Garage Sale Tips

(or: "How a Video Producer Has Learned to 'Produce' a Successful, Lucrative Sale")

©2003-2004, Elizabeth Fuller



I discovered garage sales (and yard sales, estate sales, etc.) when I was about 10 years old...and have loved them ever since. When I was about 18 or 20, I helped my mother with her first big sale, and realized that - as an organizer by nature - I enjoy putting on garage sales almost as much as I enjoy shopping them (OK, I'm weird...I admit it).

Over the years, I've put on about 10 sales, both for myself and for friends and family. Last year, I actually had two sales, a smallish two-day sale with a couple of friends at my home in Los Angeles...and a monster sale (the biggest private sale I've ever seen, actually), where I went home to Minneapolis and we sold things from at least six households: two storage lockers my brother and I have been stuffing for 10 years, my grandmother's apartment (she had just gone into a nursing home), a huge storage locker my stepmother's father had packed with his late wife's things, and various miscellaneous items from both my mother's and father's houses.

That sale went on for five days and filled three adjacent driveways in my father's alley. And as things sold off, we kept replenishing our tables and shelves, and never ran out of stuff. (As a matter of fact, when the sale was over, even though we had sold literally tons of merchandise, we still donated several carloads of items to various charities.)

That sale was an incredible amount of work for everyone involved...but despite it all, I had a great time. And I definitely learned a few things. So if you're planning a sale, here are a few tips from someone who's been there...quite a few times.


Advertising & Planning

• Definitely advertise! If your major daily newspaper is too expensive, try neighborhood papers, local shoppers/papers that take free ads, and online communities such as Craig's List - (then navigate to the local site for your city). All ads should contain the date, time and address of the sale, some of the types things you're selling (furniture, housewares, baby equipment, etc.), an idea of how big the sale is (e.g. "25 years' accumulation!" or “5 households!”) and as many other details (see below) as space and budget allow.

• In your ads, be sure to use the phrase "no early birds," or you'll have folks camping out in your front yard at least two hours early, insisting that you let them in long before you're ready (and you'll be busy enough that morning without having to worry about such irritations).

• If you’re advertising on Craig’s List, or on another online venue that allows you to post photos of items or links to photos, do take advantage of that opportunity, especially for some of your biggest, most attractive items. People love it when they can preview things online, and if they see photos of something that interests them, they’ll be much more likely to come and check out your other merchandise, too.

• If you're having a big sale, schedule it for at least two days, not just one...and be much more willing to make deals and negotiate deep discounts as the second day progresses. (The willingness to cut second-day deals is also something you can note in your ads, if there's room.)

• Also, when scheduling your sale, be aware of the traditional days for sales in your part of the world – here in Los Angeles, everyone has sales on Saturdays and Sundays, so those are the days when potential shoppers are out looking for them. But back in Minneapolis, where I grew up, the peak sale days are Thursday through Saturday…and Sunday sales are so unheard of, people never think to look for them on that day (as a result, if you try to have a sale on a Sunday, your attendance will be extremely minimal).

• Definitely have a rain contingency plan, and note it in your newspaper and online ads, if there's room (e.g. "Rain postpones one week," if you’re going to be outdoors and just can’t proceed if it rains...or..."Rain or shine" if you've got most of your things indoors and are committed to going ahead come hell or high water). If you have no intention of having the sale on a rainy day, but don’t say that, you’ll still have folks knocking on your door all day, even in the pouring rain, demanding to be let in to see your things. On the other hand, if you do plan to go ahead in the rain, it's important to say so because many people assume that rain cancels and won't check out a sale on a rainy day, even if they had previously planned to go.

