A PTO garage sale can be a fun event, raise your profile in the community, and earn a surprising amount of money, as well. Communication and organization are key.

Many schools hold spring garage sales because warm weather tends to draw bigger crowds and spring cleaning increases inventory, although fall can be a good time, too. The Lyon Elementary PTO in Magnolia, Texas, held its first garage sale after Hurricane Ike put a wrench in the regular fall cookie dough sale in 2008. Former PTO president Joy Morris recommends fall because a back-to-school sale helps many families find affordable school supplies and clothing, plus enthusiastic volunteers are more plentiful earlier in the school year. Profits from Lyon’s sales have ranged from $500 to $1,000.

Advertising will be your biggest expense, but there are ways to save money. The PTO at Bee Cave Elementary in Austin, Texas, invested $300 on reusable lawn signs; for a small fee, they can change the date. Websites like craigslist are free and are the first places experienced bargain hunters look for sales. Advertise in two phases, first to get merchandise and second to attract customers. Start six weeks before your first collection date to give you enough time to draw donations and then customers.

You’ll need to staff collection times, sorting and setup, sale hours, and cleanup. The Beachwood (Ohio) Community PTO has run a garage sale for 11 years. The sale is now a city institution, attracting hundreds and earning as much as $20,000. For a sale that big, volunteer needs are substantial. Gayle Hochheiser, who ran the sale for several years, assigned 29 volunteer shifts of 15 people each for the four-day sale. Many of the volunteers were high schoolers filling their graduation requirement for community service hours. Lyon Elementary uses 25 people for its single-day sale.

No matter how many volunteers you end up needing (or getting), make sure to have a few to handle heavy lifting. This is especially important during setup and cleanup, but having someone available to help bring large purchases to customers’ cars is a welcome touch.

Your sale will most likely require a garage sale permit; depending on your plans, you may need other permits, as well. If you plan to sell concessions, you may need to have a food vendor’s license or supervision from school kitchen staff (many states have different rules for selling nonpackaged vs. packaged foods). Contact your city’s community relations department to find out about permission to post signs on city property; permits for food, music, or crowds; and how to notify local safety officials of your plans. If your sale is indoors, expect the fire marshal to do a visual check for clear aisles and accessible doorways in case of an emergency.

Setup

Setup—collecting inventory, prepping your location, and sorting and pricing merchandise—is the toughest task.

The length of your collection period will depend on sale size and, more important, storage capacity. Most schools store their goods on-site; some use a corner of the gym or cafeteria or classrooms. Whether it’s for a single day or a whole week, make sure your collection period accommodates families with varying schedules—offer both daytime and evening drop-off hours.

You’ll need plenty of tables to display and arrange merchandise. If you leave everything in a jumble, people are more likely to perceive it as junk rather than treasure. Making table assignments before you start will streamline sorting as objects go straight to the correct table.

If you run out of time to individually price items (or choose not to do so), assign a price to each table to keep things organized and help cashiers easily tally bills. Have volunteers price only items they haven’t contributed—sentimental value will inflate prices and squash sales. Mid-sale, slash prices and offer grab bags that shoppers can fill for a flat price.

Learn the benefits, risks, and costs of credit card processing for your fundraiser

Plan on having at least two cash boxes stocked with singles. Arm your cashiers with calculators, plastic bags, and generalized price lists to make any last-minute pricing decisions easier. Also, have a first aid kit and emergency phone available, and provide access to amenities like electricity and running water (plugging in an old lamp or hosing off a bike can make the sale).

Finally, determine your sale’s policies and post them in a visible location. Accept personal checks from school staff members only—the last thing you need is to deal with insufficient funds.

You can make cleanup easier and also add a service element to your sale by selecting a few charities with specific needs and asking them to remove sale leftovers immediately after the sale ends. The Beachwood PTO earmarks leftovers for special agencies such as My Fairy Godmother, a local charity that gives prom dresses to underprivileged girls. Lyon Elementary uses the leftover children’s clothing and shoes to supply the school’s Star Helper closet, a stockpile of gently worn clothing that teachers give out to kids in need.

