Business And The Car Boot Sale

A few weeks ago, I visited an antique centre with my wife and daughter. We found a couple of pieces we liked, and I said I’d speak to the owner to see how much I could get them for.

“What do you mean?” said my 11 year old with more than a little alarm in her voice.

I explained that I was going to see how much money I could get knocked off the ticket price.

“You’re going to ask for money off?”, she said incredulously, “You can’t do that, it’s SO embarrassing! And it’s not like you haven’t got enough money to pay for it.”

She skulked off into a corner, while I went to talk to the owner and agreed a discount of £50 on the two items…about 15% of the purchase price.

When we got in the car, she was still mortified by the experience. We had words. I explained that there was a very good reason I could afford to pay full price …because I’m not an idiot (she couldn’t get to grips with that at all) and don’t throw money away. I had a bit of a rant about supply and demand and the ethics and protocol of buying, selling and negotiation. I didn’t think my message was getting through very well and decided that a little ‘hands on’ experience might help to clarify things a bit.

“We’ll do a car boot sale, ” I said “You’ll get a better feel for it then.”

She wasn’t terribly keen at first, but as luck would have it, the new series of Junior Apprentice started a couple of days later. Maybe this entrepreneurship lark wasn’t just for old folk after all! The idea took on a whole new allure, and we set the wheels in motion.

Now let me say first of all that I’ve never sold at a car boot sale before. In fact I’ve only been to a couple…which was more than enough to realise that most sellers are only there because it’s closer than the council tip. The range of tat on offer has to be seen to be believed.

No matter. This was to be an educational trip, and so I rung around a couple of local sites.

“What time do you start?” I asked to the first.

“We open from 4.30.” said the lady on the other end

“That’s a bit late”, I said

“Well it doesn’t get light much earlier than that.” came the reply.

She meant 4.30am in the morning! Sunday morning!!

There are a few things that might coax me out of bed on a Sunday morning at 4 o clock, but the opportunity to flog my rubbish to insomniac strangers for pennies is not one of them. I found another site which opened at a more reasonable 7.00am, and decided to go there instead.

Over a period of a couple of days, we cobbled together quite an impressive collection of ‘refuse-in-waiting’ which was cluttering up various corners of the house and garage – books, CD’s, Toys, pottery, pictures, ornaments…you know the sort of thing. Rather handily, I also had 3 perfectly serviceable suitcases which were now surplus to requirements, following my wife’s most recent capitulation in the face of her serious luggage buying fetish. These would be excellent receptacles, to carry everything else, I decided. There was a flaw in this plan, which was only to come to light later.

Anyway, I crammed everything in to the car, set the alarm for 6.15am, and come Sunday morning we set off for the sale site a few miles away, aiming to get there for 7.00am. The roads were deserted and I half expected arriving to see a bloke in a luminous jacket standing in an empty field. But as we turned a corner, a whole new hidden world emerged. It was like everyone who wasn’t asleep had descended on this one spot. Another 5 minutes and we’d have been too late for a pitch.

I paid my £7 entrance fee to the man in the luminous jacket, (he was there – just in a much busier field than I’d imagined) parked up in one of the final two rows, and started unloading our crap…sorry, stock…onto the patio table I’d borrowed for the purpose. Apparently, a wallpaper pasting table is the de rigour piece of equipment for this job, but I don’t own one for pretty much the same reason that I don’t own a polar bear trap – I’m never going to use it.

As we started to unload the car, about half a dozen hobgoblin type characters emerged from nowhere, trying to find hidden gems ahead of the crowd. This was more than a little annoying, particularly when one of them tried to buy the folding chair we’d brought to sit on! I responded to their requests for prices with…”Fifty quid now, but it might be cheaper when we’ve GOT THE BLOODY STOCK OUT!” and this seemed to do the trick. Ten minutes later, we had a fully functioning…if very amateurish…car boot stall.

Now there was another flaw in my plan which I haven’t told you about yet. I don’t really like ‘outside’ and there was no doubt about it…this car boot sale was in a field. I’ve never been able to see the point of outside – why people get all excited about it. I mean, if you’re sitting in an air conditioned and heated building or car, you’re in control. You can have the light and temperature just as you want it. It won’t be windy and you won’t be bothered by insects. And you’ve got somewhere comfy to sit or lay down. You have a choice. I like it. But outside – well that’s a totally different kettle of fish.

