My Garage Sale: An Unexpected Lesson in Shopper Behavior


May  23,  2016 by Alyson O’Mahoney , EVP/Partner in OTC PR & Social Media

This past Saturday I held my first (and probably last!) yard sale.  My hope was to get people to pay ME to take my junky — I mean, beautiful — clutter away, instead of having to pay someone with a dumpster to cart it off.  I expected to pare down some of our unneeded belongings, spend a nice day outdoors, meet some new neighbors and make a few bucks in the process. However, what I ended up with was a bit of shopper behavior insight. Call it a “yard sale focus group,” if you will, but the marketer in me saw enough consistency that aligned with current data and trends, that I thought I would mention my “findings.” Not sure how these would hold up against a consumer research study, but I think several were spot on in the sample of the 150 or so customers I had throughout the day:

Males: Men who show up to garage sales alone (and there were several!) have singular missions.  They weren’t there to browse and engage, they were there to find specific things  — coins, gold/silver, old watches, tools or vintage vinyl records, to be exact.  I didn’t have any of these items, unfortunately, so they were gone as fast as they arrived. This occurred in 9 out of 10 male-only visits.  A 2014 article in Psychology Today says this is related to the hunter-gatherer instinct dating back to prehistoric times.  According to the author, Steve Tyler Ph.D., “Men appear to be more mono-focused, rather than browsers. In prehistoric terms, they have one thing in mind: kill an animal and go home. They don’t want to waste time browsing, and it’s not so necessary for them to examine their food acquisitions. They just look for animals, kill them, pick them up, and go straight home.”  I didn’t have what they were hunting, so on to the next kill.

Hispanics: A large majority of the day’s customers were of Hispanic decent. Their shopping was a family affair — grandma, grown daughters, their school age (and younger) children, husbands, brothers. On average, each group was comprised of 5-8 people. They collaborated on their purchases closely with lots of discussion and debate.  Additionally, graciousness shown to the eldest in their family meant they opened their wallets further (for example, in two separate cases I saw the grandmother of the family looking closely at an item she did not end up purchasing, so as they were leaving, I gave her the item for free.  Both of those families put grandma in the car and came back to shop a second time, and were very thankful for my gesture.)   This gels with the findings of a recent Supermarket News article on Hispanic shopping habits: shopping is a social endeavor with their loved ones, family members influence purchases and generating loyalty through meaningful engagement pays off (free stuff for their Abuela really paid off, though it wasn’t my intention when giving her the gift).

Seniors: I had several senior (65+) couples and individuals visit during the day. They all did one of three things: (1) browsed, but didn’t purchase, (2) purchased one, cheap item that had more immediate, short-term usefulness, like a book, or, (3) bought some items for their grandchildren.  Many felt the need to apologize for not buying something, citing that they had what they needed already, but just liked to look around and see what was out there. According to AARP, by 2020, one in six Americans will be 65 and older, so understanding their needs and how they purchase with their disposable income will be important, despite all the attention always given to millennials.  Many of these consumers have money to spend, but are more careful in how they spend it for usefulness. They seem very willing, however, to spoil the grandchildren (some even buying things for babies of their expectant daughters), so companies that target moms for baby/kid items may benefit by shifting some of their marketing dollars to target grandma, too.

Mom & Kids: We all think mom is the ultimate decision maker, and I’m sure she thinks that, too, but every mom (or dad) who brought their child was impacted by the child’s opinion in 9 out 10 cases.  Of course, these were items that ranged from 50 cents to $5, so the investment was low risk, but as long as the kid could walk or talk, they had a say, whether mom or dad realized it or not. This is nothing to ignore in your marketing, considering that there are 61 million toddlers to teens in the Gen Z generation right now (and I bet you half of them have their owniphones already!).

Crowd Sourced: The more people I had in my driveway, the more people stopped and shopped.  When traffic fell off, cars would drive by, slow down, but not stop. Only when there were a few shoppers already there (yes, the few who took the risk of coming in without other shoppers already present — the early adopters!), did others stop to shop. It made me realize that, even with garage sales, most people follow the behaviors of others, even if they are strangers. Makes sense, since most people really don’t want to take the risk first, so they take on the mob mentality. Think about it: given the option of the busier restaurant or emptier one next door, Yelp aside, you’ll more likely choose the busy one even if you had to wait a bit and without any previous experience with the quality of the food — the mob spoke, you listened.

Word of Mouth Rules: And speaking of “speaking of”….I did signs, I did Facebook tag sale posts, I added the info to free garage sales apps! I also randomly surveyed customers about how their heard about the sale, and many said others told them about it. Previous shoppers text them my address, a friend who knew they liked garage sales let them know the details from a sign they saw, etc.  While I do think all of my marketing combined for a successful day, the power of recommendation was pervasive — and persuasive — in the feedback. (“My friend/sister/mom text me that you had some good stuff” was mentioned several times.)

Saturday’s sale was a lot of work and planning, but it proved to be a busy and fruitful day.  Not only did I bank some cash to buy more stuff to sell in five years, but I gained some real world insight into what makes shoppers tick.  Win-win!

About the Author: When Alyson isn’t peddling her wares in the driveway, she is EVP/Partner at RLA Collective, an integrated marketing agency specializing in health and wellness brands, including OTC, nutritional supplements, medical devices, personal care and pet health.