How Facebook’s Plans and Google’s Docs helped me pull off the biggest garage sale ever

Recently I needed to purge a 2-bedroom apartment’s worth of items before embarking on a life of travel. Posting everything for sale on Google Docs and setting up pick-up dates on Facebook Plans proved to be immensely helpful in pulling it off.

I generally try to live a simple, frugal life, but it’s still amazing how much stuff a person can accumulate when staying put a whole year. Think about it: Every day you need to shower, groom yourself, put on nice clothes, cook meals, entertain yourself, and have guests over. A lot of little things needed to support all that add up to quite a bit. Having an addiction to collecting art doesn’t help, either.

So when my boyfriend, Loic, and I decided to leave our stable, wonderful life in Wellington for a life of unpredictable spontaneity on the road, we knew we had quite the task ahead of us in getting rid of it all.

But first, the problem(s) with TradeMe

I’ve done a “purge” once before when I first left Chicago for New Zealand. In Chicago, Craigslist is popular enough that you can expect plenty of traffic for your posts. Depending on which neighborhood you live in, there’s enough range of incomes to meet the prices at which you’re hoping to sell.

Basically, I was able to post a number of things to Craigslist, keep responses organized in my email folders, negotiate prices and pick-up and that was that. Pretty simple.

In New Zealand, while Craigslist is available down here, it’s barely touched by anyone. An Ebay-alternative called TradeMe was developed some years ago and became ubiquitous with buying and selling in New Zealand. It can be a pricey site to use when selling your goods.

But what if I have nothing to sell after this?

There’s an up-front cost of $10 to make your first listing. If your listing sells and you’re in ‘debt’ after TradeMe takes their cut, even if you owe just $1, only payments of $10 or above are accepted.

The site’s navigation doesn’t let you open links in new tabs, which means managing responses to all your different postings is a hassle — constantly returning back to your profile page, then your listings, then clicking on each item.

There’s plenty more to say, but the main take away here is that TradeMe can be… annoying. Our goal, in addition to selling all of our stuff, was to avoid using TradeMe.

Google Docs to the rescue

Initially, Loic and I sold what we could wherever and whenever we could, through Facebook, Reddit, co-workers, etc. This was going too slowly and we couldn’t tell what was still available between us. So, we needed to get organized.

Together, we spent an evening taking photos of everything and posting it in a Google Doc. We used the pre-made styles to add a title to each item, a sub-title mentioning the price and date available, and a description below the item.

A few descriptions were written as paragraphs, but most (especially for electronics like TVs where a full spec could be posted) were in a simple, bullet list form.

Once all the items were in, we arranged them by theme (furniture, electronics, decorations, housewares) and created a table of contents at the top. This allowed viewers to see everything available at a glance, and then click on the item they were interested in.

Like buying gum in the grocery store checkout lane

The beauty of putting all of our items into one document (especially having photos for every item) not only helped us keep organized, but encouraged viewers to peruse through items they may not have intended on buying to begin with.

When we shared our Google document online, we would call out a few big items like gaming controllers, kitchen appliances, and other things we expected would draw people in to take a look. As we got responses, people would ask for these items, but then tag on some of the smaller miscellaneous things we had elsewhere in the document.

The power of peer pressure

As well as pushing additional sales, Google Docs came with one more unexpected perk: Showing how many other people were viewing the garage sale.

This worked similar to stores and restaurants in real life: If you pass by a store that’s completely empty, you might assume they have nothing worth selling. If you pass by a store that has a line of people out the door, you’ll wonder what exciting thing is inside that people are clamoring over and want to check it out yourself.

Having dozens of “anonymous animals” viewing our document each time we shared it had a similar effect. Loic and I somewhat timed the first launch of our document online, sharing to our coworkers, various Facebook groups, Reddit and Twitter. Within minutes, we could see lots of people taking a look; And they could see each other, too. That first launch was our most successful time for sales, with messages flying left and right to claim various things.

You’ll never know who Anonymous Wolf is, but if you’re not quick he or she may steal our couch before you do!

Google Docs helped us get eyes on what we had for sale. Now, we had to arrange the pickups.

Making Plans with Facebook Messenger

Since Craigslist is largely out of the picture in New Zealand, people have taken to Facebook to make announcements and reach out to one another. One particular group, Vic Deals, has several thousand members buying and selling in Wellington. Without TradeMe, Facebook groups like Vic Deals are your best bet.

I use Facebook a fair bit to stay in touch with family back home, and I get thrown into tons of A/B tests (One of the neat but sometimes irritating things about being in New Zealand is it’s a popular target for A/B testing; It’s a small, English-speaking, Western country, so what works there is likely to work throughout the US and Europe. You can test something and if it breaks, you’ve only upset up to 4.5 million people as opposed several hundred million). I don’t keep track of the changes from day-to-day, but one very interesting feature I’ve been able to see come to life is Facebook’s Plans, formerly known as Events.

Plans is a way to easily schedule something in messenger by tapping on relevant keywords in your conversation to create a plan that includes a date, time, location, and description, and includes a 30-minute reminder before the start time.

During the Events testing phase, this feature was very clunky. You might tell your friend, “I may be thinking about unicorns,” and the word may would be highlighted as a possible month in which to plan something. The prompt to create an event went through a series of obtrusive sizes before the feature was re-named as Plans and now looks like the screen below:

“Today” is a much more reasonable prompt to suggest a plan, and the action area is not intrusive in the chat space.

Plans became invaluable for organizing sales through Facebook. As people messaged me about items for sale, we would agree on a pick-up time and I could create a plan then and there.

Remembering the details, because I certainly won’t

Plans lets you instantly create an event with just the time, but tapping on it again allows you to update other details. I would do this to add the name of the item, the price, and a reminder about our pickup location. This helped the buyer as much as it helped me.

Facebook Plans does a good job of guessing the time and date if you’re descriptive enough, and adding a location and title is just another tap away.

Plus, I was arranging pickups with dozens of people (the above screen is just a hint of how many people I had simultaneous conversations with). Unless I started a spreadsheet or opened my own calendar each time a pickup was agreed on, I would have been lost.

Adding a title about the item and its price also helped me keep my sanity to know who was buying what, since oftentimes several pickups would happen within minutes of one another.

Set and forget

Perhaps the best feature of Plans was its 30-minute reminder. People can be browsing Facebook casually at any time of day and quickly forget what they discussed. Creating the plan, and getting an alarm about it, kept both parties honest.

I was able to focus on responding to new conversations knowing that I’d be reminded in time when a pickup was coming up.

A stressful situation made (slightly more) simple

Docs and Plans made a chaotic situation — selling several miscellaneous items through a virtual garage sale and arranging pickups — much more manageable and organized. If you have any big sales coming up in the future, I would encourage a similar approach.

I’m happy to hear of others’ experiences selling odds and ends through different mediums online as well, so please sound off in the comments.

And, with the garage sale out of the way, we’ve been able to start our life on the go, this time with only a van’s worth of goods. We’ll see what chaos we encounter again when it comes time to sell the van and take off by plane...