I think lots of people, on looking at taking up electronics or ham radio as a hobby, are quickly scared off by a number of misconceptions. One of the most widely-held says maintaining such hobbies will require an expensive and near-unmanageable investment in tools, test equipment, and supplies. This goes along with a matching misconception which says ‘You Must Buy Everything New!’
In response, I can only say one thing.
Electronics is like any other hobby. You can put as little or as much into it as you want, based on your comfort level and what you want to do, and purchases made at the ‘New/Retail’ level are only one of a vast array of sources. The first question out of 95% of the guests I’ve had over, once they see my lab, is “How in blazes did you AFFORD all this?!”
The answer can be summed up in one word: Scrounging! The art (yes, there is an art to it) of making the rounds of stores and swap meets where used electronics and computer hardware can be found, almost always at prices way below even wholesale.
Some of the examples I've been blessed enough to find are:
· (July 1995) A Data I/O 'UniSite' universal device programmer. This unit can program just about any type of memory or logic chip that is programmable (EPROMs, EEPROMs, PALs, GALs, PEELs, PLDs, etc), and is still made and supported by Data I/O (even if support can cost a bloody fortune!). Original manufacturer's sale price was around $12,500. My initial cost: about $700, including a memory upgrade I bought new from Data I/O (the programmer itself initially came from Weird Stuff Warehouse). I later sold the unit to another scrounger in partial trade for a newer UniSite that had the 'Mass Storage Module' (a hard drive) in it. Total re-investment in 2002: About $900 for a unit that originally sold for about $32,000.
· (September 2002) A Tektronix DSA602A Signal Analyzer (essentially a big digital O-scope on steroids). Bandwidth up to a gigahertz, all kinds of built-in waveform analysis and math functions. Found on Ebay for about $580, a far cry from its original $30,000+ price tag, and all it needed was a little soldering rework on the acquisition board memory banks.
· (August 2003) An IFR (now Aeroflex) model 1600CSA RF communications analyzer, or 'service monitor.' An excellent general-purpose instrument for working with radio equipment, both commercial and amateur. It is, essentially, a combination of several pieces of test gear in one box. It includes a synthesized signal generator, modulation monitor, DVM, oscilloscope, function generator, RF wattmeter, and other such RF-related niceties. Original manufacturer's price: Over $24,000. My cost, at the Radio Club of Tacoma swap meet: $2,250 (about 1/12th of the original price).
2003) A perfectly workable Tektronix 7603 oscilloscope mainframe for $1.00 (the
fellow didn't understand that you needed to install plug-ins for a trace to
appear). Found at one of the Bay Area electronic swaps, and originally sold in
the 70's for over $4,000. A trip to the Tektronix company surplus store at
I could write a book about the stuff I've found over the years, but I'll leave it at this: The entire 'Underground Economy' is very much alive and well, and it can provide a rich source for some outstanding hardware and software!
Don't say I didn't warn you! The surplus market, whether in the form of a swap meet, storefront, auction, or other web site, can provide some superb deals. However, it can also be a financial deathtrap for those inexperienced with electronics in general, and scrounging in particular.
This is a blunt way of saying that the surplus market may not be for everyone. Use these guidelines to decide for yourself.
If you're looking for full manufacturer's warranties, and extensive manufacturer-based technical support, then you should expect to pay for them at the retail level. You will rarely find such backing through the swap meet or surplus store circuit, and this is a normal trade-off for paying a much lower purchase price.
If, however, you don't mind doing some detective work where documentation or software drivers may be concerned, if you're not a slave to the delusion that "Latest Is Always Greatest!" or the thought of repairing your own equipment doesn't scare you, or if you just like futzing with oddball electronics, then embrace the Scrounger within you!
I think any scrounger worth their salt will agree Ebay has had a 'chilling' effect on the variety, quantity, and quality of equipment which shows up at electronics swap meets. This is, given our current world and culture, as unavoidable as breathing.
However, the news is not all bad. Far from it! In fact, anyone who depends strictly on swap meets for their surplus electronics is missing out on some pretty amazing deals. Although I've been buying and selling at such swap meets for over 30 years, I've also had much success buying and selling on Ebay.
And guess what? Although I'll always prefer live events, I enjoy both! An effective scrounging strategy, one that's all but guaranteed to net you nearly anything you need to support your hobby, is one which uses multiple sources.
