AURORA — The tented pavement expanse of the MacKenzie-Childs Barn Sale was mostly empty when Jerry Ryan walked through it Tuesday. But one of the boxes that was there got his attention.
"These pumpkins are amazing," he said. The box, the size of a small hot tub, held dozens of them, all covered in the Aurora manufacturer's signature checkerboard pattern.
Over a cacophony of beeps from forklifts bustling nearby, Ryan continued.
"Between pumpkins and tea kettles, you would think that everybody in the area would have one by now," he said.
Pumpkins and tea kettles are two of the most popular items sold at the annual Barn Sale, which returns Thursday, July 12. As MacKenzie-Childs prepared for this year's sale last week, Ryan, a 23-year veteran of the company and its current manager of distribution operations, gave The Citizen a peek at the effort required to mount it. And only the numbers can do that effort justice:
This year's Barn Sale will be the 30th for Ryan. It started in 1996 in "a little teeny tiny tent" outside the barn, which MacKenzie-Childs acquired from Cornell University that year, he said. The barn was disassembled in Trumansburg and rebuilt at the company's Aurora headquarters, where it has since hosted tea parties, a restaurant, a wedding and more. The Barn Sale took place twice a year until 2000, then started again in 2002. But it wasn't until 2008 that it became a fixture on the calendar of MacKenzie-Childs — and its fans from all over the world.
Today, though, only a sliver of the sale takes place in the barn: It now spans 2.5 acres of tented floor on the company's 65-acre property.
Filling all that space is 1,200 pallets of MacKenzie-Childs merchandise. Each one is stickered with its destination on the show floor, down to the row. So as it's delivered from the company's warehouse in Union Springs, it's placed according to its category: accessories, garden, jewelry, ceramics, glassware, furniture and more. Some items are made specifically for the sale, Ryan added. Though the sale was more of a clearance in its early years, he continued, today the company approaches it as a cultural event where the goal is to have something for every customer.
Barn Sale discounts range from 40 to 80 percent. To encourage repeat visits, some inventory is discounted more and more over the course of the sale's four days, Ryan said.
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The lure of MacKenzie-Childs merchandise at such a deep discount has made the Barn Sale one of Cayuga County's premier tourist draws. Last year, Ryan said, attendance climbed about 5 percent to 26,000 people, the sale's highest ever. Many come year after year because of their loyalty to the manufacturer, whose aesthetics, checkerboard and otherwise, are the product of more than 100 artisans. "Nobody buys our dinner plate because they need a dinner plate," Ryan said. "They buy our dinner plate because it makes them smile. So, basically, we sell fun."
That lure has led customers to line up at MacKenzie-Childs headquarters as early as the Sunday night before the Thursday morning sale, Ryan said. Each night in between, hundreds would sleep on the red brick walkway leading to the sales floor. The company raised a tent to give them shelter, and though it could cover a line five people wide, the crowd outgrew it by hundreds of feet. But this year, due to safety concerns, MacKenzie-Childs won't allow customers to line up until 6 a.m. Wednesday, reducing the wait time to 26 hours. There's still a line each day of the sale, Ryan continued, but it's longest on the first day because of the furniture, whose stock is much more limited than other items.
Meg Vanek is not only a proponent of the MacKenzie-Childs Barn Sale, she's also a customer.
In spite of the competitive subtext, Barn Sale customers who wait in line together often become friends, Ryan said. And MacKenzie-Childs has tried to grow that camaraderie in recent years with a DJ, food, prizes and other flourishes of what he called a "country fair atmosphere." But the food has been limited to one or two vendors. In an effort to make this year's Barn Sale even more of an event, it will feature 10 vendors: Bird Song Cafe, Cayuga Lake Creamery, Felony Donutz, Let's Roll Gourmet, Heart & Hands Winery, Aurora Ale & Lager, Silver Street Road Kettle Corn, PB&J's Lunch Box, Wolf's Patio Pizza and Tonzi's Catering Co. And that doesn't include Serendipity Catering, which feeds the sale's staff.
MacKenzie-Childs employs 360 people full-time, and for them the Barn Sale is an all-hands-on-deck affair, Ryan said. But the company requires an additional 400 temporary jobs to manage the sale. Their tasks range from discarding empty boxes and restocking inventory to answering questions and monitoring lines. For instance, if the company sells out of a pallet of garden stakes, Ryan said, someone nearby will immediately know if customers can expect another pallet. Others are hired to work security: Because the sale takes several days to set up, the merchandise that's been placed outside must be monitored overnight against theft and thunderstorms. The latter reliably strikes at least once a year, Ryan said. But security is also required because the sale can give way to what he called "friendly competition." Ryan advised customers not to leave their carts unattended: "If someone sees what they want, they're gonna grab it."
Some of the temporary jobs created by the Barn Sale are cashiers at its 42 registers. This year, to speed up sales, a staffer at the checkout line will have a tablet indicating when a register opens. They can then direct customers to that numbered and color-coded register. Before this system, Ryan said, cashiers had to call out when they were open.
Last year's 26,000 customers included ones from Japan, England and Australia, as well as most of the 50 states, Ryan said. That's why MacKenzie-Childs offers a shipping station at the Barn Sale. It shipped 1,350 orders last year, he said. More local customers bring U-Hauls or trailers to the sale. This year, however, they will not be able to take shopping carts back to their cars. Ryan said the new policy will allow the carts to remain more available to incoming customers.
Planning for next year's Barn Sale will begin with a debrief the day after this year's ends, Ryan said. There, MacKenzie-Childs staff will discuss what worked and what didn't. Then, in January, product preparation will begin. And customers will probably begin planning their return. "Our customers are very special people," Ryan said. "We have a great fan base that's loyal and a lot of fun."