How to Deal with Yard Sale Early Birds

How to Keep Early Birds from Ruining Your Garage Sale

Man about to open yard sale
Setting up in the garage helps keep early birds at bay. Hero Images/Hero Images/Getty Images

Early birds are those yard sale shoppers who show up way before a sale is scheduled to start. They shine flashlights in windows and peek under tarps. The most aggressive even knock on doors the night before, begging for an advance look. Before you give in, here are some ways to deal with yard sale early birds.

Let Early Birds Shop While You Set Up

If you don't mind early birds shopping while you set up the sale, do nothing and they will show up. It's a simple way to make lots of early sales, but it's not easy -- especially if you're not an organized, experienced seller.

The Pros

  • Early birds are buyers. They aren't just there to look. 
  • You'll make lots of sales while the most serious yard sale shoppers still have lots of cash.
  • Letting early birds shop saves you the trouble of trying to keep them away.

The Cons

  • They'll slow you down (asking for prices, asking for discounts, wanting to pay, etc.) while you're trying to set up your sale. And, you can forget about slipping away to go put up yard sale signs.
  • Early birds are typically experienced shoppers, which means they expect to haggle -- and they're better at it than you.
  • They'll mess up your displays before you even finish setting them up.
  • They'll dig through your boxes without asking.
  • They'll demand prices before you can slap on the stickers. And, if you're easily flustered, they'll have you agreeing to give-away prices before you realize what has happened.
  • It's not fair to polite shoppers who show up at the actual starting time.
  • They may walk away with your merchandise while you're inside getting another box.
  • They'll attract other early birds who see them already shopping.

Some Solutions

  • Have at least one other person helping you set up the sale. Make sure one of you stays outside with the early birds while the other carries merchandise out of the house. 
  • Do not wait until the morning of the sale to price the merchandise. Do it in advance, the day before or even earlier, so all you have to do is arrange the merchandise.
  • Get lots of rest the night before. Nerves of steel help too.

Let Them Shop Early But Don't Discount

If you don't have the energy to try to keep early birds away, make the hassle worth your while with a no-haggling-before-a-certain-time policy on the first morning of the sale.

That certain time can be your official starting time. Or, even better, make it whenever the first wave of morning shoppers tends to end in your area. That way the latest of the early birds won't just stand around in your way waiting for the clock to chime.

The Pros

  • You get top dollar (top dollar for a yard sale, anyway) for your goods to make up for the inconvenience early birds cause.
  • Early birds consist of four types of yard sale shoppers: dealers, pickers, super-frugal bargain hunters, and collectors. Collectors come early because they're shopping for something specific, usually antique and vintage items. They will gladly pay a bit more (within reason) if you have what they so desperately want.

The Cons

  • Early birds almost always want to haggle, so you'll have to explain your policy to each person who tries.
  • Some will try to haggle even after you explain your no-early-discounts policy. They can't force you to accept a lower price, but it does take time and add stress -- especially if you're the type who has trouble saying no.
  • Though most will pay the tag price if your prices are reasonable, a few may walk away. But, early birds cherry pick the best stuff and know exactly what they're buying. If they want it, someone else will too. 

Solutions

  • Make sure there's no apology or hesitation in your voice when you tell them you won't haggle until whenever o'clock. Practice saying it out loud with a smile the day before.
  • Put up a sign about the policy and point to it if they protest. It's easier to enforce something that's in writing -- even if it's just marker on poster board. 

Put "No Early Birds" or Something Similar in Your Yard Sale Ad

The most common way sellers keep early birds away is by including "no early birds" in their newspaper and Craigslist yard sale ads. "No sales before (insert starting time here)" is used quite a bit too.

The Pros

  • It keeps all but the most aggressive early birds from showing up more than 30 minutes before your sale starts -- and makes them reconsider knocking on your door the night before.

The Cons

  • When mapping their yard sale routes, lots of shoppers just note addresses and starting times. By the time they arrive at your house, they probably won't remember about your early bird ban.
  • For those who are meticulous about details when mapping their routes, banning early birds may cause your sale to get bumped way down on their routes. If they run out of energy or cash, they may not stop at your sale at all.
  • Some shoppers have a different definition of an early bird than you do. You may mean don't show up at 6:59 for your 7 a.m. sale. Many yard sale shoppers don't even think of arriving 15 - 20 minutes early as being an early bird.
  • Using "no sales before (starting time)" is a bit confusing. Early birds may assume it's okay to come and look early as long as they wait to pay when you officially open.
  • Shoppers who just follow signs or stop when they see a sale won't know about the restriction in your ad.

