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Monday, August 8, 2011

Estate sale etiquette

A few days ago, my SIL went to an estate sale. He usually gets to promising sales very early, but he had overslept a bit and was fifth in line. Ahead of him was one dealer he knows, and a few places behind him were a couple of regular customers at our shop, but he didn't recognize anyone else. The wait in line was uneventful. Conversation was pleasant, and it looked as if everyone would probably walk away with some great buys.

The first person in line was a well-built, good looking young man about 6'3" who appeared to be in his early 20s. He didn't join into any of the pre-sale banter and wasn't remotely on anyone's mid-century radar. Pictures online had included lots of outdoor gear and Marine Corps memorabilia, and if anyone had really been paying attention to the kid, they probably would have thought that was what he was there to buy

Moments before the sale began, he started stretching, flexing his muscles and doing a nose-breathing routine like an athlete before an event and then almost knocked down the older sale worker who opened the door. He left the front porch like a shot, literally running through the house at flat-out speed, vaulting over things and grabbing tags as he covered what was obviously a well-planned route.

Other sale attendees were so shocked by his behavior that they watched from the doorway in disbelief as the kid careened wildly from spot to spot, arms pumping, almost knocking over items and ignoring workers as they yelled at him to slow down and let others inside. In a matter of seconds, he was standing at the checkout table panting...with a fistful of tags from all the good mid-century items everyone had stood in line to buy.

Unanimously, everyone expressed outrage, including the estate sale workers, who apologized and said they would figure out a way to keep this sort of behavior from ever happening again. The consensus was that it's fair to scope out a house, look in a few windows when you get there to get the lay of the land, study the sale ads and photographs and come thoroughly prepared. It's also fair to enter the house and make your way through at a fast clip, even doing a little unintentional jostling in the process...but not OK to run through the house like a linebacker, ready to knock down anyone who gets in your way and making it impossible for anyone else to come inside and have even a remote chance to get anything good. Everyone there agreed that this tactic was way over the top and that they'd never seen anything like it in all their years of going to sales.

Here are a few of the pieces the kid got...and was later seen loading into the truck of an older man. Incidentally, the most expensive item was the sectional, which sold for $50. Everything else went for $25-30...even the desk.

Are there some unspoken rules that apply/should apply to estate sale behavior? What is acceptable...and what isn't? Was the outrage justified...or just sour grapes?


  1. I never reach any sale before 12 om never see good stuff :)..but this is interesting..he must be well trained!

  2. @Sudha: Yes, very well trained...and the speculation was that he was likely very well paid for what he did.

  3. The name of the game is fairness. If I show up earlier, I have demonstrated that I REALLY want to be here, moreso than someone that arrives later. If you try to game the system by basically bum-rushing an estate sale, that's not fair to people who showed up earlier.
    The people who behave like that can't really be stopped unless the person running the estate sale is willing to intervene. It really sounds like he won't be invited back.

  4. I've actually seen this happen at a sale. It was a group of four, the mother was a dealer and she brought two of her 20-something children and one of their boyfriends. They spread out and attacked the mid-century furniture like an armada.

    I have a personal story that is both rude behavior and kind of funny. An older gent with a cane once used said cane to whack my friend on the side of her hip when he wanted her to move. We had a pretty good laugh about it actually but it was super rude.

  5. I agree that it really does boil down to civility and a sense of fair play...and responsible behavior. If someone rushed a store like that at a mall, employees would probably call security. When you're being so physical that someone could get hurt, you've crossed the line.

  6. Well, I have to say it's sour grapes. I've been to many an estate sale and seen many prized items get snatched well before the line even started moving where I was at. Early bird gets the worm. Plain and simple.

    And being first in line doesn't guarantee you'll get what you came for. You've got to play the game and start grabbing tags and be quick. If you don't you will miss out. This is business, both for those who are selling and those who are buying, this is not a place to make friends (though you can).