• Take some time before the sale to make at least a dozen large (approx. 18” x 24”) signs. Use white tagboard, and waterproof markers in bright colors to draw very large block-style letters. Then outline the letters in black to make them really stand out on the white cardboard. The signs should all say "garage sale," "yard sale," "moving sale" or even "huge sale" in big, colored letters, with date, time, and address information in bold, black lettering below. I also like to add a large, block-style colored arrow, pointing either left or right (more about these, below), to the bottom of each sign. (Remember, you’re going to be competing with all the other garage sale signs posted on lampposts and telephone poles – and most of them are scrawled in small black letters on small pieces of brown cardboard – almost impossible to read. Make your signs stand out, and make them easy to read, and you’ll be surprised at the amount of traffic they draw…and at the number of sale attendees who actually compliment you on your helpful advertising.)

• The evening before the sale, send someone out with the signs and some attachment tools (duct tape, a staple gun, a hammer and nails, maybe some tall metal plant stakes or wooden stakes if you have some lying around) to put up the signs. If local laws allow, post them at each major intersection that feeds into your immediate neighborhood. (Try to use posts, poles and stakes – don’t harm your neighborhood trees!) There should be at least two signs at each of these intersections, facing the major traffic flow in both directions. Also, keep sign height in mind: people sitting in cars can't see very high when they stop next to a sign at an intersection. Four to five off the ground is ideal for maximum motor traffic visibility. Finally, pay attention to your left and right arrows when putting up the signs. (The right-arrow signs will be the most important, because people will be more likely to take an easy right turn on impulse to get to a sale than they will to stop and maneuver left across several lanes of traffic.) Within your immediate neighborhood, be sure you have signs at both ends of your block, and on the streets connecting to yours, which will help lead people from the major arteries to your street. Also, do remember to collect your signs as soon as the sale ends – your neighbors will appreciate the litter/clutter reduction, and you’ll be able to re-use your signs, with just a few modifications, at your next sale…saving a lot of time and effort.

• Finally, make at least one very big, bright sign for your yard (saying "Sale Here!"), which can be seen from the ends of your block (post it perpendicular to your house, facing traffic), so people unfamiliar with the neighborhood don't have to search too hard for your house...and so your neighbors also see it, get curious and come to have a look.


Pre-Sale Organization

• Although it takes a lot of time and a lot of work before the sale, do put prices on every single item you're selling. Most drug and office supplies stores sell small round stickers made just for this purpose, the best of which are also easily removable and don't leave a residue when you peel them off. If you don't price each individual item, each time someone looks at it during the sale, they'll shout at you or whoever's nearby, "Hey, how much do you want for this?"...which can get really annoying when you multiply that times the number of items you're selling, times the number of people walking through your sale (figure 1,000 items x 200 customers, on the conservative side, and that's already 200,000 questions you can avoid by pricing things). You'll be much too busy during the sale, and there will be enough other questions for you to deal with, to have to decide every price on every item for every customer on the spur of the moment while things are busy.

• When pricing things, keep in mind that although an item might seem special to you because of your history with it, people generally expect to pay just pennies on the dollar for garage sale goods. So while you're welcome to put a $50 price tag on your favorite $200 dress, which you wore to your child's christening, your sister's wedding and your best friend's anniversary party, chances are good that someone's going to offer you $2 for it instead..and that you might not sell the item unless you're willing to part with it cheaply. (For items like this, I usually have an “I’ll keep it instead” price in mind: the amount below which it wouldn’t be worth it to me to let it go. Then, if I get the asking price, great…and if I don’t, I’m happy to hang onto the item for a while longer.)

• Also, because of the fact that people expect such low prices at garage sales, there are some things that are best sold or disposed of through other methods, where you'll be more likely to recoup a fair value for them. This includes genuine collectibles of many types, particularly music and/or pop culture memorabilia which may have a very high value to certain collectors, but which may not be recognized as a valuable commodity by typical garage sale shoppers. A rare 45 rpm record, for example, might fetch a nickel or a quarter at a garage sale...but could go for $50 or more when sold to a collector through eBay. If you have items that you suspect may have some collector value, it's worth your time to look them up on an auction site like eBay to see what they're selling for there. And if you find that they are marketable to collectors, sell them through that route rather than at your garage sale. (In our big clean-out last summer, for example, we sold a 50-year-old taxidermy deer head, an old Hummel figurine, and an unusual 1970s board game through eBay, and they went for approximately $80, $40 and $50, respectively...which was far, far better than we would have done with those items at our big garage sale.)

