The Do’s and Don’ts of Flea Market Shopping
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If you invited me to spend my Saturday morning fighting crowds and combing through junk at the flea market, I would say, “Thanks, but no way.” Count me OUT.
Nothing against you, of course.
If you invited me to a coffee shop that same morning I’d be all in. I’ll take heartfelt conversation over drinks and deliciously carb-loaded muffins any time!
It’s just that my last trip to the flea market…well, it didn’t go so well.
There were dozens of vendors selling produce and handmade wares, but many looked like they had just ordered their flea market items out of the Oriental Trading catalog and set up shop. I even found a place that sold used kitchen mats and area rugs, and they looked really used. Ick!
Here’s What I Don’t Understand
I watch Fixer Upper’s Joanna Gaines shop the flea market like a pro (while typical Chip goofs off!) and design guru Emily Henderson score vintage flea market finds, and scratch my head.
Maybe I missed something. Maybe I somehow didn’t do it “right” the first time. Maybe I wasn’t even at the right flea market.
All of which convinced me to give this multi-booth marketplace a second chance.
This time though, I needed first-hand knowledge. I consumed several articles on how to shop the flea market, which ones to go to, etc., etc., so I would be ready when a free Saturday popped up in my calendar.
At the first sign of an opening, I dragged Joseph along (actually, he was a very good sport!) to visit the Red Barn Flea Market in Bradenton, Florida. We didn’t come home with anything that was on my list, but we did find quite a few surprising things that weren’t!
I also learned how to better approach the market next time, for an even more successful flea market shopping experience in the future—because yes, I’m now a redeemed flea market cynic.
So if you’re like I used to be and don’t love the stress of flea markets, but love the thrill of an unexpected find, soak in these tried-and-true flea market tips so you can thrive on a Saturday morning when family members drag you along.
And if you already love the flea market, arm yourself with these tips to up your deal-finding game!
1. DO Make a Plan Before You Go
The majority of my first flea market trip was spent walking up and down every aisle and peeking into almost every booth. If you love browsing, you’ll adore this part. But I crave efficiency and want to be in and out as quickly as possible!
If the latter sounds like you too, you’ll want to grab a map (usually found on the specific flea market’s website) or pick one up right when you arrive at the market.
Then read over all the store descriptions and circle the corresponding numbers of each store on your map. Doing this allowed Joseph and I to sail right through aisles where we weren’t interested in anything and quickly make our way to the places we were.
2. DON’T be afraid to barter
I used to be really scared of asking for a lower price (okay, I still am!), but the flea market is the perfect place to get over this fear.
Some prices are way too high, so offer what you would feel comfortable paying. If the vendor says no, they say no. But sometimes they will come back with another offer—or even say YES.
While there’s no set rule as to which shops you do this in, I generally barter if the shop is a curated collection of flea market finds rather than an actual store with multiple pieces of the same inventory.
The curated shop owner usually wants to unload his wares; in comparison, the shop owner who can just order more from a catalog is less inclined to strike a deal with you.
Also, if you’re at the flea market closer to the end of the day, some shops will start the bartering process for you! After seeing me eye an old window turned decor, the owner offered it to me for $15 rather than the $25 asking price, just so she didn’t have to haul it back home.
I can’t wait to take off the hooks, repaint, then add a few more starfish and seashells. It’s perfect for my beach-themed living room!
Related: The Surprising Truth about Garage Sales
3. DO shop different vendors before you buy any flea market items
Flea markets are notorious for selling the same exact things in different shops, for different prices. Most of the time, the higher priced items are located closer to the door. I didn’t know this going in, but certainly wish I had!
For instance, we decided to pick up a new belt at one of the many leather shops we passed by, and finally found one for $8. We thought it was a pretty good deal, definitely better than a $20 one in Target.
But a couple aisles later, we found the same exact belt listed for $3 — ugh! For real?
If only we had waited to scout out the market before we handed over our money, we could have saved at least $5 for that purchase. Lesson learned: Scout multiple venders before buying anything!
4. DO know your prices
Not everything will be listed as a better price than a regular store, so it pays to do some market research before you go.
Many vendors who appeared to be selling close-out items of brand name shampoo, shaving cream, and other bath and body items were actually pricing them higher than the same product at CVS or Walmart!
There were also some home decor shops selling beach-themed pieces that cost about as much as ones found in high-end shops on nearby Sanibel Island. While I swoon over beach decor, I wasn’t about to pay those prices when I could probably find a similar alternative online…for less!
Thankfully, a shop a few booths down offered equally as cute beach decor and I scored two adorable bedside table lamps for $13 each. At Target, the cheapest lamp shade/base combo runs about $15.
5. DON’T Forget to bring cash (and small bills!)
I rarely have cash on hand, so for my first flea market experience, I didn’t bring ANY. Nada. Zilch.
Most vendors do have credit card machines, but the ones located in the middle aisles without an electrical outlet are forced to take cash. Plus, if you barter, it’s a lot easier to do so with cash than it is a credit card!
Most flea markets offer ATM’s, but with after the transaction fee and the bank fee, you can easily be out $5.00 or more that could have been saved by planning ahead and stopping by the bank before hand. Just another lesson learned in the art of avoiding ATM fees!
You’ll also want to make sure you bring a variety of small bills. It’s not only easier for the vender to make change, it’s also a lot less awkward to barter a $20 purchase down to $15 without having to hand over a $20 bill and ask for $5 back.
