Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The three types of yard sales

Yard sale season is officially under way. Last weekend we went to five sales, all within a mile of our house, and we passed several more in the car that we didn't have time to stop for. Our haul was fairly modest (a new backpack for Brian and a couple of gifts for our nieces), but the experience was nonetheless educational. Specifically, it helped confirm our long-held belief that there are two main types of yard sales: the Clearout Sale and the Revenue Sale.

The Clearout Sale is probably closer to most people's idea of a traditional yard sale. Basically, it's held by someone with a house full of junk they want to get rid of. They may hope to raise a bit of extra cash, but their main purpose is to clear out unwanted stuff. At our next-door neighbor's sale last Saturday, for instance, there were at least half a dozen propane camp lanterns that she said they'd bought during Superstorm Sandy and then, apparently, never had occasion to use again. Likewise, there were piles of everything from baseballs to backpacks belonging to her teenage son, who was now off to college and unable to take everything with him.

Most of the stuff you find at a Clearout Sale will be priced to sell, which means that this type of sale is the best place to find really big bargains. (Ay our neighbor's sale, we found a Wenger SwissGear laptop backpack, similar to models that are priced around $90 new, with the tags still on it, for $5.) However, the selection at Clearout Sales is very hit-and-miss. Some of them are perfect examples of the saying, "One man's trash is another man's treasure," but more often, one man's trash really is just trash. For every Clearout Sale we go to that has interesting items in good condition, we find three or four with nothing but plastic toys, semi-functional appliances, and tattered clothes. In Virgil's phrase, searching this type of sale is a bit like plucking pearls from a dunghill: the few pearls you find are likely to be dirt cheap, but you have to sift through an awful lot of crap to find them.

The other major type of yard sale, the Revenue Sale, is a serious attempt to raise money. This type of sale is where you're most likely to find truly high-quality goods like antique furniture, rare books, or musical instruments. However, you're not that likely to get great deals on any of them. Because the objective is to maximize profits, most sellers would rather not sell an item at all than sell it for less than they think it's worth. So while you might be able to buy, say, an antique table at one of these sales for less than you'd pay in an antique shop, you won't pay any less for it than an antique dealer who was buying it to resell. In fact, it's quite likely that you'll pay more, since the seller's whole reason for holding a yard sale rather than just selling to an antique dealer is probably to get a better price. Sellers at Revenue Sales have typically checked the prices of items like theirs in stores or on eBay, and they will often make a point of telling you that the same chair they're selling for $150 goes for $200 elsewhere. But if you're just looking for something sturdy and comfortable to sit on, and you were hoping to pay around $15 for it, the Revenue Sale is not the place to look.

In general, then, the Clearout Sale offers better prices, while the Revenue Sale offers better quality. However, there is one particular subset of the Revenue Sale that actually tends to have more junk, and at worse prices, than the typical Clearout Sale. The best name I've managed to think up for this type of sale is a Reliquidation Sale: the seller has apparently bought up or otherwise acquired a pile of items liquidated by someone else who couldn't manage to sell them and is now attempting to sell them for a profit. Thus, this type of sale combines the worst aspects of the Clearout Sale and the Revenue Sale: there's nothing there but junk, and it's all overpriced.

Fortunately, Reliquidation Sales are usually easy to identify at a glance. Instead of the usual motley assortment of goods you'll find at a Clearout or Revenue sale, they have piles and piles of identical items, all of low value. You might find cosmetics, toiletries, flimsy plastic toys, coloring books—all small, cheap items, all priced just barely below what you'd pay for them in a store (assuming you'd be willing to pay for them in a store at all). So when you're out cruising the sales and you spot a table laden with a hundred identical pairs of cheap sunglasses, you know instantly that there's no point in slowing down to check it out.

Unfortunately, by the time you actually see the merchandise, you may have already walked a mile or more, or driven several blocks out of your way, to get to the yard sale you saw advertised on a sign. However, it's sometimes possible to avoid this kind of disappointment by remembering another common feature of Reliquidation Sales: like weeds, they tend to keep popping up week after week. Because the seller doesn't really have anything worth buying, they'll often end up with a lot of unsold merchandise at the end of the day—but because they're hoping to make money, they're not willing to just throw it out. So they pack it all up, bring it inside, and set it out again the next weekend, and the weekend after that, and sometimes every weekend after that until the weather gets cold. At this point, it's no longer so much a yard sale as a dollar store with a very limited selection set up on folding tables in someone's back yard.

So when you see a sign advertising a sale at the same address where you're pretty sure you went to one just last week, or the week before that, it's a good bet that there's no point in making the trip again. Because yard-saling is just like scuba diving; you can't afford to waste your oxygen swimming around some dumb submerged car.
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