• If every item you're selling is yours, just note the prices on your labels. But if any of your kids, friends or neighbors are bringing things over to sell, too, be sure to add the seller's initials to each price sticker (e.g. "JK, $1.00), which will help you keep track of who sold what and how much money each person gets at the end of the day.

• If you are including items in the sale from friends or family members, insist that they bring their things over the day or night before the sale…and that they have every item priced before it lands in your house or yard. Letting people slide on this will only create more work and more frenzy for you, at the time when you need it least. (The last thing you want to be doing on the morning of your sale is ignoring your own merchandise while spending hours pricing someone else’s things!)

• Start setting up for the sale, and arranging your merchandise, either the day/night before if you're going to have things in the house, or very early (like 5 a.m.) the day of the sale (even if the start time isn't until 9 or 10 a.m.). It really does take several hours to do this, but good setup and presentation makes shopping a lot easier for your customers, and you'll sell a lot more stuff. Also, you don't want to be caught just starting to set up when droves of people arrive an hour early, which they will.

• When setting up, don't just heap things in piles or in boxes. People want to be able to see what you've got, and probably won't take the time to paw through piles or boxes to find good treasures.

• If you don't have a lot of tables or shelves to set things out on, it's a terrific idea to go out and rent some long folding tables. At our huge sale last summer, we rented 10 tables, and got four others from friends and family members...and it still wasn't quite enough for all the stuff we had (we continued to bring out new things and replenish tables as things sold and space opened up...through all five days of our sale). When we rented tables (from a local party rental/U-Haul place), they were about $10 each for the weekend, but it was an invaluable investment, and we made a lot more money because we had them.

• Also, when arranging and setting things out for the sale, it helps to group like items together, either on tables or in different rooms, if you're opening your house. Men automatically gravitate toward the tools, hardware and electronics, women head for the housewares, dishes and clothes, and kids bolt for the toys...and they all like to be able to recognize where those things are the instant they walk in. Other good categories to create: sporting goods, Christmas items (if you have them), craft supplies, etc.

• It definitely helps to display clothes well, too, whether they’re baby or adult items. If you have or can borrow a large commercial rack to hang things on, that’s great. Otherwise, try to string up a clothesline or improvise some other way to keep your clothes from lying wrinkled, unseen and unappreciated in boxes all day. Also, it should go without saying that all clothing for sale should at least start out the day as clean and wrinkle-free as possible.

• If you're having an outdoor sale, be sure to put some big, impressive items in places most visible from the street. Lots of people will drive by sales to see if they look interesting before deciding to stop, and having some big, interesting looking stuff within view of the street will always draw them in. Furniture is great for this, but so are large artworks or decorative items - I had a huge paper fan, which opened to a spread of about 12 feet, at one sale...and a whole bunch of folks stopped and walked in just to see the fan, then stayed to buy other things. Big sporting goods (e.g. skis, bicycles, surfboards, small boats, etc.) and/or exercise equipment will also serve as great "attractors."

• Similarly, if possible, place small items, particularly jewelry, as close as possible to your checkout station, if not on an extension of the checkout table itself, so you can keep an eye on them and they won't just walk away in someone's pocket. (Note: there are many people who cruise yard/garage sales looking specifically for old jewelry and watches. They’ll ask you the moment they arrive if you have any of these, and where they are, so it’s nice to have the items grouped together, in a place where you can watch the zealous aficionados sort through them.)

• To keep necklaces and other jewelry items from getting tangled, or earring pairs from being separated as people look through them, put each jewelry item in a small plastic bag - "snack"-size ziplocks work beautifully for this - and then place all the jewelry bags/items in a big, shallow box that makes it easy for people to sift through them. You can also put the price stickers on the plastic bags, which is a lot easier than trying to stick a label on a thin necklace chain or a small, lumpy earring.

