10 Tips for Novice Flea-Market Sellers

flea market sellers
Mary was a novice flea-market seller, but now she is hooked!
Photo: Mary Young

Once I began selling off some of the things I’d collected over the decades, I was hooked. My virgin voyage as a flea-market dealer not only netted more cash than expected, I learned a lot from the experience.

Here are ten lessons I took away:

1. Check Out the Venue in Advance

Reconnoitering ahead of time is market research. Check out the physical layout, the merchandise on offer, and the types of buyers who come. Take notes (or even photos) as you walk around.

  • Where are the busiest booths located? Near the snack bar? Along the main avenue? Where do the crowds thin out?
  • What seems to sell? I saw a few large pieces of furniture during my preview. Of the many thousands of things on offer that morning, most were “smalls,” although they ranged widely in style, from primitive pine pieces to mid-century modern. There were postcards and comic books, World War II mementos, Depression glass, fishing lures, oil lamps, taxidermy, butter molds, egg-beaters, brass hardware, old tools, and fur coats.

What I didn’t see when I scoped out the scene at the Todd Farm Flea Market in Rowley, Massachusetts, was the barely better-than-trash scroungings that can leave browsers feeling degraded and slightly depressed: eight-track tapes, broken toys, newish florists’ vases, stained aprons, the sole survivor of a former salt-and-pepper set.

Preparing for a flea market is a lot of work: packing, loading, unpacking, and setting up. The last thing you want is to bring things home again afterward. Surveying what people are buying and selling ahead of time can save a lot of disappointment and needless work. It’s become notoriously hard, for example, to find a buyer for a ninety-six-piece set of china. It’s even harder to sell it to someone who expected their purchases to fit inside a Trader Joe’s bag and whose car is several fields away. Brimfield has porters, but a smaller market like this one does not.

Another good reason to scope out a flea market beforehand is to get a feel for its je ne sais quoi—its vibe, culture, or atmosphere. Are sellers and buyers laidback or brusque? Are they having a good time, or do they look grumpy or bored? One seasoned dealer told me this particular market was the “friendliest” by far. I was glad to be starting out at one that wasn’t cliquish or less welcoming.

2. Groom Your Goods

Put some effort into prepping your merchandise: cleaning, mending, and deciding how best to display it. I had boxes and boxes of antique frames I hoped to sell. About half were already bundled in bubble wrap when it suddenly occurred to me: They looked three times more attractive with a piece of pretty, vintage-looking paper inserted under the glass rather than empty. I’ll know better next time.

3. Pack a Survival Kit

I loaded up and didn’t regret it. There were drinks and snacks to keep my two helpers awake and enthusiastic throughout the exceptionally long morning. The temperature was in the 40s when we arrived, requiring hats and gloves, but it was T-shirt weather by noon. I also brought sunglasses, Advil, and Altoids. (Don’t ask me why.) We used overturned packing crates to sit on, although there was little time for that.

A well-stocked toolbox is essential for a flea market. Ours carried a hammer, wrench, two screwdrivers, scissors, paper and pens, a carpenter’s rule, string, bungee cords, zip ties, clothespins, and more. While we never used most of it, I’d do the same again. For those few hours when the place is hopping, it feels like a village. You’re surrounded by neighbors. You never know when someone will need a safety pin—or an Altoid.

4. Have a System for Managing Cash

The very best thing I bought that morning was a cross-body bag with five zippered compartments for a cash bank, money from sales, a secure cache for larger bills, paper, and a pencil. It was more organized than an apron pocket or a canvas carpenter’s belt. And because I was wearing overalls, I had pockets for glasses, my phone, and a tape measure.

5. Get There Early

According to the Todd Farm website, their weekly flea market opens at 5:00 a.m. I would have been skeptical had I not asked a dealer about that during my pre-visit. Five o’clock was the real time, she told me. They wouldn’t let you in any earlier, but arriving at 5:30 or 6:00 would be a little late.

The morning I became a flea-market seller, I saw that this was true. Other dealers arrived well before dawn, not just to set up their tables but to peruse each other’s tables and buy. Get there at six or seven, I learned, and you’ll miss out on the folks who might be your best customers.

6. Mind Your Displays

Lugging folding tables to a flea market is a drag. They’re expensive to rent and a bother to borrow. They’re heavy and take up a lot of packing space. But there’s no getting around it: your items will look a hundred times better when they can be seen up close. Scattered on the ground, they might look like cast-offs.

Show things to their best advantage. Rather than placing them on a bare, plastic table, I brought quilts, coverlets, and lengths of fabric to serve as backdrops. Darker items showed up best against lighter backgrounds. Smaller pieces disappeared on printed cloth but popped on a bright color.

Rather than laying everything flat, try to boost their visibility. A stack of assorted trinket boxes is more eye-catching than one lone box. It’s also easier for browsers to spot from a distance. I brought a crate of tabletop easels, glass bricks, and milk crates to prop things against for displays. I invested in a folding clothes-drying rack to show off vintage linens.

Additionally, I put the best, most eye-catching items towards the front of our space, hoping they would lure browsers to explore other tables. As our stock dwindled throughout the morning, we regrouped things to maintain their eye appeal.

7. Be of Good Cheer

Be nice to the good people running the flea market. It may have been the friendly conversation I had with Janet Todd when I arrived that resulted in our getting a prime, two-sided spot on the “corner” at the intersection of two main shopping lanes.

Likewise, be friendly to your neighbors on either side. Their tables may be the only ones you get to visit that day, and good neighbors sometimes give each other good deals. Above all, be pleasant to the shoppers, even those who turn a heel when they hear your price. As I learned that morning, they may be back later to buy.

8. Figure Out Your Pricing Strategy

A dealer friend advised me not to bother with price tags or offer dealers a discount. That was helpful. Even more helpful was deciding to price everything at five- or ten-dollar increments, which simplified making change.

The corollary to this advice: Be generous. Give out bubble wrap or newspaper to good customers. Have extra bags on hand. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself, on the spur of the moment, doing the unimaginable. One woman was so delighted with a doll-sized leather purse that I simply gave it to her. I’d had a very good morning, and it was easy.

9. Take the Long View

Don’t beat yourself up if you sell one thing for less than you paid. In the end, it doesn’t matter. You’ll make it up on other items. It helped to remind myself, “You’ve enjoyed this for thirty years and certainly gotten your money’s worth. You don’t need to recoup every long-ago investment.”

10. Have Fun

The cleaning, wrapping, and packing leading up to that Sunday had worn me out. I was stressed and worried it might show. What if I snapped at the two kind folks who were helping me? But I never came even close to doing that. Yes, we felt pressured trying to unpack and arrange our items while, at the same time, customers had already begun—at 5:30 a.m.!—looking them over. But after that, it was easy. The sales were brisk. People were friendly. And I kept stuffing bills into my zippered purse.

I was hooked, for sure.

Mary Young regrets falling prey to an occupational hazard. With every WorthPoint article she writes, she adds more objects to her collections.

WorthPoint—Discover. Value. Preserve.

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