- See note above about early birds. If a sale starts at 9 a.m., don’t show up at 6:30. It’s rude, and you probably won’t get any bargains, because the seller’s stuff will still be in boxes and they will not have had their coffee yet. Showing up 10 minutes early may still be rude, but at least it’s more realistic. I used to know someone who showed up early at garage sales and offered to help sellers set up. He wasn’t pushy, they were grateful for the help, and he got the pick of the crop.
- Don’t be afraid to bargain, but don’t be obnoxious about it. Most of the time, you’re not going to get a valuable item for nothing. Sellers are usually inundated, so the easier you make it for them, the more likely you are to get the item(s) you want at a reasonable price.