Slow economy has people selling what they can to make ends meet

By Debbie Garlicki

A black pickup truck backed into the driveway of the auction hall adjoining the Hereford Volunteer Fire Company in Berks County, Pa., on an overcast Friday in late April.

With a grunt, a 75-year-old Alburtis, Pa., man wearing a Dietrich’s Meats baseball cap started unloading lawn chair cushions, an aluminum trash can, garden tools and tires. Minutes later, his wife pulled up in a van full of what soon would be former belongings.

“People need money, and they are bringing it in,” said Stanley Richard, helping to cart the items into his son Donald’s auction gallery.

The “it” he referred to are a variety of items in people’s attics, garages, drawers and jewelry boxes that some auctioneers say more people are selling to pay for food, gas or other necessities in these lackluster economic times.

Sellers and auctioneers, who accept items on consignment, are an integral part of the second-hand market of wheelers and dealers, flea marketers, yard sale junkies and those who facilitate the exchange of money and goods.

They have a unique symbiotic relationship and now are finding both opportunity and hardship.

“It’s all like a big stack of dominoes,” said Woody Zettlemoyer, who has run the Zettlemoyer Auction Co. in Fogelsville, Pa., since 1972. “When something falls on one end, it impacts something else in the far corner.”

The driver of the pickup truck at the Donald P. Richard auction didn’t mince words explaining why he was at the auction house. “Because the shed’s full,” he said in a heavy Pennsylvania Dutch accent. “We need money too.”

In 2002, $195.3 billion in gross revenue was generated by live auctions in the United States. That figure jumped to $270.7 billion last year for all auction sectors, including real estate, personal property, heavy machinery and livestock, according to Chris Longly, public affairs manager for the National Auction Association in Overland Park, Kan.

He attributed the jump to the increased popularity of auctions but noted the economic pressures that people are facing.

“Consumers are a little bit concerned. (You hear), ‘We are in a recession, we’re not in a recession,’” he said. “If I have some items in my home that I do not use, say a nice racing bike that I paid much money for, and I do not ride it and it’s cluttering up the garage, I may need some more cash. Somebody may be looking for a racing bike.”

People across the country also are turning to online auctions.

According to a recent survey for eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) , one in 10 adults is selling personal or household items to generate extra cash. The survey, conducted in early April, also showed 30 percent of adults are likely to sell personal or household items over the next three months to earn additional cash, and 42 percent are going to online sites to save money on purchases.

Bruce D. Phillips, a senior economist with the National Federation of Independent Businesses Research Foundation in Washington, D.C., said the increase in online buyers and sellers is “absolutely” tied to the floundering economy.

“You want to go on vacation this summer, what do you do? EBay. It is a sign that people want to maintain their consumption and their standard of living,” Phillips said. “And if they have grandma’s jewelry or an extra iPod, I think that becomes a viable alternative.”

He noted that purging goods is seasonal and that if people are cleaning out closets and garages in the spring, they figure they might as well make a few bucks, too.


On auction day at the Hereford hall, the pickup truck owner’s objects were displayed, ready for the bidding to begin at 10 a.m.

Donald Richard, 50, of Hereford, scanned the crowd of more than 100 people, and mused about the auction industry. “You’re getting more stuff, more items to sell, just for the turnover money, I guess.”

Richard, who has been in business for 25 years, decided now was a good time to expand into tailgate auctions. “Sell it for cash,” his fliers advertise. “Drive in, and we will unload or sell items from your vehicle while you wait. As soon as your items are sold, you will be paid the very same day.”

His venture at Jake’s Flea Market in Barto, Pa., earlier in April was successful, said Richard, who plans to continue them.

“People say their car had to go in the shop this week,” he said. “They need cash. They can load stuff up and get their money the same day and pay their bill.”

The economic forecast provokes the same response in some people as a weather forecast of heavy snow, said Allentown, Pa., psychologist Frank Dattilio. Those who load grocery carts with enough food for a month might liquidate to get cash, he added.

“It’s the fear of getting caught with your pants down and fear of being vulnerable,” he said. “The greater majority of people maintain a level head and don’t panic and believe they can ride it out.”

Donald Richard isn’t the only one capitalizing on people’s desire to blow dust off objects and turn the unwanted and unused into cash.

Since late winter, ads from Gold Guys LLC, National Redemption, Antique Associates, Ron Stangl’s MainStreet Jewelers and Keystone Coin have tempted: “Paying immediate cash, wanted gold, silver dollars, silver coins” and “Sell us your unwanted gold.”

The ads worked, and people flocked to buying sites. But the competitive market might be slowing. “It is still successful, but not as successful as it was,” said Elaine Smith, vice president of sales for Allentown, Pa.-based Freeman Jewelers.

Jeff Linette, owner of Lebanon County, Pa., wholesaler Antique Associates, set up shop for several weeks this year at the Ramada Inn in Whitehall Township, Pa. As in years past, he found that some senior citizens were selling antiques, war relics and jewelry to cover their taxes.

“If people need money, it doesn’t matter if it is a bad economy or not, they will sell things if they have them,” he said.


Escalating prices for gas and everything that depends on it are affecting the multi-tentacled organism of bargain-hunters and purveyors of the quirky, the antique, the rare and the collectible. Buyers are scouting for better bargains and resellers are more closely calculating whether they can make a profit.

Miles used to not matter for collectors who wanted something badly, those who thrived on the hunt and those who wanted to personally inspect items for chips and cracks rather than rely on online auction descriptions, auctioneers said.

But now miles add up to more gas and that equals smaller profits on a resale and makes a purchase a questionable bargain for buyers.

“That gas is going to play a very deciding factor,” in whether people will travel to auctions and flea markets, said Paul Wlazelek, who operates a Lower Macungie Township, Pa., auction house started by his father, Walter, in 1959. “It’s a new ball game now.”

Gas prices also are figuring into whether people will buy items that need to be hauled, auctioneers said.

Leaning back in a chair, his feet propped on another, Wlazelek asked a dealer perusing his wares recently, “How was the Extravaganza?” in reference to a spring event in Kutztown, Pa., one of the largest antiques shows in the region.

“There’s traffic, but everybody is walking like this,” said Charlie Schneider of Allentown as he shoved both hands into his shorts pockets.

There were empty stands, and hands weren’t pulling out wallets, he explained.

Auctioneer Zettlemoyer usually can count on some new faces in his auction crowd during the Extravaganza when people take a side trip to his auction house in Fogelsville. Not this spring.

“Everything depends on everything else,” he said.


For those looking to sell, Dattilio advised slowing down, waiting and thinking before getting rid of things you’ll lose sleep over. People who are “catastrophic responders” in an unstable economy may end up feeling guilty and second-guessing their decisions to sell sentimental objects, Dattilio said.

“It’s sad to me when they sell things that are really valuable in the heat of the moment, and they think the next day, ‘What the hell did I do?”‘ Dattilio said.

Not everyone can be as lucky as Patricia A. Frantz, an assistant estate buyer at Freeman Jewelers.

She inherited her mother’s opal and ruby ring after her mother died in 1970 but sold it later because she wasn’t wearing it. Two years later, she opened an envelope containing a ring that had been sold to the estate department.

What she saw gave her goose bumps.

“There it was. I knew it was her ring,” Frantz said.

Last summer, her husband gave her a surprise 53rd birthday present.

It was the ring. He had bought it back.

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