This means go to swap meets, yes. But also go to garage sales
(especially in technology 'company towns' or hubs such as
Seeking out such places is one big reason why the Google search engine is your friend. Listings of many hamateur events throughout the year, and across the country, can be found at the ARRL's Hamfest search page.
Keep in mind no amount of bargains on Ebay, the Batboard, or any other online forum can EVER replace the fun and atmosphere of a live swap meet, nor should they be expected to. Live swaps are still the only place, outside of garage sales, where you and the seller can be eye-to-eye, which greatly reduces the possibility of getting cheated.
At the risk of annoying some readers, the best advice I can give anyone who wants to get serious about trading on Ebay is to become an 'auction sniper.' This refers to the practice of firing off a single bid for a given item during the last few seconds of an auction. If the sniper is lucky, they can walk away with the item for much less than it might otherwise have gone for, and the competing bidders have no chance to counter the snipe.
If you choose not to invest in high-accuracy local timing, such as a GPS-locked clock, you can use auction-sniping software running on your own computer. My personal favorite among such packages is Daniel Hite's AuctionSentry. The basic version is $14.95 for a lifetime license, and the advanced package (has its own browser, can handle bid groups, etc.) is $24.95 for the initial purchase and $9.95/year thereafter.
Yes, this is an ongoing expense. However, consider that Ebay frequently makes changes to their own site. There have been at least three in the first quarter of 2006 alone, and I expect more as the year progresses. Daniel is extremely conscientious about keeping AuctionSentry up to date and functional, so the annual fee seems to me like a very small price to pay when you consider the potential return.
Be warned: Snipers can lose their bids too. It has happened to me more than once, and I know it will happen again. You only get one chance at an auction when you choose to snipe, so be prepared to bid the absolute maximum that you would pay for an item. This will give you at least some measure of protection from regular bidders and other snipers.
Electronic swap meets, often known as hamfests, attract buyers and sellers from all races, cultures, and languages. They all share one thing in common, though: They all came to find a Good Deal. Exactly what that Good Deal consists of will be in a constant state of flux, but this will never prevent a seller or buyer from trying to get the best price that they possibly can, each according to their own belief system.
Here is where you invariably encounter the core of the 'Spirit of the Swap:’ Haggling, or the art of (sometimes spirited) negotiation between the buyer and seller, for a mutually agreeable price.
Haggling has been around as long as there have been things to buy, sell, or trade. Those who master the art will rarely be disappointed in any deal that they make. However, keep in mind that it is most definitely an art, one that it must be learned well if you don't plan to mortally offend someone, or wind up with a 'white elephant' that you really didn't need and will have lots of trouble getting rid of later.
The most important points of haggling are to know WHEN it is appropriate, exactly WHAT you are haggling for, and WHERE the top and bottom price points of any given item should be. I'll go into detail on these one at a time.
Live swap meets are almost always good haggling environments. The only exceptions are owners of retail storefronts or web-based stores, who may have a booth set up at a swap event. You should not count on being able to haggle with them because they may be bound to a fixed price structure by a parent company or other factors.
You should not, for example, expect to be able to haggle with the folks at the Icom or Kenwood booth outside of any advertised "show specials," nor can you usually haggle in a retail store environment like Ham Radio Outlet. However, electronic surplus stores can be just as haggle-oriented as swap meets. Never be afraid to at least ask if pricing is flexible! The worst the seller can do is say 'No, sorry, can't do that.'
The easiest possible ‘haggle’ comes when you find a price which you think is eminently fair. I've run into this a number of times at both swap meets and some surplus stores. If you feel this is the case, do not haggle about it! Simply pay for the item and be on your merry way.
Many swap meet sellers expect YOU, the buyer, to start the haggling process. I've lost count of the number of times I've asked a seller what their price is for a given item, only to be asked "What's it worth to you?" or "Make me an offer?" in return.
The key is knowledge of what you're buying. Know what the equipment is, what it can do, what its condition is, how it can benefit you in your application, what others have priced it at, and how much time or effort buying it may save you as opposed to doing what you're trying to do a different way.
It also helps to have a good idea of how rare (or not) the item
is. Some equipment, such as security or access-control hardware, can be
considered 'niche-market,' and as such it may not be so easy to obtain through
normal retail or wholesale channels. Under such conditions, it is not unheard
of to encounter pricing along the lines of "What the Market Will
Bear" (which is often not far below retail).
