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Birth of a salesman

Car boot sales offer a brilliant lesson in salesmanship, and for this rookie also raised questions about buying and selling violins

I’m not a natural sales person. I have an English coyness in talking about money and I don’t like asking for things. Put those together and you get an awkward bargainer. But as someone wise once told me, life is fundamentally about selling – whether it’s yourself, your opinion, your writing or your playing. It doesn’t matter how good you are at something, you still have to sell it. As cynical as that sounds, it helps to know and understand that.

So it was salutary to take myself out of my comfort zone and learn a trick or two at a car boot sale. I did my second one yesterday, at the Capital Car Boot Sale in Pimlico, having relieved my mother’s cupboards of random plates and jugs, some prints and silly tsatskes – all in the name of decluttering.

There’s a certain amount of ritual to the occasion. The serious dealers descend as soon as you arrive, as you unpack, and it’s like an animal feeding frenzy – I’m sure that’s part of their strategy, to get you off balance. They pick things up and hassle you for a price while you’re still tearing off paper, and go into the car boot while your back is turned. They look unimpressed by everything, and have hard eyes. They know what they’re looking for and how much they’re prepared to pay for it.

The first sale I did, I was under the impression that it was weak to be the first to suggest a price, so initially I asked them what they wanted to pay for things. I’d feebly add a pound to their offer and they’d be satisfied and walk away with a great bargain. Then I tried the other way, starting off at what seemed to be a high price and get them to haggle down, which seemed to work better and at least made me feel like I had some control. I was getting the hang of it.

After the first frenzy, things settle down and become a little more relaxed and friendly – it is mainly the quirky and less valuable things that are left. People pass by and maybe stop and talk, and occasionally pick up something they like.

Things I learnt about the process:

  • The trade experts know exactly what things are and how much they need to pay to make their margin. They’re not playing games or haggling for fun. I was only selling old pots and cloths and things, among which were no potential Ming vases, so my ignorance didn’t matter. But if I had thought any of it was valuable, I should have done proper research about values and sale prices. Knowledge is power. Due diligence is essential – no one is going to do a rookie a favour.

  • The good stuff goes immediately.

  • No one wants broken things. I had a few beautiful Noritake cups and saucers and an old Meisen-looking plate, all with tiny cracks. The traders put them down as soon as they saw them – they wouldn’t touch goods that were damaged.

  • You know when someone wants something – their eyes fall on it immediately and they look at nothing else. They make the decision very quickly. Usually they don’t even haggle if they want it.

  • People who spend the most time at the table, picking different things up and chatting, are the least likely to buy anything. It may be fun to talk to them, but there may not be much point.

  • Most people who say they’re going to come back for something, don’t.

  • Crowds attract crowds. You can be alone with the tumbleweed for an hour and then as soon as a few people stop by, there will be a massive crowd.

  • People don‘t really like haggling – many walk straight on when you name a price, so it’s best to set a realistic price in the first place.

  • It’s surprising how even the most obscure paraphernalia has value for someone – maybe there really is a place for everything. One lady took away a pile of old embroidered damask pillowcases that had been in the family for a few generations, and was incredibly excited about having them on her bed. She was so thrilled by them, and I was so pleased to see them going to a good home, that I gave her a pretty fair price. So I guess it pays to be nice.

  • With half an hour to go to the end, dropping prices made no difference and sounding desperate really didn’t help!

Obviously, buying a piece of tat at a car boot sale is very different from investing a lot of time and money in an instrument that you’re going to spend the rest of your life with, but I’d be interested to know if there are similarities. Are any of these phenomena familiar to my violin dealer and player friends? Any other tips about buying and selling?

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