I grew up immersed in the world of craft shows and flea markets, and never realized how many secrets I knew to success in this world until I started maintaining my own flea market booth in my 30’s. In this post I’m excited to share some of my secrets with other sellers and vendors. Note that most (but not all) of this article applies mostly to flea market booths that are year-round flea market facilities rather than flea market events where the seller is present through the sale. My tips focus on how to acquire inventory, reduce loss and breakage, and boost sales and profits in a booth that is not maintained or supervised daily.
This article is in two sections:
1. Tips for sourcing, pricing, and running your booth
2. A DIY kit of items that will make this work faster and easier
You’ve made the plunge! You’ve invested in a booth, maybe you’ve even got a few months experience under your belt by cleaning out odds and ends. What next?
This article is about some of my creative solutions to the following questions:
- Where to source new flea market booth inventory?
- How to arrange a booth for maximum profit and minimum loss?
- How to reduce theft and breakage?
- How to get the really niche stuff sold?
1. Boost flea market booth profits by advertising on Craigslist
Most items in my both were common, priced under $20, or widely appealing- but when I placed an item in my booth that was a specialty item (for example: bicycle parts or horseback riding equipment) or took in a lot of similar items (for example: a mason jar collection or craft supplies) I always posted a corresponding ad on Craigslist, advertising the item(s) and directing the buyer to my flea market booth to purchase the item.
Pairing Craigslist with my flea Market booth relieved me from the inconvenience and, particularly as a single woman, the creep factor, of meeting people to sell items through Craigslist. Instead I could direct them to a third-party location with staff on hand to take their money. I was paying booth fees and a percentage anyway (11% at my flea market) so I was deliberate about using their services whenever possible to make my life easier. Using a booth as Craigslist go-between meant no hassle scheduling or meeting a buyer or figuring out how to process their non-cash payments.
TIP: when posting your items on Craigslist, give people specific instructions to locate your booth, eg “halfway back on the east wall” or “three booths up from the fitting room.”
2. Find Free Inventory to Keep your Flea Market Booth Stocked (aka Befriend Your Recycling Center)
Re-using trumps recycling every time. Most cities have at least one recycling center where people can drop off larger quantities of recyclables or bulkier items than pickup can accommodate, and in many cities recycling centers are open for self service. With permission, you should be able to remove anything you find for FREE.
Making the Joplin, MO Recycling Center part of my regular errands each week generally netted enough sell-able products to cover each month’s booth rental fee. On some trips I left with hands empty, often I left with just a glass jug or pickle jar (both consistently sellable for a couple bucks) or a handful of vintage books, but on a few lucky occasions I scored a collection of glassware I priced and resold for hundreds of dollars, a box of vintage toys worth $50+, or a cache of old stationary and atlases.
TIP: Locate your recycling center and make it part of your route on days you go maintain your booth. Keep a tote in your car with pens, tags, and tape so you can price and deliver to your booth without adding extra hassle or storage time.
The book selection at the recycling center almost always included what appeared to be donations of old private book collections. I could grab these vintage books for free and sell them $2-$10, depending on condition, topic, and author.
3. Tips for Flea Market Booth Setup
Arranging your booth is important, and speaks to particular types of customers.
Arranged Booth vs Compressed Booth.
Some booth owners spend lots of time carefully arranging the items in their booth into a homey scene. This appeals to an impulse-buying customer who sees a beautiful arrangement and will purchase pieces to own the style of the booth as much as the particular item. This is not my method. I believe it’s more profitable to arrange the flea market booth in a way that compresses a lot of cool stuff into a smaller space. This invites customers who enjoy the thrill of the search, bargain hunting, and imagining what they can create with your items. Here’s a little more about my compressed method, which uses my booth for maximum product storage and display:
TIP: Stalk your local Habitat for Humanity Restore for used shelving. The shelves in my booth were scored for $5-$10 each at a Habitat Restore, compared to about $30 new. When I left my booth after my move to Seattle, I sold each shelf for $10-$15 – so keeping an eye out for vendors vacating can also be a great way to acquire booth display features.
Here’s how I structured the content of my booth for maximum attention and profit. You want to be sure that the most visible parts of your booth are exciting to a person walking past briskly, and that when they turn to look in your booth, the items at eye-level are flashy and, optimally, great values. If you can catch the customer’s eye and convince them that even these things they don’t want look nice and are well priced, they are likely to stop and scan the rest of your booth for treasures.
