Many people who are considering opening a flea market booth of their own or becoming a flea market vendor wonder, “where do flea market vendors get their inventory?” In this article, I’ll answer this enigmatic question based on my own experience as a flea market seller and flea market business owner.
Below, I share a few of the most common places that flea market vendors buy their merchandise. For additional inventory sourcing ideas, be sure and check out my article on sources for free flea market inventory.
Most Sellers Start at Home
Flea market sellers often start their booth by getting inventory from their own and others’ private collections.
Nearly every flea market vendor gets into the business after realizing their own need to downsize their own collection of unique and vintage things.
As their friends and family discover that they are starting a flea market booth or business, flea market vendors are then able to keep their inventory stocked initially by selling the collections of friends and family who realize that they too need to downsize, clear out a storage unit, or make space in their home by selling some items.
Estate Sales & Auctions
Some flea market vendors buy their merchandise by purchasing an entire estate at once- for example, the purchase of an entire house’s contents after a resident has passed away and heirs have selected meaningful items they’d like to keep.
However, most part-time flea market business owners and vendors spend time scouting the same estate sales and auctions that are open to the public. Vendors can make a profit selling these items at flea markets not only by marking up merchandise they purchased at the auction, but also through purchasing large lots (i.e. groups of items sold together that most private collectors don’t want to deal with).
“Picking” for Flea Market Booths
While the infamous television show made picking look more common than it is, picking is a technique used by some flea market vendors to get merchandise to sell in their flea market booth.
While well-known pickers may get calls from individuals seeking to sell a collection, many pickers actively recruit collections to purchase. Pickers also serve as a sort of wholesaler for some fleamarket vendors. Certain pickers who love the thrill of the hunt but don’t want the hassle of running their own flea market booth may instead choose to sell to flea market vendors who then sell the items in their booth.
Buying from Other Fleamarket Vendors.
As a seller’s fleamarket business grows, they create professional connections with other fleamarket vendors. Over time, these relationships build their own sort of supply network.
If I, for example only sell vintage clothing in my flea market booth but I’m friends with flea market vendors that hate the hassle of dealing with vintage textiles, I could potentially create a supply network for my flea market booth by developing relationships with these vendors who would help me locate vintage clothing to resell. These relationships can be one-way, in which the finder might be paid a finders fee, or reciprocal, in which I, as a hypothetical textiles-only dealer might forward my flea market dealer friend’s leads about items that would fit well in their flea market business.
Thrift stores have a volume of donations that is often many times larger than their stores’ ability to move items through the showroom. To cope with this overflow, most thrift store chains have a system to handle overflow. Goodwill has a network of outlet stores (where items are sold by the pound, at prices as low as $0.25/lb) and some Salvation Armies are known to run auctions on unsold merchandise.
For folks willing to dig and get their hands dirty, check out my guide to shopping at a Goodwill Outlet center. These outlets can be an outstanding source for vintage or collectible items purchased at wholesale prices, but do require an investment of time as you dig through the overflowing bins for treasures that can be resold. Since the outlet sells items per pound, without regard to their condition or collectibility, the goodwill outlet center can, alone, be enough to sustain a small flea market business.
For tips on shopping at the goodwill outlet center including how to get the best deals and higher-quality merchandise, be sure and read my article.
Good flea market vendors will curate, over time, their own network of suppliers for products for their flea market booth.
These secret sources are often extremely unique to a particular vendor and top-secret. For example, when I was active in my flea market business I learned that the employees of the local recycling center pulled things of value and set them aside- free for the taking. I never told a single soul while my booth was active (after all, it was how I got about 20% of my inventory!) but now that I’m out of the business it’s a tip I share freely in my flea market resource guide.
If you become a flea market vendor, over time you’ll begin to curate your own top-secret list of sources for flea market inventory. For me, that was my network of free sources for flea market inventory that I curated in my hometown, but for others that will include relationships with auctioneers (who might send a call to a flea market vendor when someone reaches out about an auction but the collection doesn’t, according to the auctioneer, warrant a full auction) and even real estate agents (who occasionally manage property cleanouts of fully furnished homes).
Your list will vary based on your current connections and who you develop relationships with as you grow your fleamarket business, but with persistence and ingenuity, it’s fairly easy to develop a network that will help you find sources to buy cheap inventory to resell in your flea market business booth.
Creativity and effort
When it comes down to it, finding inventory to buy to sell in a flea market booth comes down to creativity, ingenuity, and persistence – plus a big chunk of time.
Although flea markets as a business idea may appear to be only a weekend side gig, for most fleamarket vendors who make a full time income, running a successful booth takes full-time work running down leads on potential vintage goods for sale, scouring the spots where free flea market inventory can sometimes be found, not giving up when you go through a dry spell, and digging through thrift store overflow.
With persistence, and learning how to price things in a flea market booth, however, it’s easy to generate a steady stream inventory to resell in a flea market booth.
Even though a flea market booth is much harder to run than a retail store because inventory can’t be resupplied through a simple order form, the incredible markup on fleamarket goods can make it a profitable small business. While retail stores often end up with only about a 10 to 20% profit after the cost of products and marketing, the markup on fleamarket items resold in a flea market booth can be up to several thousand percent – making it not only a potential source of income but also an exciting and satisfying side business.