Collecting video games is easy. All you have to do is create an eBay account and click “Buy It Now” on every video game you ever wanted. Congratulations, you have a video game collection! Your bank account balance is now negative a million dollars.
It’s collecting video games without going broke that’s hard.
In the first installment of this series, I gave some general tips for starting, maintaining, and building a game collection while getting the best deals you can and not spending money you don’t have to. For the follow-up entries, I’ll be going into detail about specific topics, starting with this question: What are the best places to find old video games, and, more importantly, how can you use those places most effectively?
It’s not enough to tell you to go to garage sales, retro video game stores, or conventions. The real question is, what do you do once you get there? The games are out there, and these tips can give you a much better chance of being the one who finds them first.
Special tip: Since haggling over prices is something you can do in most situations where old games are concerned, I’ll add some Haggle Notes to each section.
Garage Sales: Always Ask!
Whether you call them garage sales, yard sales, tag sales, rummage sales, or something else, traveling to other people’s homes and buying their used stuff is a time-honored weekend tradition. These days, it’s easy to find sales thanks to Craigslist and GPS. But there’s also a lot more competition over video games.
If you see a Craigslist ad for a garage sale listing video games, you should be there right when it opens, right? Not necessarily. The cutthroat nature of competition these days means that if a posting specifically lists video games, one or more buyers is likely to contact the seller ahead of time, trying to buy the best stuff the night before the sale begins. Some buyers also show up hours before the sale opens, not caring if the listing says “no early birds.”
If you find that this keeps happening in your area (and if you’d rather not adopt these same cutthroat tactics), the best thing to do might be to just start ignoring any sale that advertises games, and going to the ones that do not instead. “But Chris,” you say, “those sales don’t have video games.” Oh, but they might. Most people who have garage sales don’t drag out every single item that they might be willing to sell. So whenever you go to any garage sale, ask, “Do you have any old video game stuff?”
Okay, maybe that part is obvious. But what is less obvious is that if they say “no,” you need to follow this up with a list of specific brand names and items, which may actually jog their memory better than “video games.” Start running down the list: “Like, Nintendo, Atari, Sega Genesis, Game Boys, old computer games, PlayStation…”
I don’t know why this is the case, but I’ve often had someone who just said “no” to “do you have video games” then hear “Game Boy” and say, “Oh, Game Boy? Yeah, I have one, hold on.” The folks I know who regularly do garage sales say that most of the stuff they find is found this way. Always ask!
Haggle Notes: Garage sales are a great place to practice haggling. It’s assumed that you’ll be dickering over the price of any item, no matter how cheap. If it’s marked $10, offer $5. If it’s marked $10 and you’d only buy it if it was $2, offer $2. If there’s a box of games for a dollar each, you’re best off just quickly asking how much for the whole box, as sellers at garage sales are usually fine with volume discounts. However, if the item is already an amazing deal and you’re not likely to save significant money, like a copy of Earthbound for five bucks, just buy it rather than trying to save a dollar or two. Remember: it’s not yours until you’ve paid, and every extra second you spend haggling is time another buyer could start grabbing stuff off the table.
Flea Markets: Get Up Early!
Known as “car boot sales” in some places, flea markets are where multiple sellers all bring their wares to a single place. More sellers means more opportunities to find games, but it also means more immediate competition. That means you’ll want to get there early and move fast.
If the sellers at your flea market start setting up at 6 a.m., that’s probably a great time to get there, if you can. The earlier, the better. Once you get there, make multiple passes through the flea market’s aisles:
Lap 1: Walk Fast. Briskly go through all the aisles, scanning for telltale signs of games at each table. If you see a video game dealer—someone who sells games at marked-up prices—feel free to cast a glance over their table to see what’s on offer, but don’t spend much time digging there or haggling until you’ve seen everything else. What you’re looking for are the big steals, the caches of games that are way too cheap. Those will disappear first.