• Try to arrange your electronic and electric items near an outlet…or, better yet, run an extension cord and power strip to the table where they’re set up. Plug in everything you can, and turn on items like radios and televisions (at very low volume, to avoid annoying people), so people can see how well they work without having to ask for a demonstration.

• If you are selling any items that are damaged or not working for some reason, it’s a good idea to affix a note to the item in question, explaining that it doesn’t work (or doesn’t work perfectly) and what’s wrong with it. People will still ask lots of questions, but at least they’ll understand what they’re getting into if they decide to buy the item.

• No matter how neat your setup and displays are at the beginning of the day, they'll quickly turn into a shambles as people paw through your stuff. Be sure to ask your helpers, who are circulating throughout the sale during the day, to keep tidying things as they wander around. This not only makes the merchandise look more appealing, it can also help keep things from getting broken from too much casual tossing around, and it can help keep items with loose or multiple pieces from being separated from their important parts.


Money Collection, Handling and Accounting

• Before the sale, go to the bank and get at least $100 (and $200 is better) in small bills, including $20s, $10s, $5s and $1s. Also get at least one roll each of quarters, dimes and nickels, all of which you'll need for making change. (Be sure to keep track of how much "seed money" you put into the till before the sale, so you can take that much out again before counting or distributing profits at the end of the sale.)

• Try to set up the sale so there's a single, most obvious point of entry/exit, through which all customers must pass, and put a single checkout station at that point. If you're indoors, this should be by the front door, just inside or outside the door, and all other doors should be cordoned off. If you're having an outdoor sale, this should be near the mouth of the driveway, with merchandise tables lining the driveway in such a way that they keep people from wandering in and out at random points. And if you’re having an indoor/outdoor sale in a house with an attached garage, it’s probably best to have people enter/exit the house through the garage door, with a sign on the door inviting people to enter the house for more merchandise, a helper stationed just inside the house door to direct traffic, and your checkout station still at the end of the driveway.

• Items you'll need at your checkout station:

  • At least one full-time cashier
  • A cash box of some sort where you can store your growing pile of money away from prying eyes, but where you can still dip in and out to make change easily
  • A stash of plastic and paper bags you can wrap fragile items in and pack multiple items in for people who are buying armloads of stuff
  • More blank price labels and some markers, because no matter how carefully you price things beforehand, some labels will have fallen off or been pulled off by the time things get to the checkout counter
  • A scissors and a roll or two of tape (transparent tape, masking tape, etc.), which always come in handy for a variety of reasons.
  • A cell phone or cordless phone, just so you know where it is when things get busy and you suddenly need to call someone urgently, or when someone is urgently trying to reach you about a critical detail of the sale
  • A calculator for adding up items in multiple purchases and/or for settling arithmetic disputes with customers
  • A box or bag for garbage (or perhaps a box of big Hefty trash bags, since you'll accumulate a lot of trash during the day)
  • A tape measure, for people who want to measure furniture, drapes or other items to see if they'll fit in their houses
  • Hats and sunscreen for volunteers and helpers who forget to bring their own
  • Scratch paper and pens for people who want to note your name, address and/or phone number to return later or call you back about an item they're thinking about purchasing
  • If multiple people are selling things at your sale, you'll also need a notebook, with pages labeled for each person who's selling things (see below for how this comes in handy)

• It's a good idea to make a nice big sign saying "Cash only - no checks!" and hang it where it's visible to one and all, at or near your checkout area. People generally won't argue if they see a “no checks” policy posted like this, but they will try to argue if there's nothing posted and you try to talk them out of writing a check only after they've whipped out their checkbooks. (OK, a couple of your friends and neighbors will still ask if they can write checks, even if there's a sign, but you'll let them because you know them. Stick to the "no checks" policy for everyone else, though -- it'll save you a lot of time and hassle.)

