Jonathan Lieberman’s Guide to Guerrilla Garage Sale Selling

October 4, 2005

Yard Sale signI wrote most of this before I left Boston 6 weeks ago. I had intended to write more, but time has gotten away from me and now I feel I must just get it out the door. Please forgive the time warp.

Last week I had a garage sale to sell pretty much everything that was in my apartment. I have several observations on the garage sale experience, so here I present, “Jonathan Lieberman’s Guide to Guerrilla Garage Sale Selling”, with apologies to Jay Conrad Levinson, author of “Guerrilla Trade Show Selling”, which was without a doubt, the single highest yield investment I have ever made.

So before we begin, I need to ask…

I assume there are two basic reasons, which while not mutually exclusive, are less compatible than you might imagine. You either want to get rid of stuff, or you want to make money.

If you want to get rid of stuff with minimal effort. Run an ad in the largest major newspaper (call by Tuesday for the best weekend rate). When someone makes a low ball offer (as the people from the newspaper certainly will) haggle for appearance sake (you might get an extra 20% or so, but generally not much more). Then take what they offer you. These people are professional garage sale shoppers. They tear through mounds of junk and offer you a quarter a piece for things, or they will build their pile high, offer you $5.00 for the whole mound and be gone in a flash, with or without the stuff. After all they have 11 more sales to get to before noon.

If you want to make money. Skip the ad in the paper unless you either have a lot of furniture (because the regulars bring trucks) or you have a thick skin and are a TOUGH negotiator. If you have trouble hanging up on telephone calls at dinner… in fact unless you interrupt them with in 8 seconds and say “No Thanks” or “Please remove from me the list” and then hang up almost without waiting for a response, skip the newspaper. You are no match for these people, and they are mean.

Mean you say? I mean, how mean can they be? REALLY MEAN! That’s how mean. Have I mentioned they are mean? About the nicest thing they will say in response to your price quote is: “You must not go to yard sales much.” Usually it is something more along the lines of “Are you crazy?” or “NO WAY! Paper backs are always a quarter at yard sales.” Another popular line is, “You’ll never sell anything!”. Some like to say they’ll come back at the end of the day, when you have come to your senses. Nope! They’ll never be back. And while you will trim your prices slightly as the day draws on, it will only be slightly. In the 20% range on big stuff, a few bucks on medium stuff and a buck or so on the small things.

Please forgive a brief aside on why the Garage Sale regulars are so mean. In discussing the garage sale my friend Jeff he was dubious that so many people were so mean. After all, his mother goes to these sales all the time. When my wife confirmed that we had at least 25 such mean people, he tried to blame me suggesting that I had some how violated the social moires of garage sale culture by trying to sell things at 60-80% off new Target® prices rather than the 99-99.5% discount that garage sale regulars feel they are entitled to. It seems to me that the meanness is really the result of simple game theory. This is a single round game for all participants. The shoppers need not worry about offending me with their bullying and fear promoting tactics because they’ll never buy from me again. Of course, likewise I don’t care about upsetting them with very reasonable prices (that seem high to them) because I am not looking to build repeat clientele.

Perhaps you are thinking I am crazy now too. Perhaps you are thinking that “anything I don’t sell is lost money.” While that is true, equally true, and less often understood is anything you sell too cheap is lost money. How cheap is too cheap? It depends, but we’ll get to that in a minute. If you decide to skip an ad in the paper or even if you run one, you’ll want to get some additional (better) customers to your sale.

Who do you want at your sale? You want 2 types of people, neither of whom go to yard sales very often. Number 1, you want people who are coming to by a specific item or items. Number 2, you want people who are just walking or driving by and “saw the sign”. Let’s talk about each of these groups individually.

People coming for specific items. Before your yard sale you should put lots of individual items up on If you have some how been living under a rock and don’t know what Craig’s list is it is an online classified system that with a few narrow exceptions (job postings in some cities) is completely free and ad free. It is great, really great. It is local for every city and people generally pick things up rather than shipping, which makes it much better for big stuff than Ebay.