Lap 2: Walk Slower, In The Opposite Direction. Go back to the beginning of the flea market and do another lap, but go the opposite direction down each aisle. Getting a different perspective on things might cause you to notice stuff you didn’t see the first time through. Walk more slowly this time. Stop at every table and take a closer look. Dig in boxes. Look for places where games might be hiding: Does that box of dollar DVD movies have a Smash Bros. Melee? Is there a Parasite Eve in that box of classical music CDs? This might also be a good time to delve deeper into the stores of the video game dealers, but I usually save that for…
Lap 3: Walk Even Slower. It’s the final countdown. Leave no stone unturned. You might even want to ask the sellers if they have game stuff. Even if they don’t, they might say that they’ll bring it next week. (You might ask them to hold it for you.) At this point, definitely look at all the stuff that the game dealers have, and ask them about pricing. Just because that copy of Mario 3 is absurdly priced at $30 doesn’t mean that everything at their booth will be too expensive. I’ve bought lots of stuff from the “expensive” dealers that everyone else avoids, and it’s usually more obscure stuff like PC games, imports, weird hardware, or other under-the-radar rares that they have a hard time finding buyers for at a flea market.
Haggle Notes: Haggling is just as acceptable at the flea market as at garage sales, although the vendors are more likely to be experienced negotiators in their own right. If you’re going to be going to the same flea market every week, you’ll probably start building up relationships with these sellers, so be nice and try to buy a few things from them to break the ice and show you’re serious. Bundling items up and asking for one price works here as well. The rule of “if it’s really cheap, just buy it and run” still applies. And if you can’t get to the flea market early, consider going late, when you’re more likely to be able to make a deal on something that’s sat there all day.
Thrift Stores And Pawn Shops: Form Relationships
These stores carry all manner of miscellaneous second-hand goods, so there’s always a chance you’ll find video games there. With competition being intense, though, they likely won’t last long. If you’re planning on going to the same thrift store over and over, chat up the folks who work there. Let them know you’re looking for games. Maybe they’ll tip you off to the fact that there’s another customer who comes in every morning and buys them all. Maybe they’ll walk into the back room and haul out a box of games that they hadn’t gotten around to putting out yet. Either way, just bringing up the subject is never a bad idea.
Haggle Notes: Straight-up asking for lower prices is probably going to be considered rude at a retail store. However, if an item has been sitting there for months at the same price and hasn’t sold, you might want to strike up a conversation to see if the clerk has the authority to lower the price to move it. They might also have the ability to reduce a price if the item is damaged.
Game Conventions: Dig, Dig, Dig
As I said in the introduction to this series, game conventions are the best place to buy games, whether it’s a big annual show or a more regular local gaming-focused buy/sell/trade event. Either way, learn and visit what’s in your area.
Once you get there, think of it like a big flea market. The first hour, after the doors open up, are when all the really, really good deals will still be on the vendors’ tables. Try to go a little quickly and get a sense of what’s out there on the tables or see if there’s anything you should snag immediately.
Concentrate less on the big professional vendors at this point and more on the collectors who use these conventions to offload their extra stuff. They’re more likely to have lower prices, but big vendors, like local game stores who set up booths at the convention, might have some deals as well. Often, these stores use conventions as a way of clearing out stuff that they don’t sell at their store: boxes, manuals, imports, magazines, computer games, toys, etc. If you don’t see it, ask!
Once you’ve gotten the lay of the land and scanned for huge deals, walk around more slowly and dig. There will probably be more bargains buried! Conventions are really a numbers game: There are so many video games there that you’re more likely to find a good deal.
Coming back for the second day of a convention can be a good opportunity as well. Sometimes sellers will bring more items for the second day, so check around for new bargains. When the convention enters its waning hours, try to strike a bargain for some stuff that’s been sitting there the whole show, especially if it’s bulky and you don’t think the seller will want to carry it home.
Haggle Notes: There are all different kinds of convention vendors. Some might be retail stores and therefore less likely to be able to do much of a discount. Some might be collectors who will happily knock a few bucks off the price of anything if it means making a sale, or give you a big discount on stuff if you bundle it all together. Conventions and buy/sell/trade events are generally considered places where it’s socially acceptable to haggle, so try it out.
Brick-And-Mortar Stores: Figure Out How They Operate
If you’re lucky enough to live near any stores that specialize in buying and selling classic video games, congratulations! These will surely be a boon to your collecting hobby. Any time you enter a game store, try to answer the question, “What kind of store is this?” Some stores are very locked-down or buttoned-up with their policies—they won’t go digging around in the back for you if you have a special request, or they won’t lower their sticker price at all. But other stores are more laid-back about haggling or selling you stuff that’s not out on the floor.
