I'm sitting in an old wicker chair (make me an offer) outside my garage on Chicago's North Side. It's not even 12:30 p.m. on this gorgeous Saturday and we've had a steady stream of customers parading through our alley all day for our garage sale. And they're buying all sorts of castoff and leftover items we no longer need, from our vacuum cleaner to old movies I accrued as a newspaper DVD columnist. We're still waiting to see if our incomplete set of three Toyota hubcaps will sell.
Wishful thinking, perhaps. Still we've netted more than $150 so far, and even my son and daughter have done well with their combined cookie and lemonade stand. All of this makes me think: Is there a formula for garage sale success? While certain crucial factors cannot be controlled -- the weather, most importantly -- I've identified ten key ingredients that, when combined, spell garage sale success like the kind we're having on this spring Saturday.
1) Organize your event as a multi-family garage sale. There's one big reason we're having tons of traffic today: four other neighbors in our alley are selling their wares, too. Lots of garage sales in the same area will create more of a bazaar-type atmosphere, and when people drive past your house or alley and see all that traffic, they're bound to stop and look around. Just don't shop too much at your neighbors' sales, or you'll blow all your profits (and re-clutter your house).
2) Signage is everything. The day before the sale, post signs near all the major streets and intersections, in every direction, to direct people to your address. Never, ever post tiny signs; the average motorist won't be able to read them. You want big, honking posterboard signs securely duct-taped to poles or mounted in grass islands, with lettering at least 6 inches tall. Put arrows on to point turn directions -- and clean up your signs after the sale is done.
3) Display everything neatly. Take time to lay out your sale items in an inviting manner, as they might appear in a store; books that are stacked and organized are easier to browse (and will sell quicker) than those thrown in a cardboard box marked "BOOKS: 50 CENTS."
4) Clean everything up. There's a reason why used car dealers spray "new car smell" into their vehicles, and give them a spit shine -- it makes the exterior appear very appealing. People want to envision your items in their homes, not in their closets gathering more dust. We sold an old jogging stroller in minutes for $50, thanks largely to a quick dust-off and some Armor All on the tires. On the flip side: The more haggard-looking stuff you put out, the more quickly browsers will get turned off. No clothes with telltale stains, people.
5) Prep checklist. Get a cash box or money belt and at least $40 in bills and coin change. (You don't want to blow a sale because you can't make change.) Make more signs to point out particular bargain items in your yard or garage. Play some recorded music to provide a little browsing atmosphere. (If someone wants to buy the radio, consider the offer.) And put all those spare pharmacy bags to use so folks can take home their goodies. Again: Make your sale like a shopping experience, and you'll have a much better chance of succeeding.
5) Greet people warmly and don't hover. Take a lesson from Walmart, which pays lots of money to employ a fleet of greeters. Make people feel welcome, and once you have someone in your garage or yard, don't stalk them in hopes of a sale. Let them browse at their own pace and offer to answer any questions they may have.
6) Price items clearly. If you have time, you really should label everything so that people know what they cost. (Some people will be too shy to ask otherwise.) If you don't label everything, make sure to tell people that the items are all priced to sell!
7) Let people haggle. Take it from a veteran garage-sale shopper: People feel really good when they can get an item at a discounted price. If you're really firm on getting a set higher price on an item, like a family heirloom or stereo system, perhaps you should sell it on eBay instead. Most people will perceive a garage sale as your attempt to empty your house of stuff. Their price expectations will adjust accordingly.
8) Let your kids operate a small stand. Cute kids selling lemonade and cookies will get people to linger longer, plus your little ones will feel very much a part of the family effort to make money as you clean house. Though if your kids fall asleep on the job around nap time (as my son did while I snapped the photo above), you can't really blame them, can you?
9) Take stock of unsold big-ticket items. With everything organized, now's the time to take some photos and sell your stuff on eBay, or to a local antique store. (I'd avoid Craigslist, though--a site I've never had much luck with, and one that's made the news lately for all the wrong reasons.)
10) Contact the Salvation Army or similar charity to pick up your remainders. While you won't make any money off this step, you'll make a difference on behalf of a charitable organization, and the people who depend on it.
Lou Carlozo is the editor of WalletPop's Money College blog.
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