Business and Life Lessons from a Garage Sale

garage saleWe had a garage sale on Saturday. And as much as I dread the set-up, I always enjoy the real-life education in human behavior that I get at the sale.

We post signs the day before indicating the sale will start at 8 a.m. Inevitably, people start arriving at 7 a.m.

As I cheerfully (cough) start hauling out the goods, I’m greeted by the early birds, all clutching their precious Tim Hortons coffees and looking to bargain me into the ground.

Business Lesson 1 – Even when you don’t feel like smiling or being cheery, it’s a sales must. No one wants to deal with a frowning ogre, complaining about their customer arriving too early, or being a nuisance, even when they are. Plus, smiles will raise your own endorphin levels, and make you feel like a million bucks…or at least $25,000 per smile.

The first fellow is quick on the draw, scooping up an armload of stuff, and giving me the famous line: “I’ll give you ten bucks for this.” Despite slight rising temperature, I smile and say “Sure”.

Business Lesson 2 – Know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em. There are times for negotiation in business, and there are times to stand firm. Know the difference.

In the next flurry of activity, a woman and her daughter come up to me holding two items. The first, a pair of sconces with a slight crack, which I show them. The second, a belt with a slightly threadbare spot, but a beaut of a belt buckle.

“How much you want for these?”, she asks.

“Oh, I don’t know…how about $5?” I respond.

“For this cracked thing and this ratty old belt?” she barks. Besides wanting to grab both items out of her hands as I internally roar with rage and laughter at the same time, I say: “What do you want to give me?”  “A dollar fifty” she says. “Fine”, I say, as I wonder why on earth she wants the “cracked thing and ratty old belt”. Will wonders never cease.

Business Lesson 3 – Never let ’em see you sweat. Although I was raging inside at her rudeness, and at the same time killing myself laughing at the ludicrousness of someone wanting “cracked and ratty”, I held my composure. Getting annoyed at our customers does absolutely no good.

The most poignant moment of the day came after a shy young lad bought a hat and a boomerang (don’t even get me going on why I have a boomerang). He dutifully counted out his coins to me, and proudly started walking away. I noticed him stoop down to pick something up as he went back to his parents’ vehicle, but I figured he’d just dropped a coin.

At the same time, one of the fellows was reaching into his pocket to pay me for some golf balls and looked up a bit panic stricken and said: “I’ve dropped $20”. We looked around on the ground, and out of the corner of my eye I could see the young lad with his family all standing around their van, talking animatedly. A few seconds later, the young lad was walking back towards us, hand extended. In his hand was a $20 bill.

“I found this on the driveway”, he said.

The fellow thanked him, but no overboard thanks. I, however, saw this as a shining moment. I thanked him effusively, and told him to pick something out that he might like, free of charge.

“No, that’s OK”, he said.

“No, no, I insist: it’s perfectly all right. That was such a good and right thing to do, I want you to have something.”

“No, really: it’s OK”, he said.

I moved toward him and shook his hand and said: “What you did today shows what a fine young man you are. You did the right thing, and you will be rewarded many times over for your honesty.”

He just smiled at me, turned and walked back to his family.

BIG LIFE LESSON – Just when you think you’ve seen it all…when you’ve been disappointed, hurt or angered…someone will come into your life, restoring your belief in the fundamental goodness of human nature.

  • Anonymous

    Ok, I was going to say the correct response would have been ‘listen here you little punk, pick something out before I kick your butt’; or arse or whatever the heck they say in Canadian….. BUT, since is now your business site I won’t say that so please strike it from the record.

    It is always nice to have your faith restored in humanity from time to time; there really are some good, honest people still out there. Good to see you have some hanging in your neighborhood.

    Yard sells are funny because you will definitely see some characters. Our experience has been start at 7:00 am because they are going to be camping out from about 5:30 am on.

    I’m glad it was memorable enough to have a post about it. I struggled with my post idea this weekend because I know there are so many 9/11 tributes. I certainly will never forget but I don’t want to see those terrorist’s rejoice every time they see how much pain and misery it caused. 

