Cambria Style

Navigating the Flea Market

  • Written by Erin Friar McDermott
  • June, 2012

Junkers, Antiquers, Tag Salers and Vintage Devotees, unite!

Across the U.S., some 1,100 flea markets did some $30 billion in business last year, according to the National Flea Market Association. A shaky economy means more people than ever are out trolling the Saturday morning stands hunting for that perfect item at just the right price.

There’s also a new generation of shoppers who are embracing the markets’ “green” ethos, says Ki Nassauer, editor in chief of Flea Market Style magazine. “The demographics are so much younger now, it’s 20-year-olds,” Nassauer said. “For them, there’s no stigma to ‘reuse, renew, recycle.’”

How can you get in on getting a good deal? Here are some tips from the pros—vendors, shoppers, collectors—about when to go, what to avoid, and the art of haggling.

BE PREPARED: Pack a large bag with a measuring tape (for sizing up furniture), newspaper (to wrap delicate items), a camera (more on this later), and cash—lots of cash. Christine Edmonds, co-owner of Trove Decor in Newtown, PA., says she takes as much as $500, all in $5 bills, because vendors can offer better treatment and prices to shoppers who make paying easier.

EARLY OR LATE? If you’re looking for the greatest selection, go an hour before the market opens. Good finds at good prices go fast, says Jill Ridener, owner of the Etsy shop Bellalulu Vintage. Why go late? Prices often fall as the day winds down.

BUILD A RAPPORT: Break the ice by asking about the history of an item you want. Ask how the vendor got into the business. And be genuine. “Ideally, you both want to leave a transaction feeling like something positive happened,” says Lauren Lipton, an avid vintage clothing and tag sale shopper from Manhattan.

HIT THE ROAD: Treasures are often found where local sellers aren’t familiar with the real value of an item. When you go off the beaten path, fewer shoppers mean there’s less competition for the sellers.

SMARTPHONE, SMART SHOPPER? Cellphone cameras have become a great asset, Nassauer says. Pictures are an easy memory aid—and a tool for on-the-fence shoppers. One warning: Ask the vendor if it’s OK to take a picture—some may be touchy about copycats stealing their display ideas.

BE RESPECTFUL: If you have small kids with you, make sure they don’t damage a vendor’s goods. Also, don’t insult sellers about the quality of their offerings. “Ninety-nine percent of sellers are really reputable people,” Nassauer says. “Treat them the way you want to be treated as a customer.”

The Art of Haggling

WHERE TO START: An item with no price tag is an invitation to open negotiations. The seller usually has a price in mind, and it may depend on the time of day. Nassauer’s rule: Never speak first. “More often than not, they’ll give you a price lower than what you had in mind.”

WHEN TO GO FOR IT: The polite way to test the waters? Ask: “What’s your best price?” If the seller doesn’t move off the price, be respectful and just say “thank you.” That reaction alone could prompt the seller to jump back in, Nassauer says. Typically, 15 percent off the marked price is a good deal, but a 40 percent discount isn’t unheard of.

WHEN NOT TO BOTHER: Sellers sometimes have an unrealistic attachment to an item, or set prices far too high. If an initial haggling foray goes nowhere, walk away. A good vendor knows their market and prices items accordingly. But if you’re getting a decent price, just buy it. “Be a nice person,” Lipton says. “Don’t cheat someone out of their livelihood just to haggle for a few more dollars off.”

WHEN TO STOP: “Don’t haggle when you know you’re getting a great deal,” says Edmonds of Trove Decor. She once came upon a $49 tag on a coveted Artemide Tizio floor lamp, a modern design that can fetch $600. She snapped it up—and as she rushed to pay, she spotted a signed titanium Tizio desk model that was worth $1,000, priced at a mere $39. The vendor shook his head, noting how “funny looking” the items were, as he took Edmonds’ cash for both. “They sure are,” she smiled.

WEBSITES: Online community where antique hunters, crafters, and junkers unite. Everything from local insights to wider discussions of how to mine Pinterest for ideas, secret spots, and pricing trends. Imagine eBay had a cool sister that went to art school. Set aside an hour or two to peruse the virtual stands of this huge online marketplace loaded with beautiful and clever wares. Great event listings and neato retro items.

APP: Find Tag Sales ($1.99) From Tag Sell It, a directory of every flea market in all 50 states, including locations on Google Maps, hours, number of vendors, and websites. Even includes weekly yard sales listed on the website.

FRIEND YOUR FLEA: Most markets are on Facebook. Give them a “like” and get the early line on new vendors, changing hours, and special events.


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