Shopping a Flea Market Like a Pro

Flea Markets are FUN!!! Flea Markets are exciting! Flea Markets are a great place to meet people and find cool stuff! BUT… Flea Market shopping can be overwhelming if you don’t have a plan. I learned this the hard way. When I first started going to flea markets when I was a kid, I just gleefully followed my mother and went to the stalls that she wanted to go to. They tended to be the same stalls week after week and we never ventured into the further reaches of the market’s corners. As an adult, I found that the furthest corners from the entrance gate had the greatest surprises so I started my searches from the back and worked my way to the front. But, by the time I made it to the front, the flea market was closing up! There are many other things I learned over the years on how to have a better experience at a flea market and for someone starting off in the world of picking, take heed to what this “seasoned veteran” advises and you will be a pro in no time at all!

The very first thing to do before you even leave the house is to be prepared. Most flea markets have a website. Go to it and print out the map of vendors. If they don’t have a map of vendors, then they should have a list of vendors. Either way, print it out and go over it with a fine tooth comb and mark which vendors you want to investigate. This will be your guide for the day. Next, set a budget and make a list of things you want to buy. Keep track of the measurements you will need for these items and color swatches. Bring a measuring tape! Having a list of what you are looking for will help you map out your route of vendors with more travel efficiency.

If you have big items on your shopping list, you will need to consider what you are driving. If you think you can fit things into your car, make sure that it is emptied out so that you have the maximum room available and throw in a couple of old blankets to wrap furniture up. You don’t want mirrors to break or furniture to become scratched. If you own a truck or have a flea marketing friend with a truck, bring ropes and bungee cords to rope things down in the bed so that they don’t fly out when you are traveling. Some flea markets have a delivery service that you can look into for pricing and availability.

More than likely, you will start shopping early and end late, so make sure that you dress for the occasion.  Where a sweater or jacket that can be worn around your waist as the day warms up and shoes that can take on the miles are essential. A backpack full of water and snacks and an umbrella or a raincoat is always a good idea and it keeps your hands free for going through piles of cool stuff! Remember to wear sunscreen and a hat as those rays can be intense!

Carry cash. You may be lucky and find vendors who use Square, Zelle or even Paypal, but just in case, have enough cash to buy what you want and have it in small bills so as to not break a vendor’s bank. A checkbook with the proper identification can be used as a backup tool if needed.

Besides a backpack and a measuring tape, a couple of other pieces of gear that help in the flea market shopping experience is a collapsible shopping cart and some bubble wrap. Many times when I have gone to a flea market, I find an incredible treasure right at the beginning of my tour and I end up having to lug it all over for hours on end. I solved that one by bringing a cart that I can just toss it in and then roll on. I also learned another lesson when I tossed several pieces on top of each other and got back to the car to unload, the bottom piece was now broken. Carrying bubble wrap helped make the next situation easier to get things home all in one piece.

Do NOT forget your cell phone! There are several reasons for having a cell phone available besides calling roadside service if you break down. When I have a shopping list for a flea market, I will often take a picture whether from a magazine or for real, of the item I am looking for. I don’t have to just remember all the details because it is right there in my phone. I also use my phone to look up prices for an item I am interested. I have also shown pictures of what I am looking for to the vendors themselves and they have either pointed me in the right direction or actually have the item back in their shop!

The biggest trick I have learned in the flea market biz, is to get there early. Everyone has everything at the opening hour and if you are looking for something in particular, it is essential to be at the front of the line. Those early hours also allow you to walk around without crowds. I have speed walked through and entire market looking this way and that scanning all the booths quickly just because there was no one there… yet! I write down what I have found in what booth just to make it through the whole place and then gone back at a more leisurely pace to spend my money

Over the years, I have developed a pretty good eye and I can spot what I am looking for from several yards away. I have a special affection for Fiesta ware and I can identify the original from the more modern from mid aisle. Since Fiesta has had its day, and it tends to be rather rare to find the original 1940 pieces, even when I am doing a “speed through” tour, I will stop when I find it because I know it is special. I am not the only one that still collects this particular type of pottery and I want it before someone else grabs it! So, I never pass up the special items!

Flea markets are not set up to look like a fashionable boutique. Many vendors just pile stuff out on a table and let you go rifling through it. They also set out boxes full of odds and ends that can hold the most wonderful finds of all! After a few flea market experiences, you will know that the trick to find the really great stuff is to dig deeply into the piles. Finding a weathered license plate or a bent metal sign are part of the thrill. All things can be cleaned and repaired and then be re-purposed into a piece of art, a backyard sculpture or even a functional furniture set.

Negotiation is not my strong suit. I usually just take the price as is. But, your vendor is used to it and knows that negotiating or bartering is part of his business. Don’t walk away from something that you think is too high. Ask the dealer if they will take a lower price. And be nice about it. There is nothing that a dealer hates worse than a bully. Remember, negotiating is about getting to the middle and being serious about your offer. Be ready to make a few offers before you get to the right price on an item. If no price can be reached, make sure you thank the dealer. They found that item and paid for it, cleaned it, hauled it and set it up in their booth. Perhaps you didn’t buy it but the thank you can be a just reward for his trouble.

You may be dragging, but, if you can manage to stay until closing time at a flea market, you will find lots of dealers are ready to drop prices dramatically just to not take things home. I happened to walk past a booth that the owner was grumbling about not selling completely out. So, I laughingly offered to buy everything she had left for $5! And...she accepted! She put it into two boxes and I put it all into my cart, handed her the $5 and went to my car. When I got home and started going through the boxes, I was shocked to find all the cut glass candlesticks, ancient medicine bottles and old butter dishes! Obviously, I hit a goldmine!

Flea markets are a fun way to spend a Saturday from opening ‘til close. If you are prepared with the right tools and take periodic breaks, you can find incredible deals. Have your negotiating skills sharpened and your money ready and you will become a connoisseur of the Flea Market World!

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