I’m a huge fan of markets and with spring finally here, flea market season has kicked into high gear.
There’s something thrilling about searching through the rubble for that perfect piece of art, rustic furnishings or a primitive farmhouse item or rare collectible. Flea market shopping is the ultimate treasure hunt, you never know when you’ll find something fabulous! Some are bargains, some aren’t, but the fun is definitely in the hunt and the back and forth banter of negotiation.
If you’re not used to market shopping, negotiating a price can seem like a daunting task. However with a little patience and practice, you’ll soon see what all the fun is about! While this post focuses on flea market shopping, suggestions can be used for almost any type of market around the world.
Here are a few tips to help you make the most out of your market visit and find the best bargains:
1. Bring Your Tool Kit
Prepare a tool kit for your flea market shopping but keep it light. Essentials include a backpack, folding cart or trolley to carry heavy purchases and bubble wrap or tissue paper for wrapping fragile items. If you’re shopping for furniture or other large items, include a floor plan, color swatches, paper and a pen for note-taking and sharing contact information just in case you need to come back at a later date. Other handy items include a small flashlight and a magnifying glass to examine stamps and maker’s marks.
2. Dress Appropriately
Skip the high heels and wear comfortable shoes. Dress in layered clothing to accommodate changes in the weather and for indoor flea markets which aren’t always temperature controlled. Don’t forget to leave your expensive jewelry at home. A hat or a scarf and sun screen is another good idea. This isn’t a board meeting or a first date, you’ll have a better chance negotiating a price if you’re dressed down.
Flea markets can get crowded. Outsmart pickpockets and thieves by keeping your cash in a front pocket, a travel pouch or in a cross-body bag positioned in front. Avoid keeping your cash in backpacks or large shoulder bags that can be easy accessed from behind.
Treasure hunting takes time and when the weather warms up you’ll need something to keep you hydrated. Make sure to take a cup of coffee or tea, a bottle of water and a snack with you to keep your energy up. Even if the flea market has a concession stand, line ups take time and you can use that extra money for your flea market finds.
4. Cash is Key
Don’t miss out on that special find because you didn’t plan ahead. Take cash, including plenty of small bills and coins. While the occasional vendor may accept credit or debit cards, most only accept cash and not every flea market has easy access to an ATM machine. Even when there is an ATM machine available, the machine could be out of order or there might be a long line up.
Having cash on hand has other advantages too! Knowing how much you’re willing to spend and having exact amounts on hand helps you stay within your budget and can be a great negotiating tool.
As a general rule, use the local currency when traveling abroad however the American dollar is widely accepted in South East Asian countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
5. Timing Is Everything
Get there early – really early – for the best selection. If you wait too long, the market could get crowded and stalls might become over-picked by afternoon. Arriving early also gives you time to scope out the different stalls and make a game plan.
But if you’re looking for the biggest discounts and the best deals, wait until just before market closes. Dealers will be more ready to negotiate on smaller items and eager to sell furniture and cumbersome pieces that might be difficult to transport.
Last but not least if you see something you just can’t live without, buy it! If you love it that much chances are someone else does too and it might not be there when you come back.
6. Be Friendly
Always pack a good attitude in your flea market tool kit. Introduce yourself to vendors, be friendly and talk to them about what you’re looking for.
If you’re looking for a rare item or something unique, they might have it in stock or know someone who does. If you’ve got a favourite booth, developing relationships might also lead to bigger and better discounts down the road.
7. Buyer Beware
What you see is what you get and flea markets sales final.
Make sure to thoroughly examine an item before you buy it but keep an open mind. A bit of paint can transform a vintage piece or repurpose a vintage find to give it new life.
For big ticket items, do your research and don’t risk any post-purchase regrets. Thanks to mobile devices and the internet, anybody can research an item’s worth quickly and easily. Amazon, eBay, Etsy, Rubylane and Worthpoint are all great resources for finding price estimates. However, do your research in private. It’s bad form to pull out your smart phone or iPad mid-negotiation and won’t win you any points with the vendors.
Don’t forget that even professional appraisers can get it wrong sometimes. Buy only what you love and pay only what you’re comfortable spending.
8. Don’t be Afraid to Haggle
At flea markets, negotiating is part of the game and the vendors expect it. That said, there are a few do’s and don’ts in the fine art of haggling!
While we’ve mentioned the importance of timing and being friendly, it’s really important mind your manners when bargaining. Ask permission before picking up items or taking photographs and be polite when inspecting an item for flaws or damage. Be patient, take your time and enjoy the back and forth banter of negotiating a price.
As a rule of thumb, don’t haggle for an item if you’re not serious about buying it. Do, however, ask for a lower price or make an offer you feel comfortable spending if you feel the original price is too high. If the price is still too high, work the price down by asking, “Is that your best offer?” If that doesn’t work, politely back down by saying something like, “Thank you but unfortunately that’s beyond my budget”. Then turn around and move on to the next stall. Chances are, this is the point when the vendor will try to stop you and offer a better price but be prepared to give up on the sale. If you’re offered a better price, you can make one last ditch effort by saying, “Is that the best you can do?” This opens the door to further negotiation but if you’ve got a firm offer you’re willing to pay, say it now and be prepared to close the sale or walk away.
Buying multiple items or asking a vendor to throw in an extra item on your purchase is also a good bargaining strategy. Vendors are there to sell. The more you’re willing to buy from them, the more flexible they’ll be on the final price.
9. Culture Matters
If you’re shopping in a foreign country, watch and listen to the people around you. Try to get a feel for how the locals interact and what they are paying for an item. If possible, try to have a local friend or trusted guide to explain the customs and help translate.
Not knowing the culture or the language can put you at a disadvantage. While some vendors may offer a fair price, others might see you as an easy target. While it’s important to be polite, stay firm in your offer and don’t be offended by aggressive vendors.
While the general tips and advice provided here apply almost everywhere in the world, learning a little about the local culture and language can go a long way. For example, markets in Austria tend to be fairly laid back while bartering in Bali might feel more intimidating to a North American tourist. In Korea and China, it’s important to ‘save face’ for both you and the vendor and keep emotions in tact while in Afghanistan you might be offered green tea as part of the formalities of negotiation.
One of my most exciting – albeit frustrating – bargaining experiences was with an old woman in China who was trying to charge me several hundred times the going price of a trinket my mother had her heart set on. By the end of the exchange – and getting set to walk away – I thought the old woman was going to rip my head off before she finally caved with a fair price. Once the deal was done a broad smile crossed her face, she patted me on the back and said, “Well done!” Of course, by this time I’d been living in Asia several years and had my ups and downs but that transaction was a highlight that I’ll never forget.
10. Exit Strategy
Don’t forget logistics! If you’re planning on buying furniture or other large items, you’ll need someone to help with the heavy-lifting, proper transportation and storage space.
Visiting from overseas? Don’t forget to check your luggage restrictions and official custom regulations. If you plan on sending items home, make sure you calculate the cost of shipping, customs duty and handling costs. While something might seem like a great deal at first glance, costs add up and you might be better off sourcing heavy or bulky items in your home country.