It is of CRITICAL IMPORTANCE to know how much effort you may need to put into what you're haggling for to get it to work in your application. Consider whether you’ll need manuals or replacement parts and remember the equipment's manufacturer may no longer be in business or may have been bought out.
Another potential pitfall is accessories. Always look at what accessories an item comes with, and how much it will cost to replace such if you need to. As one example, logic analyzers found at swap meets or surplus stores rarely come with their (critically necessary) probes or accessory cables. The cost of replacing such accessories may make the analyzer itself a 'White Elephant' at any price.
Here's another example. There exists a Canadian company called Cadex Electronics. They make a line of rechargeable battery analyzer/conditioner systems. Their stuff is wonderfully well built, and a good battery analyzer is an important part of the test gear for any radio shop.
Like any other system of this type, Cadex analyzers require custom-made 'pockets' or charging adapters that are specific to either a single battery or a series of batteries made by a specific equipment manufacturer. In other words, you'll have different adapters for analyzing Motorola batteries vs. Kenwood or Icom units, thanks to the different voltages, capacities, and physical configuration of the pack terminals.
Herein lies the catch: Cadex manufactures a huge range of adapters for their analyzers, but each one can cost from $100-$200!
Another issue you will likely face is support (or lack thereof). The equipment's manufacturer may still be in business, but they may no longer support the stuff you're looking at in terms of manuals or parts. Motorola is particularly bad about this when it comes to the older radios, such as the Spectra series.
This may not be an issue, at least for parts, if the manufacturer used a high count of 'generic' or 'off-the-shelf' components when building the item. However, most of the equipment you’ll find at the surplus level has SOME degree of customization in it. Beware such customization, and investigate whether it may affect you.
To summarize: You need to determine, in each case, if the risk justifies the end. In the above example, some custom components can be easily duplicated or substituted (mechanical parts, such as speaker grilles, knobs, or enclosures), while others (such as custom IC's) might not be so easy to deal with in case of failure.
As one example of the latter: Tektronix used many custom chips over the years that they made in their own plant, specifically for use in their oscilloscopes and other test gear. In many cases, the only replacement available for such parts is to pull it out of a donor instrument.
With all the above in mind, it is to your benefit to do your homework BEFORE you hit the road. Make good use of web searches, your local public library, amateur radio club members, or other electronics hobbyists. Investigate which companies are still in business, which have gone away, and which have mutated into other forms and other names. Pay particular attention to industry-specific publications, such as the Electronic Engineer's Master Catalog (the EEM), the Thomas Register, and even regional phone directories.
Remember... KNOWLEDGE IS POWER!
Determining a fair price is the trickiest part of any haggle. Go too low, and you risk offending the seller to the point where they will simply tell you to buzz off. Go too high, and you could end up gaining a reputation as a gullible "easy mark," someone who will pay inflated prices for all kinds of junk.
The Internet and the Web, once again, have considerable value here as research tools. Look for equipment similar to what you're after on Ebay, used equipment dealers, and want-ad boards such as the Batlabs Wanted/For Sale listings. Ask around at ham radio clubs, or from other techies you may know, in terms of getting advice for what you're looking for and how much it's likely to go for, new and used. Take that knowledge with you, and you stand a good chance of unearthing a Most Worthy Bargain.
One good way to make an offer in such a way that the risk of offending the seller is minimal is to word it something like this:
(Seller): "Go ahead, make me an offer."
(You): "Honestly, I've no idea... Would (insert dollar amount) be too low?"
Such wording neatly conveys the fact that you don't have the slightest frelling CLUE what the item is really worth, but that you're willing to haggle, and that you're starting at a price point you're comfortable with.
Be warned! Some swap meet sellers will use Ebay auction prices to defend what may be unjustifiably-high sale prices, not knowing that one should rarely (if ever) expect to get auction pricing in a swap meet environment. If a seller keeps insisting "It's what I could get on Ebay," it may be interesting to ask them (politely) why they didn't sell the item on Ebay to begin with.
No matter how they respond, it may also be in your best interest to simply thank them for their time and move on. Never take it personally! Other buyers will vote with their collective wallets in terms of just how fair (or not) the seller's pricing is. Be content with this.
