To Market, To Market

by Sharon Camino


What better recreation for bargain hunters than a bustling flea market? They offer both a fun diversion and a treasure trove for penny pinchers. Who among us hasn't enjoyed an occasional Saturday morning strolling through the drive-in parking lot, scrounging for cheap finds and hidden gems? Years of trekking to these bazaars (along with garage sales, swap meets, etc.) have been fun and fruitful, but the experience has also taught me to be a smart and successful trader. Follow these tips to make the most of your next flea market treasure hunt.

  1. All flea markets are not created equal. Find out the types of sales offered in your area. While some may feature collectibles and antiques, others might offer a potpourri of goods, such as new and used household items, tools, clothing, books, plants, and even food. Don't waste your time looking for some good, used cookware for the college student at an antique and collectible fair. Similarly, don't figure on finding that coveted last missing piece of Fiestaware at the church rummage sale.

  2. Time your visit. Arrive early if you're hoping to snag a specific or rare item. If you're not on the lookout for a particular piece, but just some great bargains, consider showing up late in the day. Vendors are more apt to discount wares later, not wishing to pack up and take items back with them. Often the best buys can be had around the close of the sale.

  3. Shop alone, or only with someone who's akin to your shopping habits. You don't want to be distracted or held back when treasure hunting.

  4. Carry cash in all denominations. Most vendors don't accept credit cards or personal checks. Don't count on returns or "the customer's always right" policy. However, do ask for receipts, when the purchased item is a collectible or an investment. Any sales slip, literature, appraisal or information about the provenance and value is useful for investment pieces, and just an overall good practice for your record-keeping. If it's a collectible, ask qualified vendors for a written appraisal. This can be done at a later date, and it should be included with the price.

  5. Prices are negotiable. Offer less than the ticketed price, and anticipate counteroffers. Decide beforehand the most that you're willing to pay for an item, and stay in your boundaries. Be careful and sure in your offers, and be prepared to walk away if you can't buy at your price.

  6. If the vendor won't budge, ask him/her to throw in another item. Sometimes, they'll be more likely to offer discounts if you take additional items off their hands. Remember that vendors come to sell, and more sales mean less for them to pack up at the end of the day. Ask for this option when a vendor is obstinate.

  7. Be knowledgeable. If you're into collectibles, know the value and examine the condition of the piece you're considering. Don't speculate on a pricey item whose value escapes you. Is it an important investment or a useful second-hand find? A keepsake or kitsch?

  8. Dust or dollar collector? Some of the value of an item lies in its usage. I recently passed on a prized retro glass cocktail set. It was dear, but too oversized to be very useful to me. Not wishing to acquire a new dust collector, I passed on this. On the other hand, there may be little "enjoyment" value in a Mickey Mantle rookie card that sits in a drawer; the value here is in the investment, not the usage.

  9. Travel light and dress for the day. Don't overburden yourself with a purse, umbrella, packages, etc. If it's rainy, wear a hat. Take large or fragile items to your car, and carry a sturdy shoulder tote for your smaller purchases. Interestingly, vendors will take note when they see your bag. That tells them that you're a buyer (and not just a looker), and they'll know you're serious when you make an offer.

  10. Don't shop on an empty stomach. Swap meet food is junky and overpriced. Better to eat before, and if you must carry a drink, don't make it the "gulp-sized." It'll just get in the way of your shopping. Count on treating yourself later, after you've returned from the flea market with your prizes.
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