Marketing Lessons From a Garage Sale

By Steve McKee

As commerce becomes increasingly digitized and customers become increasingly sophisticated, I spend plenty of hours trying to get my business clients to understand which marketing strategies make sense for them. My wife and I hosted a good old-fashioned garage sale over a recent long weekend, and I was amazed – and amused – at the lessons I relearned. They’re easy to forget these days. Here’s a handful:

  • It’s not what you’re selling that counts; it’s what they’re buying. As we rummaged through our home in preparation for the sale, we found several dozen cell phone chargers, computer cables, telephone cords, and spools of speaker wire that no longer worked with any of our gizmos. We were tempted to recycle them, but as a lark we dumped them in a box and tried to sell them. It was one of the first things to get snatched up. The lesson? Value is in the eye of the beholder.
  • Advertising isn’t an option. It’s the ante. If you go to the trouble of setting up a garage sale without letting anyone know, the only customers you’ll get are people who happen to drive by and have the time and inclination to stop. Not a great way to liquidate your junk—and an even worse way to run a business. (I continue to be mystified by how many small brands miss this point.) We shared the news of our garage sale through newspaper classifieds and via a handful of colorful signs on busy street corners. It was a lot of advertising for a little operation, yet it cost us next to nothing. These days it’s so easy to target specific groups of prospects that you can’t afford not to advertise.
  • Merchandising means more than you think. We had a lot of stuff to get rid of, from sporting equipment to knick-knacks, paintings to books, record albums to computer monitors. Had we displayed it all as randomly as it had been stored in our garage, we would have made it tough for shoppers to find what they were looking for. Instead, we took the time to organize it by category and even by genre (books) and price range (albums). And we put the coolest stuff closest to the street, taking the concept of curb appeal literally. The lesson? It’s important to make the most of what you’ve got. View your stuff through the eyes of your customers and set things up in a way that makes it hard to resist and easy to buy.
  • Trust is as fragile as it is critical. No trust, no transaction—especially when strangers first cross your threshold. Everyone knows that at a garage sale, what you see is what you get, no matter what condition it’s in. But selling something as is doesn’t justify disguising its flaws. Smart shoppers ask penetrating questions, and if they see any hesitation – a shuffling of the feet or a shifting of the eyes – that’s all they need to say no. Commerce has always been built on trust, and the profit of deceit is never worth the price. Be honest with your customers, warts and all. If they trust you, they’re more likely to make a purchase. If not, they never will.
  • Stories sell. That old weight bench that we were trying to get rid of? It wasn’t just a weight bench. It was the buttress of our son’s effort to turn a lanky middle-school frame into a scholarship-worthy physique, and now that he was off competing in college, he didn’t need it anymore. That’s a true account, and telling it made selling the bench a snap. Behind every product or service there’s a story, and the better you can connect the hearts of your customers with the tale of your brand, the more they’ll want what you have.
  • Everyone operates at his or her own pace. Early on in our garage sale we jumped up to greet every passerby and hovered as they looked over our things. We soon realized that wasn’t a good idea. Sure, as we turned our backs, someone might have pilfered something, but the alternative was running off our prospects before they ever became customers. Garage sales attract all types, from hunters who swoop in to see if you have what they want (we could have sold our ladder a dozen times) to browsers who take their time and look through all that you have (which can get kind of creepy). Be sensitive to the cues your customers send and move the sale along at their pace, not yours. And if you discover a hiccup in the process or have an awkward interaction, consider it an opportunity for improvement.

By end of the day, we’d earned a little cash, had a lot of fun, and made our garage more airy. There are probably dozens of other lessons we could have learned from our humble sale. No matter how sophisticated the world becomes, the fundamentals of buying and selling never change.

Originally published on Bloomberg Businessweek

Steve McKee

Co-founder and author, Steve specializes in addressing the most meaningful problems. Call Steve when you want to change the world. He’ll have a thought (and some research) on that.

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