Guide to Problem Estate Sale Shoppers

By Brandon Shinholser

Part of the beauty of being an estate sale company is getting to work for yourself.  How you run your business is a reflection of you and your values—and that includes how you’re going to deal with your estate sale customers and all the little things they do to keep us on our toes! Whether they’re regulars, or just found out about tag sales last week, estate sale shoppers can present their own set of challenges to your estate sale—especially if you’ve never worked in retail or customer service.

We listened to estate sale professionals around the country to see how they deal with these top ten annoying estate sale shopper situations.

1. Estate sale shoppers who expect refund/credit for returns

Returning items at estate sales is a controversial topic, for sure. Everyone has their own way of doing things. Some estate sale companies believe the more returns are offered, the more customers will expect to make returns. . .which leads to customers calling the shots. . .which leads to chaos, not to mention lots of lost dollars. Other estate sale companies believe allowing returns falls under the umbrella of good customer service. Whatever you decide, try to be consistent, so your customers know what to expect.

Here’s how you might handle customers returning items:

a. All Signs Point To… If you decide not to accept returns, make it clear. One way to do this is post signs around your sale stating your No Return policy. Julie Hall, President of the American Society of Estate Liquidators (ASEL), said to post large, brightly colored signs AS-IS, WHERE IS in nearly every room above the display tables. She also suggests posting your own estate sale policies in your own wording in nearly every room, so you can always say they are posted throughout the estate sale and on the front door, too. And don’t forget to remind your estate sale shoppers while they’re paying that all sales are final. You may even be able to print “All sales are final” at the bottom of your receipts.

b. Service with a Smile. If the item has been damaged, let them trade something of equal or higher value, depending on whether the item has been damaged and if you think it will sell again. Just remember—it’s usually more difficult to sell something the second time around, and you may get less for it if you offer 2nd and 3rd day discounts.

c. Window of Opportunity. Go ahead and allow returns—but only within a set window. This is logical, considering estate sales are usually only 2 or 3 day events. Consider allowing returns within the first 24 hours of purchase—and stick to your guns.

d. Show Them the Door. As for any customer who refuses to follow your rules, it’s well within your rights (and to the benefit of your client) to ask the problem estate sale shopper to leave the premises.

e. Call the Police. Luckily it rarely comes to this. But if the customer becomes a problem, refuses to leave, makes threats, or shows up at future sales to harass you, it’s time to call for reinforcements—law enforcement.

2. Estate sale customers who return something that’s “broken”

Call it one of the job hazards, but it’s hard to be in the estate sale business very long without someone returning an item, claiming it’s “broken.” We get it—estate sales sell used items, sometimes from another decade, and with so much inventory it can be overwhelming to test out every clock, blender, or wristwatch. Well, guess what? Estate sale shoppers are counting on this. Anticipate this, and stay one step ahead of them.

How should an estate sale company deal with “broken” item returns?

a. Know Thy Inventory. Since this is your sale, you’re ultimately responsible for every item sold. Make sure you know your inventory like the back of your hand, so there are no surprises later. Take the time to assess all estate sale items, even smalls, and make it a rule that you won’t sell anything chipped or broken. That way you can be confident your items are as good as new when someone else claims otherwise.

b. Test It Out. Be proactive and let customers test out electronics right there at a nearby outlet. This puts the onus on them, and you can remind them of this later.

c. Karma Points. Let’s face it—if an item doesn’t work, you won’t be able to turn around and sell it again anyway. Give the customer the benefit of the doubt. While they might not make a purchase at this particular estate sale, your friendly service might mean they show up at the next one ready to buy.

d. Trade-Off. Offer to replace the broken item with something of equal or lesser value. That way you don’t lose the sale, and they may even buy something else because of your good attitude.

3. Estate sale shoppers who presume 50% off items

It’s a logical fallacy to assume just because something happened once, it will happen again. However, for some reason estate sale shoppers love to presume your estate sale is offering 50% off items on subsequent sale days—sometimes even on day 1, just because they’ve been to another estate sale that operated that way, or because you may have offered discounts in the past.

How should an estate sale company respond to the 50% discount issue?

a. If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em. If you wish to stay competitive, jumping on the bandwagon and offering estate sale discounts may be your best bet, especially if most of the estate sale companies in your area customarily give 50% off on the second day. If you’re like some estate sale companies whose sales begin on Saturdays, (the same day competing sales are offering 50% off), consider pricing items higher so your half-off “discount” is closer to the actual selling price. Genius!

b. Blame the Estate Sale Contract. If you worked retail (i.e. for someone else) you wouldn’t be able to give discounts without the approval of a manager. Well, at an estate sale, you’re still technically working for someone else — your client. An easy way to dissuade pestering customers is to just take the “my hands are tied” approach. After all, who can argue with legalities?