To begin your marketing take photos of furniture and larger ticket items like air conditioners, rugs, speakers, a TV, the radar detector you never use, etc. Create an account on craigslist, you don’t need one to post ads, but having one makes it easy to keep track of your ads and edit them (which is very important).Now, post ads to Craig’s list for each of the individual items you took photos of above. Craig’s list has free photo hosting for the photos in your ad. If you use their photo hosting instead of your own the ad will indicate that it includes a photo. If you don’t mind getting phone calls, butting your phone number in the ad will increase responses and speed up the process of completing a sale.

You’ll get a good idea about popularity in 24 hours. Expect 60% of you response in the first 24 hours, 15% in the next 24 hours, and then 5% a day for the next 5 days til your ad expires. Once you posted several items (one ad per item) you’ll want to create an ad for the garage sale itself an link to each of the items that you have posted for sale. Additionally you’ll want to update each of those items to mention and link to the sale. This will help you to presell some items. if people want to pick them up at the sale insist that they send a deposit via paypal or that they pick it up in advance. If they can’t do either have them come as early as possible, or explain that because you have been stood up in the past, you can not hold an item until without a deposit, but let them know they can call and check if it is still available on the day of the sale.

These people are good customers, because they are coming to buy. They already know your price and are psychologically (if not fiscally) committed to buying. They’ll bring the appropriate vehicle and labor to get their stuff. They may pick up some other goodies while they are at it. This brings us to another great set of customers.

People who saw the sign. There should be a lot of these people if you have done your signs well. What we are looking for here is neighbors, passersby and people that are NOT looking for a garage sale. People who see a clean, new looking, but slightly dated food processor with manual for sale and are delighted to learn that it is $7.00.

People who shop at target you’d see your items as bargains, but nothing costs a quarter at my yard sale, and if that is the offer you’d make, you aren’t the kind of people I am looking for.

To get lots of people from the signs you’ll need… Lots of signs. But, even more importantly, you need large, high contrast signs that can be read from a car at 25 MPH. If you look closely at the photo above, you’ll see that after my wife made the sign for our front lawn, I went back and added lots of ink to YARD SALE and 9AM. The letters need to be 1/2 - 1 inch thick to be readable from a car. As few words as possible are ideal. In addition to the words “Yard Sale” which has less letters than “Garage Sale” the date and an arrow are useful. Include the address only if you think it is more helpful than an arrow. Ideally people should be able to follow a series of signs to the sale. Hang the signs at busy intersections and at a nearby supermarket (and the appropriate cross streets to guide them all the way) and you should have lots of people. I know it is easier to print signs on your computer, but they just don’t work.


I had indented to write a bit about the various customer types here but I have run out of energy for more than a quick descriptions.

  • Lowballer - Will offer a to pay you 50 cents to a two dollar bill. If he has some haggler in him he’ll come up to a $1.00.
  • Haggler - She enjoys the negotiation and will never expect your initial offer, no matter how reasonable. If you say a box of books is a nickle, she’ll offer 4 cents.
  • Add On - After you have a deal she’ll always try and get you to include one more thing for free.
  • Shy Guy (actually usually a gal) - She is usually quiet and will ask how much something is and then either pay with out question or simply leave. Very much a take it or leave it type. Seems almost afraid of the process.
  • Empty Pockets - This is a variant of the haggler who will plead poor in trying to negotiate a lower price. My preferred type will actually turn his pockets inside out to demonstrate that he has already offered every cent he has.
  • The tortoise- The tortoise will stay for a long time working on you to buy a specific item. Time is of no value to this person, he usually has an interest in only a single specific thing.
  • Drive by shooters - These are usually newspaper people that come by very early and honk leaning out the window to ask if “You got anything old?”

Good luck and may your garage sales all be successful.

1 Comment »

  1. This reminds me of another strange yard sale type event. I remember having one of these, and we had a steady stream of people coming through, but it was starting to get late. We changed the signs to say “free stuff”, after which the traffic dried up. It’s almost like people were thinking that if it’s “free”, it must be “junk”, so why bother.

    Comment by John — October 5, 2005 @ 7:49 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.