    I've learned my lesson. I show up SUPER early if I've seen something I want and come out of the gates like a race horse, though I respect the seller and those around me who deserve it. Seems like this is "de rigueur" around here. Looks like the SIL will have to step up his game!

    I have to ask though, if the SIL had been in line first would he have left any of those AMAZING deals in his wake for the #2 spot? I wouldn't have, and unapologetically so. Does this make me a jerk?

    And wouldn't he have been peeved if the second or third in line had zipped around him and snatched up all but the first AMAZING deal nearest the door?

  7. PS, I might have tripped his butt and suffered the justifiable beating to get that McCobb desk!

  8. We're learning that you gain access to a higher quality of merchandise in the long run if you concentrate on building a network of other dealers rather than making enemies. Dealers have a tendency to trade information, merchandise and favors with people they feel have treated them fairly...and go out of their way to leave the jerks high and dry. It's called playing smarter than harder. :)

  9. @Flo: The cane thing does make a funny story, but I agree that it was incredibly rude. Some older people think they have a license to act like jerks and call it being eccentric. He deserved to have that cane yanked out of his hand. Misuse it and lose it, I say. :)

    I'm not sure I have a huge problem with several people showing up together at a sale, as long as they're not strong-arming the other customers. I'm not against robust competition...just against taking it over the top so that fair competition isn't possible.

  10. I'm rolling my eyes at the guy, picturing him stretching and doing nose-breathing exercises. Really?! What is that? Too funny.

    I've witnessed this crazed shopping approach myself and it is annoying but what can we do? I suppose he has the right to run and grab but I do think there is a line of decency. Don't be pushing, running and causing a commotion or endangering other people. He sounds out of line if the sale's operators were telling him to slow down.

    I must have met this guy's twin a couple weeks back: I got to the sale first and this guy wandered up 10 minutes before it started. It was outdoors so there was a rope to be cut before anyone could enter. He jumped the rope to get in front of me and nearly knocked me down to grab a phone stand and small table I had been planning to pick up. I figure if he's fine acting like that and almost knocking down a pregnant woman to get a phone stand, so be it, that's him. I could never behave that way.

  11. @Rhan: I'm sure we all agree that people have to go into an estate sale and hustle to get what they want. It's no place for people who are afraid to get bumped and jostled a little.

    But jumping the rope to cut in line, forearming elderly people out of the way and nearly knocking down pregnant women...all that is way beyond the pale. You nailed it when you used the word "decency." Like you, I can't imagine putting enough value on anything at an estate sale to justify that kind of behavior.

  12. You know, the sellers could go a long way toward rectifying this entire issue. They could institute rules such as one large item tag per person per trip to the register or no tag must bring the item up to to the register.

    These are just off the cuff ideas but you get the gist. They need to come up with a way for more than the first person in the house to be able to get some of the good stuff! Another option that seems to be gaining traction is tp
    o price everything so high that only the most ardent buyer would snatch it up on the first day.

  13. Hi Dana,

    This estate sale was handled by my parents, Treasures4U Estate Sales. I'm their daughter - the one called last week asking for you and spoke with your SIL about the living room furniture and desk. Even though I ocassionally help out and attend their sales, I was unable to attend this one, although I spoke with my mom afterwards on Friday and she told me what happened.

    First off, I'd just like to say that I do not (nor do my parents) at all believe the customers who were upset by this man's actions are "sour grapes". Estate sales are first come, first served just like anywhere else, but the golden rule still applies just like anywhere else. I, like most others were, was taught by my parents to show common courtesy to others. This guy was clearly discourteous and inconsiderate to everyone who was there Friday morning. When my mom told me about what had happened I was peeved, to say the least, and felt bad, as did my mom and dad that your SIL was unable to purchase the livingroom set or the desk. Although my parents, also "baby boomers", are not big fans of MCM decor and furishings (they say it's just retro stuff they grew up with and they've seen it all a million times - shocking, I know), I love it and was personally looking forward to seeing that seating arrangement refinished and up for sale on the Mid2Mod website.

