Note: This story was updated on May 11.
Although the United States and the flea market and swap meet industry are struggling through a slow recovery from a deep recession, there are many positive signs that offer reasons for optimism. Looking ahead, not only has a long slog has finally begun to pay off for vendors and market owners, but those professionals are showing greater confidence in the future.
Industry specific data points to growth
The National Flea Market Association polled its market members last year, and according to Greg Dove, an NFMA member who organized the poll and reported the results at a recent association meeting, the survey was intended to shed light some light on a vibrant industry. “The industry generates a great deal of economic activity,” he says. “It creates jobs, provides opportunities for entrepreneurs, generates incomes for thousands and thousands of families, and produces tax revenues.”
Elaborating on those points, Dove says that on average, a flea market in the NFMA survey generates $632,304 annually in wages, creating 62 jobs — 24 full time, 38 part time. Dove is the president of Levin Service Co., a holding company that operates Caesar Creek Markets in Wilmington, Ohio, and Treasure Aisles, in Monroe, Ohio. He points out that more markets are reporting increases in rental revenue than are reporting decreases (see graph).
Dove’s research for the NFMA suggests that flea markets and their managers are inherently primed for growth. Almost 95 percent of markets surveyed consider themselves “small business incubators,” he says, while 79 percent report that their vendors have either expanded or opened second locations.
That’s backed up by a poll of flea market and swap meet vendors conducted earlier this year by Merchandiser Media Group, the parent of FleaMarketZone.com as well as the East Coast Merchandiser, Midwest Merchandiser, and Western Merchandiser magazines. In the poll of vendors, only 15 percent say that they have a single location at one market. The vast majority sell at two or more locations, and 44 percent sell at 5 or more different sites.
In line with the idea that vendors are willing to chase a sale, the FleaMarketZone poll revealed that over 20 percent of vendors sell in different regions of the United States. To an extent, that reflects the well-known “snowbird” phenomenon, but it also suggests that vendors are working hard to expand their business.
Broader signs suggest retail recovery
A number of anecdotal signs point to strength in the flea market arena, as do a range of data points that suggest small retail businesses in general are pushing forward in this economy. Over the past year, FleaMarketZone has reported on the opening of more than 115 new flea markets and swap meets. More than a dozen of those are large 100-plus vendor operations, many in now-low-rent commercial spaces like former malls and shuttered big-box stores. Value Fair Market not only converted a mall in New Jersey into a new flea market last year, for example, but also just opened a new flea market mall in Florida.
Other market indicators also point in an upbeat direction. For example, the United States Department of Agriculture tracks the number of operating farmers markets, and those numbers are also growing. In 2008, there were 4,685 farmers markets operating nationwide; in 2009, there were 5,274; and in 2010, there were 6,132. That’s in tune with a recent American Express survey of small retailers, who say that buying locally — at all kinds of venues, including flea markets — is a growing trend. According to the Amex data, 51 percent of retailers agreed with the statement, “I believe there is a growing ‘buy local’ sentiment in the United States.” Although 41 percent were not sure, only 9 percent disagreed.
The general economic picture nationwide, while not rosy, is still positive. The unemployment rate is slowly but steadily dropping, dipping to a two-year low in March of 8.8 percent for all U.S. workers, Bloomberg News reports. The Conference Board’s index of U.S. economic indicators has been rising, as reported in The Wall Street Journal.
The latest employment numbers show that more people are getting back to work, and new jobs outpaced expectations. Signs are still somewhat mixed, and as the Christian Science Monitor points out, “many forecasts call for slow improvement.”
Challenges and caveats remain
Many economists, including two who used to work at the Federal Reserve, say that the current recovery is fragile. Alan Blinder, writing in the Wall Street Journal, says “If you’re searching for a metaphor for the U.S. economy right now, think of an athlete who is recovering from serious injuries and must navigate a difficult obstacle course. She’s getting into better shape, but there are hazards along the way that might keep her from reaching the finish line.” Alan Greenspan, speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press, says the economic recovery has paused, so it feels like a “quasi-recession” and warned that a double dip is possible if home prices continue to plunge.
Home prices don’t affect flea markets and swap meets directly, of course, but other hurdles are particular to the industry. According to Greg Dove, “There are three major challenges facing the industry: the economy, the weather, and competition.” However, the FleaMarketZone poll of vendors suggests a number of ways that markets can grow, based on the issues that vendors ranked highly. These include increasing shopper traffic, advertising, low booth rental rates, limiting vendor competition, and offering interior climate-controlled spaces. And an informal survey of suppliers suggest some tips for vendors hoping to attract more customers: offer fresh products, sell products that are necessities, even in harder times, and keep prices low.
Some downbeat economic drivers may actually help flea market sales. For example, rising gas prices may encourage shoppers to stay local, buying at a nearby swap meet or mini-mall. When growing buyers’ remorse leads to higher returns in brick-and-mortar stores, that tends to result in an increase in low-cost products available from liquidation and close-out suppliers.
None of this is to downplay the industry’s greatest strength: the vibrancy and vitality of flea market and swap meet professionals. Vendors and shoppers continue to flock to flea markets. New markets continue to open. And vendors and market owners are taking advantage of opportunities to boost their business.