4. Invest in a Bag Sealer
If you have one on hand, a Foodsaver can work great to permanently seal zip-top bags in a pinch, but if you expect to sell many small or loose items, a heat sealer will pay for itself in theft and damage prevention. Delicate paper ephemera (like decks of cards or stationary), tiny collections (like fountain pen nibs or napkin rings), or low value items that aren’t profitable to price individually can be grouped together and sealed in a permanently sealed bag. It won’t prevent theft, but it will help keep honest people honest and make pieces just a little less tempting to steal for thieves.
TIP: Don’t waste time individually pricing items under $2 or so. Instead, group with like items, bag, and seal, pricing the bag at a group price.
A plastic sheath also makes paper or fragile items easy to price without damaging the finish, and prevents wear and tear to original packaging by providing protection from the oils and dirt on hands that will pick up and examine the item.
TIP: For tiny, but higher value items, place the item in an 8×8″ bag or larger, place a piece of white cardboard cut to fit the bag behind the item, write your price on the bag, then seal with a heat sealer. Doing this makes your item visible, harder to steal without being noticed, and easier to display in your booth.
This $15 heat sealer on amazon is my go-to for small projects and before I moved to Seattle I kept one in my shop and one in my garage for organization! (True story: after a Brown Recluse bite in 2008 from a towel that had been folded in a linen closet, I heat sealed all my linens for years!)
DON’T: take the time to price items that are tiny and/or low value
DO: use a heat sealer to group small items together
This reduces time invested pricing and reduces the risk that items are damaged or stolen by shoppers.
5. Locate Sources for Low Investment Inventory
Thrifting, Auctions, and Garage Sales are standard sources for procuring booth inventory, but one of the most lucrative sources I located was my city’s Habitat for Humanity ReStore and the neighboring city’s Habitat ReStore. (It’s worth noting that the ReStore outside my city consistently had lower prices and higher turnover, leading me to suspect not all ReStores are equal.)
There are certain items I have learned to look for when I visit the ReStore: chandeliers, small furniture, and vintage frames. Occasionally I discover great deals on unexpected and easily resellable items, like this pallet of dress forms that were $15-$20 each and resold in my booth for $35-$50.
Deserving of a heading all its own, chandeliers were so profitable for me that I consistently hunted for them at the ReStore and thrift shops. Sometimes I resold as-is, but often (i.e. if they were that horrible shade of 80’s polished brass) I added a coat of paint. I found that if I spent $2.00 and five minutes converting to a plug-in-lamp style, I could get an extra $10 or so for my chandeliers in my flea market booth. (See the link for instructions on converting a chandelier to a lamp.)
DISPLAYING CHANDELIERS: to sell chandeliers in your booth you’ll need a safe way to display that’s secure but still allows a customer to remove & purchase. I recommend a bracket made for hanging plants. Screw this sturdy bracket into a stud behind the wall of your booth and hang the chandelier from the hook at the end. I like these brackets because regular/flat brackets can allow the chandelier to slip off if mishandled, but this type with a hook can hold it securely and far enough from the wall that it hangs naturally. Be sure to hang at a height so an average height person can remove the chandelier for purchase.
TIP: use BIG price tags and a sharpie to price hanging items such as chandeliers. Clear pricing helps to avoid giving shoppers a reason to move the chandelier off the hook and, upon seeing the price, leave it sitting on the floor of your booth where it might get damaged by foot traffic. Make sure the price is on both sides of the tag and clearly visible.
7. Set & Forget
I know many vendors are regimented about regularly adding inventory, rearranging their booth, and cleaning, however my life situation allowed me to experiment with a different method:
In June 2015 I opened my flea market booth in Missouri. In August 2015 I decided to move to Seattle for graduate school. The following year involved trips back to the area about every 3 months, during which I would spend time pricing and reloading my flea market booth. My goal became to simply stuff the booth as full as it could possible get before leaving, and then absolutely forget about it until my next visit to the state when I would pick up my checks, clean the nearly-empty booth, lower the price on some of the remaining items, and reload the booth to overstuffed and overflowing all over again.
The result: SUCCESS. I might have sold a bit more by regularly reorganizing and refreshing, but when time is money, it’s nice to know that a flea market booth can be profitable even if you can only give attention to it a few days in a year. It does, of course, assume that you have inventory to reload the booth with, though. My life transition from a 3,000 square foot house to 280 square foot apartment provided plenty of inventory and, frankly, a very low-stress way to part with my possessions slowly. Eventually my belongings sold estate-sale style when my MO home sold, but by the time of the sale I’d already reduced the contents of the house by about 40%, getting much better prices on my stuff than the final estate sale netted.
