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Garage Sale Lessons For Furniture Retailers

Furniture World Magazine


Lessons a veteran furniture guy learned watching people browse, decide and negotiate at a garage sale.

Just when you think you have the art and the science of home furnishings retailing mastered, you have an experience that brings you back to the basics of customer buying behavior. I had an experience like this last weekend at our annual neighborhood garage sale.

We have about 100 houses in our neighborhood and once a year everyone gets together for a massive sale. Well over 75% of the people participate. It could not have happened at a better time for us at the Hecht household. We had just completed a major basement and closet cleaning and I wanted to get rid of the flotsam and jetsam. For me, the sale was a one-way ticket from my house to someone else's-regardless of profit or loss!

We didn't have a lot of small items, but some were fairly large ones, the most expensive being priced at $120. I had twelve pieces of framed artwork that originally retailed from $30 to $300. Also 2 boom boxes, a 5 x 7 rug, a futon, dressing table, desk chair, 1 dinette chair from Kofabco (remember them?) and many other $2-5 items, including a computer monitor circa 1998. At 7:45 am I arranged the items in my driveway, pulled up a lawn chair, and sat with a hot cup of coffee to await my first "up". I wanted to set the mood, so I had some easy rock playing on one of the boom boxes. (Rock on Eagles!)

Here is what I learned...

She wants what she wants, no matter what the price! My wife, Michelle, and I had a serious discussion about putting out the most expensive item. It doesn't matter what it is, I'll call it the widget. I wanted $100 for the Widget, but we understood that most people don't come to garage sales to spend $100 on a Widget, or even $100 on anything. I took a chance and put out our long unused Widget-and being a true retailer, I tagged it a $120 hoping to get that $100.

My very first up arrived at 7:55 and she walked right up to the Widget. She walked around it and touched it. She spoke to her partner and then asked me if I would take $75 for the Widget. I told her I really wanted to get $120 out of it. She upped it to $90. I went over to a shelf in the garage and brought out two accessories for the Widget, and said I would throw them in if she gave me a C-note. Bingo- First sale of the day! She gave me the money and said she would be back in an hour to pick it up. (WOW, Trust!)

The lesson is... customers love to negotiate, but if the item is what she wants, she will buy it.

Also-create a package and you will build value!

She doesn't want what she doesn't want, no matter what the price! Back to those twelve pieces of artwork-there were two signed watercolors, one signed oil, a couple of numbered lithographs, and the rest were prints. Problem was, they just didn't match anything in our house any more. I took the smallest and cheapest and marked them $2. The others were priced from $5-10. You couldn't buy the frames that cheap. Every shopper took time to look at every piece. The most common comment was "These are nice and great prices, but I don't know if they will work with my (decor)". About an hour into the sale, a woman looked at one of the watercolors, a landscape of Elko, Nevada in a rustic pine frame, about 24” x 30”. It was five bucks. She took out a 5 spot and told me "I know what this is, and you priced it too cheap". Towards the end of the sale I marked every picture down to a buck.

Still no takers, not even to the woman carrying a Pepsi she had just paid $1.29 for.
The lesson is... customers want to accessorize their homes, they are just not confident to do it. The best time to sell accessories is when you can show them what it will look like with the new furniture they are buying. If they see it all together, they will buy it. You can sell some things at 70% off, but people will still hesitate to purchase, even at give-away prices, because they don't want to make a mistake!

Customers make up their mind in the first 20 feet of your store. We've all heard that before - now I saw it in action. There is a class of professional Garage Sale Shoppers out there. And they don't waste their time! Here's how they work - two in a car, one driver, one scout. They slow down and peer at your wares on the driveway. If they like something, they'll stop. If not, they gun the engine to the next house. This was more depressing than the Ladies Choice dance at my High School Prom when all the guys lined up, and the girls looked us over. They either asked us to dance or kept walking. I didn't get to "Do the Hustle" until the last 30 seconds. Most of the neighbors had tables of items; my items were sitting right on the driveway. Those with tables got the most traffic. The driveways with the most shoppers attracted even more shoppers.

