Red in Tooth and Claw – an important lesson in value

One thing which would improve everyone’s financial literacy and perspective would be for them to visit a Car Boot Sale as a seller. Last Sunday, I woke at the unearthly hour of 5.15am to go to Leeds Airport Car Boot to offload unwanted stuff found while we were doing one of our periodic blitzes to get the house in some sort of order.

Deceptive Calm at Mos Eisley

This was the third time I’d been to a Car Boot so I was ready for the seasoned specialist traders to descend upon me even before I’d parked up and got out of the car. If you have digital cameras, mobile phones or laptops you can do pretty much all your selling in the first ten minutes. Unfortunately, those were precisely the sorts of things that I’d sold off last time so it was going to be a much harder morning’s work.

I said that Car Boots are a great way of improving financial literacy. This is because they are the surest way of demonstrating the difference between cost, price and value. Even though it was a bit of a sale of the leftovers for me I’d still estimate that the car load cost the best part of £1000 to buy in the first place – I had a DVD Recorder with Freeview Tuner, a PS2 with a load of games, a vacuum cleaner and iron which between them cost £100 in the last year, and a number of PC games whose still-attached price labels showed that they cost me £30-40 each new.

Admittedly I’m not the world’s most natural salesman. Being slightly hungover and recovering from a chest infection I was not really in the mood for much patter. However, following four and a half hours and selling most of what I had, I only cleared a profit of about £45 after paying the £10 entry fee. That’s still £45 I didn’t have on waking up and in exchange for stuff we didn’t want or need any more, but a fraction of what we had spent over the years to accumulate it. The shoppers at Car Boots have a very strong eye for a bargain and understanding of value. The large bag of used towels and bedlinen sets sold within minutes. The nearly new DVD recorder took a couple of hours to go and at £10 realised the same as the towels/linen which would otherwise have gone in a charity recycling bank. The painting of fish you can see in the photo which Mrs B spent too much money on at our local Art Fair didn’t get a single bite (if you are interested, get in touch!). It is clearly real art – its value entirely unrelated to the cost of its materials or the labour expended in creating it.

Any shopaholic or person who has got into too much credit card or store card debt from buying stuff should be taken to sell their things at a Car Boot. When you are faced with the hard reality of how little everyone else values the things that you have spent a fortune on it puts some perspective on whether you should buy so much stuff in the future. When you are used to thinking of something, anything in a shop being a bargain when “only” £29.99, you need to go somewhere where people will haggle you down from a pound for the same thing. The pitch next to mine was selling womenswear – they were getting a pound per item regardless of whether it was from an upmarket label or was only a fiver from George or Primark in the first place.

Another important lesson that can be learned from Car Boots is that poorer people are quite capable of being discerning and getting a good deal – shopping at a Car Boot is all about getting the best value and haggling down even if the starting price is no more than a couple of quid. At any decently-sized Car Boot you could easily kit out a whole home with serviceable furniture, bedding, linen, kitchenware and small appliances for well under £100. Most of the early crowds at the one I went to outside Leeds Bradford Airport were made up of local Pakistanis and Eastern Europeans doing just that. They wouldn’t touch tat, but all got useful stuff. One Pakistani lady, who spoke very halting English, left me with two bags of stuff she had bought – she’d clearly had a good eye for things as this was during a lull and the only things that anyone was interested in at my pitch then were the ones she had left with me! In fact, being unsure if she was coming back I had thought that I wouldn’t have been too unhappy had I had to go home with the metal dish drainer she left (she told me she’d paid £3 – when I kitted out my first flat in London 12 years ago I very nearly bought an identical one from Heals for £50).

It is also heartening to see how honest people are. It is mildly frightening first time when the traders come and start picking through your stuff before you have unpacked, but I’ve never had anything nicked – they’ll pressure you to name a price but will wait until you have and will wait in line to pay if you’re talking to someone else.

Another thought that went through my mind was that a Car Boot helps to understand the entrepreneurial attitude. Viewers of the BBC’s Apprentice will probably by now have got sick and tired of hearing Lord Sugar saying how he started by selling stuff out of the back of his car. The most recent series had a task where the teams had a varied stock of tat they needed to do test sales on and then go and replenish with the best selling item types. It would not be difficult for anyone, even a reticent and reluctant salesman like me, to start from the junk lying around the house to make up enough cash to go to a wholesaler and start up in just the same way. If you are really stuck for a way to earn it would be a good way to start a business. The pitch opposite me seemed to be running that way – a young bloke with a focused set of cheap kids Transformers and Toy Story branded merchandise (backpacks, lunch boxes, stationery gift sets) doing a roaring trade. In the Apprentice task I mentioned, Susie (whose business experience came from making £50k a year just doing weekends at Greenwich market) went and bought a load of gaudy bracelets. The bloke with the kids stuff also had a prominent display of these and they were like a magnet drawing in the punters. Selling a couple of bracelets made him more money than I got for a hardly-used VAX cyclonic vacuum cleaner and it would have been at a very high margin rather than the 95% loss on stock price I took.

So, if you’re at a loose end next Sunday and want an education in value and how capitalism works, you could do much worse than go to a Car Boot. You might just pick up a bargain or two along the way.


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