Flea markets across the United States have always thrived by giving customers the opportunity to purchase quality, affordable merchandise. FleaMarketZone.com reported the opening of 72 new markets in 2011 alone, as demand rose. Additionally, recent reports have shown the retail industry as a whole is beginning to rebound, and the flea market business appears ready to have an even bigger year in 2012.
While the trend in 2010 was to open flea markets in low-rent commercial spaces such as former malls and big box stores, the inclination in 2011 was smaller, more localized operations of 30 to 80 vendors, thus keeping shopping opportunities in the community and allowing customers to buy without having to drive long distances. When the Aqueduct Flea Market, with more than 1,000 vendors, closed down in January, a number of new markets were launched in the New York City area, including the Merrick Flea Market in Queens (100 vendors), the BK Festival on Coney Island (100 vendors), the AquaDuck Flea Market in Queens (200 vendors), and the Downtown Flea Market in Brooklyn (30 vendors).
This trend does not mean that there have been no larger market openings. 2011 saw the launch of the Glendale Park n’ Swap in Arizona (850 spaces), the Turkey Creek Public Market in Tennessee (600 spaces), Big Andy’s Market and Fun Center in Georgia (250 spaces), and the Las Vegas Family Market (200 spaces), among others. Another noticeable trend has been that more indoor markets have opened than ever before, as consumers have shown a strong preference for markets that can stay open year-round. Indoor locations give local residents something to do and are a place to shop when the weather is not ideal, with most indoor markets reporting the colder months as their busiest time of year.
Unlike many retail segments, business in the flea market industry has been steady, if not increasing. Joshua Zoppel, marketing director for the Merrick Flea Market and its sister location, Pennsy Flea Market in Philadelphia, sees things looking up. “At our flea markets we’re seeing a positive turn,” he notes. “There has definitely been an increase in the number of vendors contacting us. There are a lot of vendors out there, and the idea of selling at a flea market has certainly increased.”
That is not to say the recession has not had an impact. Vendors have been forced to alter their strategies to maintain a high level of sales, with many long-time vendors making the decision to sell a higher volume at lower prices. Most consumers are not looking to buy the high priced novelty item or antique as much as they are trying to find a deal at the flea market that is better than what they can get at the local Walmart.
John Stewart, co-owner of Stewart Promotions, operates five flea markets throughout the Midwest with 400 booths or more, two of which just opened this fall. He believes that the number of vendors contacting him has remained stable over the past five years. “What has been increasing are people going after the ‘hot item,’ the things you’ll see on TV, as people try to catch lightning in a bottle,” he says.
“I’ve seen a lot of my vendors who have been here for 20 years make adjustment in product to accommodate the economy and themselves,” notes Mike Masterson, manager of the Coastal Carolina Flea Market. Masterson notes that vendors are carrying a variety of low, medium and high priced merchandise to account for consumer shopping trends.
Functional and necessary products are selling, according to Mike Cook, owner of Mike’s Unique Collectible and Antique Market in Missouri. This bodes well for sellers of new merchandise, who provide everyday items that all types of customers can be happy with. “Right now, people are buying what they can actually use,” Cook says. “They might need cooking pans, so that is what they look for. People aren’t buying a lot of antiques right now.” However, as Zoppel explains, it is all about offering what customers want. “If you have a good product, with good pricing, it sells,” he notes. “Quality merchandise at a good price always sells.”
“When people aren’t making as much money, they go out to the flea market to get stuff that is cheaper than they could get at the store,” Stewart adds. “You end up not being affected by the economy as much, which is nice.” Signs are starting to emerge that the overall economy is improving, leading to even more optimism in the flea market sector. In December, claims for jobless benefits fell to their lowest level since May 2008 and sales in the fourth quarter were strong. The National Retail Federation, in response to seeing higher sales throughout October and November, upgraded its holiday forecast from a 2.8 percent rise to 3.8 percent.
A number of movements in the United States have been a boon to the flea market business. Campaigns to buy local to support the community are benefiting the industry, as a flea market at its essence is simply a collection of dozens or even hundreds of independent small businesses. Campaigns such as Small Business Saturday, America Unchained!, Buy Local Week, and the 3/50 Project encourage shoppers to spend locally, noting that $68 out of every $100 spent goes directly back into the community.
Also raising the public consciousness of flea markets has been the abundance of television shows featuring collectibles, such as “Antiques Roadshow,” “Storage Wars,” “American Pickers,” and “Pawn Stars.” Programs that showcase the “anything can happen” nature of finding goods in the local flea market has helped new customers, such as middle- and upper-class shoppers, see fleas as a place where they can find something truly unique, also helping to drive up traffic.
Every little bit of help to boost the awareness of the local flea market can have a big impact. Flea markets have been proactive in using marketing and advertising to raise attendance and increase the number of vendors. Big Andy’s Market has been running monthly vendor classes, to nurture the relationship between owners and sellers, as well as to teach those just starting out how to be successful. New flea markets also need to be vigilant in letting the public know that they are open for business. For example, the AquaDuck Flea Market has handed out about half a million glossy flyer postcards to publicize the market, as well as running advertisements in local newspapers and on radio and television.
2011 was a positive year for the flea market industry, and it was no surprise. Flea market owners and vendors are a resilient bunch, and have survived ups and down before. As we enter 2012, we should continue to see growth and a continuation of good policies by owners and vendors that will be beneficial to owners, vendors, suppliers and customers.