Flea market season is kicking off and we can’t wait! If you’re new to flea markets and mega-shows, get in the right frame of mind for the experience with expert advice on how to have an enjoyable—and successful—excursion.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
If you’re traveling, check out what’s on offer locally or en route. Our Flea Market Map can help you there – you can search local maps by month. Before you head out, visit the venue’s website. It may include a list of dealers or specialties, a map of the market, and a listing of amenities. If you’re looking for pieces to fit into specific spaces, come with measurements in hand. Is color important? Grab paint or fabric swatches, too.
Some vendors won’t have shopping bags or packing materials to give away, so bring a large tote for small purchases—something initially foldable that you can stash until needed. It’s not a bad idea to carry some bubble wrap or old t-shirts if you’re on the hunt for fragile items, plus ziplock bags for jewelry or loose parts.
Use your smart phone as an assistant. Download photos in advance of the types of items you’re looking for so you can be specific with vendors. If you’re unsure of asking prices, log in to eBay and check values on similar objects. And, of course, a phone’s ideal for keeping in contact with shopping partners or dealers. At large events, most vendors will hold bulky items for you for later pickup. Ask for receipts and store them in a pouch. Keep a list on your phone in a notes app or in a small notebook of what you bought and from whom—it’s easy to overlook one vendor when you’re picking up from several spread over a big area. Take a photo of the booth and write down the vendor name, field location, and closing time on the receipt. And if you’re going to rely on your phone, make sure it’s charged before you head out—bring a portable power bank or charger with you, too.
DRESS FOR SUCCESS
Wear comfy clothes, preferably in layers since you’ll be out for the day. It’s not a bad idea to dress down, too. It’s hard to haggle successfully with a hardworking vendor if you look like you’ve got cash to burn. Opt for sturdy shoes—the largest flea markets cover hundreds of acres. Even if you narrow your focus to specific vendors, you’re still going to be walking and standing a lot. Crowded flea markets don’t offer much in the way of seating.
SNOOZE, YOU LOSE
When you arrive really depends on what you want to achieve. Get there at the opening for the best selection. Show up late and the merchandise will be more limited—but you may secure a better deal. Prime booth or tent space is usually at the entrance to a field or along a main row. Less visible vendors at the center or back may be more willing to bargain, so head to those stalls first and work your way back to the front. Don’t hesitate if you see something you really want. Chances are, if you love it, someone else will, too, and you’re gambling if you leave it for later. Ask the seller for his best price or make an offer and be prepared to snap it up.
STASH SOME CASH
While many vendors at larger sales will take checks and credit cards, especially for big-ticket items, paying cash may help when negotiating a price. Purchasing a quantity from one vendor may also save you money. Bring lots of small bills, too—you don’t want to bargain with a seller and then ask her to empty her cash reserves by changing a $100 bill for a $10 purchase. How much to bring? That depends on what you’re willing to spend on the items on your list, plus a small buffer for spur-of-the-moment purchases or just-gotta-have-it prices.
DEAL FAIRLY Dealers work hard to find and present their wares, so show them the same respect you would a brick-and-mortar shopkeeper. Introduce yourself to a vendor who carries the kinds of things you collect—it may pay off to build a long-term relationship. Encourage dealers to tell the stories about their merchandise if they’re not too busy. The history of a piece you love will be part of its charm. When haggling over price, be polite. Ask for the dealer’s best price. It’s okay to offer a lower price, but within reason. Ten to fifteen percent less is usually accepted. But if you’re asked to name a price, start at 20 to 25 percent below asking price to give the dealer room for a counteroffer. Don’t barter just for the fun of it. That wastes your time as well as the dealer’s and delays other shoppers waiting to purchase.
Don’t take anything at face value. Cast your creative eye at anything that gets your attention. If it’s not everything you want it to be already, could it be renewed with a coat of paint or a tinted stain? Would it work repurposed as something else entirely? If a little effort on your part can give an amazing piece a new lease on life, go for it. Just be sure it’s in good enough condition to hold up to your shenanigans. A loose screw is one thing; a popping veneer or cracked joint is quite another. And when considering furniture, remember that the purchase price may be only the beginning. A new fabric and an upholsterer’s fees take the final price up quite a bit.
An extra pair of eyes can be invaluable if you’re looking for something specific. And another pair of hands can help, too, when heavy lifting is required. Besides, every experience is more fun when it’s shared.
HOLD OUT HOPE
It’s likely that you will see something you love that’s just outside your price range. Give yourself a sliver of hope by leaving your phone number and an offer of your highest bid with the vendor. That way, if he doesn’t sell it and doesn’t want to load it back up at the end of the event, you just might get a call. This won’t do you much good if you’ll be miles away by the time the sale ends, so indulge in this practice only if you plan to stick around to the bitter end or live nearby. It’s worth it to go back to a show on another day, if you’ve got the time. Many vendors re-stock their booths and new things are always appearing. Don’t forget to peek along the outsides of the tents and under tables—a small flashlight will help you see into piles jumbled in a corner.
All sales are final and sold as-is at flea markets. Carefully look over anything you plan to buy and test pieces with working parts as much as possible. Use a multi-tool to check loose joints or to disassemble a piece for carrying. Bring a small magnet to test metals— it won’t stick to silver or brass. Look for signs of who made the piece: on tables, look underneath; on cabinets, check the back; for chairs, peek under the seat; on dressers, look in the drawers. A magnifying glass can help identify makers’ marks on silver or jewelry. A known mark is exciting to find, and a lesser-known one on a piece you love will be fun to research once you’re back home.
Unless you’re bringing your own energy bars and fresh produce, forget the diet while you’re at a flea market. Junk food is in plentiful supply—staples like ice cream, frozen lemonade, kettle corn, hot dogs, and nachos are to be found at every turn.
The best and most fun part of the flea food experience, though, is finding the local specialties: lobster rolls in the northeast, barbeque and street tacos in Texas, shoofly pie in Pennsylvania, cheese curds in Wisconsin, beer brats and pork tenderloin in the Midwest, tavern sandwiches in Iowa, Cuban sandwiches in Florida…the list deliciously goes on.
Unless you have a cast-iron digestive system, though, try new foods a bit at a time, especially spicy or fried fare. Don’t overlook roadside eateries to and from the flea market, either. Eating where the locals dine is usually a good bet, so ask people who live in the area for their recommendations.
If you’re trying the local cuisine, hydrating as you should, or spending a long day at the flea, it’s likely you’ll need to use facilities at some point. Don’t plan on finding nice, clean restrooms, except at some of the year-round locations that have permanent structures. Port-a-potties are the standard options at most flea markets (and are often the only places to sit down—anywhere!). And they vary in quality, too. Assume the worst and enjoy it when your expectations are exceeded.
Assemble a flea market kit that will ensure a no-regrets day at the show. Here’s what we recommend:
- Cross-body bag
- Hair band
- Rain poncho
- Small tape measure
- Magnifying glass
- Tissues/flushable wipes (for those aforementioned port-a-potties)
- Small first-aid kit: pain relievers, band-aids, alcohol wipes, antibiotic ointment
- Small notebook, pen
- Wallet or folder for cash, ID, credit/debit card, receipts
- Smart phone (also helps for price checking)
- Large, ideally folding, shoulder or tote bag for small purchases
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