Considering retail surplus dealers have a reputation to protect, it is rare you’ll run into problems.
Swap meets and Ebay, however, are prime breeding grounds for one particular seller type. If you spend any time at all on the swap circuit, you will encounter them. The warning signs include excessively high prices, a high-pressure sales pitch which would make any used-car dealer proud, or claims about the equipment varying from subtle fibs to thundering lies.
These are the few people who are terminally greedy, or have a horrible lack of ethics, yet they're so smooth about it you can be easily taken in by them if you're not on your guard. Even the most experienced scroungers can be taken in if the sleazer is a good enough con artist, and the buyer is not keeping a cool head about themselves.
Some of the examples I've seen or heard of in my travels:
At a now-defunct surplus place in San Jose, CA, known then as 'A to Z Electronics,' I found a SCSI disk drive that was, for the time (1996), quite a coup to get. It was in a glass display case up front, near the register, priced at $95.00. It only had one little problem, one that could have been easily missed if one didn't know what to look for.
Specifically: One of the seals protecting the HDA chamber had been removed. The disk platters were visible through the hole.
Upon expressing justifiable concern over this point, the counter person became sullen, and suggested it was time for us to leave the store. My fellow scrounger and I did so, quickly. We also spread word about the place to the local scrounging community.
A few months later, A to Z folded up and closed their doors for good. I can only assume we were not the only ones to have problems.
One of my best friends and fellow scroungers encountered a seller at one of the Bay Area's swap meets who had an interesting-looking DLT (Digital Linear Tape) drive. Such drives have their native capacity clearly labeled on the front panel. In this case, it was 20GB native, and 40 compressed. The seller, however, insisted that it was a 40/80 drive, and became annoyed when evidence to the contrary was presented. Said seller became more agitated when asked if the unit was even functional.
My friend moved on without another word, and warned me (and others) about this particular seller. The drive didn't sell, and the seller received justice in the form of much-reduced business for his other items.
At the same swap meet, a different seller brought out a bunch of fairly useful Tektronix plug-ins for the 7000 series oscilloscopes. However, his prices were not very good, and he was extremely resistant to haggling. Any attempt to do so got his dander up, and God help you if you asked him about the functional status of the units. "I don't know anything about them, I just sell them!" he would exclaim, in an annoyed tone.
Needless to say, this fellow was his own worst enemy. No one bought anything from him I know of, and he disappeared within three months.
Not all Sleazers choose swap meet environments. Some prefer a more anonymous venue, which leads me to…
If you're perceptive, observant, and never let your judgment be clouded by overwhelming desire for any given item, not even a “Ralph Spoilsport” type will be able to pull a fast one if you can look them in the eyes.
Unfortunately, forums like Ebay afford no such opportunity. In fact, it's rare that you can even talk to your seller (or buyer) on the phone, let alone see them in person. Kurt McDuffie, one of the Technoid's readers, E-mailed me this story from March of 2004.
"My favorite candidate for eBay's most unscrupulous seller is the guy who was claiming that he couldn't test his Tektronix 7000 series plug-ins because he had no mainframe to test them in, while simultaneously claiming that he couldn't test the 7000 series mainframe he was selling because he had no plug-ins.
"The same seller usually claims that he doesn't have the knowledge or equipment to test his items, so they are sold as-is. EXCEPT, however, when he has a real gem to sell he suddenly sounds like an MSEE with a NIST cal lab to test his gear..."
This is only one example, and such incidents are not limited to sellers. I've had three or four buyers win the bid on an item I was selling, only to back out of the deal later. One person failed to read the auction description, particularly the part which said 'As-Is, Needs Repair,' and then tried to blame me for his errors. Other buyers have won the auction, and then simply disappeared into the ether(net), never to be heard from again.
Ebay also has its share of sellers who are either grossly negligent or simply incompetent. In early 2004, I won the bid for a nice Dolch portable computer. The seller was a high-school teen who was using Ebay to make extra money during summer break, and computers were a bit outside his specialty (he usually sold car parts).
I paid for the unit, plus shipping, within 24 hours of the auction's end. The shipping, unfortunately, was not so quick. It took the sale going into arbitration, five E-mails, a phone call, and nearly a month's time for the unit to get here. When it finally arrived, I was horrified to see that Mr. High-School Superdeal had simply placed the unit in a loose-fitting box, with no padding or packing material at all, and dropped it off (literally) with UPS.