• You'll also probably want to decide before the doors open whether or not you're willing to negotiate the prices you've set. Some garage sale customers look at sales as a sport, in which the goal is to claim any item for no more than half the original asking price. And they won't stop arguing until they knock you down at least that far, if not more. So if you enjoy this kind of sport, by all means go ahead and negotiate. If you don't, however, and if you prefer to mark items at exactly the price you want for them, do make this clear to your customers. And try to stick to your guns -- it's not fair to resist negotiating with one customer and then turn around and cut a deal with the next person who comes along (especially if it's for the exact item you wouldn't negotiate on five minutes earlier).

• Of course, there are a couple of exceptions to not negotiating, even if that's your stated policy: if you realize after three, five or ten customers walk away from an item that it's priced too high, go ahead and mark it down. But make the markdown official - with a new price sticker - so everyone gets the same shot at the new, lower price. The second exception you might consider to a no-negotiations policy is a round of across-the-board markdowns in the final day of a multi-day sale, or the final hour of a single-day sale. Many people love to be first in line on the first day of a sale, because they have more merchandise to choose from. But others (and I'm one of them) love to hit the tail end of sales because many folks will either give a blanket 50% discount on everything left at the end of the sale, just to make sure they'll get rid of more things, or will be willing to negotiate really good deals on either individual items or groups of items. If you decide to offer similar discounts, you will probably move more merchandise late in your sale, when things might otherwise have slowed down considerably.

• When collecting money, try to put it all in one place (your cash box) as soon as you take it in, rather than letting it accumulate in various people's pockets, where it can easily be lost or forgotten.

• If you're the only person selling things, all money you take in can go directly into the cash box with no further accounting. If, however, there are multiple people selling things, be sure to remove the initialed price stickers from each item you sell, and re-paste them into your notebook, reserving separate pages for each person who's selling things and making money. That way, at the end of the day, you can add up the stickers on each person's pages to see how much money they've made and distribute your cash accordingly. (Also, when using the price sticker accounting method, be sure to note any changes in price, on the stickers, if you cut deals and make discounts for customers - e.g. if something is marked $1, but you sell it for $.50, be sure to change the price on the sticker before pasting it into your notebook.)

• If you're selling anything big or expensive, chances are someone at some time will ask if you can hold the item while they go fetch some cash, measure the space in their house, or ask their spouse to return with them to approve the purchase. Every time I've had someone do this, however, no matter how much they begged for special consideration and promised to be back within a couple of minutes or a couple of hours, they never came back (I even had one lady buy a bookcase, pay for it, say she was going to get her car from around the front of the house to load it...and then disappear forever. And I've still got the bookcase in storage.). So what I've learned to do is tell them I'll hold unpaid items for no more than one hour -- and if they haven't returned by then, the items go back up for sale to the first interested party. If you hold things indefinitely, you risk getting stuck with them...and if you hold things even for a few hours, you still risk missing the peak hours of the sale, when there are the most potential buyers.


Care and Feeding of Volunteers

• If possible, assign one or more of your volunteers (teenagers are great for this!) to food and beverage duty, since you'll need to keep everyone well fed and watered throughout the day. This can include having coffee, juice and donuts ready for folks when they arrive in the wee hours of the morning...making sandwiches or taking pizza orders and phoning for delivery at lunch time...and fetching take-out food for dinner, since everyone's going to be too tired to do anything but eat and collapse at the end of the day. Also, it's good to keep beverages flowing throughout the day, with someone available to fetch bottles of water and cans of soda for people who can't get away from their sales duties. (You could also keep a big cooler filled with ice and beverages near your checkout station, to minimize the fetching.) This is always a nice thing to do, and if the weather's warm, it's literally a lifesaver (our big sale last summer coincided with a heat wave -- temps and humidity in the 90s all day every day -- and each person working the sale went through at least a couple of gallons of liquid each day, just to keep from collapsing).


After the Sale

• As noted above, the first thing you should do after your sale (even before collapsing from exhaustion, if possible), is go out and retrieve the signs you've posted around your neighborhood. This prevents annoying litter and, if you've done a nice job on the signs, it also preserves them for use in future sales.