The lesson is... She wants it at eye level! not too high, not too low. Put the best values up front to get the customer excited about the rest of your store. Have a clean parking lot, entry way, and doors. Activity breeds activity. Many people will not stop at stores because they don't want to be the only one in the joint. On weekdays- "Dummy Up" the front of your store with five or six employee cars at the front door, to let people know you are open for business.

People don't read signs! The Garage sale lasted until 3 pm, but we had someplace to be at 1 pm, so I decided to shut down at noon. Remember, the goal was to clear the lot, not move things back inside- so I removed all of the price tags and placed two big signs on the street- EVERYTHING IS ONE DOLLAR. I had at least a dozen people pick up items and ask me- "How much is this?" I finally moved one sign against the garage door, and then starting selling things for the buck I wanted.

The lesson is... Signs on your windows have little value, your customer just wants to get into your store, and they are not reading them. Place your promotional signs about 15-25 feet back, make them six words or less-and they will get noticed.

The second lesson is... be sure the price tag is obvious to the customer-don't over-tag, just be consistent. You can have 2,000 items in your store, but have one of them un-tagged and your customer will spot it and ask!

She will tell her friends about a great deal - Back to the futon - I am not sure why I even bought it in the first place, horrible to sit on, miserable to sleep on. But we had one, and even paid someone to move it from one house to another. I wanted to see it go, so I marked it $20. Two women looked at it, and said, this will be perfect for Tiffany. Luckily, Tiff was on their speed dial-they called her and she came down with the double sawbuck in her hand. I was happy to see that item go!

The lesson is... The Shopper in your store is really worth about 15-20 customers. I have to be honest, I have no idea of what my friends are shopping for to make their life complete, but that's not true for everyone. Understand that when she comes in to your store, your Guest may be shopping for herself, but she is aware of what her sister, her mother, and Tiffany are looking for. Treat her right, and you'll get all of them as customers!

Some things NEVER Sell! At noon I closed up shop. I brought back in the remaining artwork, but I left four items on the driveway, and tagged them "FREE". A fireplace grate, 2 wicker baskets, and the computer monitor. When we got back home, around 2:45, all that was left was the monitor. I saw two guys across the street and in their truck were a fax machine and some other office equipment. I asked them if they wanted a monitor for free. They took one look at our behemoth monitor-and laughed!

The lesson is... If you are holding on to a lot of damaged, discontinued, undersold and over parked merchandise in your DC, odds and ends, rails and footboards, maybe it's time to let them go. Even for free-donate the items with some value, give them to your employees, or sell 'em for a buck, if you can get it. Just refuse to keep paying rent to store them.

Final Observations

People are curious. After I sold the widget, I took off the tag. People asked me if it was for sale and I told them that it had been sold. They all asked how much it sold for! It wasn't like I had four more in the DC! Just for fun, I told a guy I sold it for $200 and he said he would have given me more.

And what about the cash-ola we raked in...? Our total haul was about $190, but the object was to clear out-regardless of profit or loss! Just make space. About 3 pm I took a walk through the neighborhood...and then I saw this Widget, I just had to have it, and it was such a deal!

Gordon Hecht is Director of Sales for Ashley Sleep division of Ashley Furniture Industries. He started his 30+ years experience in the Home Furnishings industry as a delivery helper and driver; switching over to furniture industry sales while in college.

Gordon has been recognized for outstanding sales and management achievement with several organizations including Drexel-Heritage, RB Furniture, Reliable Stores, and Sofa Express. He has served as Store Manager, Multi-unit manager and Director of Training.
Joining Ashley Furniture HomeStores in 2007, Gordon managed a 44 store district covering 11 states and 4 time zones. He joined the Ashley Sleep team in 2009 and has worked to make it one of the fastest growing bedding lines in the country.

Gordon has been a frequent contributor to company newsletters, and contributing writer for industry magazines. He is based in Columbus, OH and is married with one adult son. He can be reached at ghecht@ashleyfurniture.com