Now for the unbelievable part: The unit still worked! Yes, despite a broken support foot, and a slightly bent frame section (both easily fixed), the unit survived, and is in active service to this day! I still consider this to be nothing short of a miracle, due solely to Dolch's dedication to making rugged drop-and-whack resistant equipment.
When I left the seller his (justifiably negative) feedback, he had the unmitigated gall to respond that I had been "impatient," and that he had used the same shipping methods he used "all the time." I guess he figures computers are as rugged as Chevy transmission parts...
There is good news, though. Ebay has a number of features that, if used properly, can greatly reduce the chance of getting cheated. Here are some of the warning signs to look for.
High positive feedback count, but mostly as a buyer: This can be a big red flag, and it was, in fact, the case with Mr. High-School Superdeal above. He had a good starting count of positive feedback, but 98% of it was from sellers, in reference to him as the buyer. He had done only a handful of sales and, of those, there was one neutral and one other negative.
Normally, such a spread is a red flag to me. The only reason I went with him is because he had a better deal, at the time, on the particular computer I wanted.
In short, I chose to ignore my own advice, and I paid for it in more ways than one.
Look for a good balance of positive feedback on the person as both a Buyer and Seller. Alternatively, if the person has lots of positive feedback as a seller alone, you can be fairly sure they're a good bet even though they may not buy a lot.
Inconsistency in items sold: This can, in conjunction with the feedback rating, be another red flag, and it's another one I chose to ignore where the teenager was concerned. In looking at Mr. Superdeal's feedback records, he tended to sell used car parts exclusively. The Dolch was a surprise, and it turns out he had violated another Ebay rule by allowing a friend to use his account to sell it.
The thing to do here is view at least ten items the seller has moved in the recent past, AND look at any other auctions they may be running at that moment. If, for example, they've got some electronic equipment up for grabs, but their past history shows that they've been selling mostly cheese straighteners, toys, household widgets, or similar non-techie stuff, be careful!!! You may be stepping into electronic quicksand.
You have one other thing in your favor when making any deal, no matter if you're staring a retiree ham radio nut in the eye or sniping on Ebay: The people who are truly out to cheat someone are in the minority.
This is probably because most hobbies, electronics included, have an informal "grapevine" of communications among those who participate in it long enough. Put another way, word gets around!
Those most vulnerable to shysters are rookie scroungers, especially the younger folks. With that in mind, here are some warning signs to watch for.
(1) The Big Push. If you find something you want, and the seller tries hard to push it on you (or anyone else showing interest), it should set off some alarm bells. Don't let yourself be caught up in the hype! Doing so may be exactly what the seller is counting on to move something that may be damaged or gutted beyond practical repair! Keep a cool head in the face of the hype-storm, let the seller run down, and then ask in-depth questions about the item's condition.
If the answers you get do not satisfy you, do not make sense, or if your 'people sense' continues to scream 'RED ALERT!' in your head, then DO NOT BUY THE ITEM FOR ANY SIGNIFICANT AMOUNT! It's up to you to determine what 'significant' means for your circumstances, but my advice would be to simply thank the seller for their time and move on.
(2) The Seller-in-your-Face. This is related to #1. In this scenario, the seller is too helpful. They may not actively push any given item, but they will hover around you, sometimes inches away, like a fly hovering around... well, you get the idea.
These are the people who, if you ask them one simple question about any given item, will go off on wild tangents with their answer. They'll offer you not only the information you asked for, but will chatter on endlessly about the history of the equipment in general, the one you're looking at in particular, and anything else that pops into their hypercharged brains at that instant.
This is at least a yellow flag. If the item is cheap enough, and looks like it will do the job, it's OK to buy it, but definitely keep your mental filters in place when dealing with a seller like this. Fortunately, such behavior seems to be limited (perhaps not surprisingly) to teenagers selling stuff of their own at their parents' stall.
(3) The Broken Record. If you attend any swap meet on a regular basis, even annually, you will likely note each event has its core of 'regulars' among the sellers. This is usually a Good Thing, if said regulars are bringing out different types of equipment every time they show up. Heck, I'm a regular seller at the annual Mike & Key Radio Club event.