You’re at the mercy of the weather for one thing. I’ve noticed there are all sorts of weather conditions, and here’s the point – there’s only one very specific combination of factors that make me happy…about 20 degrees centigrade, slightly overcast and with no wind. A bit like inside really. Anything else is just too hot, too cold, too bright, too dark, too wet, too windy, snowy or ‘too something’.

That Sunday morning fell into the ‘too hot’ category…the hottest day of the year and definitely too hot to be standing in shade-free field for 5 hours. I suspect we may have made considerably more money, had I not spent large parts of the morning sheltering under my Land Rover.

It wasn’t a complete financial disaster though…

First thing to go was the Guinea Pig cage. I almost didn’t bother taking the former home of the recently departed Henry. It was a big bulky thing, and I didn’t think it would sell. It shows what I know, because we could have sold it a dozen times. The bloke who bought it, left it to collect later and plenty of folk wanted to buy it in the meantime, including a 6’5” giant of a man who was practically in tears at having missed it! Emotions clearly run high at these events.

I’d taken my daughter along to experience a bit of haggling and negotiation, and one of the disappointing things early on, was that few people were prepared to give it a try. They asked for the price, we’d tell them, and then they’d walk away. Presumably they were interested in the item at some price, and if you’re asking £3 for it…how far apart can you be? One woman snorted indignantly when I had the audacity to ask £1 for a George Michael double album and stormed off! We looked at each other, both thinking the same thing…”How little did she expect to pay?”

I’d tutored my daughter in advance on some useful phrases to use when negotiating and faced with lowball offers (although she point blank refused to say “How much??? You’re ‘avin me eyes ahht!!!” in a mock cockney accent for some reason) but at this rate, it didn’t look like she was going to get to use any of it.

Thank goodness for the eastern Europeans then, who aren’t nearly so reticent.

A Kosovan bloke came along and expressed an interest in the suitcases. He called his wife over who was clearly the chief negotiator. Although she spoke virtually no English, she coped very well by simply knowing what half of the price was and then offering that for everything. I tried to defuse this with a bit of humour, but unsurprisingly this got a bit lost in the translation, and was met with “No, I give you £13”. We eventually reached agreement at £15, and they went happily on their way – but not before trying to buy a meat cleaver at a third of the price asked, whilst wielding it menacingly in my direction.

As they left with two suitcases, I couldn’t help pondering on this…before I’d left home that morning, I’d checked my company online orders for the weekend. They came to just over £20,000. And yet there I was, standing in a roasting hot field at 9.00am on a Sunday morning arguing with a Kosovan over a quid! Perhaps there’s a lesson there – often it’s not about the money, it’s about the winning. If you can find some way of letting the other side win, while getting the money…perhaps everyone wins.

Anyway, we were on a roll now. My daughter was getting involved in the sales process, skilfully splitting the difference with a lady who was trying to knock down the price on a globe, and adjusting the prices she was asking for things in response to the reaction she was getting from browsers. She was starting to realise that prices aren’t fixed, and that they depend on good old fashioned supply and demand. Things are worth exactly what people are prepared to pay.

The final suitcase went to a nice Asian lady, and a couple of dozen other items were snapped up for pennies in the pound. For some reason though, the dolls pushchair just wouldn’t sell. At least 10 people had come and looked at it, asked the price…a full £8…and then walked away. My daughter was becoming increasingly frustrated by this, but little did I know that when I left her on her own for a few minutes to peruse some of the delights available on some of the other stalls, (slightly used toilet seat anyone?) that she would resort to dirty tactics.

I returned to find her in conversation with a mother and 3 year old. It was clear that the child wanted the push chair, but the mum was reluctant to buy. Eventually, she gave in and the money was handed over.

“Well done” I said after they’d left, “How did you do that.”

“It was easy” she replied “I attracted the attention of the 3 year old while her mums back was turned, showed her the push chair and then let pester power do the rest.”

In just 2 weeks, she’d gone from being appalled at me asking for a discount in an antique shop, to blatantly targeting sneaky sales tactics at the under 5’s. I didn’t know whether to be proud or ashamed!

The crowds thinned, and just when all right-thinking people were emerging from their Sunday morning lay in, it was time to go home. We’d made a grand total of £76.25, but learned lessons that were worth an awful lot more. More about those later.

