Garage Sale 2017: A Leading Economic Indicator

Just two hours into our annual neighborhood garage sale on Saturday, it was clear something was wrong.

“Nobody’s buying anything!” said one neighbor. “I’ve only sold $10 worth of stuff.”

In recent years, bargain hunters would be running up our driveways an hour before the official start time of 8 a.m., searching for the best deals on bikes, baby clothes and other cast-offs. In the dark days of the Great Recession, it was not unusual for families in our subdivision to take in hundreds of dollars by noon. I made $475 one year and was struck by how many people were buying essentials, including used sheet sets, clothing and dishes.

I’ll never forget the woman clutching a handful of singles during the summer of 2010 who told me, “I can’t afford to go the mall anymore, but I have to buy something. That’s why I come to garage sales.”

My theory is that times are good, so most people can skip garage sales, except those who do it for entertainment. Instead, they’re shopping online or have returned to the mall. Some economists may study business cycles, earnings reports or unemployment rates as predictions of future performance. But in my neighborhood, garage sales are a leading economic indicator.

garage sale 2.jpgI’m not the only writer who views the economy from the vantage point of his or her driveway. Essayist Verlyn Klinkenborg once wrote: “A couple of years ago, judging by roadside signs, it looked as though the rural economy of America depended almost entirely on the sale and resale of Beanie Babies.”

This year, luxury goods, not Beanie Babies, were the surprising winners at our garage sale. A Brighton handbag and a framed poster of Georgia O’Keefe’s Calla Lillies went first at my place. I had been betting that some gently used baby items, including a port-a-crib, cradle and a bathtub shaped like a rubber duck would be the most coveted items. They weren’t and ended back in the attic. One woman said she preferred to buy new baby furniture.

There were very few impulse buys in my garage. Some people were hunting for specific items, such as antiques and vintage items, including Bakelite jewelry and carnival glass. But even then, they were finicky.

“I have some of my father-in-law’s carnival glass in the house,” I told one man who asked if I had any of the glassware once given away as prizes at county fairs and carnivals.

“I only want the rare stuff,” he replied, wrinkling his nose. “I don’t want Indiana carnival glass.”

No sale.garage sale 3.jpg

One shopper searching for antique folk art stopped long enough to chat about the economy. I told her my theory that good economic times mean bad times for garage sales.

“When is the economy good enough?” she mused. “When people are relaxed enough to go into debt again?”

She left empty-handed and said she was on her way to an estate sale, where there were fewer prosaic items.

I packed up my stuff early, since the garage sale was a bust. But the chatter about the Garage Sale Crash of 2017 went on long into the evening. Surely, it wasn’t the weather, which was clear and cool. The prices were right and slashed as the day went on. Had to be the economy, was the consensus.

“Well, now we know,” said one neighbor in a text message. “Pay attention to the economy when deciding on garage sale participation. Might as well just left it all boxed up and taken it to people in true need.”

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