Even financial transactions can be human ones
When I was seven, I sold my favourite Barbie at a trash and treasure sale for $1. Immediately, I felt sad. I hadn’t wanted the Barbie – that’s why I was selling it. But it was certainly worth more than $1.
Momentarily left unattended to run the stall by my parents, I had driven a crappy bargain and I can’t say I’ve ever really forgiven myself (or my poor parents). And so it was with some trepidation I approached our own garage sale last weekend.
A few weeks prior, we had received a leaflet in the mail from our local council encouraging all residents to hold garage sales on the same day for “Second-hand Saturday”. Knowing we would be moving house soon after, we decided it would be a great chance to get rid of some unwanted, but still useable, items. And make a little extra cash too. So on the Saturday morning, I decorated our front fence with pink flags. I placed all our items out the front with pink post-it note labels with such ambitious prices as 50cents each for beach chairs.
What ensued was a fascinating experiment in how prices are determined and the motivation of buyers and sellers. I discovered we’re not nearly as rational or as profit motivated as you’d think.
First, my top tips for garage sales:
* Be ready early – dedicated garage sale hunters are on the prowl early. And they don’t like to be disappointed.
* Price reasonably – consider what an item is really worth to you. Would you actually pay someone to take the item off your hands? If so, price low. You may have paid mega bucks for it, but that is what economists call a “sunk cost”. All that matters now is how much value you could still get from owning it. If the answer is not much, then price low.
*Consider the replacement cost for buyers – things are much cheaper these days and technology has advanced. My 10 year old tube television set had a $2 price tag on it all day and still didn’t move.
*Have a variety of priced items – some people will have cash to spend on bigger items, some are just looking for little nick knacks. But if they stop to inspect the little things, they may reconsider some bigger purchases.
*Have a “loss leader” – a cheap item right out the front. Carpet salesmen don’t do it for no reason – it works.
*Price more expensive items at a premium to what you actually want. People are more likely to bargain on higher priced items. So if you put a $50 price tag on something, chances are you may get a counter offer as low as $25 and then you might settle for $35 or $40. So if you really want $50, price at $70 or $80.
Having said all that, the loveliest thing I found about my garage sale was all the people who actually bargained me upwards from my asking price.
My non-salesman husband decided to give his desk away for free to a young couple. But as they left, they pushed a $5 note in my hand, as a gesture of good will.
One lady came to me to ask how much for three DVDs she had selected, including a 1967 Peter Seller’s movie “The Bobo”. She was a Sellers fan, she explained, and had thought she’d seen every one of his movies, until she saw this one. When I suggested $1 for the three, she scoffed gently and told me she’d pay me $5. The going rate for second hand DVDs is $2, apparently.
But the most touching exchange of the day was with an older couple, who diligently looking over some of my bigger items, like chairs and a microwave. As I unpacked the microwave to check it was still working, we got to talking.
It turns out they were setting up house for their middle aged son. An alcoholic, he had moved back in with them for four weeks, and stayed 18 months. Recently, however, he had managed to secure some public housing. And so, as caring parents, they were doing the rounds of the garage sales to help him set up.
The stress had obviously wearied them. I could tell they were sad. They also expressed guilt at their feeling of relief that their son would soon be moving out.
On their way out, the gentleman decided to buy my four green outdoor chairs, which I had ambitiously priced at $1 a pop. He paid me $5 and I helped them carry the microwave to their car.
All up, I estimate we had about 25 groups through our garage sale. Of our nine paying customers, three paid more than I had actually asked and another four paid exactly what we’d asked. Those who did haggle, did so with a smile.
We made $224 for our efforts - not a princely sum, but it all helps.
But what is even more valuable is the happiness I still from get knowing my old microwave is being used by someone who needs it. That our wedding decorations will take centre stage at another young couple’s nuptials. That a kind-hearted lady is chuckling watching “The Bobo”, rather than it gathering dust at the bottom of my cupboard.
Economists like to assume we are cut-throat, profit-maximising players. And there are a few of those out there (they own a lot of $1 Barbies).
But, as it turns out, most of us are in fact generous, warm-hearted neighbours to one another.
And that knowledge, really, is priceless.
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