psy·chot·ic leop·ard sīˈkädik/ˈlepərd/ noun · anything that is funky, interesting, beautiful, niche, useful, and grabs one's attention

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Tag, Rummage, Estate, and Garage Sales: The Good, The Bad, and How to Tell If It's Worth Your Time

Posted by Lisa Johnson on

Tag sale season is right around the corner.  My inventory is low, and I am hungry.  As the ads start to appear on Craigslist, as well as the occasional sign stapled to a telephone pole, I feel stirrings inside, and get ready for the hunt. 

But not all sales are created equal, and as the season slowly begins, I have to be careful not to race right out to everything I see, no matter how tempting.  There are the wonderful sales, and the ones that are a complete waste of time.  Here is a general guide to a few types of both good and bad events I have noticed in my many years of “sailing.”

1.  The Japanese tag sale. I have been to two of these already in the past couple of weeks, even though regular tag sale season has not yet officially started. The Japanese tag sale is specifically when a group of often four to ten Japanese families, namely wives and mothers, get together at one person’s house and pool their belongings to sell.  Often, one family is moving back to Japan, which is the impetus for everyone else to join in.

         Japanese tag sales rarely open early, and they will often post actual “Do Not Enter” tape or rope across the driveway, literally cutting it at exactly opening time (usually 10:00 am).  Keep in mind that the general tag sale custom of price negotiation is considered unacceptable.  As each family tends to use labels with codes for individual families, it is difficult to keep track of prices that change.  Repeatedly, I have witnessed women at the checkout counter using calculators and often a child’s cash register, as well as clipboards with columns, to keep impeccable records of who is owed what, so I never even bother to haggle.    

      Bargains are still common, as these sales commonly have excellent prices, and clean, well-organized stock.  I think I have found a unicycle at almost every Japanese tag sale, for whatever reason, and there is usually a great selection of children’s toys and clothing (often on the small side). I almost always find a lot of Japanese ceramics and dishware, far cheaper than you could buy in any store.  Though never having discovered any super valuable treasure at these, occasionally I have scored a decent designer bag for a couple of bucks, but my favorite was a Pottery barn shark costume for three bucks. 

2.  The estate sale. I never get excited about estate sales, and often avoid them, as in my experience for the kinds of items I like and look for, their prices are over the top expensive. For antique dealers who know their stuff, or people in the market for super nice furniture that costs a fortune new, I’m sure there are bargains to be had.

      When looking at tag sale ads online, there are a few ways to tell if a sale is being run by professionals.  First, look for loads of meticulously taken pictures.  Who else would put that much effort into selling cheap items?  Next, when there is mention of numbers being given out, that’s a sure sign that a company is running the sale, as it means that dealers will be lining up early and waiting in line, frothing at the mouth.  And, if there are lots of expensive or brand names mixed into the ad description, it shows that the seller has done a lot of research, and this is often a professional.   

     Last fall, Chris and I inadvertently went to a sale run by a company.  They were attempting to sell a soiled mannequin for $250 (at least ten times what it was worth), and had a price tag on a beaten up coffee table of $150, which looked like it should have been on the curb for trash day.  Unreal. The best thing we took away from the experience was a good laugh over a sloppily written sign posted to one wall which read, “This is a sale run by professionals.  No junk.  Don’t bother trying to ask for cheap.”

     I should mention that sometimes at the very end of the weekend, it might be worth it to check out a professionally run sale, because late in the day, people tend to be more flexible.  I once wandered into an estate sale which had gone on for several days, and still managed to find a bunch of vintage mink fur hats for less than $3 each.  So I can’t complain too much.

3.  Non-profit tag sales. Often, my favorite sales are those run by school PTAs, churches, and Girl Scouts.   As there are many families and individuals donating items, it's a mish-mosh, and whatever is left at the end of the day is more of a hassle to get rid of, so generally prices are flexible as the hour gets later. Selection is generally better than at a single family tag sale, and it feels good to spend money while helping a cause.  Often, cashiers and people working the sale are associated with the organization, and there is a “feel good” atmosphere to the whole thing. 

     A big plus for me, being hungry a lot of the time, is that refreshments are often sold at these events.  There is a certain church sale every November in Westchester that I like to go to purely for their warm, homemade gingerbread and pumpkin soup.  The only downsides to larger sales are there are often crowds of people, which makes it hard to move, and this can be intimidating.  Plus, if you are buying a bunch of stuff, make sure to keep it with you or someone else will certainly swipe it.  I don’t even like to leave things under the table with the cashiers, because there will be no one to blame when your stuff disappears.

     By the way, ALWAYS buy lemonade or baked goods from kids selling it at ANY sale – it promotes good will and encourages future businesspeople.

4.  The “precious” tag sale. The worst. Basically, these are the sales run by individuals who have very little experience with the nature of the tag sale, and think that it is instead a way to make loads of money. A key to know that it’s time to just turn around and head back to the car is when the person running the sale either has pictures attached to items of high prices of what they think they are worth, or say things like, “On Ebay, this goes for $180.”  Another clue that you’re not getting any deals is when you ask for the price of something, and the person launches into a story of how she got the item and how much she supposedly paid for it, still not answering what she’s willing to let it go for.  It’s because she’s probably not ready to part with it, so don’t waste your time.

     If you don’t already know, I will make it clear to you now:  a garage sale is really one step before donation or the dump.  If you want to make lots of money, take the time to sell it online; otherwise, let it go for cheap ($1 is the best price – you can’t go wrong), and be glad that someone else is making use of an item that you don’t want or need anymore.

5.  The giveaway moving sale. The best!  People have sold their house, or have to move to Europe a week later, and just want to get rid of everything.  If you are lucky enough to walk into one of these, just grab what you can, make a big pile, and ask how much.  Smiles all around, as it’s a win-win situation.  Most people hate to throw out perfectly good stuff, and are thrilled to find a new home for something they once loved.  And you will have a wonderful story to tell about how you were able to furnish your entire living room for less than fifty bucks!

     I can’t wait for the warmer weather, and for all of those familiar signs and arrows to start appearing on the streets.  Good luck with your own sailing, and may most of your searches be fruitful!

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