8 Tips for Shopping Success at REI Garage Sales

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The REI garage sale.

For those who know about them, they become a tradition. For those who don’t know about them, they are a tradition waiting to happen.

REI is a co-op store that sells clothing and gear for outdoor and adventure sports from name brand companies. A few times a year, these stores unload returned and leftover items that can not be put back on the shelf and sell them in a garage sale-type setting.

The items range from virtually brand new to worn out and broken, and the prices can’t be beat for the brands that are available. While REI excels in providing gear for the great outdoors person, many of the items at the sales are handy for even the occasional traveler, and let’s face it – we all love new travel gear.

The average man on the road probably doesn’t need an ice axe, but many other things – from high-quality flip-flops and travel sleep sacks to headlamps and hats – can come in more than handy when you travel.

If you’ve never been to one, know this much: REI garage sales are not your average second-hand shops. Take the line from the opening night of a Harry Potter movie plus a rock-bottom electronics liquidation sale plus a group of people who look like they’ve survived a week in the wilderness and want nothing more than some steaming hot coffee from a roughed-up thermos and you have something very slightly resembling the wonderful, chaotic magic of these sales.

Forget Paris. Make your next trip to the closest REI for one of these close-out events, and get the most from your experience with these eight tips:

1. Plan ahead. Block off a whole morning for your garage sale shopping. Look for the REI store closest to you, check its events listing and plan to spend at least between two to three hours at the sale. Also, these sales are open to members only. While you can buy a membership at the cash register the day of, some sales require a membership card to look through the discounted items. Plan ahead and buy your $20.00 lifetime membership in advance (you can do this online). It will likely pay for itself the day of the garage sale.

2. Arrive early. There are people who camp out the night before for these garage sales because only 50-70 people are allowed in at one time, and there is no quota on what you can buy. To get dibs on the best stuff available, it is best to arrive at least two or three hours before the garage sales begin.

REI garage sale items3. Prioritize. Ask yourself what items you truly need and shop for them first. If you need a day bag, don’t stop to sort through the shoes. Are you looking for a sleep sack? Then don’t be sidetracked by the road bikes (you can look at those later!). For the best selection, shop in the order of your priorities. Many garage sales limit shopping time to 15 or 20 minutes with a certain number of people in each shopping group, so you absolutely must hit your priorities first. This may mean you need to get back in line to poke through other items that weren’t top-of-the-list for you the first time around.

4. Divide and conquer. If you are with other people, talk among yourselves about what everyone is looking for then spread out once you are in. There’s no reason for two people to look through sleeping bags when you are both also interested in size seven sandals. Let one person look for the sleep gear and the other can dig through the boxes of shoes. Meet up to pick through the joint findings.

5. Weigh price with quality. You will find some amazing deals at the REI garage sale, but nothing is a good deal if it is truly broken or worn down. Some items are virtually brand new and are in the sale because they were used for a photo shoot or floor sample. Other items have years of use and it shows. Still others are defective, but problems range from small holes or snags in clothing to electronics that are missing pieces to backpacks with broken zippers. Read the tag that explains why the item is in the sale and decide if the stated price plus the cost of any repairs you have to make is a reasonable price you are willing to pay for the quality of the item.

6. Try stuff on. If you would try it on at full price, you should attempt to try it on here. Shoes, clothing and backpacks aren’t going to do any good if they don’t fit properly, so take the time to see if they are comfortable. While you won’t have access to a dressing room, you can bring a pair of socks and try on shoes, slip jackets on over your clothes and adjust the straps on the backpacks.

7. Take your time. Some people fly through these sales running from table to clothes rack to bin … and they miss lots of great stuff in their rush to be everywhere at once. In their chaotic dash, they often miss some of the best items, hidden in boxes under the tables or tucked between overheaped piles. Someone else might grab that water bottle you had your eye on, but there are lots of other good, high-quality items and deals. Slow down, have fun and enjoy yourself.

8. Expect nothing. You can’t go in expecting anything, and everything you do end up buying should be considered a fantastic find. The only thing that is certain is that you’ll be back for more.

Unsure about what to buy at the REI garage sale? These packing lists might help narrow your focus:

Also, you might find this post on smart packing to be helpful.

17 Responses to “8 Tips for Shopping Success at REI Garage Sales”

  1. Shelley B

    Great tips Jo – especially the first two! I haven’t made it to one of these yet, but I’m planning to hit up the next one I hear about in Boise.

