Yesterday I shopped at my first consignment sale of the season. I saw a lot of people make what I think is the #1 mistake of consignment sale shopping, but also learned a great new trick — both of which made me realize that I had to write this post sooner rather than later!
As someone who has volunteered and shopped at over a dozen consignment sales, I’ve made a bunch of mistakes myself. Now that I have a pretty good idea of the “Do’s” and “Don’ts” of scoring big at consignment sales, I hope you can learn from my mistakes so you don’t have to make them yourself.
As with all suggestions you hear from well-meaning people, if it doesn’t work for you and your family, then just ignore it. But these are the most successful strategies and the biggest mistakes I’ve seen at consignment sales over the years.
How to Score BIG at Consignment Sales:
Do: Sign up for the Pre-Sale. You will get the best bargains.
If you’ve been to a consignment sale before but never been to the Pre-Sale, you may be surprised to see what you missed before. The experts shop at the Pre-Sale. You can get a pass by volunteering, consigning, being pregnant or a new mom, paying an entrance fee, or mooching off of a friend who has a guest pass 😉
Do: Dress appropriately and carry a big bag. Your body will thank you for it.
Assess what kind of comfortable clothes are appropriate for the sales floor. My favorite sale is in an unheated sports complex. One year, I could see my breath as I shopped. I was freezing, and I left before I could shop in all of the different sections. Yesterday’s sale was in a cramped cafeteria with no air conditioning, and I was glad I wore capris and a loose shirt, because I was sweaty within the first 20 minutes (being pregnant doesn’t help of course!)
Wear comfortable shoes. You will be on your feet for at least two hours. There will be a lot of stuff to look through and a long line at the end.
Bring a big bag you can sling over your shoulder or a very compact shopping cart you can wheel around (if they are allowed). I have seen people shopping with laundry baskets, but those always seem awkward and hard to carry for long periods of time. Bring a bag you don’t mind putting on the ground while you wait in line.
Do: Have a plan. You will avoid buyer’s remorse
Make a list of items you plan to need or want over the next six to eight months. If this includes clothes, take an inventory of what you will need, including the size and color of the items. If this includes strollers, include the features that you want instead of the brand, because it’s unlikely that you’ll find the exact stroller you’ve been eyeing.
Once you have your list, identify the items that are in high demand and go to that section as soon as you walk in the door. The high demand items, in order, are:
- Toys with long lifespans, like play kitchens and LEGO tables
- Winter jackets, snow pants, and rain jackets
- Halloween Costumes
- High value toys like Thomas trains and tracks and LEGOs
- Safety gates
The best deals are usually gone by the time the sale opens to the public. So, if any of these items are on your list, go straight past the clothes, puzzles, jumperoos and activity tables. If you volunteer before the sale opens, browse through those high-demand sections to see if there is anything in particular you want to get. Then make a bee-line when you get in the door.
Do: Set reasonable expectations
I once bumped into friends at a consignment sale who were looking for “baby Uggs” and were disappointed not to find them there. Sure, someone, somewhere, may have consigned Uggs at a consignment sale — but it’s incredibly unlikely that they did it at that very sale.
Many consignment sales will not sell used cribs, crib mattresses, car seats, or car seat bases. It is generally recommended that you buy these items new, and many sales do not want to accept liability for selling a product that has been recalled. Some states don’t allow resale of crib mattresses. Don’t expect these items to be at your next consignment sale.
Consignment sales are great places to find items that are common and typically used for a short period of time. Infant clothes, toys, and gear are prime products for consignment sales because many new moms buy items new and many infant items are used for only a few months at a time. Here are the most likely items you’ll find at consignment sales:
- Special occasion dresses
- Wooden puzzles
- Bouncy chairs
- Infant swings
- Infant tubs
- High chairs and booster seats
- Infant bedding
- Infant carriers (Moby, Baby Bjorn, etc.)
- Feeding items — bottles, dishwasher racks, plates and utensils
- Safety gear — outlet plugs, wall anchors, etc.
- Clothes — from 12 months to 3T are usually the best selection. Some sales don’t accept infant clothing because they don’t sell well (due to fewer shoppers targeting that size), but if you’re in the market for infant clothes, seek out a consignment sale that accepts them and you will have a lot of luck!
Aside from clothes, I would never buy any of these items new because I know I can find them at a consignment sale for 40 to 70% off of retail. Yesterday, I got a fleece SwaddleMe blanket for $2. 80% off of retail! I also paid $10 for an infant tub — more than I expected to spend, but 40% less than retail.
Do: Double-check your purchases. All sales are final!
My favorite consignment sales reject stained clothes and make efforts during the sale to pull them off of the sales floor if someone finds stained clothing. Other sales, like yesterday’s, puts everything on the sales floor regardless of condition. If you’ve run into a few items that are obviously stained, then you know you’re at a sale where you should double- and triple-check the clothing’s condition. Yesterday, I had to put back 75% of the clothes I picked out because, on double-check, they were stained.
