I have been independently chairing school tag sales and book sales for the past 10 plus years, and decided to condense some of what I’ve learned here, in hopes that others will try this fun and profitable type of fundraising.
To me, a successful tag / garage / yard / rummage sale is not about how much money you make, but more importantly, how much stuff you get rid on, how many happier homes you find for your unwanted things, and to build a sense of community. New friendships develop when putting together events like these. Romantic relationships are often forged at tag sales. There are so many opportunities for unusual conversations to start. A tag sale is as much a social event as it is an income opportunity.
First, make sure you understand that a successful tag sale is not an easy event. It is time-consuming and involves many stages of planning, orchestrating, and clean up. Know that whatever happens, you will be more exhausted after setup than you will after the whole sale is over. Like lesson planning for a teacher, getting everything organized beforehand is more work than the actual day of the sale.
- COLLECT ITEMS. Make sure you have stuff to sell. LOTS OF IT. Nobody likes to go to a tag sale where there’s nothing there. Us aficionados like to pull up to overflowing tables. We don’t mind a mess. We don’t care that you are not “ready” yet. We just want to get in and see what you've got.
To me, it’s not worth it to have a single-family sale unless you are unloading a tremendous load of stuff. Even then, it’s always good to ask your neighbors and friends to join in. People are more likely to visit a neighborhood or multi-family sale because they have a better chance at finding treasure. So make it worth everyone’s while, and encourage those you know to do some seasonal de-cluttering.
- ADVERTISE. In the past, we used to spend a significant amount of money on putting ads in the Pennysaver, local classifieds, and other such printed media. While I still think advertising is everything, you can find many, if not more eyeballs looking at Craigslist, which is free, and easy to navigate yourself. Sites like Tag Sale Finder send out weekly, and sometimes even daily email digests that let people know what sales are in what areas (again, the more in one town or location, the better for customers).
But more importantly is really local advertising – what I call ARROWAGE. The bulk of tag sale traffic does not come from newspaper or online ads, but good, old-fashioned arrows on telephone poles or street signs. I have to give my mother kudos for this timeless practice, which she continues to use successfully at all of her own sales (though my father should really get the credit, as he is the one spending hours papering the town with directions to their house).
Take the time to do it right. Use large, clear letters, advertising WHERE and WHEN your sale is, and then just put LOTS of arrows pointing the way. Hands down, this is the most effective method for drive-by shoppers, in my experience.
- DELEGATE responsibilities, if you can. If you are holding a large school, PTA, Girl Scout or Boy Scout fundraiser, make sure you don't end up doing everything yourself. You may be unlikely to find a co-chair, but if you can, at least use another person to help you brainstorm what needs to be done.
- ORGANIZE. Some of my best friends are list-makers and taskmasters, with very different skills from my own. We sit down and talk out everything we can think of which needs to happen before, during, and after the tag sale, including cash boxes and coffee, who will pick up price labels, who will make sure the correct form is filled out ensuring that the custodian gets overtime. Which are the different categories we need to make signs for, and how many tables or sections we want to have? Do we have enough room (and inventory) to do a clothing table for not only men and women and children, but subcategories like, girls, boys, and babies? By making sure you write down everything you can think of, you won’t have to try to remember it later. And these lists constantly change!
One very helpful note: break tasks down into what needs to be done one month before (i.e. advertising), two weeks before (i.e. dropoff dates for donors, solidifying volunteers), one week before (making sure all paperwork is filled in, putting up banners and signs), day before (setup), day of (sale tasks), and at the end (cleanup).
- STORAGE IS KEY. Some people like to rent a POD (I got our school to even buy one, as we were doing four fundraisers like this per year), but bear in mind that this came after YEARS of keeping stuff in people’s garages and homes and sheds. Paying for storage can get very pricey, and is probably not worth it if you’re just doing a once in a while sale.
My personal belief is that for a successful tag sale, one needs to stash potential inventory for weeks or months before the actual event. You have to be ready to accept materials to sell (if you are taking public donations) when a person is ready to give. No one likes to wait around for the drop-off days; after having just cleared out a basement or attic, the idea is “I WANT MY CRAP OUT NOW.” If you don’t get the goods, someone else will, or they may unfortunately end up in the trash.