8. Create Pricing Interest
The general rule of retail is to make pricing abundantly clear, but I’m convinced a person who shops at flea markets does so because they love the particular sort of hunting one does when flea marketing. To that end, instead of a booth-wide-discount, which would discount things I wasn’t ready to cut the price on, I color coded. When I was ready to discount something, I’d staple a new bright gold tag to the old tag. The gold tags became like Easter eggs as people would stand and scan my booth looking for the gold tags, in the process giving a closer look to my entire booth and the majority of items that were not discounted.
These 8 tips made my first flea market booth a big success, each month profitable and a great excuse to thrift and flea market even after I was “done” decorating my own home. It helped keep shopping fun and no-guilt when I knew that I could justify buying something new for my own home with the knowledge that whatever in my house it replaced I could take to my booth and resell.
How to Pack the Perfect Flea Market Caddy for Handling Restocking/Repricing Trips to your Booth
Over time and many trips, I began to cultivate a kit, contained in an easy to carry tool caddy, that had everything I’d need when I arrived at my flea market booth to reorganize, restock, and reprice. Here’s he contents of my kit:
Price Tagging Gun – At around $10 for a tagging gun and 1200 fasteners, a tagging gun is the best investment I ever made in my flea market booth (worth noting if you are also a crafter- tagging guns make the basting part of a sewing project 80% faster).
Using squares of cardstock, a tagging gun can simultaneously punch a hole in the cardstock and attach it securely to items that are fabric/textile, have cardboard packaging, or that have eyelets or small holes.
If you plan to sell art, postcards, magazines, children’s books, vintage epherma, or any other flat and somewhat fragile items, bulldog clips are well worth the investment. These clips look stylish and the prepunched holes hook neatly on small nails or larger screws. Hanging art with clips means your pieces are visible and won’t be damaged by shopped flipping through a bin or box of paper items. If your booth is unattended, you may find the clips disappear with the items as they sell, but at 30¢ – 50¢ each, if they prevent loss/damage of even one or two pieces every few months, they’ll pay for themselves.
Coarse thread drywall screws – my go-to screw, these will screw in without pre-drilled holes into most surfaces and hold tight in drywall, plywood, lumber, or peg board. (Just be smart about weights and using studs for heavy loads!) I keep 10-12 in the bottom of my flea market tote, the ability to add an extra hook is priceless when refreshing my booth.
cordlesss drill – A MUST have- pick up a basic one for under $20 and never take it out of your flea market caddy. (I ended up buying a second because I kept winding up at my booth needing to move a shelf with no drill in my caddy)
sharpies (double tip) – So you can reprice on the fly, a double tip sharpie- and a backup. Use a market with lots of ink to create large, highly visible tags.
Compact roll of heavy duty packing tape – Keep a small roll of packing tape handy. Don’t go for the cheap stuff here, especially in a booth you don’t maintain often- the name-brand heavy duty tape works well for several purposes: 1. reattaching price stickers that aren’t staying attached (weak adhesive on some stickers doesn’t work well with some vintage surfaces like barnwood, fabric, or rust.) 2. Sealing and resealing clear bags semi-permanently. 3. Hanging signs.
Scissors – Good pair of scissors is a must have for repricing, cutting new tags, removing string tags, etc.
colored cardstock – Cardstock is one of the cheapest and most highly visible ways to price items- it holds up well to handling and can be marked with a bold sharpie for super-clear pricing. I kep pre-cut strips of cardstock in my caddy that I could use as price-bookmarks or cut into squares for tape-on prices.
Stapler – Keep a compact stapler in your caddy for repricing. I recommend stapling a new pricetag over an old pricetag when lowering prices on items that haven’t sold. This method is faster and allows the customer to still see the old price tag- letting them feel like they are getting a great deal.
pricetag – strong-tag style price tags
– I buy the medium/small 1.092 x .75 inch tags to save a little money, but they require an extra-fine-tip pen to get booth number, a good description, and price fit legibly on the tag. (The Pilot G2 in ultra-fine .38 mm tip is my go-to pen for tags, journaling, and basically all writing- and works fabulously for tags)
pricetags – blank round stickers – I like big round stickers for pricing as the round stickers draw the eye better, especially on broad flat surfaces. My advice for price stickers is to go BIG. Stickers with well-marked prices, visible from shelf or surface, mean less people handling them items, jostling nearby items, rearranging the display, etc.
peg hooks – Most flea markets sell these up front, for vendors, but don’t get stuck with their high prices. Order in advance more than you think you’ll need, and always keep 6-8 extras in your caddy.
For a flea market booth where most items are different (as opposed to stocks which stock and backstock many identical items) I think shorter 2″ peg hooks work best.
What about you? Have you taken a dip in the waters of owning a flea market booth? What are your tips for finding new inventory and boosting profits?