Lessons in neighborhood craft marketing

by Jordan Green

We counted our first foray into entrepreneurship as a success.

We set the alarm clock for 7:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, and managed to get out of bed by a quarter ’til. My wife and I carried the dining room table out to the sidewalk by 8. Our next-door neighbor was arranging some CDs on a table of his own, and the two of us concurred that it was earlier than our normal hours of activity. I set out on a mission, a tacit acknowledgement of our lack of preparedness, but there was grace yet.

The first part of the mission unfolded in this sequence: A stop at the bank to withdraw $20, a trip to the gas station and a purchase of two donuts in which the clerk obliged me with $17 and some change in all ones, and a return to the house, where I handed my wife $15 to make change.

Phase 2 required a trip to FedEx on Tate Street to print a batch of song lyrics and chords from a thumb drive. The shop was closed until 9, so I headed up to Brassfield Shopping Center to see if I would have better luck at a different location. Nothing doing. I picked up some necessities and made it back to Tate Street by the time the first store was opening. Then, after printing out the songs, I headed back home.

My wife had been making terrariums and earrings all week. The terrariums were the main event: various glass vessels that she procured from Goodwill and other obscure sources — brandy glasses, vases, light bulb casings, clear Christmas bulbs — that she meticulously filled with soil, succulent plants and ferns, small stones we harvested from North Buffalo Creek, buttons and other ornaments. My wife’s friend also had a table where she was displaying her handmade scarves and bowties.

They reported brisk traffic and moderate sales. My wife is raising funds to pay for a photojournalism class at the Center for Documentary Studies in Durham. Her friend is making a test run before launching her Etsy site. Setting up shop on the date designated for the Westerwood Neighborhood Yard Sale ensured a market, although both my wife and her friend created Facebook events to get the word out.

My wife’s haul for the morning was $70. All but two sales were to family members and friends, but several people eagerly added their names to her mailing list leading us to believe that if she plied her wares at a crafts fair where people are willing to pay premium prices as opposed to a sale where people expect bargains she would have fared even better. One lady excitedly asked if she could bring my wife a fish tank and have her custom design a terrarium, suggesting the possibility of a second business line.

In addition to business, the sale was good fun, offering the opportunity to hang out with friends, visit with neighbors and gawk at buyers. Besides acting as a shill to instigate curiosity from legitimate buyers by feigning interest in the product, I provided live entertainment by playing a selection of songs by Dylan, the Dead, the Pixies, Nina Simone and Tom Petty on the acoustic guitar. I kept the volume down to avoid drowning out conversations, and avoided dogmatic protest songs or speed metal that might drive people away.

First-hand experience reveals that the psychology of consumer behavior in yard sales is hilarious. In a pattern that will be familiar to any convenience store clerk, customers come in waves, with 20 minutes of zero traffic followed by flashes of mobbing.

Yard-sale buyers appear to be strongly susceptible to peer influence. If one person stops, two or three more quickly materialize, as if panicked by the notion that a good deal could get away. If nobody’s looking at your goods then it can go like that for quite awhile because there’s no threat of competition.

People forego all respect for traffic regulations, parking in the drive lane of streets. If there are two on-street parking spaces open, an aggressive buyer might occupy both, denying a competitor access and allowing himself quick egress should other addresses suddenly prove more alluring.

Then there are the creepers — the people who drive 10 or 15 mph down the street scanning the tables, but are slow to commit to a stop. My wife’s friend and I both laughed when we saw a man cruise down the street in a 1980s vintage farm pickup loaded down with furniture staring hard across our yard as if trying to spot Vietcong.

By 1 p.m. we were happy to pack it in. Yard sales are best done in bursts of sustained intensity when the finitude of time brings some urgency to the transactions.