Thursday, January 15, 2009

Tips For Buying & Selling At Flea Markets and Swap Meets – Part One

Howdy Folks,

When you’re selling online, just like with a brick and mortar store, the number one issue you have is finding inventory. Let’s face it, without inventory sales are kinda slow. One of the primary places we online sellers, especially those dealing in antiques and collectibles, find our inventory is at flea markets and swap meets. We also do a lot of sales at these venues during the summer months. I thought today I would start a two-part article on buying and selling tips at flea markets and swap meets.

Part One – Need to Know Tips for Buying at Flea Markets & Swap Meets


As with everything in life, preparation is important, and the old adage, “Failing to Prepare, is Preparing to Fail,” holds very true. When preparing to hit the flea market trail, there are a few points to remember.

1. Research and plan out your route. Read every antiques and collectibles trade paper you can find. Many of them will list upcoming specialty flea markets that deal in specific antiques and collectibles. There are glass and pottery markets, toy markets, etc. Know where you want to go, and how you’re going to get there. Note that new markets and small town markets can often provide some great buying opportunities. They are usually off the beaten track, and the lack of “high power, big money” buyers can often keep prices reasonable. You may also want to purchase the U.S. Flea Market Directory: A Guide to the Best Flea Markets in all 50 States by Albert LaFarge. Now in it’s 3rd edition, this great paperback book not only lists the best flea markets in all 50 states, it also gives days and hours of operation, admission costs, amenities available, types of merchandise and range of selection, and also contact information. Or, you can check online sites that give some of the same information found in LaFarge’s book. A couple of good sites are:

- offers some pretty good flea market links

- offers links to flea market websites

2. Have your field guides ready. Unless you have the supernatural (and very enviable) ability to know absolutely everything about everything, you’re probably going to need a couple of field guides to take with you to help in identification of items you find. If you have a basic plan to look only for specific items, you can probably depend on field guides that deal with that item. Warman’s Field Guides are great for this. Whether its depression glass, action figures, antiques jewelry, Pez dispensers, Matchbox cars, or what have you, Warman’s usually has a field guide for it. If you are looking for many different items, you may want to check out the Flea Market Trader paperback book. This book lists thousands of items, many with black and white photos. Although not as extensive as the Warman’s Field Guides, the Flea Market Trader is a great book to carry with you in your backpack or back pocket. Please note, however, that these books usually have price lists and what they call “current values.” Don’t rely on these prices and values. They are usually out of date by the time the book itself is printed, and remember that prices and values vary from one part of the country to another, and from one market to another.

3. Prepare your buyer kit. A good buyer kit is essential! Always have it ready to go, and never forget it. A good buyers kit will contain:

- A small high-intensity flashlight for shining on the inside of vases, cups and other containers to check for cracks; see relief and incised maker marks, and other uses.

- A small but powerful magnifying glass and or jewelers loup for closely examining glass, pottery, art, and other items.

- A small handheld black light for checking Vaseline glass, green depression glass, and also for checking for pottery repairs which will often show up under black light.

- A pair of white cotton gloves for handling vintage photos, tin types, and other ephemera. Many dealers will not allow you to touch these items with your bare hands, as oils from your fingers will damage these items.

- A small set of jewelers screwdrivers for opening the backs of vintage battery operated items, and other items to check for corrosion and broken connections and other loose parts.

- Personal Items such as Business Cards, Aspirin, Band Aids, a couple of energy bars, any necessary medications that may be needed during the day.

These items will generally fit in a standard sized fanny pack or a small backpack. I cannot over-stress the importance of bringing your buyers kit along with you, so if you don’t have one put together yet, its time to start.


1. Arrive Early. The best time to arrive at a flea market is early. I mean real early. If at all possible, try and be there when the dealers are unpacking. Although this sometimes means you may have to pay an early buyers fee, if you can afford it, pay it. This is the best time to make some good deals. Although you may not save much money, you will often get first choice on a dealers items. At the very least, you will have the opportunity to check out items early that you can always go back and check on later.

2. Check out Remote Tables and Booths. You may also want to check out the back spots and remote spots at the market as soon as possible. These spots usually don’t attract much traffic, and are often the last to be filled. Usually they are filled with new dealers who may either be unknowledgeable about what they have or the worth of their items, and they may be willing to make you some pretty good deals.


