If you’re looking to save money while shopping, flea markets and swap meets are for you. Read this guide if you want the best chance of finding bargains, saving money, and avoiding pitfalls.
What Are Flea Markets and Swap Meets?
The appropriate term varies from place to place – in the western states, swap meet is more common, while flea market is the preferred name on the eastern side of the country. Both terms, however, refer to the same thing: a large indoor or open-air market where dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of vendors and bargain hunters gather to buy, sell, and barter dizzying varieties of gently used goods.
Every flea market is a little different. Some specialize in specific item classes, such as home furnishings, while others are more eclectic. But they all have one thing in common: They’re great places to find deals on goods that may not be available anywhere else, even in specialty stores.
Whether you’re buying for an interior design project or turning your pickups into cash by reselling them, it’s in your financial interest to understand how flea markets and swap meets work – and how to harness their quirks to your benefit.
These tips and tricks are all designed to make you a better flea market shopper and to reduce the amount of money and effort involved.
Tips for More Effective Shopping at Flea Markets and Swap Meets
1. Dress Down
The first rule of flea market shopping: Don’t look like you’re on your way to a dinner party, or even heading off to work. Instead, dress down. Way down. Wear comfortable, baggy, unfashionable clothing, such as a low-key tracksuit or off-brand jeans and shirts. Avoid clothing that’s obviously expensive or even overly stylish. Leave the jewelry at home.
Ultimately, you want to appear frugal, as if you don’t have much disposable income to spend on fashionable clothing, jewelry, or personal accessories. Haggling is commonplace at flea markets and swap meets, but many vendors are reluctant to entertain offers from decked-out buyers for whom money appears to be no object.
2. Take Cash
Though many flea market and swap meet vendors now use mobile credit card processing systems such as Square, many remain cash-only. On your next flea market outing, bring as much cash as you’re willing to spend on the items you’re targeting for purchase, plus a small buffer to absorb spur-of-the-moment purchases or unanticipated price increases.
Unless you have specific big-ticket items in mind, carry small bills only. Nothing derails a transaction faster than asking a vendor to make change for a $100 bill – especially early in the day, before they have ample cash on hand.
3. Wear Comfortable Shoes
Flea markets and swap meets are sprawling affairs. The largest can occupy hundreds of acres. No matter how early you start, it’s difficult or impossible to walk every aisle and visit every stall at such markets.
However, even if you do your research ahead of time and narrow the scope of your trip to the vendors in which you’re most interested, you’re still looking at a long walk – probably several miles in total. When you’re not walking, you’ll be standing. Ergo, comfortable shoes are absolutely necessary. Wear running shoes or tennis shoes with cushioned soles, perhaps with inserts if necessary.
4. Eat Beforehand, Bring Snacks, and Stay Hydrated
All that walking and standing is sure to work up your appetite and stimulate your thirst. Before you leave for the market, eat a hearty breakfast and take in plenty of fluids. Pack high-energy snacks for your time in the field so that you don’t have to abandon potential deals to find a food truck or concession stand. Take along a refillable water bottle too.
5. Arrive Early
Some flea market veterans swear by the “arrive late, leave late” mantra. They argue that the best deals are found just before markets close for the day, when vendors are looking to offload their remaining inventory at all costs.
This strategy works on occasion, but it’s decidedly hit or miss. On good days, vendors may sell out well before closing time and hit the road. Even if they stick it out until the end, their wares are likely to be picked over by then. You might end up paying less for your purchases in absolute terms but at the expense of value.
If you seek the optimal mix of quality, variety, availability, and price, the odds work in your favor when you arrive early (and hopefully leave early). For best results, show up prior to the market’s opening time.
6. Shop With a Friend or Colleague
Shopping with a friend or colleague allows you to multiply your efforts and temporarily stake your claim to desirable items (by parking yourself or your partner in front of them). Given the finite opening hours and sprawling grounds of the typical flea market or swap meet, this is a valuable proposition. Just make sure you trust your shopping partner’s judgment.
7. Bring Something to Carry Your Finds
If you routinely visit flea markets and swap meets, you probably have a suitable vehicle to carry your purchases – a full-size van, minivan, pickup truck, or (at minimum) station wagon. But you can’t reasonably interrupt your day to lug each individual purchase back to the parking lot. Depending on where you park, you could lose hours in transit this way.
