The Diminishing Returns of Yard Sales

A few days ago, I had a great conversation with a couple that live about a block away from us. They have regular yard sales throughout the summer and we’ve stopped at the sale a few times.

Their process is simple. They have an area of their garage that they devote to “yard sale” stuff. Whenever they have an item they’ve identified as yard sale material – meaning they don’t have a real use for it – they stick a piece of masking tape on it, write a price on that masking tape, and put it in the “yard sale” area.

Three or four times a summer, they put up a few signs around the town and have a yard sale for the weekend, selling off everything in their “yard sale” area.

I asked them how it has worked out for them and they offered me several interesting tactics for yard sales (beyond the idea of having a yard sale area in one’s garage).

First, if you don’t ever add anything to the sale, you should expect diminishing returns on your yard sales. For the first summer or two, they would make some amount during the first sale – let’s say $300 – and then make about half as much during the second sale ($150), then half as much again during the third one ($75).

The problem was that they really didn’t have anything else to sell. The majority of the money they’d make all summer usually came from that first sale and it was often hard to motivate themselves to even do a third or fourth one once they noticed the pattern.

Their solution was kind of novel, actually.

They started intentionally picking stuff up for free or for pennies that they knew would sell at their yard sales. If someone was throwing something out on the curb, like a table or something, they’d just stop and ask if they could have it. They’d take it home and put it in their yard sale area, price it for a few bucks, and then stick it out during the next sale. If they made even a buck on the item, then it was worth it.

They also did “consignment” yard sales for people. They’d let friends bring items to their sales. The friends would just drop off the items during the week before the sale and pick them up afterwards. All the friend had to do was put a price on the item. When they stopped by to pick up unsold items and their money, they’d usually just split the cash (it was usually in the range of $20 for each of them) and the friends would usually tell them to just “keep” the unsold stuff.

Of course, that unsold stuff joined the regular items they would put out for their yard sale.

They had “dropping” prices. They’d stick up a sign that said, “ON SUNDAY ALL PRICES GO DOWN BY 50%!” They’d also mention it to anyone and everyone that came by. They told me that once they started doing this, they would have people return to them all the time. People would come back and see if some item they wanted was still there (and, at least some of the time, it still was).

How did this help? Whenever someone came back to the yard sale, they virtually always bought something. Apparently, no one likes to go to the same yard sale twice without buying something. They would often make as much money on Sunday as on Saturday when they started doing this, whereas before they might only make 25% as much on Sunday as compared to Saturday.

They cultivated “regulars.” They would make it clear to all people who stopped at their yard sale that they would have another one in a month or so with some new stuff that their friends were bringing. If someone came multiple times, they’d learn that person’s name and have conversations with them.

They have about twenty or thirty people who come to every one and about twenty more who make the majority of their sales. Almost every time, they buy something.

So, how much did they make during the summer of 2012? They didn’t directly tell me, but they made it clear it was well into the four figures.

They solved the problem of yard sale diminishing returns, in other words. They keep items fresh and encourage as much repeat business as possible.

If you’ve done a yard sale or two and been frustrated about the items left over and the diminishing returns on your next yard sale, try some of these tactics. You might find that yard sales can become a very easy way to continually bring in some cash while also getting rid of unwanted stuff, making new friends, and helping old friends.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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