1. Be Ready to Make Deals. When arriving at the dealers tables and booths, you need to be in “Hagglin’ Mode.” Be ready to start making deals. When you find an item that you may be interested in, hold it an don’t put it down. If another buyer sees that you might be interested in it, they will grab it up if you put it down. Always ask the dealer if the price marked is their best price and if they can offer a better price. When they do (and the usually will), then you can offer a lower price. If they take it, great. If they offer another price, try and compromise by splitting the difference between the dealer’s price and what you are willing to pay. This is haggling 101. Sometimes the dealer will not come down in price. That’s okay. You can always go back at the end of the day, and if the item is still there, the dealer may be willing to deal at that point. Remember the “Haggler’s Golden Rule: Whoever names a price first – loses.” Another point to remember is to not irritate the dealer. Be friendly and courteous, even if you think the dealer is handing you a line of sheep dip when describing the item. Your knowledge of the item, its actual value and resale value, will help you out in the end. And, never make an offer unless you’re ready to back it up.

2. Closely Examine the Dealers Items. Take a good look around the dealer’s table or booth. Look for items that seem out of place. For example, if you find a tackle box full of old lures on a table or booth full of depression glass, there is a good chance that the dealer really doesn’t know what he or she has and you may be able to make a good deal. Check out the condition of the price tags and price stickers. If they are old and or dirty, then chances are that the item is old stock that the dealer has had around for a long time. Dealers are often willing to make some good deals on these items just to be rid of them. You should also check out any boxes that are left under the dealers tables. Sometimes these boxes will contain items that the dealers just didn’t have room for on his or her tables. If you see something you like, ask about it. You should also ask the dealer if they have any other items that they have not yet put out. You never know where that hidden treasure is that you’re looking for.


In closing, I’d like to offer these tips that will help you as you visit the flea markets and swap meets in your area and across the country.

1. Take advantage of the end of day pack up time. At the end of the day, many dealers just want to pack up and go home. And the less they have to pack up, the better. Remember that wonderful item you saw at the beginning of the day that the dealer would not come down on? At the end of the day, that dealer may be more willing to make a deal with you.

2. Cash Talks – Nonsense Walks. Never was this old adage more true than at a flea market. In fact, although some dealers will take checks or credit cards, many won’t. Believe me when I say that if you start counting out some green backs, a dealer, especially a new dealer, will be ready and willing to deal.

3. Buying Out A Dealer. Quite often a dealer will be more willing to deal when you are ready to make a large or lot purchase. Not only does the dealer stand to make a good profit for the day when you “buy big,” but you too will make some good deals.

4. Questionable Items. If you find an item that you are not sure of its legitimacy (as far as age or condition), you may consider paying for that item with a check rather than with cash. That way, if the item turns out to be bogus, after the dealer has “promised” you that it is legitimate, you can always cancel payment on the check. You may lose some money, but if it was a high cost item, at least you won’t lose it all. If you do this, however, make sure you return the item to the dealer as soon as possible. This is a “last resort” tactic, that you need to consider carefully before engaging in. Always ask the dealer about his or her return policy. After all, the dealer may have simply been mistaken in his or her claims about the item, and canceling payment on a check, especially without returning the item, will undoubtedly cause some hard feelings, and may get you banned from that flea market, or at the very least, word will get out among the close knit community of dealers and you could be blackballed from many other dealers tables and booths.

5. Hand out your business card. One of the best things about buying at flea markets and swap meets is the contacts you will make. Once you have developed a rapport with the dealers, many of them will be willing to not only put items aside that they know you are interested in, but they will also be on the lookout during their inventory buying trips to find items for you. So always leave a card with these dealers that contains your telephone number, your mailing address, and if possible an email address.

Well, there you have it folks, 12 essential need-to-know tips for successful buying at flea markets and swap meets. Next Thursday will be part two of this article, “Tips for Successful Selling at Flea Markets and Swap Meets.” I hope you have found this article informative and enjoyable. Please consider signing up to follow this blog, and subscribing to it for more great articles. And don’t hesitate to leave your comments. They are all welcome. Until next time my friends,


Whiskey Jack

Today’s Word of Wisdom: “It's better to be a has-been than a never-was.”

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