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The End Of Estate Sales (Or Not)

I was recently on the phone with a lady who is in the early stages of possibly starting up an estate sale business. That's when I started to understand the "the sky is falling" theory of estate sales.

Our conversation went something like this:

Her: "What do you think the future is of the estate sale business?"

Me: "I love the business, there is a lot of demand for our services. Estate sales are getting more and more popular."

Her: "Well, I was talking to someone else who learned the business from his mom. He thinks that in 10 years, estate sales as an industry will be dead."

Me: "Hmmmm... I'm not sure why he would tell you that." I paused to think a little so that I would not be badmouthing this stranger. Then I continued, "Maybe he just really thinks that and he could be right. Or maybe he hasn't adapted to new trends and isn't thriving anymore. Or possibly, he doesn't want new business owners to get into the business. I really can't speak for him or know his motives. Personally, we have work. I think think that will be true as long as people own things - there will be people who need to get rid of their things, and also people looking to get things for a fair price."

It is true, Millennials are not nearly as into acquiring stuff as the Baby Boomers have been. Plus, prices are lower for many items because there are so many places to get whatever you need now.

Here are some of the most popular places for used inventory sales:

  1. Craigslist

  2. eBay

  3. Local Facebook Groups

  4. Facebook Marketplace

  5. Nextdoor Ap

  6. Offer Up

  7. LetGo

You name it, there are places to sell it all.

Today in order to sell your exact inventory on any given weekend, have to post many more ads to attract the buyers looking for your items.

You probably have to post them well in advance of your sale. You have to answer a lot of questions about them. Those questions help to rank your sales posts higher, so don't be annoyed that someone asked a question you already answered, just copy and paste your answer for them!

A lot of people are practically giving things away on these sites. But rare items are still rare. And used items that are in good condition, are still selling.

Sometimes outside forces give you a run for your money: I once did an estate sale for a woman with a business warehouse that had a sort of museum of collectibles her husband had acquired - the furniture was not selling no matter how low I went. On the last day, a guy who had one of the other warehouses in the complex came over. He buys shipping containers and storage units at auction, he enjoyed selling things online. All the smalls and collectibles he listed online. He showed me a photo of a gorgeous china cabinet he had just sold. "I hate furniture," he said, "I sold this for $20 bucks just to get rid of it, I hate to make room and carry it into my space." Gee, that explains why nobody would give me even $50 for her Duncan Phyfe mahogany table -when this guy gets them he sells them in 10 minutes for $20. But all of her signs, art, her collection of vintage toy cars, her fire place mantles, her scrap wood, fire hydrants, etc - those did great and we cleared her place for her so she could move out and move on.

People who are looking for specific items will come to you. They will buy other things too, they will get on your list and they will buy again. If your local market is glutted with giveaway prices, chances are you'll still have categories of things you can gather good money for.

This is especially important to help guide you in being more careful about the sales you will take, and the percentage you take them for. It takes a lot of work to do all of the customized marketing to sell big furniture and things that don't sell though normal word of mouth about what a good sale is happening right now. The 25% estate sale days are over too.

Not only do you have your own list of good buyers that you build at your sales, if you want to sell big ticket items, furniture, taste specific decor - you will have to spend time marketing online to capture that audience who is scrolling all of these market venues for exactly what you have exactly when they want it.

Back in the olden days, when you had a sale, you announced it in the newspaper, maybe you mailed your subscribers a postcard with a photo, and a list of some special things. Today you have show folks what you have with professional looking photos, dimensions, and a lot of detail. When your shoppers come, your sales are largely driven by your ability to demonstrate to them how useful the items can be when they are repurposed. You might try posting magazine articles on shabby chic remakes, or search Pinterest for repurposing an old entertainment unit into a bar, or changing table and share that. Your staff has to be ready to explain that vintage blenders have more powerful motors, that vintage pans have metal handles that don't melt when you want to finish your frittata in the oven so that you don't burn the bottom on the stove. A focus on functionality will generate more sales for you - be careful though because old heating pads get way hotter, but your clients might burn themselves, there is a risk vs reward to consider too when you're pitching.

The point is that what generated income before is generally not going to work now on today's buyers. Times change. That does not mean that nothing works. You have to adapt or die in business. This is true for all businesses, if you walk into a McDonalds today - is it anything like a McDonalds from the 1980s? No, it is completely different, the menu is different, there is free wifi, there are big machines where you can place your order. The logo is the same, but that's about it. Think like the big corporations and adapt to you market demands.

Millennials still need refrigerators, washing machines, and dryers. The seem to really love a good Mid Century Leather Sofa. They will pay serious cash for items they really want. They have to know that you have it! Nostalgia is still cool.

Curbed has a great article, "The Magic of Estate Sales" where the author says, "It’s become almost retro to admit you feel something for the buildup of quotidien objects that clutter your life ... a moral hierarchy has emerged in relation to material possessions: It goes from hoarders, with their storage spaces crammed full of sadness, all the way up to minimalists, with their Buddhist non-attachment to anything that can’t be digitized. Most of us are between these two extremes, somehow with more stuff than we think we should have and also less than we find ourselves coveting." The writer clearly knows about estate sales, she shops at them, and she enjoys them. She's not alone.

So is the end of estate sales here? I doubt it, estate sales the way they were in 1980, 1990, 2000 are over. Who cares? People need everything in the house: ziplock baggies, tools, appliances, furniture. If you have something good and in demand, you can still hold out and get competitive prices for those items. Price and sell your useful things instead of donating them.

What is in demand? That changes all the time. That's part of the fun, isn't it? Is it sad to have to tell our buyers that we won't get much for their Precious Moments, old brown furniture antiques, and even Hummels, well, yeah, but that's our job. We have have to be honest or we cannot liquidate for them.

My bet is that long as people are selling and buying retail goods, there will be a secondary market for those same goods. You have to know your audience. You also have to capture their attention, they aren't going to beat down your door if they don't know what you have, where it is, or why they should come to you for it.

I have faith in you, you can answer these questions for them! Are estate sales going to be over in 10 years? I can't guarantee what the future will hold, but I have a feeling that the end of sales is just another one of many myths about the estate sale industry.

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