August 6, 2006
At the Bottom of the Branding Barrel

A few weeks ago, Grant McCracken wrote about what happens to brands when they reach the commodity basement. Well, I found brands at a different place, a place that actually holds a fairly esteemed position here in Central Kentucky, where I'm staying for the summer: the yard sale.

Yard sales (if they are inside any type of structure, they are garage sales by the way) are an important part of Kentucky life, and the newspaper is filled with reports listing the lawns which will be housing discarded junk on every weekend. Usually, these sales are on Friday and Saturday, and some families have them on an annual basis.

There's one man in McHenry who actually has a garage sale every weekend, and he puts signs as far as 30 or 40 miles away pointing the way to his weekly garage sales, a posterboard that he updates by pasting a new date on every week. I wondered how he could have so much junk inside his house to fuel a weekly garage sale, so I did a newspaper article on him and found that he went out to flea markets and everyone else's yard sales to collect enough stuff to fill his garage again every week.

But, whether it's a yard sale or it's a garage sales (we'll just call it a rummage sale for clarity's sake, which is what my grandma Beulah Hillard always called them--as in, you "rummage" through everything looking for deals), they are a cultural phenomenon. The one I participated in this weekend was a 5-mile long yard sale on KY 505, a stretch of road that connects Cromwell to Horse Branch. Every other family had yard sales or multiple sales set up.

But here's what I've found...there are certain items and certain brands that mean something at yard sales, and others that mean nothing. I had an Apple iBook laptop that got a lot of looks from lots of folks, but no one comes to yard sales prepared for $500 buys. I had a RAZR phone like new that I was selling for a couple hundred bucks that a lot of people looked at but no one wanted to come near. My fax machine and iPod and most name brand clothes in the sale suffered a similar fate.

But there was an ugly old painting that sold for a dollar. In fact, every piece of wall art and every mirror went without a problem. And I even sold an old Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association bag from the conference I went to a couple of years ago, which my mother-in-law had bet I couldn't sell...I had to throw in a hat for the quarter sale, but that thing went.

What's the point of this rambling sale? With all our talk about branding, I found one place where items are still not treated as commodity but where the name brand doesn't seem to mean much. No one cared about Apple...they cared much more about bargains and arguing people down on prices. Anything with a steadfast price is useless. In this case, it's not so much the items for sale but rather the feeling of getting a deal and the joy of arguing for prices that seemed to matter. Unlike Grant McCracken's finding a place where branded items become mere commodities, here the items and their use seems to not matter at all, but rather the act of purchasing, the fun in search and finding a deal.

But, fair warning for anyone who's never had a yard sale--the creatures come out before the sun even rises to rummage through your yard. And you usually have to close up shop shortly after lunchtime because it's gotten too bright for these people to be out. Maybe George Romero should make his next movie Rummage of the Living Dead.