Mistakes and Insights Found at a Sale

© 2001 Becky Winant

Recently my partner and I had a garage sale. Well, not a typical garage sale, but an office version. We were moving our office from the first floor of a building, which included a storefront, to a couple of modest rooms upstairs. So, we had extra desks, computers, printers, chairs, bulletin boards, numerous desk accessories and a small kitchen. How should we get rid of all this stuff?

“Hey, let’s have a sale in our storefront. We could entice customers with coffee and doughnuts and colorful balloons”, I announced.

“Okay”, said Robert.

We spent the next several weeks sorting, throwing out, and cleaning. I made an inventory list.  We decided what to keep and what to sell. Robert assigned prices to each item. We reviewed the list. He changed his mind about selling a chair and a table. I reconsidered some books and added them to the sale pile. A friend bought a flipchart. By April 10th we had a pretty good idea of what our sale would look like.

I realized that if the following Saturday was to be our super sale day, we needed to get the word out. I made flyers – clever words and bright colors. I posted them in the window. I posted them in supermarkets. I handed them out to friends, neighbors and my shiatsu guy.  We put a lovely display of our wares in the storefront window.

Saturday came. At 9:30 we opened the doors, tied the balloons up and waited for our customers. We drank our coffee and continued to wait. At 11:30 AM the first person showed up. Over the day a dozen adults and one small child came into the storefront spending a total of $34.

Why didn’t more people come? I admit that I had doubts in the morning when the weatherman predicted a beautiful day. During the day, I tallied all the other obstacles that doomed our sale.

Lesson 1: Never compete with Mother Nature.

Our indoor sale took place on the first really warm, sunny spring day.  Most people will pour outside like ants at a picnic to cheer the end of winter.  Our sales efforts were doomed against this force of nature. Perhaps we should have had some items out front on the street?

A woman from across the street was the first to arrive. We had never met and it turned out that she runs the tailoring shop. She was delighted to see the curtains open and items on display.

“I’m so happy to see a store moving in”, she told us.

We said, “ We’re moving out.”


“Our office has been in this storefront.  We are moving it upstairs and hoped to sell things we weren’t using anymore.”

“Well, it’s nice to see the storefront being used again.”

We continued to chat while she examined our merchandise.

Lesson 2: Don’t compete with the taxman or the Easter bunny.

Our neighbor lamented that her tailoring customers were staying away. She said that they were complaining that after paying tax they didn’t have the money to pay what they owed to her. It suddenly occurred to me that picking April 14 was a mistake.  Maybe people weren’t sitting in the sun. Maybe they were at home with a pile of receipts and a calculator and irritated by any thought of spending more money. With poor timing, my office sale was the last they would have had in mind!

Later my friend, Lovinia, confirmed that tax time was bad for retail business. She said that when her father had an art gallery, he noticed that his gallery was always empty around tax time. After a few years of this pattern, he decided the best thing to do was take vacation during tax season. He wouldn’t miss any customers or potential sales.

Someone else observed that the next day was Easter, and proposed that maybe this was a problem. People might be out buying more important things like candy and new Sunday clothes. This was confirmed the following Monday when we talked to a young woman we knew who worked at the mall on weekends. “The mall was packed!”, she said. “I’ve never seen it that busy!”.

I made a note to myself that a calendar with holidays on it might be useful.

Lesson 3: Simple words and large letters get more attention.

My new seamstress friend commented that my signs in the window were awfully small. “Put a big sign in the window like SALE TODAY!”, she suggested. “Okay, I can do that!”, I yelled as ran to the back to grab a large piece of yellow posterboard and big black marker. I made the sign she suggested and tacked it up. “People can’t read your signs”, she continued.” I came across the street because I saw the curtains opened and some things on display in the window. I didn’t realize it was a one-day office sale. I thought maybe those signs were announcing a new thrift shop.”

She pointed at a shelving unit and asked how big it was. I brought out a tape measure. She checked the dimensions and decided it would fit next to her sewing machine. She paid $10 for it and left.

Lesson 4: Group like things together.

Shortly afterwards I noticed a young woman out by our window looking up at the sign. She came in. The young woman slowly walked around and lifted items up to examine them. After about 20 minutes she bought nine $1 items – a collection of desk accessories, books and a box of clear plastic name badge holders.

A little later a man came in with his two-year old daughter. They walk around and found their way back to the $1 shelves. The little girl picked up a cup. Dad looked at a wire in basket. Nothing seemed to grab their fancy.

All of our browsers drifted to items in the $1 to $20 dollar range. I realized that selling computers and printers, even at bargain prices of $50, $100 or $250, wasn’t really likely to happen at a something that looked like a thrift shop.

Lesson 5: Context is everything.

Of course, I thought, how ridiculous to lump these all together! They would appeal to entirely different people. The equipment ranging from $50 to $250 didn’t look like much of a bargain next to the cheaper objects.

Then I began to contemplate the audience for our sale. Students from the local college might pick up a coffee maker, cups and a book.  People from small businesses might be looking for deals on used office equipment. Do students read the want ads? Does either of them look at grocery store bulletin boards? I don’t know, but based on my results, I’d guess not.  I had missed my audience and overlooked how to reach them.

Lesson 6: Go to your audience, announce your intentions early, and meet their schedule.

I began to feel a bit silly about not having placed an ad in the paper. Several years back, we lived next to a master of the yearly yard sale. Her formula included picking a time when the weather is likely to be nice and advertising in advance. Our neighbor said that bargain hunters always check those listings and always showed up early.

The schedule that Robert and I picked met our needs, but probably didn’t match the bargain hunters’. Our former neighbor always opened earlier than she announced – often around 7 AM – because people apparently like to bargain hunt early on Saturdays to leave the rest of the day open.  Our announced 10 AM opening cut right into a perfectly good Saturday.

I had missed so many obvious and fundamental steps, I had to laugh. My office sale project was now looking to me like the poster child for classic mistakes.

Biggest Classic Mistake: Plan to have enough time to do the planning, or the project might not have a firm foundation.

My partner and I had several holes in our project planning:

  1. We didn’t think carefully about timing. We didn’t consider whether tax season or Easter would impact our plans.
  2. We were too focused on our objectives and our inventory lists and not enough on “the world” we hoped to bring to our office sale.
  3. We missed major tasks. Even though we thought about a sale, we didn’t identify the critical tasks that might have made the sale more successful.
  4. We didn’t allow enough time for the project.

Classic Miscommunication: If you tell only part of the story or use language that doesn’t match the message, you’ll only confuse people.

  1. Posting colorful and clever flyers or colorful balloons did not make the point as well as clear language about a sale.
  2. We didn’t clearly identify our “office sale” as a one-day only event.
  3.  Repetitive notices counting down to the sale date might have created recognition. In both consulting and teaching I use repetitive messages to reinforce important ideas or measures.

Classic Requirements Problems: If you rush to quickly to completion you may have to do it over.

  1. We missed a basic requirement for a sale – advertising.
  2. We didn’t take time to understand who our customer was or what they might want.
  3. We didn’t understand that we had two different customers and needed solutions for each.

Well, we weren’t in a position to do it over – we had a deadline! Someone needed to be in our storefront by the end of April.  But, our sale day wasn’t a waste: I wrote an article, met the seamstress across the street, and the Senior Center and Salvation Army received generous donations.

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