Just one problem though…

We hadn’t sold everything – in fact we hadn’t sold half of it. And it had all arrived packed in the suitcases I’d sold to the intransigent Kosovan and her husband. I won’t dwell on the implication of having dozens of books, CD’s DVD’s , toys and other assorted paraphernalia floating loose in the back of a Land Rover as you weave your way home down country roads, but I’m sure you know what they are. Let’s just say that a detour via the dump would have been the most sensible option in retrospect.

As our remaining stock clattered from one side of the car to the other, father and daughter discussed what had been learned from the day. Here’s what we came up with between us:

1. Products don’t have single fixed value

The price you can sell any product for will depend purely on supply and demand, and the place you choose to sell your product will have a big impact. Items have a lower value at car boot sales than just about anywhere else. We had a very nice handbag for sale (not my colour ,but you know what I mean!) which attracted more than a dozen women who asked the price. Each one balked at the £5 quoted, despite the fact that it would have cost over £50 new and would have easily sold for £10+ in a second hand retail environment, or indeed on eBay.

The lesson is that by doing nothing more than moving a product from one market to another, you can sometimes multiply the selling price. The question to ask yourself is whether you offering your products to the most lucrative market? If you’re not making as much money as you’d like, a shift in market could make all the difference.

2. Newness is a strong sales motivator

When we first arrived at the sale, people descended on the car to see what we had. It was all new to the market and they wanted to be first. Successful companies know all about this, which is why they are constantly introducing new products and updated versions of existing products (often which are practically the same as the original.)

Is there some way you can use the power of ‘new’ in your business? It might mean creating a new product, a new version of your existing product, new packaging or even simply introducing your old product to a group of people to whom it is new. Newness gives sales a boost in myriad ways and it’s well worthwhile giving thought to how you can introduce newness into your enterprise as often as possible.

3. The threat of losing an opportunity is a strong sales motivator

The busiest time on the stall (apart from when we arrived) was when we started to pack up to leave. People saw the opportunity to buy being snatched away from them and this piqued their interest. Once again, this isn’t confined to car boot stalls. It’s human nature to want what you can’t have, and you can’t have something if it’s being taken away.

A central tenet of many marketing strategies is to emphasise scarcity…this offer is about to be withdrawn, we only have 10 of these left, once these are sold there will be no more at the price, this offer is open for the next few hours only…and they work because of this human trait. People want what they can’t have, or which they risk losing for ever.

Is this something you could incorporate in your business? Paradoxically, by withdrawing something from sale and telling people about it, you might actually sell more.

4. You need to remove barriers

If you stand in front of your stock with your arms folded, people are reluctant to approach. You need to make browsing as unthreatening as possible, and the way to do that is to stand well back, or better still, off to the side. They can then be approached for a sale once they feel safe and comfortable. I think there’s a metaphor here for just about every business. You must allow your potential customers ‘space’ to assess and evaluate what you’re offering in an un-pressured and non-threatening environment. So are you doing that? Or do you go straight for the jugular at the first sniff of interest? And if you do, are you driving people away?

5. People will instinctively follow the crowd

When the stall was busy, even more people flocked around. Getting the first person to come was far more difficult though. My daughter cottoned on to this very quickly and decided to start acting like a customer, browsing through the stock. It worked a treat. The public see one person looking and think, “maybe there’s something of interest here!. I’ll take a look too.” There’s a ‘safety in numbers’ element to this behaviour too, I think.

Could this be useful to you? Of course it could. You don’t need to have a physical business with flesh and blood customers standing in front of you to take advantage of this. For example, the use of testimonials in mail order serves exactly the same purpose – “If other people are interested, maybe there’s something here for me too.” If you don’t have a ‘crowd’ yet, it’s worth giving some thought to how you might attract one. Even if your initial crowd are spending little or no money, they will attract the attention of those that will.

It had been an interesting and educational morning, if tiring and not particularly lucrative. As we pulled up wearily on the drive, my wife met us at the car and peered inside. “Hmm, you’ve got quite a lot left,” she said, “Never mind, it will do for next time.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or set about her with the unsold meat cleaver!

Best Wishes

John Harrison

For more of John’s musings visit


  1. It’s a great piece of information. useful info. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Good job!

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