Skip to main content

'The Things We Sell' addresses $1 billion garage sale market

March 04, 2010

We have all seen the occasional sign posted around our neighborhoods, churches or coffee shops that point to a nearby gathering. Sometimes we simply stumble upon them by chance. Garage sales have become an activity of American culture, so popular that we even hold sales of our personal items online.

But why do we come to part with the things we value? What kinds of stories are behind certain things? How do we put a price tag on something that is considered emotionally priceless?

Chris Meierling and Dan Wandrey, graduate design researchers from the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, set out to find the answers to these and many other questions in an ethnographic study they have titled "The Things We Sell" which they presented in this year’s 12th Annual Chicago Ethnography Conference March 6. For a look at some of the videos and conversations that are a part of the study, visit

According to Wandrey and Meierling, one reason why the cultural practice of garage sales continues to grow is because it is an unregulated economy that generates somewhere between $600 million to $1 billion per year.

At a more emotional level, the researchers have concluded that the practice of garage sales can be interpreted as a process in which stories become cultural transactions. The exchange of the objects is not nearly as important as the bridge that is formed by explaining the story behind it.

“This project is the direct result of a conversation I had with my mother,” Wandrey said. “Her parents had decided to move into an assisted living community, away from the home where my mom had grown up, and they needed to shed 50 years of accumulated stuff. An estate sale was held and my Mom had watched as objects that carried a life's worth of memories were being liquidated. To her, the items were invaluable and irreplaceable, and the experience was traumatic.”

Wandrey’s conversation with his mother led to profound discussions about an object’s worth and how possessions can have real emotional value and significance.

“As a young student, moving from campus to campus and taking only the things that would fit into my car, I had not been emotionally attached to objects and to the symbolic value placed on each item,” Wandrey said. “For me, they only provided utility for the task at hand.”

Soon after, Wandrey shared the conversation with his friend Chris Meierling, and the two immediately began looking into the process of selling possessions.

“While a Google search reveals plenty of 'how-to's' about running garage sales, there are hardly any accounts, even anecdotally, about being a garage sale shopper or about how this unique American tradition emerged over the past 90 years,” Meierling said.

Through their ethnographic study, Wandrey and Meierling have recorded various accounts on the reasons why people sell the things they love, but also have developed a keen understanding on the types of people who function in the garage sale culture as sellers and shoppers.

“On the shopper's end, one can expect the entrepreneurs to be scouting out offerings early in the mornings and stragglers and tag-alongs to come later on in the day,” Meierling said. “On the seller's end, you see a range of individuals from those who are most interested in the social aspect of garage sales to those who are essentially running a small retail business out of their house.”