“Free inventory.” At the mention of the phrase, you might think of curbside finds or perhaps a way to rid yourself of bad Christmas gifts. However, over the years that I have maintained a flea market booth, I’ve located a surprising number of consistent sources of free flea market inventory for my booth. Below, I’ve outlined 7 of my best sources for finding free vintage items that you can price and sell for big markups and quick turnover.
1. Recycling Food Packaging Jars
After a few months of owning my flea market booth, jars became an automatic inventory source as they moved from my grocery cart, to pantry, and then to my flea market booth.
You might be surprised to know that the glass resealable jars that pasta sauce, salsa, and other food products are packaged in in the USA can easily be resold. The jar containing pasta sauce purchased for for $2.50, may sell for $2 when the label is removed and the lid has a coat of paint applied.
There are all sorts of tutorials about upcycling this type of jar, but I don’t put too much time into making fancy lids, attaching knob handles, or gluing plastic toys on top. I’ve found that PlastiDip Spray worked best for repainting the lids, because it doesn’t scrape off, Adds grip to the lid, and it never drips or oversprays.
Once paired with a plain black, white, or metal-finish lid, I price these jars for a dollar or two, or use them as packaging collections of small objects I’m reselling in my booth (such as small toys, pen nibs, buttons, sea glass, etc)
2. Collect Natural Elements for Resale
You might be able to find free inventory for your flea market booth without even leaving your backyard. In my booth, I have had success selling clear plastic bags filled with pinecones, and I know that other sellers have had good luck with dried flowers or even bundles of sticks that are tidy and arranged well. Depending on your market, you might even be able to sell semi-shelfstable vegetation such as acorns or hedge apples. If you live or vacation in a place where driftwood is common and collection is legal, driftwood in large and small pieces can be collected and resold for its decorative value.
A few years ago a major home magazine featured “Osage oranges” (aka hedge apples) arranged artfully in a lovely vessel on the cover. These tough, fragrant, inedible fruits are often found in windfall quantities under trees on the side of the road in Missouri, but after being featured in a design magazine eBay was filled with the option to purchase these as home decor, for up to 8 dollars apiece!
The trick to getting someone to pay you for natural objects you collect is packaging them well: A pile of sticks is just a pile of sticks, but a bundle of similarly-sized sticks trimmed to size and bundled together with a decorative piece of jute can make a cozy piece of decor.
Similarly, a bucket of pinecones might look like yard trash, but the same pinecones sifted from debris and placed in a large clear bag tied neatly at the top can sell for several dollars. In Missouri where pinecones are somewhat uncommon, I sell 3 gallon bags of pinecones for $5 each, and have always moved them through my booth faster than I could restock.
If you have children, this is a great way to get kids involved with your flea market booth and help them learn about running a small business. They can do the work of collecting, cleaning, and packaging natural objects and get an “on the job” learning experience.
3. Making a Profit through Your Recycling Center
I’ve written about how valuable my recycling center was to my flea market business before, but it’s worth revisiting in this article. Visit your recycling center and be nice to the employees! Every recycling center is a little bit different, but at the recycling center in Joplin, employees regularly pulled interesting items from recycling bins and placed them in a covered area for a few days just to see if anyone could reuse the item. Even if your recycling center doesn’t offer this service, at a high volume recycling center you might be able to pull items from the day’s donations that have resale value. Depending on your city, you might need to find a specific recycling center where larger or odd shaped items end up.
At my recycling center, I was able to source FREE vintage books and glassware with a high degree of reliably (perhaps 3 out of 5 visits I’d leave with a minimum of $10-$15 worth of inventory). Pickle jars, growlers, and older mason jars are common in recycling centers and always have a resale value. If your recycling center doesn’t pull nice things from recycling, making your presence known might be helpful. If you establish a relationship and a routine with your recycling center (perhaps delivering doughnuts or making another friendly gesture) you may find yourself with friends on staff at the recycling center helping you locate free inventory for your booth.
4. DIY Your Way to Profit
Booths containing too many handmade or “craft” items often get bypassed by seasoned flea market shoppers, but there are lots of free ways to DIY products to sell. Simple handmade items are a great way to get all the kids invested in your booth and learning about running a business, just set them up with the tools they need to make the projects below:
Good DIY Inventory:
- Making Gingerbreadman Paper Doll Garland from used packing paper can be a profitable addition to a flea market booth- especially around Christmas.
