- The Washington Times - Monday, March 9, 2009

A builder’s misfortune can become a remodeler’s Maytag at the Southern Sales auction — the place to go for furnishings and appliances once destined for houses that are not going to get built.

Since 1992, Southern Sales Services in Jessup, Md., has been giving manufacturers and distributors a way to turn excess inventory into cash, holding auctions that attract homeowners and small contractors. In these hard times, business is booming.

The company’s warehouse sales have grown dramatically — from less than 100 bidders at a typical event in the early years to more than 1,000 today. More than 30,000 people are on the mailing list. During a Southern Sales auction, three auctioneers all chant bids simultaneously in the different “departments” of the warehouse.

Every four to six weeks, Southern Sales hosts auctions that draw enthusiastic crowds. The buyers are eager to purchase brand new appliances, cabinetry, flooring, windows, doors, whirlpool tubs and other items for nearly half of the retail cost.

Many territorial customers stake-out in lawn chairs, or just stand in front and guard the item they plan to purchase in hopes that they are the highest bidder.

The items that are auctioned off come from the same companies that manufacture and distribute to “big box” retail stores, owner Arnold Zimmerman said. Southern Sales does not advertise brand names.

“These ‘popular big box’ brands are not in business to sell things at auctions. Items were brought to Southern Sales because the manufacturer had surplus inventory, a builder ordered too much, a retailer is dismantling last year’s inventory, or a customer simply bought an item in the wrong color,” Mr. Zimmerman said.

Mr. Zimmerman, a lifelong Maryland resident and onetime horse trainer, dabbled in the auction and construction businesses throughout his career before going to a school for auctioneers and starting Southern Sales.

“I dabbled in a lot of different areas, including livestock, construction and antiques, which attracted me to other people’s auctions,” Mr. Zimmerman said.

Those most attracted to these auctions are the “do-it-yourselfers,” people undertaking their own home-improvement projects, and owners of rental properties who are looking to improve or maintain their property. There are also small builders who typically only build one to 10 homes per year.

Mr. Zimmerman is certain that Southern Sales is most appealing because of its huge selection of quality materials and products at large discounted prices.

Russell and Maria Meehan of Laurel, Md., attended a Southern Sales auction on Feb. 14, to purchase a fridge and stove for their new home. Mr. Meehan is building a 8,100-square-foot house in North Carolina.

“We came [to Southern Sales] during the preview day, got the model and serial numbers of the appliances we were interested in, and then checked out the retail prices of those items online, ” Ms. Meehan said.

Ms. Meehan said that after she and her husband compared prices online, they found out that the savings at Southern Sales were virtually a third of the price of those at a retail store.

“Savings are the lore [of customers], it’s a real simple equation,” Mr. Zimmerman said.

However, the Meehans also said that being an informed buyer is important when attending these auctions because too often, bidders get carried away and end up spending more on an item than it would sell for in a retail store.

Southern Sales has maintained its business through this economic strife. Although its business has seen a slight slowdown in the amount of material for which to find homes, Southern Sales still manages to pull in thousands of new and existing customers willing and ready to spend money at each auction. Mr. Zimmerman noticed that more people who participate in the auction are investing in their homes to stay in them, rather than fixing their homes up to sell.

The Meehans came to Southern Sales with $2,000 and left the auction with a brand new convection oven, dishwasher and cooktop oven, all of which would have cost them $5,000 at a retail store.

“I already have a cooktop, but since it was such a bargain, I bought a new gas one to put on my deck,” Mr. Meehan said.

Aaron Zimmerman, co-owner and son of Arnold, said, “Southern Sales is virtually the same as state sales. In fact, my father is licensed in Pennsylvania and has done a state sales auction before.”

Being licensed gives Arnold Zimmerman the ability to auction everywhere in the country.

Mark Hall and Vaughn Gordon of Baltimore County, Md., are friends who frequently attend the Southern Sales auctions.

“I said I was just coming to the auction to look, and my wife has already called me three times asking me what I have bought, ” Mr. Gordon said.

The “hot items” at the auctions tend to be the appliances and electronics, because “people are always interested in purchasing expensive goods for cheap,” Mr. Zimmerman said.

In addition to the auctions, Southern Sales also has a showroom at a secondary location. The theme of this smaller warehouse is floor coverings, which houses Grade-A materials from around the world such as marble and hardwood flooring. Although the prices at this showroom are priced lower, they still have to remain competitively priced, and it takes an informed consumer to understand the value of the material when they walk into the store.

The next auction will be held on Saturday. Friday generally serves as inspection day for people to look over the inventory. Saturday is the main event, and Sunday and Monday remain open for people to pick up their purchases.

Those wanting participate in the auction must register in person because photo identification is required. Registration is free. For more information, visit www.southernsalesservices.com.

“These auctions are the way to go if you’re looking to remodel or build; this is definitely the way to go,” Mr. Hall concluded.


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