Some sellers, however, bring out the same tired stuff every single time, month after month, year after year, and they never seem to sell a whole lot of it (if any). They are often characterized by unwillingness to haggle, excessively high prices, and a general lack of knowledge (or outright lying) about the condition and type of equipment they're trying to move.
If you notice one of these 'Broken Records,' be wary! Some of them don't even seem to care if they sell anything or not, and this really makes me question why they even bother to show up. If you do decide to buy something from them, be 100% certain of what it is, and how it will work for you. Do NOT depend on the seller for a reliable description!
Remember: Good equipment and a good deal will ALWAYS sell themselves!
Scrounging is not so much a continuous inflow of goodies as it is a 'flow-through' of such. Equipment and components change over time, and new wants and needs develop on your part. Alternatively, you may simply run out of storage space, or your life-mate/Significant Other may lose patience with what looks like an ever-growing Pile of Stuff.
This is the time to look at selling on your own. Anyone can sell on Ebay with a reasonable degree of success, so I won't focus on them. Instead, I will focus exclusively on the assumption you're going to sell your stuff at an electronics swap meet.
Doing so is not difficult, and it is usually a lot of fun, but there are a few things you should remember.
This is probably the single most important thing to remember. It sets the tone for the entire trip! If you get greedy, and price what you're selling at or beyond the absolute top end of what you think it's worth, or if you use top dollar on Ebay as a reference, you're going to go home disappointed. I absolutely guarantee it.
Never expect to get Ebay prices at a swap meet for what you're selling, period!
A good way to know where to set your prices (both initial and final) is to actually visit as many electronic swaps as you can get to, including the one you plan to sell at, as a buyer. You should visit at least three of them, ideally separated by no more than 250 miles.
If you have a swap that's a regular monthly event in your area (the Bay Area, south Los Angeles area, and San Diego all have monthly events), visit it for at least three consecutive months before you try selling there. Observe both buyers and sellers, and keep close tabs on what kind of prices you see equipment similar to what you want to sell going for. Use what you learn during such 'fishing trips' as a guideline when you set your own prices. Undercut what you find, if you feel comfortable doing so.
There will be cases where you have equipment to sell which you simply don't see at any swap. This is the time to use Ebay or other surplus dealers as a reference. A good rule-of-thumb is to price what you're selling at anywhere from half to two-thirds of what it's going for at other sources.
Remember why you're there! You probably came out to clear space at home, and help gain some $$ towards other things you want to buy. Although there have been (and still are) dealers who make a living from swap meets, they are rare, and real success stories among them even more so.
An electronics swap meet - heck, any swap meet - is there to provide people a venue to, in essence, have a centrally-located community garage sale. It is most unwise to take it any more seriously than that.
If I had to put numbers on how often something sells for its initial price vs. how often haggling ensues, I'd say it's about 35/65. In other words, be prepared to haggle more than half the time!
Here's how it works. Start with the absolute lowest price you would ever dream of accepting for a given item. Take all factors into account for this decision, such as the usefulness of the item to you, storage space it's taking up, what your Significant Other is going to say if you bring it home unsold, how much effort or $$ you had to put into it prior to selling, and how fond you are of the idea of bringing it home.
Next, mark that figure up by about half. In other words, if your absolute lowest acceptable price for something is $20, start by pricing it at $30, or even $35 if it's particularly desirable, and see what happens. You may end up having to bargain down to your lowest point, but you may also end up getting your initial asking price right off the bat. You Just Never Know!
I cannot stress this point strongly enough! There have been a number of times I've been trying to haggle with a seller, only to be told something like "Oh, come on! It went for (insert dollar figure) new!" This statement usually comes from the same kinds of people who will tell you "But I could get as much for it on Ebay!"
The only thing the 'when-new' price of any item is good for is describing your deal to others as a comparison of what kind of savings are possible in the surplus market. It is 152 percent IRRELEVANT in terms of setting a swap meet price!
If you've got a lot of small items, like connectors, transistors, resistors, diodes, or other similar parts, AND said parts don't happen to be packaged or sorted neatly, you may do better to toss everything in a bag or box and assign a single price to the entire package.
This can also work well if you have a lot of similar items. You can do, say, "Fifty cents each or twelve for five bucks," or another popular one, "A quarter each or five for a dollar." For things like small hand tools, you could try "A dollar each or six for five bucks." You get the idea. This technique works even better if your small stuff is neatly sorted into bins or bags.