- VOLUNTEERS. These are your key to staying sane. You need them. There is a job for everyone, and if they have the time and you are enthusiastic about your cause, people generally like to help. Toddlers and ninety-year olds have assisted with my events: people love to feel useful. I have no shame in picking up people on the street or in a coffee shop, who later often become lifetime volunteers (and friends)!
There are sites like Sign-Up Genius for larger events, but before that, I used to send out emails to everyone in my social circle (and then some), writing down tasks I needed help with, and time slots available.
- SETUP. Hands down, the most stressful time. Sometimes people don’t show up to help, and it always feels like you won’t be ready and organized. Try to stay calm, and realize that this is an exhausting process, and setup is the probably the most demanding part of it.
If you can be generally organized, meaning, put stuff in sections, like clothing, household items, baby, jewelry, handbags, tools, linens, electronics, and that sort of thing, it doesn’t matter how neat everything looks, because if you’re lucky, your customers will descend on your stuff, and take most of it away in the early hours of the sale. Try to make things easy to view, and know that this is a messy, chaotic business, so don’t get perfectionistic about arrangements. The goal again – to sell and never see it again!
- PRICING. To me, a tag sale is one step before donation and / or the dump. My favorite price is a dollar, and I think that most things at a tag sale should be $5 and under, unless it’s something amazing.
My events make loads of money by selling in volume for cheap. That means that, in my experience, people are likely to spend more on a bunch of items for a buck apiece, than shell out 50 dollars for something fancy shmancy. Remember, your customers don’t care what you paid for the item, or how valuable it might be on Ebay – they are all looking for big bargains, so keep everyone happy and remember your goal: to get rid of the stuff, make some dough, and have a good time.
- SALE DAY. First, food is always a wonderful thing to have at tag sales. It keeps volunteers happy. It makes customers full of energy. If children sell refreshments, more people are likely to buy them. Make sure you have a tip jar which has a specific goal (i.e. for “school garden project,” or “my future college fund”). We like to ring a bell when someone puts money in the tip jar – adds that extra “oomph.”
Everyone working at your tag sale should be polite as possible unless you are dealing with crazy. And you will encounter crazy, occasionally. There are the people who fill up trash bags of stuff during the first hour of your sale, and demand they get it for nothing, because they are sending it back to their country which is “poor.” Or that every other person is a “teacher” who should get an extreme discount, even on non-classroom supplies, like handbags.
Your early birds will be your best customers in terms of spending money, usually, but they often are hard-core dealers who know exactly what they are doing. They are very good at both sweet talk and aggression, so please warn your volunteers to try not to take any of it personally.
It takes a very special person to be a cashier. S/he must be quick thinking, confident without being ballsy, and able to be both flexible and firm, after a certain point. It is a scary task, and if possible, try to have two people do it, so they can take on the customer volume, as well as help each other psychologically. I’m serious!
Volunteers should push the goods when appropriate, as well as continually “puff the tables,” as I like to call it. People like to feel like they are discovering something that other people might have missed. A full table of items gives the feeling of a-plenty. Try to bring stuff under the table on top as you can make room, and collapse down tables with hardly anything on them.
- CLEAN UP. My least favorite part of the event, as everyone is wasted, and there are always things left over. First, make sure you have a lot of volunteers for this part – people to box items and bring them out to donation places, or a dumpster. Someone to sweep the floor or clear the driveway after everyone’s gone. I like to put an ad out that says “FREE AFTER 3 PM” to the public and mention what we start with (as you cannot predict what will be left over). Let other people help clean up your mess!
At the end of the day (or weekend), feel proud! No matter how much money you raised, you will have completed an amazing task. You will have promoted recycling, while encouraging conservation and creativity. You probably will have bonded with others, and if you’re lucky, might have some very humorous stories to tell. Even though some of us might think, never again, once you get some rest, I bet you’ll be planning the next one!
I would love to hear your tips, or anything else useful you have experienced while doing tag sales or similar fundraisers! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And good luck!
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