    Reply
  2. Trisha Miller

    Really great advice, Joanna! Especially on the membership – it’s one of the best values around, since you get rewards and dividends for every REI purchase you make. WIsh my local REI would have more of these garage sales!!

    Reply
  3. Shannon OD

    Oh man, I have never made it to one of these yet but it’s on my list next time I am on the West coast. It’s my eternal sadness that they dont have stores in Florida…I have to make do with online visits and when I visit LA 🙂 You’ve made me really want to time a visit with a sale now!

    Reply
  4. Heather

    Realizing we’d be in the US for 2-3 years, we bought an REI membership in May and stocked up on backpacking supplies for the summer….then the pregnancy morning sickness hit and I couldn’t even walk out to get the mail! Will have to hit up our area REI garage sale next year and hope we can find a discount on a baby backpack. : )

    Reply
  5. J

    I am now a regular at my (three!) local REI garage sales. I show up the night before, after closing time, and just camp the night. Waking up at 8 am and being #8 is better to me than waking up at 3 am and being #210. Just sayin’.

    Divide and conquer is key. If you are a camper, you get to know the other 20-some-odd people who are camping out for the garage sale. In your conversations, you all exchange info about what sizes you wear and what items you are looking for, and then come up with a rough divide/conquer plan. In addition to being the first in the door, you get to benefit from each other’s knowledge of gear repair.

    For example, at one of the recent garage sales, I found JetBoils for ~ $30 for everyone of the night campers who wanted one. They all had a recalled and freely replaced ignitor (which is why they were returned to REI), and because I knew about this ignitor situation I was not only able to unite each night camper with the JetBoil of their dreams, but was also able to tell them to call and get a replacement ignitor. Good as new for a fraction of the cost.

    Similarly, one of the other guys spotted my dream pack in my size and snagged it for me.

    Yet another night camper found a sleeping pad for another of the overnight crew. It was a self-inflating pad and had a hole, but he helped her patch it with his know-how.

    And finally, I found a $30 tent for another of the overnight campers. The tent needed some sewing work done, but I was happy to do it in the general spirit of camaraderie.

    Other people would have left these (JetBoil, sleeping pad, tent) items alone because they lacked the gear repair know-how to make such a delicious price purchase work for them. Spend the night, the night before, and you meet folks who know how to repair gear and will do it just because you camped with them.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Thank you for your fantastic comment J! You’ve proved my point exactly. The REI sales can save hundreds of dollars with some creativity and a little know-how.

      We have two REIs near where we live, and they usually hold their sales one week apart from each other. We frequently see the same people at both.

      Reply
  6. Abby

    Twenty bucks for a lifetime membership?! That’s insane! You’re right about stuff coming in handy even for the occasional traveler — some of the things you mentioned I’d wished I had during my recent Argentina trip.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Yeah, the membership is hardly a fee. It’s an investment!

      Reply
  7. Tatyana

    I just wanted to say st my first yard sale I spent 350 dollars went home looked up the current prices on my items the equaled out to about 2000.00 I was amazed now I’m hooked Columbia down water proof jacket with titanium lining 39.00 bucks. North face half gone hoody 6 bucks

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      The deals are amazing, aren’t they! We usually look up the retail prices when we arrive home with the mother load too, and we’re always shocked at how much everything would have cost at full price.

      Reply
  8. Ollie

    Can only the person with the membership get in or can my teenager go in with me?

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Anyone can go to the sale, but in order to purchase the items, you must have an REI membership.

      Reply
  9. Elard

    This is my 2nd visit, first was great. Got 2 brand new Backpacks at 70% off also 2 Rei Metal Coffee Mugs $3 and 1 sleeping bag $10. Thanks for your tips

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      You are welcome. You never know what you’ll find at an REI garage sale, but luckily every find is a bonus if you go in expecting nothing!

      Reply
  10. Nate Yarbrough

    Great write up! It neat to see how all of the different garage sales work. In denver, it doesn’t matter how early you get there. Everybody draws a ticket to get in and it is a random draw. I’ve seen some people camp out then get a ticket that doesn’t let them in until a few hours after the doors open, but yeah, there are some killer deals to be had. Last one I went to we got over $600 worth of stuff for about $200. Pretty good deal!

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      The number system is new in the past couple years. All of the REIs have changed how people get into the sales now.

      Reply

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