This is another point which cannot be stressed strongly enough! When someone asks you about the condition or specifications of something you're selling, respond truthfully, and with as much technical detail as your level of expertise allows given the nature of the question.
In other words, if someone simply asks you "What is it?" you should NOT overwhelm them with the history, technical merits, or other details. Listen to the question itself and frame your answer accordingly. Some examples:
The Item: A serial data analyzer I once sold. It bears a strong resemblance to an old 'suitcase' PC, and is often mistaken for such by those who were born in the late 70's to early 80's.
The Question: "Does it run Windows?"
My answer (after cringing inside): "No, and it's not a computer. That's a serial data analyzer."
The end result is that the unit didn't sell to that person, but it was just as well. They had a gross misconception of what it was, and they wouldn't have known what to do with it. Let's look at another example.
The Item: A mobile RF power amplifier, made by Motorola for use in conjunction with one of their older portable radios (the HT220, to be exact).
The Question: "What frequency does it cover, and does it work?"
My answer: "It's designed for 150-170MHz, tunable. I suspect it could be modified for 2 meters, but I don't really know. As for working or not, I haven't tested it..."
This deal worked out a bit better. My price was cheap ($5 or $10, I don't recall exactly), and the buyer was an experimenter, so he had few qualms about buying the unit. His questions were aimed mainly at determining if the unit would be anywhere near suitable for his application, and how much work he might have to put into the device.
My point is my responses were short, sweet, to the point, and honest. No prattling about what a Great Deal I was making, no history of RF amps or serial analyzers, no pressure: Just clean, simple, honest responses.
Never fib, never exaggerate, and above all NEVER LIE!!!! Believe me when I say only the greenest of techies will be taken in by a lie. If they, one of their friends, or a parent (in the case of a minor) finds out about it later, well… suffice to say word will get around very fast indeed, and you may even find yourself answering some hard questions posed to you by the local police.
If you don't know the answer to a given question, simply state as much! A made-up answer, just for the sake of trying to make a sale, will get you in hot water almost as fast as lying. The potential buyer may have far more background in the field than you could ever guess. A bogus answer will stand out like a solar flare to them, and you will not only (most likely) lose the sale, you will also gain a reputation as a jerk that doesn't deserve to sell anything. Remember how I've said the swap meet community votes with their wallets?
Just relax, be yourself, and be truthful. You can't go wrong that way, even if your sales are minimal.
Perhaps one of the hardest things for rookie sellers to remember: A good deal will sell itself. More importantly, no amount of sales pitch, however slickly worded or delivered, will force a sale if it is simply not meant to be!
So: When someone stops at your space, and starts checking out your wares, LEAVE THEM ALONE! This does not mean be rude, and ignore them completely. Feel absolutely free to say "Good day!" or whatever greeting may be appropriate for the time of day or year, BUT...! Unless they ask you a direct question, or make a comment that warrants some sort of response, limit your comments to the initial greeting, and "If you have any questions, just ask."
The only exception to this is, if you're selling something which has the manual with it, you can add "If you'd like to look at the manual, it's (insert location here -- under the unit, in your truck, whatever)."
Rest assured, they will start asking questions if they find something of interest. If they don't, and they just move on, LEAVE THEM ALONE! Trying to get them to come back with questions like "Can I help you find something?" will only serve to make sure they DON'T come back.
It's near the end of the day, and you haven't sold everything you came out to sell. Well, guess what? It happens! Even the best sellers, with the most desirable cargo in the world, will sometimes go home with some of what they brought out.
If this happens, and what's left is not something you wish to haul home, there are a couple of very effective and fun ways to deal with it. First and foremost, separate out everything that you absolutely, positively, WANT to keep at the original price or take home to try and sell at a later event. My rule-of-thumb is if it doesn't sell after three swap attempts, it's not going to sell anywhere.
For the stuff that remains, try cutting your selling prices to the bone about an hour before the event closes. If you had things selling for $20 each, drop them to $10, or even $5. If you had stuff selling for $5 each, drop it to $1. Remember, the primary idea of selling at a swap meet is to MOVE STUFF OUT! Do what it takes, even if it doesn't make you a fortune. I've done so many times. Trust me, it works! Even for hard-to-move stuff, it usually works!!