Solutions

  • For those who don't know what you mean by an early bird, use more specific language to get your point across. "No early sales - No entry before (insert your starting time)" works especially well.
  • Print the same thing on a yard sale sign in front of your house. It serves as a reminder for those who forgot -- and informs those who never saw your ad.
  • Make your official starting time early, as early as is standard in your area or even a little before. That way the mappers won't put you last on their routes.

Keep the Garage Door or Gate Closed

Blocking them from physically entering the sale is the best way to prevent early birds.

I'm not suggesting you hire a bouncer to stand guard. I'm referring to setting up your sale inside the garage and keeping the door closed until it's time to start. A locking driveway or fence gate works well too.

The Pros

  • Because early birds can't get in, you can set up your sale in peace.
  • If your sale ads sound good enough, shoppers will form a line outside the garage door or gate. Since they'll all rush in at once when you open, they'll be snatching things up fast so other shoppers don't get them. That means more sales for you.

The Cons

  • That opening rush of shoppers gets very, very hectic. They'll be snatching, grabbing, haggling, asking questions, and trying to pay -- and it will all be happening all at once.
  • The most attention-getting garage sales have some merchandise in the driveway to draw drive-by shoppers inside -- especially large desirable pieces such as furniture. That means you can't completely set up a sale inside the garage. You'll still need to drag some things out once you open.

Solutions

  • It's always safest to have at least one other adult helping you work a yard sale, but it's an absolute must during the first big rush.
  • It's not enough to close the garage door or gate. You must lock it too. There's always that one (hopefully just one) shopper who decides he'll sneak an early peek.

Rope Off the Sale Area

If you don't have a garage or gate, roping off your yard sale area is the next best thing. A rope strung between carport posts or sawhorses does the job.

It's not impenetrable, but it does provide a physical separation -- and it makes your intentions perfectly clear.

The Pros

  • The majority of early bird shoppers aren't obnoxious enough to cross such an obvious barrier. 
  • You get the same shopping frenzy as the locked garage when you finally open

The Cons

  • It's not unheard of for an early bird to duck under the rope trying to get the first look.
  • Those most won't cross the rope, they will cluster just outside of it hoping to see what you're setting out. Some sellers don't care, but others feel flustered by the scrutiny.
  • Though it's easy to rope off a carport or the end of a driveway, this solution won't work if you're having the sale out in the yard. Absent some sort of fence, you can't reasonably rope off an area that large.

Solutions

  • Keep someone outside (or at least have her go in and out frequently) to keep the boldest early birds from slipping in for a better look.
  • Make your intentions absolute by hanging a "no entry" sign from your rope.

Advertise a False Starting Time 

Do early birds in your area tend to show up at sales an hour before the starting time? If you plan to be ready by 7 a.m., advertising your sale as starting at 8:00 keeps early birds away until you're ready. 

The Pros

  • Since the early birds think you're starting later than you really are, you can (mostly) set up your sale in peace. 

The Cons

  • It rewards early birds and penalizes shoppers who follow the rules.
  • It doesn't help with drive-by shoppers who see you setting up and decide to stop.
  • If this practice becomes common, early birds will assume all sellers do it. Then, they'll just adjust their usual arrival times. At that point, it won't help the sellers who do it -- and it will make things much harder for those who don't.
  • If your fake late starting time is later than other yard sales in your area, shoppers who map their yard sale routes based on starting times will bump you way down on their lists. If you're in a large city with lots of yard sales, they may skip your sale entirely.

Solutions

  • An early start time helps you move to the top of many shoppers' yard sale lists. To do that and fool the early birds, you'll have to advertise your sale as starting when the earliest sales do, but actually be ready an hour or so before. It works, but it's easier (and less exhausting) to just be honest with the early birds and send them away.

Don't Advertise Your Exact Address

Experienced sellers sometimes advise not putting your exact address in your ads.

They suggest listing just your subdivision name or closest big intersection, along with directing shoppers to watch for signs. Then, just before your sale is about to start, you hang your final yard sale signs, the ones that lead shoppers right to your house.

The Pros

  • Assuming they can't get your address in other ways, withholding the street address does keep early birds away.
  • You don't have to worry about any especially aggressive shoppers knocking on your door or calling you in advance.

The Cons

  • If you advertise on social media and live in a small town, lots of shoppers will know exactly where you live.
  • No matter where you live, advertising your yard sale on Facebook yard sale pages gives shoppers your name. Then, if you own your home, they can use the tax assessor's website to get your exact address.
  • Shoppers who plan their yard sale routes in advance are buyers, not browsers. But, if they can't route your sale, they may skip it or leave it for last.

Solutions

  • If you plan to advertise on social media, ask a friend to list the sale under her account. That way shoppers can't find your exact address in advance.
  • Keep the planners happy by giving them enough information to add your sale to their routes. Instead of just listing the subdivision, list your street name and one close cross street. They still won't know your house number -- unless you live in the only house on the block.