Since Nerf blasters are, after all, toys, there’s enormous potential in the secondhand market for great finds at pennies on the dollar (“thrifting”, as the online Nerf community calls it). In many cases it’s the only way to get your hands on discontinued, rare, and vintage models. Between thrift stores, yard sales, eBay and classified listings, there’s plenty of opportunity to build up an impressive arsenal cheaply, provided you’re willing to put in the footwork. But if you don’t know what you’re doing you can easily end up wasting money on a pile of plastic junk.
Following are some basic tips for maximizing your odds on the secondhand market.
1. Know what to look for
This is far and away the most important tip, because these toys start to take up a lot of space when your collection starts growing. It’s all too tempting to see a toy gun with the Nerf symbol on it for 99 cents at Goodwill and think you have nothing to lose. Your roommates may beg to differ.
Start with gaining a solid familiarity with the Nerf (and if applicable, third party) model ranges. These things have been around since the mid-90’s, and there are a LOT of models. Browse through the Nerf Wiki, read reviews, learn the names of the blasters. Know what accessories and ammo are supposed to come with the complete unit. Too often people donate their toys with missing proprietary parts that can’t be easily obtained on their own, making the whole blaster useless.
If your goal is simply to collect, your decisions are a little easier. But if you plan on actually using any of these in a war or just for fun, knowledge is key. Familiarity with the more modern Nerf lines narrows down the search substantially. Generally speaking, the newer the better. The Elite line introduced in 2013 took performance to a new, more competition-grade level. With a few exceptions, their range and reliability will be much better than anything that came before. Look for dark blue with white stripes, or orange. Anything yellow is pre-Elite for the most part. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
2. Cast a wide net
Thrifting success comes down to luck and persistence. In the case of actual thrift stores, we’re talking pre-internet era shopping. There’s no way to predict what you’ll find or not find at a Goodwill, Savers, or any other secondhand store other than to walk in yourself. In fact, at Goodwill the employees are strictly forbidden from “holding” donated items for themselves or anyone else.
You can walk into a thrift store one day and find nothing, and the next day find a treasure trove, because their inventory is all unpredictable donations. So the best way to improve your chances is to hit as many stores as possible, as often as you can. If I have a few hours free I like to make a Goodwill “circuit”. Pull up store locations on Google Maps in my general area and make a big circle, hitting many stores in a row. You’ll quickly develop a skill of spotting Nerf guns among the pile of other toys at a glance. Searching a whole toy section only takes a few minutes when you know what you’re looking for (see tip no.1).
Be prepared to walk out empty-handed. A lot. I’m somewhat picky, but my success rate of finding anything worth buying at thrift stores is about one in ten. Of course, individual locations and parts of town vary, and you’ll eventually develop your own beliefs about which stores are likely to have good finds.
Yard sales have even worse odds, of course. They’re more scarce, there’s no guarantee they’ll have toys for sale at all, and you usually need to hit them early in the morning to stand a chance at getting anything good. But you can use modern methods to narrow it down…
3. Harness the power of technology
When it comes to thrifting for Nerf on the internet, there are really only two major sources: eBay and Craigslist. If you’re coveting a particular rare or discontinued blaster, eBay is very likely to have it, but prepare to pay big. Sellers on eBay generally base their prices on the demand for the product. Even if they don’t know the value of their item, the bidding process will bare that out. Your best bet on eBay is to focus on lots of several blasters WITHOUT the names listed. If the seller didn’t bother to list the names, they likely don’t know or care about how much each unit is worth. This is where tip no. 1 comes in handy yet again as being able to identify blasters on sight will help you calculate the value of an assorted lot.
Craigslist has much more potential. It’s local, and people very often unload their kids’ toys there once they’ve outgrown them. You can usually haggle the price too. Better yet, you can download an app called Daily Craigslist that makes using the site on your phone a lot nicer. You can save a search term (e.g. Nerf guns) as a bookmark and check it constantly for new posts. This was how I finally got my hands on the elusive Elite Alpha Trooper for 10 bucks. They generally go for at least $60 on eBay. As an added bonus this will also pull in any yard sale posts that specify Nerf guns for sale.
Sub-tip: Most people selling Nerf on Craigslist see them simply as used toys, and therefore not very valuable. If they refer to the darts as “bullets”, that’s a clue you’re dealing with that type of seller (no self-respecting fan calls darts bullets). The savvy shopper will avoid clueing the seller into the market demand for rare blasters. I’ve purchased whole lots of worthless blasters just to get my hands on one or two really good ones (Django Unchained style), because I’ve also made the mistake of being too gung ho, trying to buy one item from a lot, and prompting the seller to actually take down the listing and re-post with higher prices!