Article Archive >> Featured Topics

Yard Sale Culture and the Art of Haggling

Yard Sale Culture and the Art of Haggling
by Mike Vines

Aside from mad dogs and fishermen, who else would wake up before the crack of dawn on a Saturday morning and crawl out of a warm, comfortable bed to voluntary brave the elements outside? Why, your friendly yard sale rummager, of course. With the arrival of a more comfortable outdoor season our thoughts turn to new found treasures just waiting for their discovery by rummagers like ourselves. But, more than once I have watched in complete horror as that priceless antiquity slipped into unknowing hands simply because they were the first one there, or the first to catch the seller's eye. What can you do to optimize your yard sale experience or, if you're newly addicted, what are the rules of the road and some useful etiquette to practice when bargaining with potential sellers?
You play this game as the buyer or seller of orphaned goods. The buyer shuts off the alarm clock and shoves the spouse out of bed to hastily brew a pot of coffee before they hit the road. The seller prepares by placing free advertisements in the local papers and scribbling on torn-up pieces of cardboard to make the signs that guide us hapless nimrods to our prospective treasure. Accurate interpretation of signage is necessary if you intend to beat the other guy to the booty. You begin by learning how to differentiate between a lost cat sign and a yard sale sign. And although any yard sale sign may lead to a find, you must also be able to prioritize in case of multiple targets. "HUGE Yard Sale" usually translates into "Scant Offerings." This is a clever ploy to get people to spend their money first at his or her place instead of the guy down the road. If you see a lot of parked cars and people walking in another direction, don't think that someone has created a diversion just for you. They haven't, so follow the gang and see what you can salvage from the feeding frenzy before it's too late.
This brings up a phenomenon I have witnessed that could be interpreted as a malicious prank or strategic warfare. In a certain area we frequent that is known for good finds there is a nearby neighbourhood that always seems to have yard sale signs posted that lead to nowhere. We usually succumb to curiosity after a time and follow the arrows but we always end up facing a yellow "Not a Through Street" sign. I imagine a bunch of kids peering out between drawn curtains laughing their heads off at those silly fools that followed their signs to a dead end road. Even worse, it could be a very clever rummager who places their own signs to misguide the greedy in order to give themselves more time to shop. I don't know which it may be, but there are a lot of people who make a living from what they find at yard sales and the rules of haggling don't start until the chips are on the table so drivers beware.
Once you've located a seller its time for a drive-by-a quick peak at the offerings from the comfort of your car to determine if it's worth getting out for or not. You will, of course, have to navigate to avoid collision with not only other rummagers on foot, but also the many beat-up vans and SUV's parked every way imaginable. So you're out and about and mingling in with the crowd, intently searching here and there, and lo and behold in an old cardboard box tangled-up in some ancient Christmas garland is that turn-of-the-century art vase you saw just last night on the Antiques Road Show worth five grand! You take a gulp and look for the seller and hope she's still half asleep.
At this point there are a couple of rules that must be observed in order to assure a successful transaction. First and foremost is MOVE IT OR LOSE IT! This is where the Relinquish Rule goes into effect. In the game of chess, it's the other guy's turn when you let go of a moved piece. At a yard sale, if you don't immediately pick-up the thing you can bet your life someone else will, and they will most assuredly buy it, and for half of what you had on mind. Second most important is AVOID AN AUCTION! Don't wave that priceless object in the air getting the attention of the seller AND the other buyers looking for the same thing. Grab it, tuck it in, and quietly walk over to the seller and say, "Hey, someone stuck a half-melted, multi-colored candle in this thing. How about a buck and a half?" Now, if you're a seller, it's time to practice some good old-fashioned informal economy by way of unreported income. If you're a buyer, this is where your bargaining skills come into play and subtlety is the key. My wife has developed a particularly effective technique (read sting) where she fills her pocket with a certain amount of change and when making an offer, pulls out the handful of coins and shows it to the victim asking, "Would you take what I have left in my pocket for it?" She then lets them pluck the coins out of her hand in total submission to the deal.
The amount you offer, or counter-offer, depends on the time of day. The early morning hours of fresh discoveries usually demand the highest prices, while the afternoon sun motivates the seller to consider heavy discounts verses lugging it all back into the garage. You'll also run into sellers that are so sick and tired at looking at the same old junk that they will gladly let it go for almost nothing just for the sake of transferring ownership. Also, if you are a seller, remember that a yard sale is not limited to mobile customers. The neighbors may also be interested in your wares so you must be careful not to put yourself into an embarrassing position by unloading something on them now that might become gossip fodder for them and everyone else later.
There is a commonality in all yard sales and that is of content. In order of preponderance you can expect to find, above all, an abundance of clothing-mounds and mounds of it. I think the economy of this entire country could exist on what people spend on clothing alone. Next is a bewildering assortment of forsaken toys and children's furniture. I bet Toys "R" Us would double their fortune if they opened a second-hand store. Then come books and magazines, kitchen goods, sporting goods, and other miscellaneous items such as personal electronics and tools. Interestingly, Tupperware and art are always overlooked. Sure the beauty of art is in the eye of the beholder, but yard sale Tupperware sells for a fraction of the original cost and it's always so useful. I would see large families attending yard sales and wonder why they weren't clawing for the Tupperware until it finally hit me-they eat out more often than at home. Could eating out now cost less than preparing food at home? You'll also find a copious selection of nicotine-stained Robert Wood landscape reproductions still available in their original simulated wood-grained frame that will remind you of those good ole' days when motel rooms with kitchenettes were as common as cactus.
So now that you've gathered a mountainous collection of the worlds finest of all sought after treasures, what do you do with it? This is the point of evolution for the rummager.
You have a yard sale.

Printable version

<< back to Articles on Featured Topics
<< back to All Articles