As an author, speaker, and marketplace owner, Sue Whitney has her fingers on the pulse of the flea market industry — and she says the impulse to shop locally is at the heart of major new trend. “With the economy the way it is going, buying locally is something people can really wrap their arms around and feel good about,” she says. “I do see it as a trend. It is about a lifestyle. People tend to eat healthy, they hang out with their families, they go to flea markets, they buy at co-ops.”
Whitney has written three flea-market style books and launched the Flea Market Under Glass earlier this year. She says that consumer behavior is changing. “It is about growing and buying locally, and flea markets are a natural fit. So is buying vintage clothes. I see people who were not doing this before are now doing it all.”
The numbers back her up. According to Alice Bredin, small business advisor to American Express Open, whether it’s “locavores” eating local produce, architects and builders sourcing materials locally to meet environmental standards, or people who want to support the local economy, individuals and businesses alike seem to be moving toward buying local products of all kinds. How far the trend will go and what effect it will have long term on local businesses is difficult to predict, she says, but the trend does appear to have real potential for small business owners of all kinds, including vendors at swap meets and flea markets.
Survey says: a growing trend
American Express Open recently conducted a study of 600 retail small business owners and managers. The goal was to gauge their impressions of whether a trend actually existed and to understand the perceived effect on their businesses. Of the retailers polled, 51 percent said they believe there is indeed a growing “buy local” sentiment in the United States (see graph). In addition, 55 percent believe that buy local campaigns can help small businesses compete in challenging economic times.
University of Missouri assistant professor Maureen Stanton spent six years immersed in the flea market culture and just wrote a book, Killer Stuff and Tons of Money, on her experiences. She sees an environmental imperative at the heart of the buy local movement. “Reduce, reuse, recycle is a fundamental principle of natural resource conservation and environmental protection,” she says. “Keeping objects in use and out of the waste stream is an excellent way to abide by this principle, and flea markets are the best way to find really good, inexpensive used stuff, and every now and then, a real prize — something unique or vintage or even of historical value.”
Stanton also sees swap meets and flea markets as neighborhood operations. “Flea market dealers are typically local people, who are keeping in, or restoring to, circulation objects that might otherwise have entered the waste stream, and typically objects they’ve acquired from local sources, such as estate sales and liquidation sales.” Even the desire to buy products “Made in America” can be seen as part of this trend. “Products made in the United States are ‘local’ compared to imports,” she says. “They are manufactured under the generally high standards for worker and product safety we have in our country, so we can usually feel good about buying and owning them.”
That goes double for craft items, common at flea markets. “Hand-crafted objects are made with care by local artisans,” Stanton says. “Your hard-earned dollar buys something well-crafted and often unique, and it goes into the pocket of your ‘neighbor’ who then, in the multiplier effect, may use that same dollar locally, or at least in our economy.”
Backlash: consumers react to high gas prices, low quality imports
Valerie Arnett of JunkerVal.com, a flea market vendor specializing in vintage merchandise, says that shoppers are beginning to change the way they shop. “With gas prices, people are being forced to shop locally,” she says. For example, she used to be a regular customer at a store far from home. “I loved to buy from this one shop. It took three hours to get there — I’m not going to do that now,” she explains.
“Shoppers want to go close by, they want variety, they want a good deal, they want a treasure. It’s important to consider that your customers are spending so much more to get to you,” says Arnett.
Maureen Stanton agrees. “I think this is what the locavore movement is all about — not expending our limited fossil fuel resources unnecessarily, but eating local foods in season, buying locally made products,” she says. “Also, in my own habits, instead of buying the Chinese-manufactured, $12 coffee maker every other year when it breaks, buying a quality-made object for more money up front is cheaper as it lasts longer and doesn’t become ‘trash’ so quickly.”
American Express Open’s Alice Bredin has some concrete data to show that consumer buying habits are changing. “Last fall when Open launched Small Business Saturday, a movement which encouraged consumers to kick off the holiday shopping season at local small businesses the Saturday after Thanksgiving, we saw strong evidence of support,” she says. Online, the Small Business Saturday Facebook page received 1.2 million “likes,” and 30,000 related tweets were sent. But most importantly, according to American Express spending data, small retailers that accept American Express Cards saw an estimated increase of 27 percent in sales, compared to sales the same Saturday the previous year. “There is no better evidence of the buy local trend and its effect on small businesses than consumers pulling out their wallets to show what they believe in,” says Bredin.
Selling locally: tips for markets and vendors
As consumers become more conscious of the reasons to shop locally, retailers who reach out to those shoppers will attract more of their business. Bredin advises local market owners and vendors to market themselves in the right ways. “Savvy business owners will find ways to build on the buy local trend by highlighting different aspects of buying locally,” she says. “For example, by playing on the strong environmental angle of buying local, retailers dealing in secondhand goods, such as used books, vintage clothing, or antiques, might benefit by sending a complementary message of “reduce, reuse, recycle” to promote their business. Likewise, artisans or others producing goods locally can potentially make gains by differentiating their businesses as local craftsmen or manufacturers, which are often more environmentally sound than businesses that ship in goods to sell.”
Regardless of what message retailers send, social networking will be a powerful tool for many. Because social networking makes it so easy for a business to build a community of customers and followers, it is an excellent fit for the buy local trend. In fact, it may actually be part of what has helped ‘buy local’ grow so quickly. The American Express Open study found that 57 percent of small businesses are planning local campaigns, and one in five small business retailers say they plan to use social media to offer local promotions.
There are more and more flea market style magazines, books, and blogs in the public eye. There are more farmers markets than ever (see graph), and some are accepting food stamps. Popular reality TV shows encourage shoppers to go a-hunting for bargains and treasures. Flea market malls are opening in shuttered big-box stores. There appears to be real opportunity for many small businesses in the buy local trend. And while it’s impossible to predict where the trend will lead, chances are that by drawing on the ingenuity and dedication for which small business entrepreneurs are known, flea market professionals can continue to profit from the trend and may even be able to shape it in their favor.
FleaMarketZone especially thanks Alice Bredin for inspiring and contributing to this article.