IMPORTANT!!! The following trick should ONLY be used in an 'Open Parking Lot' type of swap meet, or other venues where you're NOT in an enclosed building. IF YOU'RE IN AN ENCLOSED EVENT, see if the event coordinators have a PA system set up.
Once you're down to a point where you just want what's left to go to a good home, and no one's really buying, you need to start a feeding frenzy. As mentioned above, separate out what you absolutely want to keep to sell at the next event, or whatever you feel you just can't go any lower with, price-wise. Set out what remains in a neat little pile as far to the front of your space as you possibly can.
Take a step or two back, take a big lungful of air, cup your hands around your mouth, megaphone-style, and yell "FREE GOODIES!!!!!!" at the top of your lungs. In fact, give it a try, right now...
No, not that pathetic little squawk! Put your DIAPHRAGM into it! Shake the windows!! Remember, you're covering a large area. You need VOLUME!!... Oh... you scared the cat, and your neighbors are wondering if you've finally snapped. Darn... well, be more careful about yelling in enclosed spaces! ;-)
Rarely have I seen a case where this does not serve to clean out the remainder of what you're moving. Besides, it's fun to watch the crowd go into a feeding frenzy!
No matter if you're buying or selling, it all comes back to one simple fact: 'Knowledge is Power.'
The more you choose to teach yourself about the equipment you're selling or shopping for, and the stronger your background knowledge of electronics, the better equipped you'll be to tackle any swap meet or surplus store with impunity. You don't need an engineering degree to come away with a good deal, but you will also be at a nasty disadvantage if you don't at least have some idea of what you're looking for, and what its price points are.
Above all else, remember these critical points:
Top Ten Hints of Swap Meet Success
(1) Always be polite! Remember that you're trying to reach a mutually agreeable price for something you want. Nothing more! If the seller is a complete jerk, it’s best to simply break things off, thank the seller for their time, and move on. Ignore any insults or comments that said seller may hurl after you! An obnoxious seller is their own worst enemy. Their attitude will very effectively drive away the very customers they came out to find, and they will leave the event empty-handed.
(2) Don't be afraid to say 'no, thanks' (and come back later!) You will not always be able to reach agreement the first time, if at all. Also keep in mind many sellers have no particular desire to return home with most of what they came to get rid of.
(3) Be persistent, but not a pest. Along those same lines; if a seller has something you want, but you were unable to reach a bargain point the first time, try again as the day progresses (assuming the item in question doesn't sell to someone else). Don't make a pest of yourself, though; check back, say, every hour to hour-and-a-half or so, right up until the seller is packing to leave or the swap meet closes, whichever comes first. You may end up getting lucky after all.
(4) 'People' sense and common sense go hand-in-hand. Use them! The big advantage swap meets have over Ebay is you can meet your seller face-to-face. It’s easy to get an impression of what kind of person you're dealing with.
(5) Remember: No matter how much you learn and no matter how many swaps you attend, you will, at some point, get ripped off by an unscrupulous dealer, or buy something you think will be perfect for an application and have it turn out to be a White Elephant. This is a normal effect of working the surplus market, and is as unavoidable as breathing. Don’t let it scare you away!
(6) Don't fret if you miss out on something! Getting upset over missing a deal will only cloud your ability to spot other deals. Think about it: You're focusing all this energy on being mad about missing something, and that leaves less energy for looking for other things!
(7) DON'T BE SCARED of used or surplus equipment just because it's a little dirty, or because it's not necessarily the latest thing on the market! Only you can decide what's right for your applications and needs, and only you can decide how you're going to implement them, but surplus gear can really save you some serious bucks if you're careful. 'Latest' is not always the greatest!
(8) The best way to avoid costly mistakes is to go with a friend or mentor who is already an experienced scrounger, someone who knows the ropes of swaps and surplus stores right along with the equipment. Amateur ('ham') radio or computer clubs are a great place to find such friends. Once you feel comfortable striking off on your own, do it!
(9) The risks and rewards of scrounging can be equally great. This is a game anyone can win, if they’re careful. Educate yourself, make good use of different sources, and you will likely never lack for what you're after.
(10) Have Fun!
Quando Omni Flunkus Moritati! (Red Green, aka Steve Smith)
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