It never fails. You do one thing well, and suddenly you’re the "expert” that everybody turns to for tips and advice. It happened to me. Years ago I had a garage sale that was such a wild success that now any time one of my friends has as similar event they come running to me to find out how I did it.
Here’s what I tell them: Most garage sales fail for two reasons. A: People are too haphazard and willy-nilly in the way they go about it, and B: They overlook the importance of marketing. Thankfully I have the solution to both of those challenges. What’s my secret? It’s simple – I patterned my sale after the mother of all garage sales...the estate auction of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis!
Though it’s true I didn’t personally attend this historic affair when it was held back in 1996, I did manage to get my hands on one of the auction brochures that Sotheby’s sold to hype the event, which I used as a blueprint for my own sale. It worked like a charm and I’ve been recommending it as a guide ever since.
Unfortunately, unlike Sotheby’s, I lacked the print budget to produce thousands of slick brochures to publicize my sale, so I was forced to settle for a blurb in the classifieds and a giant sign staked in the front yard. And I had to forego the press coverage, too. After all, there were correspondents from more than 40 countries covering Jackie's sale. (I hate to say it, but I don't think I can even name 40 countries.)
But promotion aside, I did have several things in common with the Onassis event. According to the brochure, the Kennedy family began working on the sale nearly two years before the event actually took place. Coincidentally, that's about how long I had been stashing stuff in my hall closet, rather than putting it out for Goodwill. Not only that, but there were over 5,000 items included in Jackie's sale, and if you count things like tennis balls and shoe horns individually, my numbers were in the same ballpark. (In fact, I had over thirty plastic butter tubs alone, so clearly we were talking apples to apples in terms of scope.) The brochure also stated that Sotheby's employees "worked feverishly through the night readying the exhibition halls for the opening". Same here.
They did a phenomenal job of marketing, and I did what I could to imitate their techniques. First they set the tone by placing at the top of the grand staircase a larger-than-life portrait of a young, radiant Jackie, casually clad in jodhpurs. Sadly I’ve never owned any jodhpurs, so I tacked a poster-sized copy of my driver’s license photo onto the fence alongside the driveway. Next they created "rooms” to display furnishings in tasteful settings. Lacking the space to do that, I improvised by putting all the old toothbrushes and broken combs on the "bathroom table", and the chipped Christmas mugs, greasy Fry-Baby, and mismatched chopsticks on the "kitchen table".
Another merchandising ploy Sotheby's used was to pair photographs of Jackie with the particular item up for auction. (Who can forget that adorable picture of little John-John tugging on the triple strand of pearls around his mother's neck?) Following their lead, I placed a candid snapshot of myself squatting over the very propane camp stove I was hawking.
Jackie's sale included an impressive collection of fine art. Ditto my sale, i.e. a paint-by-number of the Smurfs, and an 8x10 glossy of Michael J. Fox. One of the nicest items that the Kennedy family sold was a humidor that Milton Berle had given to the President. Not being a cigar smoker myself, I didn’t have a humidor, but I did manage to find a sucker – oops – I mean a customer to buy my clogged-up humidifier.
Admittedly, despite my best efforts, my sale didn’t quite turn the profit that Jackie's did. For example, a set of golf clubs, for which JFK had originally paid $700, ultimately fetched over $772,000. I, on the other hand, watched in dismay as my husband sold one of my $80 silk blouses for 50 cents!
Nevertheless, although my sale garnered nowhere close to the estimated four million dollars that Jackie's sale earned, I did come away with a tidy little sum, which I promptly invested in a nice pair of jodhpurs. Turns out I really don’t have the thighs for them. (I just wish I’d realized it before I had that larger-than-life portrait made!)