For clothing, I grab the clothes I like and before checking out, do a double-check. Here is what I look for on my double-check:
- Go to the best source of natural light and check the chest, knees, and bums for stains
- All buttons, zippers, snaps, and elastics still work
- The size on the label is the size on the tag (or the size that I want to buy)
- Indications that the clothing has been tailored, which would change the size of the item
For other items:
- Toys: Push all the buttons to make sure that the toy works.
- Puzzles and Books: Check the packaging and tag to make sure that removing them won’t rip the book or picture. I once bought a wooden puzzle that was taped together and when I removed the tape, all the pictures were ripped off. Lesson learned.
- Bedding, Boppys, Clothing: Sniff it and check for pet hair.
Do: Shop with a partner. You will save time and money.
The check-out lines can get really long. I’ve waited for an hour to check out in some lines. Yesterday I saw a couple implement a brilliant strategy. The husband stood in line while the wife shopped and stopped by periodically to drop off more items she had found. This will only work if the person you’re shopping with isn’t there to shop herself. Before you go, ask your mom or spouse if they want to tag along and help you out. If they say no, ask them to at least take over childcare duties while you go. (See below!)
The tag-team approach works particularly well where the sale has two rooms of inventory and you need to make your purchase in one room before you can move on to the next room. When you’re done in the first room, leave your companion with the items and move on while he or she waits in line and pays.
It helps even to meet a friend at the sale. You can hold her place in the entrance line if she’s late or give her your guest pass from volunteering (and vice versa). She will also be there to give you a second opinion on your spur-of-the-moment purchases.
Don’t Make These Common Mistakes:
Don’t: Be late. You will be picking through the leftovers.
I’ve been to court late more times than I’ve showed up late to a consignment sale. At court, at least there is a “second call” to make sure all parties are there. With consignment sales, there are no second chances — the early birds get the highest quality items at the lowest prices. If you are looking for a high demand item, and you show up late, you’re not going to find it.
Don’t: Forget your cash. It might save you time.
My favorite consignment sale has a “cash only” line, and it always has a much shorter wait time than the registers that accept credit cards. Whatever you think you’ll spend, take twice as much with you to your next sale. It’s better to be safe than sorry — you might find a Thomas train table for $25 and wouldn’t want to come up short.
Don’t: Put off looking for the “big” items. The best deals will be gone quickly.
You may be deterred from looking at the big items first because you don’t want to have to lug the item around with you while you shop. Most sales have solved that problem by using a tag that rips in half, so if you want to “claim” that item, you rip off the bottom of the tag and take that to the register with you. The item stays on the selling floor, but no one can buy it out from under you because it’s missing a barcode. Other sales have a “hold” section where you can place big items while you shop.
Some sales have a different room for big items and you have to check out before going to the main selling floor, with clothing and smaller toys. Once you check out of that room, there will be a place to put the item on hold while you shop in the other room. So, don’t let that checkout line deter you if you have a high demand item on your list, because you will likely get “stuck” in the main part of the sale (there will be a lot of clothes and toys to look through) and never see the bike that you were hoping to buy. If you find a good deal on a pricey item, you’ll save a lot more money than if you find a few good deals on less expensive items.
Don’t: Go over your price point. Avoid buyers’ remorse by setting firm guidelines.
I have certain price points for clothing, and budgets for toys. For used gear, my price point is usually 20% below retail because I assume that I can get whatever it is for at least 20% off at Babies R Us or Buy Buy Baby. As the need for the item approaches, of course, my price point goes up. For example, if it’s a month before Halloween and the costume I want is $5 more than I wanted to pay — but still $15 less than retail — then I’ll get it. If I’m looking at a pair of snow pants that won’t fit Little Stapler until next winter, my price point will be lower. If in doubt, I won’t buy the item, because I have another year to find something within my price range.
The number #1 most common mistake:
Don’t: Shop with children. You will be less intentional with your purchases.
If you can avoid it, don’t bring your children to a consignment sale. At best, you’ll get out of the sale with only one extra item that your child has to have right this minute. At worst, you will have a panicked moment or two or three where you’ve lost your child in the hustle and bustle of the crowd. For a kid, going in to a big consignment sale is like going into a new playroom. Few of the toys are in boxes, so in a child’s eyes, they’re ready to be played with. What’s more, there will be so many people and great hiding places for kids that it will be difficult to find your child if she or he wanders off.
If you can’t avoid bringing your children, don’t bring a stroller. The aisles get packed with people and it’s difficult to maneuver a stroller. I see many moms carrying infants, and although those kids don’t ask for toys or run off while mom isn’t looking, mom still has to multi-task. She has to carry her infant while also carrying bags of clothes or toys from one section to another, and what does she do if baby needs a change of diaper or clothes while she’s waiting in a one-hour line? Moms, treat yourself to a morning of kid-free shopping and find someone else to watch baby.
Have you ever been to a big consignment sale? What’s the best score you’ve gotten?
(image by foto76 via FreeDigitalPhotos.net)