Program Review: American Pickers

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One of the things I hope to do with this blog is to provide periodic reviews of products and information relevant to the goal of practical frugal living.  As you can see, I have no advertisements on this young blog.  While that may someday change, for the foreseeable future at least, I have no incentive whatsoever to judge with bias or favor, criticism or prejudice.  I’m just an average consumer, an average viewer, and an average reader, but with something of an affinity for objectively evaluating an item’s usefulness to a frugal living lifestyle.

With this in mind, allow me to provide the skinny on a popular History Channel program, American Pickers.  It’s a so-called reality show starring Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, two self-described “pickers” who travel the back roads of America looking for rusty gold.  Each program follows the two men as they travel in a large Mercedes van to sites far from their Iowa-based shop in search for abandoned collectible items that they can buy low and sell high.  The typical show follows the pickers to a handful of sites at which they search through heaps of junk (or “pick”) in abandoned outbuildings and bid on items such as ancient oil cans, bicycles, and even an occasional old car.  The history component of the show comes from occasional narrations and bubble messages that explain historical trivia connected to the items of interest.

Each segment ends with Mike and Frank comparing the purchase price to the resale price of what they intend to ask for each item.  Occasionally, we also see the guys sell an item to a third-party buyer, but the vast majority of the purchased goods are hauled back to Iowa, where they are spit-shined and displayed for sell in a small building that serves as a combination workshop, warehouse, and showroom.

I enjoy the show, mostly because the stars are very likeable, ordinary guys.  I also enjoy the historical component, although it is an extremely thin aspect of the show.  I think most of the show’s appeal, however, is that it allows the viewer to imagine a carefree life of traveling the country, free of a boss, making money off of other people’s junk.  And, at least in theory, the show is a celebration of frugality, a testament to the riches that await people who are willing to roll up their sleeves in search of forgotten items to reuse and recycle after a round of frugal price negotiations.

But while American Pickers is a fine show from an entertainment standpoint, it offers nothing from a practical frugal living point of view.  The reality is that anyone who attempts to mimic the business depicted on this show will promptly find his way to the poor house.

In each show, Mike and Frank travel to another state to buy their junk.  Many times, the journey is over a thousand miles one way.  Episodes take place in Florida, California, Texas, and other locations far from the pickers’ home base.  Their huge Mercedes van is large enough to transport a nine foot long boot in one episode.  I doubt this small moving van gets the greatest fuel efficiency, especially when weighted down with several hundred pounds of rusted gold.

Basic math quickly establishes the losing proposition of each trip.  If we liberally assume that the guys can limit their driving expense to the IRS allowed fifty cents per mile, that alone comes to $1,000.00 or more in travel expense attributable to the typical trip.  Add in hotel and meals, and the pickers are probably over $1,300.00 in the hole from a trip expense standpoint  alone.  Then, there is still the overhead associated with the shop that they leave behind – rent, taxes, telephone service, insurance, and professional services for a business that looks like nothing short of an accounting nightmare.  They also have an employee named Danielle, who tends the shop as Mike and Frank are debating whether to pay fifty or seventy-five dollars for their latest used sign acquisition.

The other problem with the show, from a financial reality point of view, is that the guys are simply buying junk with the hope that they will manage to sell it someday in the future.  Occasionally, they manage to turn an item over while still on the road, but the vast majority of the stuff is taken back to the shop, where they invest still more time and expense cleaning, refurbishing, and, worst of all, storing the item.  I seriously doubt that there are many buyers of rusted, eighty year old bicycles in Mike and Frank’s small hometown, and I suspect that most of this stuff winds up going to an auction, where it sells, if at all, for a fraction of the optimistic value Frank and Mike put on them.  It wouldn’t surprise me if a fair number of this rusted gold ends up being sold for scrap metal.

Despite all of this, somehow, at the end of each show, we are to believe that the guys make enough dough off of their junk hunts to pay for the travel, the overhead, the employee, and still make a decent living.  In fact, the business is supposed to be so good that the guys open a second shop in Tennessee, with still another employee tending to it.

Again, the show is good entertainment, but it is not financially realistic.  Aside from its entertainment, the only value of the show for an aspiring frugalist is its demonstration of what a frugal person should not do.  I’ll cover those in the next post.

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