- Use my instructions for How to Make Sea Glass to sell sea glass (package in jars or bags) and tumbled wood jar fillers.
- Let kids wash out food jars and spraypaint lids a uniform black. Use Plasti-Dip spray for one-coat paint that doesn’t need surface prep even on slick metal.
Learn to Rehab (more than just furniture!): Little modifications and clean-ups can spell big profit- especially if you can keep an eye out for vintage items that have been discarded in the trash because they “seem” unusable. Dried and cracking leather, stinky vintage luggage, furniture with damaged veneers, and water damaged books with potential to become book-page crafts get thrown out often but can usually be saved and resold (see links for tutorials). With a little imagination, you can revive (or repurpose) many items back to a condition in which they have resale value.
5. Friends, Family, and Professional Relationships
Don’t disregard that your family, friends, and acquaintances may be a great source of free inventory for your booth. Keep your eyes open to possibilities and you can cultivate free or cheap inventory sources.
For example, often, used or worn out sporting goods are worthless to friends and neighbors, but they may have resale value as decorative items in your flea market booth. One great example might is any horse owners in your life: Equestrian items are my favorite to collect for resale. Real, working farm equipment picks up a rustic patina in a matter of weeks- producing vintage-looking items from new equipment quickly.
Do you know any horse owners? Typically horses are reshod, with the worn shoes pulled off the hoof every 6-12 weeks. Blacksmiths and farriers typically collect the used shoes for scrap metal, but owners have the right to keep them. Have any horse-owning friends begin collecting used horse shoes to resale. As is, they’ll sell for $1-$2 each in most parts of the country, and repurposed horse shoes as wall hangings can sell for $15-$20.
6. Scrape “the Bins”
I recently wrote an entire article dedicated to shopping at goodwill outlets – affectionately nicknamed “the bins” by those who shop there. Throughout the country, Goodwill has retail outlets where shoppers can sift through all the rejected, unsold, or overflow merchandise from Goodwill. Although not quite free, with a price of $.58/pound for most categories of inventory, it might as well be. I average about a 5000% markup on goods purchased there and sold in my flea market booth. Honestly, since moving to an area near a goodwill outlet, it’s the only place I need to go to keep my fleamarket booth filled. If you don’t live near a goodwill outlet, plan day trip and plan to spend the whole day (merchandise is refreshed several times an hour). Click the image below for more tips on shopping at the goodwill outlet.
7. Make Craigslist “FREE” your most Used Bookmark
Did you know Craigslist has a free section? If you’ve ever browsed your local Craigslist free you’ve probably noticed it’s full of absolute junk- but there’s a secret: Go right now and add the free category of your local Craigslist site to your bookmarks bar. Next, click the link – and keep clicking it often. People actually give away great stuff on Craigslist, but it’s quickly removed from the site leaving only junk behind. If you make Craigslist one of your favorite boredom-clicks, you can find high dollar items to resell it in your fleamarket booth. Unlike local “buy nothing groups,” there are no ethical issues with reselling your finds from Craigslist – folks usually list items because they’re moving, cleaning out, or just want stuff gone and don’t have to deal with the hassle of selling it.
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Get creative! These are just a few of the ways you can build flea market inventory at zero cost to you. Just remember:
Number 1 Rule for Procuring Flea Market Inventory:
Everyone manages their flea market inventory a little bit differently, but I have one major rule: NO HOARDING.
What that means for me is this: I have a very small portion of my garage dedicated to short-term storage and pricing, and a closet dedicated to a small number of seasonal items stored until a time of year they’re sure to sell, but whenever possible I make sure that items go to my booth without ever arriving on my own property!
Whether I am hitting up the recycling center or Saturday morning garage sales to search for inventory for my booth, I try to schedule it so I can take the items directly to my flea market booth. This means keeping a bin and my flea market pricing kit in my car at all times. These tools help me be ready to deliver inventory immediately into my booth- without the headache of storage. Read more about building a great flea-market-booth-pricing-kit here.