    At any rate, I am so glad you have posted about this and you make a very good point. As others have commented, this type of thing is unfortunately not uncommon at estate sales and as you pointed out, in this type of business word of mouth goes a long way. My parents have worked long and hard for over a decade to build and maintain their reputation as a reputable, friendly and fair estate sale company and although I'm sure they would have liked to, prohibiting sale to this guy or others like him, would be bad for business. I do not know whether or not it is possible to establish rules or guidelines at estate sales in an effort to prevent this type of thing from happening while still maintaining fairness to all customers. However, I do agree that it's worth exploring further. I have not yet shared this post with my parents, but I have no doubt that they will appreciate your feedback and comments here, as I do.

    BTW, I've been reading your blog as time has allowed for awhile now and I'm a big fan.

    Denise Vilim

  14. @Denise: Thank you so much for commenting on this post.

    From what Joe told me, no one was upset with your parents at all. In fact, they felt that they were just as much the victims of the young man's bad behavior as any of the customers were. Your parents did all they could to try to control the young man's actions, but it all happened so quickly that I think it caught everyone off guard and no one quite knew what to do about it.

    I have several friends who conduct estate sales, and they're about the same age as your parents and I. I don't know how they could have handled the situation any better than your parents did.

    It's a tough question, but it's something I felt we should discuss. Maybe it will someday be necessary for estate sale companies to limit the number of large items a person can buy per register visit, like Mr. Modtomic suggested. I really don't have an answer, but I think the dialog has been good.

    Your parents had some beautiful items at their sale, and we would've loved to have some of them in our store, and we will definitely watch your parents' ads and try again. Please be assured that my post was in no way a criticism of them or their company...just the one customer whose behavior was out of line.

    I hope our discussion today has provided us all with food for thought.

  15. @Denise again: I forgot to thank you for the kind words about my blog. I appreciate your following it, and I hope to get to meet you someday soon! :)

    Please comment often. With your family experience in the estate sale business, I'm sure you have lots to share.

  16. Estate sales in the New York Tri-State area are so highly competitive that I don't even bother going...

  17. @Jonathan: We still go, but we get most of the merchandise for our shop from other sources. A few estate sale companies have started having pre-sale nights by invitation for select dealers, and while that might not please the shopper who buys for personal use, it's nice for the dealers and profitable for the companies.

  18. Good morning Dana,
    Thank you for your kind words. I don't at all feel like your post was in any way critical of my parents or their business and I agree that this is good food for thought because it is something all estate sales have to deal with from time to time. I've been giving some thought to Mr. Modtomic's "large item purchases" suggestion, as well, on how something like that could be implemented. We've all seen how crazy these sales can be, especially in those first few hours and setting guidelines is not a bad idea. But, you're absolutely right, it is difficult because my parents, as well as many other estate sale owners, do try to be accomodating and do not wish to inconvenience their customers, the majority of who are also fair-minded.
    I forwarded this post to my parents last night, and haven't had a chance to talk to them yet this morning, but am anxious to hear their thoughts since they are the true experts. But, whether changes can be made or not, I'm glad you posted about this and brought attention to it for the sake of all estate sale companies and their customers. I will keep you and fellow readers posted of new developments should there be any.
    I would love to meet you and Joe in person, as well, and am planning on visiting your shop once my kiddos go back to school week after next. My mom said she recognized Joe from previous sales they've had, so who knows, it might ba a reunion. haha I am anxious to see all of your gorgeous goodies!
    Btw, I was looking through the photos you posted of your home on the HGTV (I think) website. It is stunning! I am so jealous!