    When you said a $20, is that like in pounds or something? 

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      Oh Bill, I’m so glad I can count on you to put a smile on my face:)  I love the “listen here you little punk” line: I’m LMAO!  And remember: this is a business and life site, since the two are inextricably bound:)

      I hesitated to post this today, and was going to wait until tomorrow, but then thought…a tribute to honesty, integrity and innocence was a good thing, especially at a time when we’re honoring all those who “did the right thing”.

      And the $20…Canadian…now I’ll make you guess who’s picture’s on a Canadian 20 buck bill. Always be yourself here Bill: that’s what we luv about you:) Cheers! Kaarina

    • Alicia M. Jay

      Bill, I think in Canada they add “eh?” or “ya hoser” on the end of the sentence for affect. 😉  😉

      • Anonymous

        That is so funny, because after I sent it that is exactly what I was thinking, eh?

        • Kaarina Dillabough


    • Adam Toporek

      Bill is right. The people that come early are a trip. Most of them are actually pros. It’s amazing how fast they can go through, pick out stuff, and know exactly what to pay. I learned after the first sale I ever did to be ready for them.

      I loved the story with the kid. I think @Brankica_U:disqus is right; it sounds like the parents made him go back — but either way you sent a great message. And hey, a lot of parents would not have made him do the right thing.


      • Kaarina Dillabough

        So true Adam. Even if it was the parents who “forced” the boy to come back and return the money, good for them. We need parents instilling values in young people from an early age.

        I, too, can spot those pros from a mile away (note I said mile, no Km:) They definitely breeze through quickly, and know exactly what they’re looking for. I don’t know if they think you’re so desperate you’ll take whatever they offer, or if they know you’re preoccupied with getting stuff out, but in any case, they’re pretty easy to spot. Especially when their truck or car is already loaded to the hilt with “stuff”, haha!

  • Betsy Cross

    Hey Kaarna, 
    I’m NEVER having a yard sale again! I can’t stand exposing myself to people’s attitudes. It’s not worth the time and energy. I hope it was worth it for you. You must have a lot of energy!  I’d love to put everything out for free, but no one tends to take the free stuff. So Maybe a 1hr. yard sale, everything for 25 cents just to save the trouble of having to haul it away.
    Love the little boy story. I wonder if he showed his mom and she told him to give it back?

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      Betsy, it’s so true: you need lots of energy, patience and stamina to not go crazy during a garage/yard sale. And you’re right about “Free”. We put a pile at the end of the driveway…furniture included…with a “Free. Help yourself” sign, and not a thing has moved. I’m hoping magic fairies will come in the night and put it all to good use, haha!

      You’re probably right about the mom/parent telling him to give it back. There was quite a family conference around the van. Regardless, he did return it with a humble smile, so I hope the lesson that “honesty’s the best policy” stays with him. Cheers!  Kaarina

  • Brankica | How to blog

    OK, I am sure you know I would tell the lady and her daughter to get the f*** off my lawn before I strangle her with the belt, right…

    I have never seen a yard sale until I moved to USA. I never bought anything in one for a few reasons: I can’t buy stuffed toys for Roma anymore cause she kills them in five minutes; I never find anything I need. 

    My first and a big a$$ yard sale is annual Peaches to Beaches sale in GA that is miles and miles long and I saw a beautiful set of chair side tables in one spot by by the time we turned around, 5 minutes later, they were sold. 

    I can’t wait to buy something in a yard sale finally! I just have to learn another thing we were never thought how to do back home – negotiate. 

    Love your story although I think the boy gave the money back only cause the parents made him, LOL

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      Brankica, I just lost my reply here, so testing first.

      • Soulati

        Wait, isn’t this your blog? You’re not supposed to have issues commenting. I had some problems last week with someone trying to comment, too. Same dealio.

        • Kaarina Dillabough

          I don’t know what’s going on! I’m figuring that all the talk about comment systems…Livefyre, disqus, commentluv et. al. has made my disqus jealous, haha! I’m frustrated but up until now I’ve had no probs. Livefyre’s starting to look good.