• The evening after your sale, you're going to be tired, and you won't want to do much of anything but eat and sleep. But in the cold, clear light of the next day, you're going to take a look around and wonder just what you're going to do with all the leftovers (and yes, no matter how successful your sale is, there will be leftovers). Some people (mostly those who have lots of storage space), decide just to save the good stuff for the next sale. But if you're not that insane, or you're if having the sale specifically so you can sell your house and all the storage space in it, you're probably going to want to do one of three things: throw stuff out, give it away or donate it to charity.

Throwing stuff out is easy. But you do need to be aware that local garbage regulations may limit the number of containers you can fill, or may prohibit pickup of overflow or over-sized items not contained in city-provided bins. So check local rules before piling your stuff for the garbage truck.

Giving away specific items is easy if you know someone who would want the item (e.g. college students setting up their first apartments will often take any free furniture or housewares they can get their hands on). But you don't really want to spend hours and hours after your sale calling everyone you know and asking if they'd like a free dog crate or Mexican salad bowl. One great alternative that has popped up is, an online group of people who give away and claim free items (check the website to find the Freecycle community in your area). You can list almost anything you want on Freecycle - as long as you're willing to let it go for free - and it's almost guaranteed that someone, somewhere will respond and claim the item, at no cost to you and with no further effort on your part.

Donating things to charity is a bit trickier. First of all, not all charities that run thrift stores (the most common place to donate used things) take all kinds of items. So you'll have to call your favorite charities (whether they're national chains like Goodwill or local charity-run thrift stores whose sponsoring causes you admire), and ask if they take the types of things you're looking to donate. Some places take clothing, but not housewares or electronics. Some places take housewares, but not electronics...and still others take only children's items. (But then there's our local Goodwill, which has stopped taking donations of many types of baby furniture, to avoid liability for products that don't meet current safety standards.)

• When talking to the charity, don't tell them your items are coming from the aftermath of a garage or yard sale. Many charities will flat-out refuse garage sale leftovers, for a couple of good reasons. First, the items are, by definition, already picked over -- in other words, if you weren't able to sell them, chances are the charity will have a hard time doing so, too. Second - and probably of even greater concern to the charities - is that most people, too tired from their own sales to do any more work, deliver garage sale leftovers with the garage sale price stickers still on them. But that means the charity's own volunteers, who already have more than enough to do, have to take the stickers off each item (and sometimes clean up the adhesive residue), which creates an annoying extra labor step for them. So if you're bringing sale leftovers to a charitable thrift store, be sure to take off all your tags, and bring only your best items, which really would be likely to sell in their stores.

• Another option for donations is to find charitable organizations that can actually use specific items in their day-to-day activities. But this is a lot harder than it might seem. For example, people often think their local schools would be thrilled to take used computer equipment (after all, schools have limited budgets and are always itching for new computers for their students, right?). But this usually isn't true. Most schools want to teach their kids with the very latest in hardware and software, which is what the students would encounter in the real world (this is especially true of high schools, which are trying to produce job-ready graduates). But most garage sale computer equipment is even older and more out of date than the out-of-date computers the school is already using. So they really don't want your stuff. Also, at our big sale, we had a huge surplus of fabric and craft supplies (my stepmother's late mother was very big on sewing and craft projects). We thought it would be easy to find a nursing home or senior center that would want these items for its own activities. But although we called activity directors at at least a dozen places (many of whom never even returned our calls), we couldn't find anyone who wanted most of our craft items.

So take note: while charitable donations are a fine and noble goal, they also may be a lot of work. You'll have to call every place you'd like to donate to ahead of time, to see if they even want your things...and once you find places to take them, you'll have to make several trips around town, delivering the proper items to the proper charities. In other words, the work doesn't end with your sale...but if you do find good homes for good things you can no longer use, the extra time and effort may be worth it.

Finally, no matter how much planning and preparation you do for the sale, or how carefully you set things up, be prepared for the actual sale -- especially the first three or four hours on the first day -- to be absolute, utter chaos. But the better you're prepared, the easier it will be to deal with the chaos.