4. Customers who want to negotiate prices

Somehow, these shoppers must have mistaken your estate sale for the neighborhood flea market, because they come expecting to play “Let’s Make a Deal.” While some people might not know that estate sales don’t operate like garage sales (because the items are usually in great condition and not someone’s old castoffs), it’s okay to enlighten newbies—and remind those who forgot.

Here’s how an estate sale company can handle hagglers:

a. Lay Down the Law. Decide you’re not going to negotiate prices and stand by your original appraisal and pricing. Especially if you’re an estate sale company that decides to give 2nd and 3rd day discounts, you don’t want to lose even more money — when the goal is making the most cash possible for your client.

b. Set Boundaries. You may decide to do full price the first day, and then offer room for negotiation on following days. Set a lowest price for each item that staff is aware of, so you don’t end up losing money. (This is especially important when staff may not be as knowledgeable on items’ value or good at negotiating). This bottom line covers everyone—including your client.

c. Use a Gatekeeper. Instead of hiring inexperienced estate sale employees, consider just having one qualified point person (such as yourself) who knows the appraisal values of all the items to vet all sales. That way, you can be sure the one making the decisions knows the true value of everything, thus staying in complete control of your income—and your inventory.

d. Ad Hoc. Whether the customer is buying a lot and so a discount wouldn’t be a big deal, or it’s one of those big ticket items that might be hard to sell, or it’s the last day to move inventory, only you know what you need to do in order to run your business. Stay flexible and let the circumstances dictate business decisions. After all, the estate sale business is always fluctuating. Better to go with the flow than keep rigid rules that may break you in the end.

5. Shoppers who steal

Thieves are a sad fact of any retail business—since the beginning of time. And without the protection of a security alarm or security guards, local estate sales are often easy targets of crime. Be aware of thieves, no matter what kind of neighborhood you’re in or what kind of estate sale you’re holding.

Here are few tips to dealing with estate sale thieves:

a. Central Location. Keep an eye on all your expensive items by keeping them all in one central location, like on a folding table by the cash register. That way, you or a sales associate can keep tabs during the sale with relative ease.

b. Lights, Camera, Action! Well, hopefully not a lot of action. But cameras (fake or real!) can be a great deterrent for wannabe thieves. Signs that say “Shoplifters will be prosecuted” may also stop thieves in their tracks.

c. Key Note. Sometimes the key to avoiding theft is to be proactive. ASEL President Julie Hall suggests to ask your estate sale client to retrieve all the keys out there (lent to neighbors, house-sitters, relatives, etc.) or have them change the locks. Often, Hall says, the homeowner will hand out keys to many neighbors, etc., and anything can disappear in the night — only for you to get blamed for it the next day. If there is an alarm system in the estate, consider ask the client to create a new code just for the estate sale company. In the event someone connected to the family comes in when no one is there and things do go missing, the alarm company can tell which code was used to enter the home, which can potentially release you from that liability and/or suspicion. Create a contract clause that covers estate sale liabilities like these.

d. Stay Alert. Julie Hall also reminds estate sale companies to manage distractions at their sales. When one staff member is engaged with a customer at a showcase, other staff nearby should be extra vigilant. Should an argument break out or a buyer shout their displeasure about an item or policy, it’s important to prevent the distraction from becoming an opportunity to shoplift.

d. Be Cool. If you see someone trying to use the five-finger discount, take matters into your own hands. Confront them casually, point to their stash, and ask how they’re going to pay for all that. This may just surprise them into paying (or leaving in shame) without all the drama of “Stop, thief!”

e. Make a Scene. Tap into those high school Thespian Club skills and give an Oscar-winning performance as soon as you catch someone trying to rip off your estate sale. Be sure to ham it up for your captive audience—the other customers who will think twice before trying to pull the curtain over on you.

f. Call the Police. Of course, it’s up to you whether or not you want to press charges, but when in doubt, call in the professionals. A cop is better equipped to deal with criminals than you are.

g. Frequent Flyers. It’s worth mentioning that sometimes it’s your regular customers who are the thieves. These people have developed a relationship with you and you may have let your guard down. Just something to think about if you’re dealing with constant theft at your estate sales.

6. Customers who put items on hold – for the next day’s discount

Yep—you read that right. Finding loopholes is some estate sale shoppers’ favorite pastime, and they’ll stop at nothing to save a few bucks. As an estate sale company owner, you must be vigilant and prepare for these bargain shoppers.