      • Anonymous

        I’ve hacked your site; every time you come up w/ a really good reply it automatically sends it to a file I have at my place so I can use it later…..just sayin’………

        • Kaarina Dillabough

          I will be arriving with my ninjas to recapture them. We will also be re-capturing the statue of David that slipped through our fingers the last time…mwahahahaha

    • Anonymous

      The f bomb, I love it and you would mean it too……………….:)

      • Alicia M. Jay

        That’s Brankica–tellin’ it like it is! :)

        • Brankica | How to blog

          You know me… If you need me to handle someone for you, you know I am your friend, just call :)

          • Ragnaork

            I’ll have to remember that too I’m way to laid back sometimes for my own good.

      • Brankica | How to blog

        And I would mean it when I would strangle her LOL

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      Brankica, I don’t know what’s going on here with disqus. I’ve tried three times to reply to your comment, so here goes number 4…test, test, test:)

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      OK Brankica, this is attempt number 5: keep fingers crossed:)

      I wish I’d had you hear to be my strong arm. I like your response to that lady much better than mine.

      I’m going to have to get you to come to my next garage sale (yikes! Did I just say “next”?) I’ll buy you lots of Tim Hortons coffee too:) (do you drink coffee?)

      I’m a terrible haggler. When I spent time in Greece, it was expected to haggle over prices. I was pitiful: I always paid what they were asking. It’s different in business. I’m able to negotiate there, with a clear head, no problem.

      And you’re probably right: the parents likely made the young boy come back with the money. But that’s OK. We need more parents like that, who will instil in children solid values and understanding of right and wrong.

      I’m now crossing my fingers that when I press “post”, this reply finally appears. Cheers! Kaarina

      • Brankica | How to blog

        I never negotiated in Greece either LOL It is just not in our upbringing, which is weird considering we were neighboring Greece for so long and were under Otoman empire for 5 centuries. You would think we would learn something like that LOL

        I am more than willing to come there and help with your next sale :)

        • Alicia M. Jay

          Ok, I think we should all come for the next one and make it a party!!

          • Kaarina Dillabough

            Agreed Alicia: I’m inviting you all to the next one:) Garage sale party sounds like a plan.

        • Kaarina Dillabough

          You are first on my list to contact the next time I need back up:)

          And I guess it’s just not in my nature either, to haggle over prices. Some people take for granted that everything’s negotiable. I have a friend who always seems to be able to finagle a deal (is finagle even a word?) Cheers! Kaarina

    • Craig McBreen

      Brankica. Okay, now have to check out your blog. I hope there is more salty language :)

      Kaarina, even if you were thinking what Brankica mentioned above, you were as cool as a cucumber, wondering why on earth she wanted the “cracked thing and ratty old belt”

      • Kaarina Dillabough

        In hindsight, it’s pretty darn funny!

        • Brankica | How to blog

          Craig, I am a very polite person on my blog, lol. You should see me in real life, that is where the fun starts haha

          Anyway, it was just their way of negotiating. I bet they do that all their lives. 

      • Anonymous

        She’s Serbian Secret Police; yes, she can get things done!

  • Jen Olney

    Isn’t amazing to see the human condition on display right in your own front yard? What a lovely young man and humility he showed in that moment. I am always amazed when we host such events. My take is always to be gracious and grateful for those who are willing to pay for my items. My husband is the one puts the price tags on each item and works the “sales” floor. For me, I’m always giving things away at these events since I see it as I don’t want to carry back into the house. 😉 But the business lesson are so important here. Thanks, Kaarina. Don’t get annoyed by the clients, be composed, be positive and success is surely to follow.

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      Jen, I maintain my outward composure even when I’m simmering inside, haha!

      I, too, am the “giveaway gal” in most instances in garage sales. I’m happier for items to find a new home. It isn’t about making money (although I do love to make money!): the first priority is to clear clutter, and hopefully find people who will treasure the pieces they buy as I once treasured them myself.