Therefore, one of the most important and underrated flea market accessories is a wheeled implement capable of ferrying multiple bulky items from stall to stall. Perhaps a wheeled cart, wagon, or even a wheelbarrow – whatever your preference, as long as it doesn’t impede your movement or interfere with others.
8. Bring Something to Take Notes With
Big swap meets and flea markets have hundreds of vendors selling thousands of individual items. As you walk the grounds early in the day, you can’t possibly commit every item of note to memory. Bring something to take notes with, whether it’s an old-fashioned notepad or just your smartphone.
9. Make Lists Before You Get to the Market
Before you get to the market, make a list of everything you hope to purchase, preferably with pictures or detailed descriptions. Having a list lets you hone in on your target items fast without relying on potentially faulty mental notes or maps for support. As you work through the market, check each purchased item off your list.
It’s also a good idea to keep a separate wishlist of items that you don’t need right away and don’t necessarily expect to encounter on market day, but that you’d be willing to buy if circumstances allow. On market day, you can add any items that catch your eye to this list, assuming you’re not ready to pull the trigger.
10. Know Where to Find the Best Deals (And Then Find Them)
On market day, time is of the essence. When you first arrive at the market, head straight for the best deals – usually the stalls in the center and back of the market, away from the edges and main entrance. Hampered by lower visibility and foot traffic, vendors in these parts of the market compensate with deeper discounts and greater flexibility in negotiations. By contrast, vendors at the front and sides of the market can charge a premium for convenience.
11. Pay Attention to Provenance
This rule doesn’t apply to every item you find at the flea market. However, before you add a purportedly rare or valuable antique or craft to your collection, you need to know whether it’s genuine.
Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions or demand documentation in cases where it’s likely to exist. If you can’t reliably ascertain an item’s origins or authenticity, pass it over. The financial risk of overpaying for a knock-off is simply too great – you wouldn’t pay investment-grade wine prices for a bottom-shelf bottle, after all.
12. Focus on Items That Can Be Repurposed
Some of the best flea market finds are older items begging to be repurposed – given second lives in settings very different from the ones for which they were created. By definition, easily repurposed items are versatile, meaning they’re easier to sell if and when the time comes.
When it comes to repurposing, the sky is truly the limit. For example, Paris-based antiques maven Toma Clark Haines told Chicago Magazine that, among other things, “silver pitchers…are ideal when repurposed as vases for floral displays,” while “vintage silk travel scarves…are ideal for framing or repurposing into pillows.”
13. Make Quick Decisions
Whenever possible, make a decision on an item the first time you see it. If you procrastinate, you could miss out on other opportunities elsewhere in the market. If you leave without making a final call on the expectation that the item will be there when you return, you could be in for a disappointment. Work efficiently, and content yourself with the knowledge that you’re not going to snag every single piece that catches your eye.
14. Always Haggle
Haggling is a fact of life at flea markets and swap meets. Unless a vendor explicitly tells you that a price is final and non-negotiable – which is rare – the first quote you hear is not bottom dollar.
Vendors’ willingness to negotiate depends on a variety of factors, including demand and margins. However, as a rule of thumb, you can expect to knock 10% to 15% off the vendor’s initial offer, usually by setting your first counter-offer at 20% to 25% below the ask.
15. Know When to Say “No”
Seasoned flea market shoppers know when to say “no,” even when their hearts want to say “yes.” If a vendor with whom you’re haggling won’t come down to your target price, know when to cut off further negotiations.
Likewise, be firm in resisting appealing items that don’t fit into your grand plans. It does you no good to purchase a table or vase, however cute, that’s just going to gather dust in your basement or attic. Stick to items for which you can envision a clear purpose, or which you know you can resell quickly.
Flea markets and swap meets aren’t the only places to find great deals on furnishings, clothing, practical art, home goods, and much more. Though they’re typically smaller and have less variety, run-of-the-mill garage sales are often filled with amazing finds. So are thrift stores, consignment shops, and dollar stores.
When it comes to bargain hunting, flea markets and swap meets are truly just the beginning. That’s great news for anyone who likes a good deal. The best option is often to shop online, where retail and auction websites such as Amazon, Craigslist, and eBay entice shoppers with millions of individual deals, some of which can’t be found anywhere else.
What’s your go-to strategy for bargain hunting at flea markets? What’s the biggest bargain you’ve ever scored?