6. DO bring water and snacks
Flea markets generally don’t have air conditioning and can be quite hot (especially the ones in Florida). Plus, if you’re spending a long time there, you’ll feel tired and drained by the end of the day.
Pack enough water bottles to stay hydrated and stash some snacks in your purse or in small bag. These homemade chocolate chip granola bars are perfect to bring along since you can package them individually in plastic wrap or snack bags.
Most flea markets offer food courts, of course, but it’s much cheaper (and healthier) to bring food from home!
Now that I know not all flea markets are bad (you can find a treasure trove of fun items if you go to the right ones!), I’m excited to add a few more flea markets to my Saturday schedule throughout the summer.
FYI: Fleamapket has the lowdown on where to find a flea market location near you—the Bradenton, Florida one is a win if you’re ever in the area!
In the meantime, I can’t wait to hear all about your flea market finds and/or tips in the comments below.
How often do you go to the flea market? Do you have a favorite place you recommend? I wanna know details!
Disclosure: Some of the links in the post above are affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. Read my full disclosure policy here.
I live close to the famous Shipshewana Flea Market and rarely go. It is Tuesdays and Wednesdays and since I work full time I usually don’t feel like going after work. I agree with not buying at the first vendor you come to, usually there are multiple vendors with the same item and different prices. I enjoy flea markets and antique markets, sometimes it is just to look and sometimes I do want to buy.
The best part of looking is that there’s no charge for that! 🙂
I am a buyer and seller. I have been involved in flea markets on all levels to include buying, selling and running them. I rarely buy anything retail as I do not have to. There are some good tips in the article but I will say experience will go a very long way in helping the novice buyer, and you can only get experience by shopping at these on a regular basis.
Different markets offer different items. It is best to know all your local markets so you can choose accordingly to the items you are looking for at a particular time. If you are looking for antiques, art, home decor, collectibles, it does help to have an idea of what values are. Speaking for myself, I have no problem with people doing research on items they are looking at. Many people come by my place and yank out their phones and look things up. But even on this it is good to have an idea what you are doing. Just because someone lists an item on Ebay does not mean that is the actual value! Many try to get way more than something is worth while other sellers on the web sites merely find items and dump them for fast profit.
Thanks so much for stopping by and lending your perspective! I may have pulled my phone out a few times while we were in Sarasota :). You’re absolutely right though, you can never trust an eBay listing to be an accurate value of something.
I have done a lot of business on Ebay, but I also have a lot of problems with them. This is especially true when it comes to arts and collectibles. I have to tell people all the time that if the deal online is so good they should by it there instead of mine, but I cannot and will not reduce my prices as much as people want based on something they found on an Ebay listing. Just as it is easy for someone to find a low ball price on Ebay, I can find a high price. Then I show people how to go into the site to find out how much similar or identical items have actually sold for and when. What an eye opener for many!
For one, I have money into everything I have and I must make a certain profit margin or I am out of business. There are times when I make a mistake in buying and pay too much. In those rare instances I take the loss as it is my fault. In most cases I do have some room to move on my prices, but I do not set prices with the expectation they will be bartered down. Depending on the piece I ascertain the actual value through research and even experience. I set my price below that so I can offer a bargain. I will drop even more depending on the situation, especially if you buy more than one piece. I’ve been doing this longer than Frank on Pickers has!
Another problem on Ebay, especially with items such as art, fashion and accessories, jewelry, watches, etc…, is the vast number of fakes, even with the so-called certificates of authenticity. Those things are faked more than the items themselves! The only way to protect yourself is knowing what you are buying. I love an educated buyer and they teach me a lot!
I spent a lot of time, effort and even money learning what I know, but I am not the best expert on most things. I can still learn a lot. But most people do not know what I know so I learn all I can and share it with the buyers. Most appreciate learning about their items! I remember one woman who I spent a lot of time with teaching her how to identify prints, and to determine if the signature is part of the print or actually signed by the artist. Good money in prints, but many of these are run off by crooks and the signatures faked. Still others look to have real signatures, but they are not as they are part of the print itself. Most people have no idea how to tell. I do not deal in fakes and am very happy to teach my customers, some of whom become regulars.
I am not the least expensive vendor around, but I always have many unique and wonderful pieces and I am fair and honest. This gets you a long way as a dealer, and I have many regular customers to back this! As they say, it takes a lifetime to build a reputation, but just a moment to destroy one!
I enjoyed reading this comment, Richard. Thanks for giving a bit more of a glimpse “behind the curtain” from the sellers perspective. 🙂
Is barter an available option when you are haggling? I have been to quite a few flea markets over the past few years looking for cheap stuff for my home building, but I have never experienced or even thought about bartering stuffs. If that is possible, I’d be saving up on at least couple hundreds of dollars. Will try it out next time…
If you mean trading one item for another, I’m not sure – I think it would depend on the seller, and I’m guessing there would only be a few willing to make trades.
It really depends on the dealer, and sometimes just the individual piece. The dealer may not have any room to barter the price. But in most cases, yes. Barter away! The worst that can happen is your offer is turned down. But, with a good attitude, ask what the lowest price could be. If the counter offer is acceptable to you, you have save money and gotten something you really want!
I barter all the time and have no problem doing so in most cases. But very often I have to turn down an offer because it is just too low.
Good information. Lucky me I recently found your blog by accident (stumbleupon). I have saved it for later!
I’m glad you stopped by!