      That young man, as well as the one who was the dog walker in my Business Lessons from a Ten Year Old will remain etched in memory. Cheers! Kaarina

  • Alicia M. Jay

    We have a BIG neighborhood yard sale every year in our development. The early birds come about an hour before start time as well. Last year I was still literally opening my garage door to bring out the tables. As soon as the door began to go up, a man came right in underneath of it to snoop around. I bet you can imagine what I wanted to tell him’) I put the effort in every year not to make tons of extra cash but to get rid of stuff we don’t really need or want. We have what we call the “vultures.” They will start to circle the block at the end of the yard sale hour. They eagerly await all the “free”signs that are posted as we give up on making any more sales. As soon as you post “free” on those tables and walk away, they will be there to scoop up their treasures.

    It’s great that in your moment of frustration and annoyance a little boy was there to show you the good in people:)

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      Alicia, somehow my reply to you got lost in the ether, just as it did with Brankica’s. Something’s up with disqus, so I will try again:)

      It’s funny…we get lots of early birds, but no post-sale vultures. We put many things at the end of our driveway at the end of the day, with big “FREE” signs, but only a very few takers. I think people can be leery of “free”…they think there must be some catch. But that’s so weird, because they’ll haggle the heck out of you to save a dime, but not swoop in for the freebies. Too funny!

      And yes…that little boy made my day:) Cheers! Kaarina

  • Nic Cartwright

    yard sales are fun…..  had my first one a few weeks ago – and liked it so much we did it again the very next day…..
    Might have been something to do with the fact that we still had loads of “absolute tat” (to use the technical term) to sell.  
    The human interaction at a level that you don’t normally experience is worth it easily….  Your blog brought a smile to my face as I recongized many of the same folk…  Maybe they are on a yard buying tour of the county!!

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      Isn’t absolutely the most interesting exercise in human behavior? It would make for a great little collection of anecdotes to capture all those yard sale experiences from across the country. “Tales of a Yard Sale”…the good, the bad and the ugly, haha! Cheers! Kaarina

  • Method vs Madness

    The early ones are your most serious buyers, garage sale scouts I suppose.

    We had one when I was a kid and my mum didn’t let the early-birds in but we had more of them than we had visitors over the day. Big mistake!

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      There’s no doubt that there are two ways of handling those early birds: telling them to come back later (they won’t), or letting them barge in (they will).

      I wonder if they’d expect to get in early at a retail store, haha! Cheers! Kaarina

  • Kim Davies

    Hi, Kaarina. 

    I needed this today. Although this doesn’t really apply to my situation right now, I am sucker for stories that show that there is still goodness out there somewhere.

    Was about to send you an email of something I wrote on my cellphone last night as I was crying my eyes out. I don’t know if I should send it to you now. You are so sparkly and cheery and so full of positive vibes that I am ashamed of what I am feeling now.

    Oh, what I am doing, blabbing here? :( Will come back to put in a better comment when I’m feeling a bit better.  

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      Kim, you just send that right along to me: you know you can lean on me anytime. Never be ashamed of your feelings: if you’re feeling them, they are real and need to be dealt with.  We need to talk, my soul-sister friend:) Cheers! Kaarina

  • Life, for instance

    I LOVE going to yard sales! But I don’t like HAVING them! LOL I’m not very good at bartering. But I love the treasures you can find at these places! But I digress!
    I like how you derive business lessons from this experience. Garage sales are an excellent opportunity to observe human nature!
    P.S. Did you make any money at it? It sounds like you were very generous!

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      We did quite well for an honest day’s work, Lori:) Although there were many give-aways, there was enough action and traction to make the day all worthwhile. And of course, the entertainment value was priceless! Cheers! Kaarina

  • Soulati

    I love  #2 and then I just read Brankica first line and roared. OMG. Your lesson in business is PATIENCE, Kaarina! I have sworn off garage sales; no more ever in my life even if I’m down and out in Beverly Hills. Not worth it, and I can give my really good ratty stuff to Vietnam Vets who come and pick it up and have a hay day pricing it and making a buck.