In general, stores tend to price and display the most popular stuff, which today means 1990s console games and hardware. But that store might also have things like loose game manuals, big-box PC games, magazines, oddball hardware, import games, or older Atari-era games sitting behind the counter. If you’re interested in buying that kind of stuff, ask about it.
Manuals are an excellent icebreaker slash litmus test. Every video game store on Earth has a giant box of game manuals in the back. Ask if they have manuals for sale. If they say “no” or “we don’t sell those separately,” there’s a pretty good chance they’re not going to bring out anything else for you either. But if they respond by bringing out a big box of instruction booklets, that opens the door to asking more questions—and you might also get some manuals you need!
If you’re on vacation or otherwise just going to hit that store once, you have one opportunity to ask if they have anything cool. But if you are going to be frequenting a store, try to build a long-term relationship and let them know what you want. I guarantee you that whatever the store is, they have people coming in looking to trade old PC games, magazines, or other things that the store cares less about. If you’re interested in that stuff, ask what happens when the store gets them. Maybe they could hold a box of stuff for you.
Haggle Notes: While haggling is an accepted, even expected, part of flea markets and conventions, that’s less true in a video game store. Of course, you should ask, especially if you’re proposing a discount on a bundle of games, a less desirable product, or damaged goods. If someone says they can’t alter prices, it’s rude to keep trying. Sometimes you’re dealing with the store’s owner, who has the ability to change prices around, but sometimes you’re talking to an employee who cannot.
eBay: Learn To Snipe
The mother of all marketplaces, eBay connects buyers and sellers from all over the world. It’s impossible to overstate what a benefit this has been to collectors. Anything you want is there, and the ferocious competition keeps prices in check. It can be the only place you’ll ever see that one elusive item you’re looking for, and it can also be a place to get amazing deals—if you know how to use it.
You probably already know that there are two major ways to sell something on eBay: auction or Buy It Now. Auctions can be where the rarest of the rare stuff goes for exorbitant, record-breaking prices. But more common games that are put up for auction will generally end at lower prices than Buy It Nows. The reason is simple: Auctions are a pain in the ass—you have to bid, you have to wait—and many buyers just don’t even bother with them, thus lowering demand.
With few exceptions, the only time you should be bidding on an auction is in the final three seconds. Right before the auction ends, put in the maximum amount you’re willing to pay. This is the best practice for multiple reasons. It stops people from seeing your bid and reacting to it, because they don’t have time to think about whether they want to go higher. It also stops you from being outbid by someone else, then getting “auction fever” and deciding to pay more than you wanted to. This does require you to be honest with yourself about the maximum you’re willing to pay for something—but that’s a very good skill to develop regardless.
If you won’t be in front of your computer when the item ends, that’s easily solvable by using a sniping service like Gixen. Input the item number and your maximum bid, and it’ll place it automatically for you. Set it and forget it, as Ron Popeil would say.
As for Buy It Now items: Every day, every minute, there are amazing deals being posted on eBay, items with BIN prices well under the going rate. You can set up saved eBay searches for whatever you’re looking for, then filter that search only to Buy It Now items, and then sort them by Newly Listed. Save that search and head over to eBay’s Feed page, and now you’ve got a constantly-updating flow of new auctions you can keep open in another browser tab while you’re doing whatever it is you do on the internet.
Of course, there are more online shopping sites that offer used video games than eBay. Many more, actually. How many of them you want to be constantly checking depends on how deep a rabbit hole you want to go down, as each one will have different tips and tricks you can use to get the most out of them.
Haggle Notes: eBay offers sellers the option to add a “Best Offer” feature to their items, which lets you send an offer to the seller for them to consider. Don’t assume that you know how low a seller will go! Some might only be willing to knock a few bucks off the price of a high-value item, but I’ve had many situations when a seller will take half price or even less. This has mostly happened with amateur sellers, or people who just flip stuff fast on eBay and aren’t experts in anything in particular.
Recently, eBay has started adding a “Make Offer” option onto auctions with zero bids. If the seller accepts your offer, the auction ends and you win. If you see a newly-listed auction with zero bids that doesn’t have a Make Offer option, you could try to write to the seller and ask if they’d be interested in adding a BIN option. Sometimes they write back and say yes—and now you’re the first one who knows they added it.
It’s not hard to know where to look for old video games, but it’s tricker to master when you should go to these places and what you should do once you’re there. Feel free to share your own strategies and tips in the comments—or just keep them to yourself. I get it.