Here are a few ways to deal with the hold-until-discount-time situation:

a. Be Discreet. Don’t advertise your discounts. Get creative and start discounts in the middle of the day. Or offer discounts at some sales and not others, depending on inventory. It’s your estate sale business to run the way you want. Don’t let it fall the other way around—with the customers in control.

b. Take Offers. Let people make offers for the next-day, discounted price. If no one buys the item at full price, you’ll still get have a chance to make some cash.

c. Hold em or Fold em. Let them put the item on hold—but at the original price. Or you could be be flexible and offer holds for a set amount of time. 30 minutes seemed to work for several estate sale companies.

d. No Holds Barred. Don’t offer holds, no way no how. After all, this is an estate sale—not Wal Mart.

7. Estate sale customers who “hoard” items

This is the guy (or gal) who’s playing the “Let’s-pile-up-everything-I-want-but-may- or-may-not-actually-buy” game and spends three hours shuffling around your sale, waiting for you to announce that it’s “Discount Time.” In estate sale parlance, this is called “hoarding” and it keeps other customers from getting a chance.

How does an estate sale company deal with customers who “hoard?”

a. Don’t Offer Graduated Discounts. End of story. Try other options instead, like implementing the rule that all items picked up are priced As Is. Or keep them guessing. Some sales may not need discounting, while others may. Some discounts may start at noon, while others later in the day. It’s your choice — not the customers’.

b. Start Over. This technique takes some work.In essence, everyone must buy what they’re holding before the discount goes into effect. You could even try lining everyone up again outside to mark the beginning of discounts, but you may risk irking a lot of your customers who might not appreciate getting kicked out in the middle of browsing.

c. For Real, Though? Watch out for those customers who hide items so they can come back for them during the next day’s discount. Then ban them from all future sales. Yes, for real.

8. Customers there on behalf of charity organizations

While it’s horrible to think about anyone claiming they’re from a charity to have less than charitable intentions, running an estate sale business is not the time for naïveté. Trust your gut—and cover your tracks when it’s your item or contribution on the line.

Here’s how:

a. Do Your Research. While it might sound cynical, even some “charities” might not be what they seem. Make sure they are who they say they are – and that your items really are going to save the trees / whales / children after all. Horrible as it may sound, there are always cases of employees swiping items or back room thefts. Think like an estate sale company—not a friendly neighbor and always investigate.

b. Get a Receipt. You should be provided an official receipt for any donations, end of story. If the organization isn’t able to offer one, consider it a red flag.

c. Follow Up. The only way to make sure the charity held up their end of the agreement is to check up on it yourself. This goes for churches, thrift stores, and non-profits, too.

9. Shoppers who fight with each other over items

Remember: estate sale shoppers are people, and like some people, they’re really just bratty little children trapped inside big adult bodies. You may have to treat them as such—especially when an argument over an estate sale item resorts to name-calling, or worse, fisticuffs.

How should an estate sale company deal with fighting between shoppers?

a. Play Cop. Unfortunately, as the Person in Charge, sometimes you have to step in and break up the fight as it happens. As the voice of reason, you are well within your rights to ask them to leave your estate sale for their inappropriate behavior. Chances are, the other customers will back you up.

b. Call a Cop. If the unruly customers won’t listen to you, use your cell phone to dial 911. The threat of cops may be enough to scare them into behaving, and if not, someone will be on the scene who can take it from there.

c. Cop Out. This option isn’t for the faint of heart, but if its’ just a minor squabble, consider letting it slide — especially if you think they’ll be spending more money at your estate sale.

10. Customers who are not “quite right”

Be on the lookout for these estate sale kooks:

a. The Strange Uncle. Or Son. Or Ex Wife. Or Mother-in-law. However they may be related to your client, sometimes family members take the cake for being kooky. Sure, they’ll tell you they’re entitled to such-and-such because they’re so-and-so, but remember who you work for. Tell Cousin Whatzhisname that your contract is with your client, and if the contract is broken, it becomes a legal matter. Remember— estate sales often happen due to a death in the family, which can breed all sorts of intense emotions.

b. Poopsadaisy! That’s right. Poop. One estate sale company told me of a customer who relieved himself near the front door after waiting overnight for one of those packed midcentury sales. Another incident involved a case of incontinence in one of the closets marked “Do Not Enter.” What are you as an estate sale company owner to do in the case of poo? Put on some gloves, get out the cleaning supplies, and start scrubbing. Your sale – your responsibility. Be prepared in case a worst scenario strikes. (And make sure the evacuator gets evacuated from the premises!)

b. Weird Al. Or Alexandra. You know, the one who looks at you all crazy-eyed, the one who questions every price, the one who overreacts, the one who stands a little too close, the one who shows up at every sale and stares you down. Whatever it is, if a customer gives you the creeps, trust your intuition and keep a close eye on them. Your safety—and that of the other customers—should always take priority over hurting anyone’s feelings.

How to deal with problem estate sale shoppers

Now it’s your turn to weigh in. What difficult estate sale shoppers have you encountered, and how did you deal with it? Share your stories in the comments below!