    You’re right, we can always learn business and customer service lessons in the most mundane of ways.

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      Isn’t Brankica’s line the best?!

      Yes, my friend, patience is a virtue, in business and in life:) I do donate lots of things to our Humane Society, Salvation Army, and other charitable organizations, but sometimes it’s nice to de-clutter right in the driveway…despite the “challenging” customers.  Cheers! Kaarina

      • Brankica | How to blog

        Patience is one virtue I will never have  :)

  • The JackB

    I obviously wasn’t there, but that woman made me think of negotiating and not manners. If I want to buy something from you I am going to try and minimize exposing my level of interest.

    That ratty old thing held enough interest for her to pick it up and talk to you. If she really thought it was junk she wouldn’t have picked it up. 

    It also occurs to me that some cultures won’t buy without negotiating. I used to mark up my price 30% on some items before talking to people because I knew that business wouldn’t happen without haggling.

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      That’s so true, Jack. I mentioned in my comment to Brankica that when I was in Greece, near the Plaka, it was expected to haggle. I simply stunk at that. I always paid what was asked, much to the displeasure of the people with me, who were bargaining up a storm!

      The thing that doesn’t translate into print is also the tone of voice and facial expression she had: priceless! Ah well, live and learn:) Cheers! Kaarina

  • Craig McBreen


    First off, you Canadians are a bit too polite. I do know, I visit Victoria and Vancouver all the time and in-between saying “Eh” and chugging Molsons, they can be the nicest people on the planet … unless hockey is involved, of course :)

    But seriously, I can see your cool, calm demeanor shine through in this post, just glad you didn’t resort to Clint Eastwood style violence (Bill) or profanity (Brankica) but let the inner-Canadian take over. Kinda zen-like, … eh?

    I’ll fess up, I have never, ever been to a yard sale, but have cursed at people for jamming on their brakes in the middle of the road when they do see one (insert any common profanity here). I simply can’t imaging running my own yard sale. Hats off to ya for putting up with that.

    It was nice to see there are still good, honest people out there though. I honestly thought the kid was going to pocket the money.

    Boomerang … Cool :)

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      Yes, we Canadians do get labelled as “too polite”, and I agree with the label:) I often blame my “polite Canadian/stoic Finn” heritage for my over-the-top ability to just suck it up and calmly accept. It’s a great trait in most instances, but I like the @Brankica_U:disqus  response so much better in this instance, haha!

      So, I’ll now go chug some Molson’s, eh? Cheers! Kaarina

      • Craig McBreen

        I like Brankica’s shot too, but I’d do exactly what you did, well … with a bit less patience.  Chug away, eh!? Cheers to you.

        • Kaarina Dillabough

          Same back at’cha;)

  • Marianne Worley

    I’m always amazed by the determination of the early-bird garage sale customers. I guess it’s the same in Canada as it is here. My stepmom had people lined up almost two hours before she opened for business on the first day of her 2-day sale. Some folks are so hungry for a bargain that they forget their manners entirely. (Or perhaps they’re just big jerks all the time!) 

    I used to have the same kind of experiences when I worked at a department store. I’d have terrible days when customers would yell at me or frustrate me to near tears, but I’d keep smiling. Invariably, a kind soul would show up and treat me like a human being instead of a servant. And I would decide to show up for work the next day. Life gives you what you need when you least expect it.

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      What a fabulous line, Marianne: “Life gives you what you need when you least expect it.”  I guess we’re able to tolerate and surmount the bad behavior of others when we experience that simple act of kindness, generosity or politeness.

      I shared with the JackB a little story of a boy who sees a huge pile of manure behind a barn, and is delighted by it. When asked why he’d be happy about a poop pile, he responds:

      “With all the s*#t, there must be a pony around here somewhere!”

