Part I - Before You Join a Used Material Sale Group (Tips 1-4)
Part II - When You Find an Item You Need (Tips 5-9)
Part III -When You Find Something Intriguing You Don't Need (Tip 10)
What to Do When You Find Something On Your List
5. Move Fast
While always connected smart phones and alerts on new listings are immensely helpful, it has only increased the competitiveness of a very limited market. I have seen good listings claimed in less than a minute; sometimes so fast that by the time I refresh the page to view the listing, it's already spoken for. There isn't time to dawdle with the good listings which is why going through the planning steps (tips 1-4) is so critical. Without planning your only option is to jump blindly, not knowing if what you see is even a good deal or something you truly need. Unfortunately, there simply isn't time to research and contemplate when an item is listed. Of course, some listings do linger on and on. Unless it's something highly specialized, I'd ask myself why because good listings never last.
6. Ensure You Understand the Full Price
Most sellers do not include the price of shipping in the offer. Keep in mind that most traditional Montessori are heavy and often oddly shaped. The average individual seller does not have access to the same large volume shipping discounts as major retailers. You can expect shipping to start around $8-$10 (continental US) for the average sized wooden works. That can quickly climb to $20 with a larger one. The more materials you add the more it will cost. Obviously, if you order from an International seller, the rates will increase exponentially. There will be a cost for shipping if you order from a discount supplier as well. However, these are generally lower and may even be free depending on how much you order. Consider whether or not you plan to place an order soon. It may be cheaper to add a slightly more expensive product to an existing order than to pay for another shipment from an individual seller.
7. Be Realistic About the Condition
The wonderful thing about traditional Montessori materials is that most of them hold up extremely well with use. However, used it still used. Chipped paint is one thing. Missing pieces are another. Many of the traditional materials have small pieces that are easily lost such as the top cube of the pink tower or the smallest of the knobless cylinders. Sellers generally discount items accordingly so it makes such a purchase attractive. In some cases you can acquire replacement parts from the manufacturer but this becomes more difficult with certain direct-from-overseas suppliers. Even though materials are fairly universal it doesn't mean that replacements match from one company to the next. And of course, replacements have a cost both for the item itself and shipping that take away from the deal. Before proceeding in such a case, find out who the manufacturer is and determine what your options are. Most Montessori materials are designed with a great attention to detail. A missing piece will most often remove all control for error. Try to avoid the temptation to buy something incomplete just so you have it.
8. Consider The Quality
As the popularity of the Montessori Method has increased, so have the fly-by-night manufacturers. Premium suppliers such as Nienhuis and Gonzagarredi produce materials with unparalleled quality and the price tag to match. Discount suppliers such as Alison's Montessori and Montessori Outlet use less expensive base materials but still provide appropriate safety testing. Direct from overseas products are similar to those of other discount suppliers but due to their distribution routes, they are generally not adequately safety tested for children. If your new item has a terrible chemical smell, that's a high VOC level. Yes, it's dangers for children. If that has been overlooked then I can't help but wonder what other safety aspects have been overlooked. Bonus tip for the US crowd... look for a discount supplier that is a legitimate, long-standing business with a physical location in the United States and a working phone number. It doesn't guarantee you'll avoid the issue but it helps.
With that said you may feel that only buying from premium suppliers is best. Unless you are equipping an actual school where the item will see numerous sets of hands it probably isn't necessary. While Nienhuis products are beautiful, the price of a used item often far exceeds the cost of buying the discount version from a reputable supplier. Obviously, if your budget allows then go for it. On the flip side, don't automatically jump at every discount piece you see. Ask the seller to disclose the original manufacturer. Then you can make the decisions as to whether or not that company has a safety record you are comfortable with.
9. Examine Potential Risks
If you participate in any of the major Montessori buy/sell groups then you'll notice that there is a disclaimer letting the buyer know that the group is not responsible for the outcome of transactions. As a buyer you are essentially on your own. There is no one to help ensure you get what you paid for in the condition described and time frame agreed upon. Depending on how the transaction is carried out, you may have little recourse if something does go wrong. One of the biggest tips I can give in this area is to pay for your purchases via PayPal. You are protected by Paypal's services and can file a dispute should something go wrong. Be very leery of any seller that requests cash or other less traceable payment routes. And NEVER give your credit card info. There's no good way to know an individual seller's reputation on online groups so buyer beware. And unfortunately, even an honest individual may not know to adequately pack something for shipping. If you have questions about any aspect of a material or how the transaction will occur, ask up front. Incorrect assumptions are a great way to ensure you'll be unhappy with the end result.
Part III will conclude our mini-series. We will look at what to do when you find something intriguing but it isn't on your must-have list.