For sale: baby shoes, never worn

Unraveling the dismal science of my Facebook moms resale group

I recently discovered one easy trick to make money from home! Well, “easy” is relative and “make money” is also kind of debatable, but I definitely have not left my house.

I’ve been in decluttering mode for the last couple weeks and have become super active with my local moms resale group on Facebook. For those of you not deep into Suburban Mom World, these are private groups of parents (almost entirely moms) who are buying and selling things—mostly kids’ stuff, but also adult clothing and kitchenwares and furniture. Laura Hazard Owen has an superb write-up of how these groups work. She’s in the Boston area and I’m just outside Chicago, but the mechanics are the same: Members put up a photo, price and description of the item they’re selling and interested buyers comment on the post to claim their place in line. Pick-ups are typically done via porch—that is, sellers leave their goods outside and buyers swing by to get them at their convenience, sticking cash in a mailbox or under a doormat. It is a remarkably efficient system and very addictive. I once almost commented “Sold!” on a friend’s photo of green tea Kit Kats before realizing it was a regular post in my News Feed.

The overachiever in me wanted to become the mogul of my Facebook resale group, and the business journalist in me wanted to figure out which items sell and why. Sitting in my basement among plastic storage bins filled with my daughter’s outgrown clothing and baby gear, and perhaps inspired by Jason Fried’s advice that you should practice making money, I set out on my little sales experiment. Here’s what I learned.

Items awaiting pick-up on my porch.

Copywriting Doesn’t Matter

I was led astray by early success in offloading my DVD of Pride & Prejudice for $3. Here’s what I wrote:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a person in possession of even a tiny fortune must be in want of this movie. Show how ardently you admire and love Colin Firth emerging from a lake wearing a clingy white shirt! This is a two-disc set. I just upgraded to Blu-ray so I don’t need the DVD anymore.

Not only did I have a taker within the hour with three more buyers commenting “Next,” but I also got 16 Likes and inspired a mini discussion about how much everyone loves the movie. You are surely made of hardier stuff than I am, but I was powerless to resist such social media affirmation.

I knew I couldn’t match the wit of my favorite salesmom, a woman who’s elevated the For Sale post to a kind of performance art (here’s one: “Crushed purple blazer. Small tear in armpit which can be easily fixed, unless your armpit is a size 8. I shoplifted this from Saks 12 years ago. It’s beautiful and I’m probably going to hell.”) But I was convinced I’d have to pen Jane Austen-level copy every time. So for a Little Mermaid hooded swim cover-up in 2T, I wrote, “Thingamabobs? You’ve got plenty. But do you have this adorable Little Mermaid cover-up?” I listed it for $2 and no one bought it. Meanwhile, other items whose posts were written in the sparsest language (3T shirt, VGUC, lots of life left, sf/pf PPU*, $3) sold just fine. I stopped being cute and just started listing the basic information. Of course, there are lots of sales scenarios where copywriting matters a great deal, but my weird bubble of a Facebook group did not appear to be one of them. I moved onto price.

(*very good used condition, smoke free/pet free, porch pick up)

Pretty Much Everything Costs Five Dollars

The Boppy is a U-shaped pillow designed for nursing. Mine was in good used condition and I also had two covers, one with a small tear in the seam. The pillow retails for around $30 new. One day, I saw a mom selling her Boppy and cover for $3. It was claimed almost immediately and then another woman commented “Next,” so I messaged that person and asked if she’d like to buy my Boppy and two covers. She asked how much I wanted for it and I hesitated. Three dollars seemed low, especially because I had an extra cover. But one of my covers had a tear. I didn’t know how to justify charging more than the other mom, so I said $3. She picked it up that afternoon.

The next day, a mom listed a Boppy and cover in the same condition for $2. Later that day, another mom listed her Boppy for free. Free! The local market for used Boppy nursing pillows had somehow collapsed entirely within two days.

I have no idea whether those second-day Boppy sellers even saw the earlier sale posts, let alone based their pricing on them. But I noticed that in my resale group, pretty much everything converges toward the $5 mark, regardless of original retail value. As Laura Hazard Owen notes in her essay, price and size tend to have an inverse relationship, resulting in a market where “you can sell a Jumperoo for maybe $5; you can sell two used pairs of Hanna Andersson baby socks for $5.” This is absolutely the case in my Facebook group. Even in cases where you can price items higher, the economics are hilariously skewed. I sold my daughter’s old crib and mattress for $30, a price so low that I’m not sure my husband feels fairly compensated for the time he spent looking for the hardware and instructions, not finding the manual either in the house or online, and then printing instructions off the Internet for a different crib model from the same manufacturer and carefully annotating them. I, on the other hand, felt fantastic about getting the crib and mattress out of the basement. And that brings me to the last thing I learned.

It’s Not About Money

In this mini economy, the value of a transaction is measured in something other than money. It’s about community! Oh barf, I know. But it’s true. As the seller, I accept a price below fair resale value for my daughter’s gently used dresses and bibs because it is a luxury to be able to private message my address to someone I’ve never met and trust that the money will simply appear under my doormat, without anyone getting scammed. I don’t use Craigslist anymore, but if I did, I would probably ask to meet in a McDonald’s parking lot or the lobby of my local police station (which specifically makes its lobby available for Craigslist transactions). It just feels too big and scary. And despite Facebook’s badgering, I have no desire to try their Marketplace, where you can post your items more publicly to people in your geography. The thought of complete strangers being able to see my name and profile photo is terrifying, and besides, the moms in my resale group who’ve tried Marketplace say they get bombarded by people who want to haggle. (I still haven’t worked out why I feel okay with dozens of Lyft drivers seeing my address and photo.)

On my resale group of 2,000-some people who live within a seven-mile radius, I feel safe. These are women that I know from my daughter’s preschool, my exercise studio, and the playground. Many of us are also members of two other Facebook groups of local moms that have become an indispensable source of hyperlocal news, recommendations for babysitters/handymen/birthday party venues, and general bonhomie. The resale group feels like an extension of that community.

I thought that I was providing something of value to the moms buying my used stuff. It turns out I get way more out of these little transactions as a seller. My husband and I had always planned to have more than one child. We recently, reluctantly changed our plans for a number of reasons, one of them being that my uterus seemed to have very different ideas about what the size of our family should be. I’ve been using the resale group as a kind of reverse retail therapy, a literal letting go of the idea that I should be keeping the nursing pillow and crib for a second kid. There are days when this turn of events makes me so sad I don’t want to leave the house. But I don’t have to! I go down to the basement, find something cute in a storage bin, snap a photo and post it. If I’m lucky, someone will buy it. I private message her my address, put the thing in a plastic grocery bag labeled with her name and leave it on my porch swing. Then I retreat to my office and listen for the sound of the porch door squeaking open. I pretend I’m not home. After she slips a few bills under my doormat and leaves, the door banging shut behind her, I feel a little lighter. Like I said before, it’s not easy and I’m not making much money. But I’m gradually feeling better. Very good condition, lots of life left.

To hear insights on making money from people who have been doing it for a long time, check out Basecamp’s podcast The Distance, featuring the stories of businesses that have been running for 25 years or more. New episodes every other Tuesday.