    Thanks again,

  19. I'm tasting the sour grapes! I think that pre-sales to cronies is bad business. It's not so bad if if the seller doesn't list or show pics of the pre-sold items on their ads but I still don't like it. But, that's business. The sellers aren't trying to make buddies with me. They are trying to empty the house and make a buck. If I find that a seller has pre-sold items before the sale I'd keep that in mind when looking for sales to go to on the weekend. If I go to a sale, am first in line and find the item or items I saw in an ad and came out so early for have already been sold...I'd tell everybody I know how disreputable that seller is and never go to another one of their sales.

    I don't even know if the "one large item or ticket" idea would work. The "serious" buyers would just show up with a dozen "hired guns" and spread out like ants to clean the place out. The only way it would seem for the common buyer to get anything good is to fight fire with fire.

  20. It's not just the young. I was at a antique warehouse in Georgia about ten years ago that was open to the public one Sat a month. I have never seen old people move so fast. I got shoved aside a couple times by old ladies bum rushing tags. It was actually pretty funny, I was humming the Benny Hill theme song under my breath as I leisurely strolled around.

  21. Oh, and on the idea of buyers etiquette...Leave Your Children At Home. Estate sales are crowded enough. Homes are not planned around having 30 people milling around in them. If a body is not there to buy or sell it's just in the way. Maybe sellers should start charging buyers five bucks to let children under 12 in!

  22. I was at a sale recently where a guy was kind of like that. He wasn't rude about it like your guy sounded but he did rush through at a very fast pace. I found it a little strange but since he wasn't rude or running into anyone it didn't bug me too much. Plus he didn't really buy anything. I am almost never at sales at opening time so I don't know if that usually happens around here or not. It would bug me a LOT more to wait for a sale and then find out dealers were allowed in specially the night before. I would definitely boycott any estate companies that did that. I'm all for dealers getting deals and making money but I want my shot at some good finds too! And as for letting kids in - I would almost never be able to go to a sale if I couldn't bring my kids in. As long as they are well behaved I don't see the problem. My kids often buy more at sales than I do! Mr. Mod - you will be changing your tune on that if you ever have kids!

  23. This has turned out to be a more emotionally charged topic than I expected.

    Our shop is new, so we aren't on any "crony lists," and it wouldn't be fun to find out we had stood in line for hours to buy something that had been scooped up the night before...but I can understand why some estate sale dealers find it advantageous to reward their frequent buyers who have big bucks. Money is often no object for the high-end dealers, and selling to them guarantees that fewer items will be sold for half price on the last day...and I guess this is no different from the big chain department stores sending out pre-sale invitations to their good credit card customers.

    A close friend of mine who holds estate sales was just telling me this morning about a man who knocked down a 75-year-old lady she hires to help watch for shoplifters.

    Specific business practices may be debatable, but I still maintain that no item at an estate sale is worth people getting hurt over. I think we can all agree about that.

  24. Dana - "no item at an estate sale is worth people getting hurt over. I think we can all agree about that" Well of course! I do not in any way condone seriously aggressive behavior, but being a pushover ain't gonna help you score any goodies either. And you are right, this does spark some emotion. I love that we are hearing all different kinds of views from all different perspectives on the topic. That is what the comments section is all about! I'm glad this didn't turn into an "I know, I hear ya, You know it!" fest.

    If this little posting helps one little estate sale company derive a more innovative way of doing business that more buyers like and appreciate, maybe more sellers will take notice and adopt similar practices! I doubt that this will in any way influence the highly aggressive buyers. They'll never believe they have anything to gain by being "fair". Anybody remember a little company called Enron? The Smartest Guys In The Room is a real eye opener. It's a good rent or Netflix.

  25. Interesting post. I have gone presales. I also have been invited by estate sale companies where the house/estate is just too small to hold a public estate sale so they email dealers with different interest(I am the kitchen,sewig, linens, craft items lady) and everyone is happy.

    I do reselling on a part time basis and maybe thats why I am not as aggressive as some people. My thinking is that there will always be another sale next week.

  26. @Sraikh: I agree with you that there's always next week. Aggressive behavior really isn't necessary.