Sunday, May 23, 2010

Yard Sale Shoppers

I wrote yesterday about the transitional nature of yard sales. If there is a trend among yard sale sellers, with yard sales occurring less frequently at some households or stopping altogether at others, yard sale shoppers don’t have to care. As it is, shoppers don’t have any hope of keeping up with all the yard sales. If the number of sales declined by a third, a dedicated yard sale shopper could adjust by shopping till 11 on a Saturday morning instead of noon, or driving a total of 30 minutes instead of 20, or spending 10 minutes poring over each sale instead of 5. It would be a barely noticeable change.

Besides, the more dedicated yard sale shoppers know they have to cut back on their purchases sooner or later. “Instead of being here shopping, I should be having my own sale,” one shopper commented to me yesterday. The shoppers I saw were more skeptical and selective than I saw a decade ago, and not because they didn’t have the money to spend. Yard sale items are priced at $1 and $2 partly because those are the prices that shoppers expect, but also in part because things wouldn’t sell in much larger volume at 10¢ and 25¢. Yard sale shoppers have to become as indifferent to prices as they are to retail branding, because even without spending enough money to notice, you could easily go home with a carload of stuff on a Saturday morning, and then where would you put it all?

Shoppers for years have known in an intellectual sense of the possibility of buying too much stuff, but now they know it in an operational sense. Yesterday I didn’t see any shopper going away from a sale with a bagful of purchases. Shoppers were holding themselves back, limiting their purchases in arbitrary ways to avoid accumulating too much at once. Some shoppers seemed to be limiting themselves to one item per sale, making an exception only if they found something extraordinary, but hardly anyone was buying more at any one sale than they could hold in their hands.

I came away with the feeling that I was seeing a threshold moment in the popular concept of consumer goods. Manufactured products are still seen as attractive, of course, but they have lost the presumption of value. Instead, the automatic reaction is that they are something you have to be careful about. You see this not just in the shoppers’ reluctance to buy, but also in the before and after pictures of a yard sale. A failed yard sale has sold one eighth of its items; a wildly successful one has sold three eighths. Either way, most of the items remain at the end of the day, to be recycled, donated to charity, or thrown away. This couldn’t happen if all these products had intrinsic value, but mass-manufactured products have become so plentiful that most of them are valueless unless they can be put in the right place. There is so much stuff that the familiar line, “I know I can find a place for this,” seems to have vanished.

“People weren’t buying practical household items,” one seller commented to me as a sale was closing. That was mostly true in what I saw, not just at that sale, but all day long. I could understand that from my own experience as a shopper. If I had needed a coffee mug or a dish towel, I could have found it at one of the first four sales I went to. But I didn’t need anything along those lines — I already had more housewares at home than I could use, and surely the same is true of everyone who has spent an hour at yard sales within the last year. At one sale, I bought a bread machine. I have one already, but I have been using it heavily for ten years and had started to wonder how much longer it will last. Bread machines must not have much scarcity value at yard sales either, because I bought a seemingly new bread machine at 1 p.m., very late in the day in yard sale terms, at 5 percent of its retail price — meaning other shoppers had been passing it by at that price all day long.

There has long been a debate among economists about whether consumers could ever reach a saturation point, so that there would be resistance to any further expansion in manufactured goods. From what I saw of yard sale sellers and buyers yesterday, I believe we are seeing the beginnings of that.