Try a Flea Market

Rather than running a rummage-style sale, the Bee Cave PTO rents parking spots to individual vendors, creating a flea market atmosphere. Because individual parking spaces are uniform in size and easy to assign and find, the lot is a ready-made mall with a store for each space. (If individual spaces aren’t numbered, just use masking tape to number them the night before.) Proceeds depend on how many spaces are rented, not how much merchandise is sold. The Bee Cave PTO charges $25 for one space or $40 for two.

With vendors staffing their own “booths,” fewer volunteers are needed, and setup and cleanup are quicker, too. Becky Siddons, Bee Cave Elementary PTO past president, says a flea market sale without a separate PTO booth could be staffed with as few as three to five volunteers. Showing up early with a clipboard and cash box, volunteers simply check in vendors and point them to their assigned spot. Siddons recommends stocking your cash box with about $70 in small bills to make change for vendors registering late.

Giving Back

Although each group uses its sale to raise money, all three said giving back to their community is the event’s biggest reward. In the years after Hurricane Ike, the Lyon Elementary sale helped families still affected by the storm access affordable clothing, school supplies, and housewares. The Beachwood PTO’s citywide sale earns thousands for the group, but Gayle Hochheiser explains that its purpose goes beyond revenue: “It increases community building and lets [the PTO] provide for people in need with annual donations to more than 30 agencies.”


Junktique Takes PTA’s Garage Sale Upscale

The Oakhurst Elementary PTA in Decatur, Ga., wanted a fresh idea for a fundraiser, something original that would engage the whole community. Rachel Cochran, the 2009 event cochair, suggested a giant yard sale. “I love yard sales and salvage,” she says. “That was my vision.” Other parents thought differently. “They said, ‘No, no, no, this will be an upscale event,’” Cochran recalls, laughing.

A PTA member from England proposed an event reminiscent of English festivals, with roving musicians, casual food, and drink. The result was Junktique, a laid-back, sprawling yard sale and artists’ market complete with live music, food, keg beer, and wine. The event included the yard sale Cochran envisioned, with the artists providing a higher-end touch. The food, beverages, and music came together to create an event that was just plain fun and reflected the Decatur community’s artistic and free-spirited vibe.

Held on a Sunday afternoon in early November, Junktique attracted an estimated 500 people. PTA leaders took in $10,000; half went toward expenses, leaving $5,000 in profit. The rented sound system was their biggest expense.

The food was a hit: They sold tacos and pasta prepared by local restaurants. A parent volunteer with a background in entertainment booked the bands, which played for free and attracted their own fan bases. The roster included musicians of all ages, from students to seasoned veterans. “They were a great mix of talent and type of music,” says former PTA copresident Anne Baca. “The entertainment piece was such a fundamental part of the fun of the day.”

Organizers put the artists’ market indoors, charging $100 each, a rate comparable to similar festivals around town. The yard sale, billed as a “vintage sale” to discourage excessively junky wares, was held outdoors. Yard sale vendors paid just $35. For its first sale, the PTA defined vintage as “furniture that you would buy yourself, cool home furnishings, jewelry and accessories, other cool stuff” on its website. “Vintage is not...items the Salvation Army won’t take” or “moldy paperbacks from the basement.”

Nevertheless, Cochran says, “Some people were still selling weird things—stuff like...socks!”

Rachel Herzog, who uses recycled sweaters to make felted pouches and other items, applied to the artist’s market as soon as she heard about it. “A lot of families from the school came out, which is why I thought it would be a great craft show to do,” she says. Herzog loved the steady stream of customers and praised Junktique for being well-organized and amply staffed with volunteers, key elements often missing from artists’ markets. A planning committee of about a dozen parents was in charge of conceiving and executing the event, and at least 50 parents volunteered on the day of Junktique.

A parent volunteer designed a funky, whimsical logo featuring an owl-like character with bolts as eyes (the Oakhurst school mascot is an owl). Organizers printed 200 posters and hung them around town. They also got the word out through local publications and blogs. The logo wound up on T-shirts that sold briskly. (Tote bags weren’t such a hit.)

The beer cups featured the event logo as well as logos from sponsors, which included local businesses and restaurants that paid $250 apiece.

—Patti Ghezzi