In honor of the San Francisco Bay Area's upcoming Alameda Point Antiques Faire on Sunday, March 6, we’ve created a quick guide to flea market shopping - our most coveted tips, tricks, and insider insights for a successful scouring session.
Preparing for Market
Shopping a flea market is a unique retail experience - no returns, no try-it-out-at-home options, no guarantees. This is partly what makes it fun (who doesn’t love a good challenge?) and partly what makes it intimidating for some. But with a bit of advanced planning you can confidently stroll into any flea market and pull the trigger on fabulous finds.
• Measure: Take measurements of your space(s) and bring them with you. If you’re looking for a specific piece, mock up the ideal size the piece will occupy. If you’re transporting larger finds in your own vehicle, measure to determine what can fit to avoid blowing your budget on delivery fees.
• Budget: Have an idea of what you’re willing to spend on a new piece. Do research before you go to help you craft a reasonable budget--consult Chairish or eBay for comparable pieces. Remember to factor in the cost of revitalization (and fabric and delivery if relevant).
• Snack and water - Sustenance to keep you sharp - flea markets are not culinary excursions.
• Cash - It’s still king at the flea market. While some dealers take credit cards and there are ATMs at most flea markets, you’ll be more effective in your bargaining and efficient in your shopping if you pay in cash. Remember that you’ll have to pay an entrance fee and may need to tip some buff guys for helping you load your finds.
• Sunscreen - This is an outdoor adventure that may last hours!
• Layers - A lot can change between 6am and 11am — dress accordingly.
• Phone - An invaluable tool for taking photos and notes and calculating discounted prices if math isn’t your thing.
• Measuring tape - Make sure a piece will fit your space or that it’s standard height or width.
• Flashlight - Yes, a flashlight (unless your phone has a really good one). Early birds get the worm…and in the winter months that means starting before sunrise.
• Backpack or other bag to keep hands free — but make sure your money is somewhere safe.
• Moving blankets if you’re transporting the piece yourself
Working the Market
Even a well-prepared shopper can arrive at a flea market and suddenly feel overwhelmed. While there are many ways to approach the hunt for fabulous pieces, we've shared some tried and true tips to ensure a productive hunt.
• Go early - We can’t stress this enough. The entrance fee is a bit higher but it's worth it; furniture really does go quicker than any other items at a market.
• Pick a starting point and move systematically through the market. Start at the front, middle or back, it really doesn’t matter - you’ll develop your own strategy over time. Whatever your starting point, walk the full length of each subsequent row (not missing the end caps of each row) moving towards the opposite end of the market.
• Take pictures of the piece AND the seller’s booth number if you are not ready to pull the trigger. It’s also helpful to take notes (price, history, condition) on your phone to keep all info in one place.
• Get all information upfront if you really like it - measurements, condition, price, provenance/history. You don’t get to return something if you discover an issue after purchasing. Asking questions about history or condition during the negotiation can work against you.
We view buying objects at a flea market a bit like dating. You want to suss out the goods — get to know its background/pedigree and do a full 360 inspection — before taking it home.
• Conversation starter - There’s nothing like a few questions to get the conversation started. This is a great way to learn about the origin of the piece while you inspect it yourself. Where did the seller find it? What do they know about its provenance/history? How did they verify this information? Has the seller done any work to it? Do they have a shop or just sell at markets?
• Physical inspection - While making conversation with the seller and learning about the piece, do your own due diligence. Touch it, sit on it, wiggle it, lift it. Look for designer/maker markings, inspect in and under it, scrutinize the materials, assess any wear or damage to the piece.
• Be cool - Don’t gush, don’t criticize. You’re trying to get factual information about the piece from the vendor. Keep your point of view to yourself. It’s more effective to ask a question about an issue you notice rather than pointing it out (e.g. “Have you tried to repair the wobble on this piece?” vs. “This pieces is really wobbly.”). The information is the same but the way it is received is much different.
• Closing the deal - “What are you asking for this piece?” We love opening negotiations with this question. It tacitly suggests that the price is negotiable (and it always is. PLEASE don’t be timid about negotiating the price, dealers expect it; it’s the nature of this retail venue.) When the seller gives the asking price, take a minute to assess what you know about the piece: how much you like it, how unique it is, what you think is “fair” (we know, crazily subjective concept) and what you surmise the competition may be for the piece. To counter the seller’s asking price, we support one of these approaches: (A) “What is your best price?” or (B) “Would you accept $X?” When employing approach (B), be reasonable with your offer or the dealer may not engage in the negotiations. If the asking price is within your budget and seems reasonable, offer 10-15% less. As a rule of thumb, asking for more than a 50% discount will most likely derail the negotiations. Expect a bit of back and forth on the price and be willing to walk away if the price simply doesn't feel right.
Ready to try your luck at the flea market? To motivate you to set the alarm for 5:45am on a Sunday — here is a sample of the treasures to be found at flea markets.