      To finding the ponies:) Cheers! Kaarina

  • Stuart Mills

    Sorry I’m late to the party Kaarina, I had the small matter of a holiday in Nice to sort out. Needless to say, it was worth it 😉

    Amazing what wisdom you can get from a yard sale isn’t it? Much more than the standard ‘I need to get rid of my crap’ mentality that most people adopt 😉
    I think the first point, about putting on a front even when you don’t feel like it, can have great effects to your confidence. Actions always have more weight than thoughts, and by doing actions that represent someone who’s happy/confident/doesn’t mind the crap that some people spout, you can alter your thoughts to follow suit.

    Great read Kaarina, thanks :-)

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      Stuart, I hope you had an amazing vacation:)

      It’s certainly an exercise in patience and self-control to not allow others’ rude behavior “get to you”…at least externally. As my mother would always say: “Two wrongs don’t make a right”. Cheers! Kaarina

  • Ameena Falchetto

    This is hilarious!! I am a big fan of these kind of sales – in France they are usually table top sales held in a school yard or in a field.  I love taking all my junk and getting rid of it – it’s a very therapeutic cleaning out the cupboards. BUT YES! It’s an incredibly important lesson in customer service and sales. I makes me realise just how determined and accommodating I can be when someone is offering me 50 cents for something clearly worth a lot more.

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      I agree, Ameena, it’s very therapeutic to “clear the clutter”.

      I always laugh at my husband because he’ll try to say what something is “worth”. My comment to him is always: “It’s worth what the customer wants to pay for it.”  And although that can sometimes (often?) be irritating, especially when someone is being rude in their offer, value, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Cheers! Kaarina

  • Klaudia

    As Brankica I was not used to garage sales after I’ve seen them in the States.
    I think you need to have a lot of patience to handle it. Negotiations – great idea tho I have a lot to learn in that department (knowing me I would give away everything for free…geeeezz).

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      Ah Klaudia, sometimes I do give away things for free, especially to young ones who have their eyes on a little “treasure”…or to someone who loads up with lots of items, never complaining about the price. I always say to them I’ll give them a deal, the more that they buy.

      You do need lots of patience, lots of coffee (sometimes with a little Baileys in the coffee. oops! did I just say that? :))) Cheers! Kaarina

  • Erica Allison

    Hi Kaarina! I love these business lessons! That number 2 is a kicker! I’ve begun to get much better at knowing when to stand firm and when to negotiate; it’s tough, but it’s worth it. I think the best indicator that I need to listen to is my instinct! Go with your gut, right? 

    I also like Never let them see you sweat. My mom is a pro at this.  I’ll bet you are as well.  Excellent lessons here, Kaarina! 

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      Thanks Erica: always trust your gut:) Thanks for dropping by. Cheers! Kaarina

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  • Ragnaork

    Some people can just be vicious when it comes to barging and say some pretty vicious comments. While the overall theme is usually the customer is always right sometimes it makes you want to throw the item at them because they just try to get on your nerves on purpose. They also use it as a tactic making you feel like what you have isn’t worth anything when they really want it. So a key thing to remember is don’t buy into what they say. Simply tell them that if they really don’t want it for 5 dollars you are sure that someone else will buy it. Then if they really do want it they won’t wait and they will end up buying it from you.

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      Couldn’t have said it better: you are spot on! Cheers! Kaarina

  • Jk Allen

    Awesome lessons Kaarina!

    I can associate with each of these…big time.

    Lesson 1: being likable. No one wants to deal with someone they don’t like. No matter product or service. There’s a level in comfort when dealing with people we like.

    I’m a people person, so I naturally try to adapt to the situation and always try to be the in the space of good energy…even if I don’t feel up to it sometime. It’s a responsibility to success. It is what it is.

    Great lessons Kaarina – thanks for sharing!

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      So happy to see you here Jk, and thanks so much for taking the time to comment: I really appreciate it!

      I’m a people person too, and I also feel a responsibility to put my best foot and face forward, even when I don’t feel like it. As a matter of fact, it’s probably even more important to do so when we don’t feel like it.

      Why drag others down? Why have a gloom and doom attitude? Why buy into others’ misery?

      I agree: “It’s a responsibility to success”. Thanks again for chiming in:) Cheers! Kaarina