I cannot figure out when I decided that I love flea markets, but over the last several years I've built up my true capitalistic skills. I'm going to do my best to help you guys out improving yours. I am assuming you, my faithful reader, have never been to a flea market before. This post is quite long, maybe I should have split it into two parts.
Why bother? - I'm a frugal person by nature. That does not mean cheap. I like to get my money's worth whenever I buy an item. That generally means to get the best bang for my buck, so I try to buy used.
There is another aspect to flea markets that most people don't mention, and that is the thrill of the hunt. There is nothing more gratifying then finding exactly what you need at a rock-bottom price. Every one of us has a sort of visceral hunter-gatherer instinct, and nothing satiates it better than a great deal.
How it works - A person pays someone X amount of $ to set up tables in Y amount of space to sell there wares. I have seen anything and everything for sale at a flea market. In my state it is a pain in the ass to buy a firearm so those are rarely for sale. I have seen obviously stolen car parts to hand made high quality crafted items like jewelry and evening gowns (?!?!?). No sales tax, although I guess the dealer is supposed to report it. As a buyer I never had to pay it.
Most flea markets open early I mean oh god thirty early. The dealers roam around before the general public and get to snap up the best deals. Oh well - I like to sleep.
What to expect - First off you will meet some very interesting and colorful people. The bulk of the people at the flea market will be from the lower middle class and downwards. Expect poor sanitation, and the place will generally be filthy. Depending on the flea market some of the dealers or customers might need a shower. If dirt creeps you out, have a pocket-sized bottle of hand sanitizer, or just accept the fact your going to have dirty hands. Expect the bathrooms to be from someone's nightmare, although this is not always the case. Outdoor flea markets usually have porta-potties.
Usually all sales are final. Money talks and bullshit walks. I never accept their price as anything other than a starting point. More on haggling below.
What to wear - I recommend sturdy shoes, bluejeans, and t-shirt/sweatshirt. I don't like to wear shorts, as sometimes I have to get on my hands and knees to check out an item, and who knows what is on the floor. Try to blend in with your surroundings, leave the Gucci handbags and Tommy Hilfiger jackets at home, unless you like to pay more for your stuff. I suggest bringing tote-bags or rucksacks for carrying your purchased items. Often your items will need to be cleaned up, so your first purchase at your first flea market might be a bag to carry your stuff in.
The dealers - I find there are four kinds of dealers at flea markets. There are the junk-dealers, the Merchants, the Craftspeople and the Collectors.
The Junk-Dealers sell just that, their junk. Often they do not have tables but piles of shit spread around to look through. Nothing is priced, and the dealer will toss a figure at you by cross referencing how you are dressed vs. how likely the doohickey will sell.
The Merchants are the next in the food chain. They (almost) always have their items neatly displayed, and the merchandise is usually better quality. They tend to run this like a business, and usually know what they spent on an item, and what they should get for it.
Craftspeople are either selling supplies for their craft, or selling finished products. These folks are rare in my circle of flea markets, so I don't have any helpful hints.
Finally, we have the Collectors. They could be selling anything from comic books to Nazi mementos from WWII. I also lump the true-blue antique dealers in this category. These guys know exactly what their stuff is worth, and can grade it expertly. These are the hardest people to haggle with, and conversely the hardest place to find a real bargain.
Money - Cash is pretty much it. I have seen a few Collectors or Craftspeople with wireless credit card machines, but you always get a better deal with cash anyways. I'll go with $100 in my pocket to a small or medium sized show. If I need more money I'll just put down a deposit and haul ass to an ATM for more. Then again I'm not really looking for any big-ticket items.
I have never been pick-pocketed at a flea market, but like any crowd there is always a possibility. Just use common sense as you would anywhere else. Keep your money and wallet in your front pockets. Never put down your purse. Be aware of your surroundings. Do not flash lots of cash - ever.
The Hunt - Start with a list of stuff your looking for. I have found out the hard way that if you browse aimlessly you buy a lot of other peoples crap that they didn't need and now it's crap you don't need. Your list doesn't have to be too specific. Sunday I was looking for a rucksack, a good single edge-fixed blade knife, and anything else that would be handy in a bug-out-bag. I also have my standard list of woodworking hand tools I'm always looking for.
As to the actual market, I am systematic in my search. I start at one end and go table by table to cover the entire site. I make sure I at least browse every table. After all these years I can run a mental inventory over a 10' long table in about 20 seconds. Be sure to look behind the table, and in any containers that might hold what your looking for. Don't be afraid to dive headfirst and pull stacks apart and empty buckets to search for stuff, just put everything back as neat as it was. Be careful! I am always looking out for chisels and such so digging in buckets of rusty tools is quite dangerous. Don't expect any reduction in price if you get a laceration off of a rusty knife tossed in a bucket.
If I see an item of interest, I'll take a closer look at the table to see if there is anything else I'd like. I'll wave over the dealer and start asking prices. Sometimes it's not obvious who is running the table, just ask "Who's table is this?" and either the dealer will come running over, or the next dealer over will let you know where he's at.
The Haggle - Haggling is a art form. It is the base of all trade. What is the objects perceived value vs. it's actual value? There are two methods I use. First, it's a straight adjustment of price. The second tactic is to add or subtract items to adjust the price.
I have a few rules I follow when haggling:
1) Know what you're buying
2) Be ready to walk away
3) Keep your poker face
4) Never lie
Know what you're buying. The dealer will not shed one tear if you thought it was a complete set of something when it's missing parts. Open up the box and look inside! Check the fit and finish of anything your interested. For example, if you want to buy a lawnmower, have them start it up.
Be ready to walk away. I buy up hand planes for woodworking. A nice quality Stanley #5 is worth $6 to me, if the dealer says $20 I just say "No thanks!" and walk away. There could be another one at the next table or the next show. Do not let your emotions rule your judgment.
Keep your poker face. Do not look overly enthusiastic about an item. Yelling "OMG Honey, they have it!" just cost you big $ unless it's pre-priced. Likewise don't look disgusted while haggling over an item, I prefer a neutral expression until the deal is done.
Never lie. Although good advice in general, I will not lie when haggling for an item. Likewise I'll never lie when selling an item. I look at it as good karma. I won't claim a set is missing a fictional piece, nor will I intentionally belittle the item to try to devalue it. If it's in crappy shape I'll call it like it is, but grease on a tool isn't worth making a big deal over.
If there are several items together, you usually get a better deal, On occasion I've asked how much for 3 items, and then add in a few more for only a few bucks. I also have had 10 woodworking chisels selected to ahve the guy say $100. By taking out one chisel he really liked I got the other 9 for $40 - now THAT my friends is haggling.
Tips on specific merchandise
Tools - Watch out of the cheap import shit from Taiwan. If it's an electric tool, make sure it works before buying. If there is no power to test it then it means it's a paperweight - walk away. I do not count the battery as functional on any cordless tools - I assume I have to replace it.
Weapons - Be careful. In Mass, double-edged knives are illegal, so I would never put my LTC into jeopardy by buying one. 99% of the knives are crap, just pure useless crap. On the other hand I have seen some VERY nice knives at a Collector's booth, but they were high-end knives that belong in display cases, not in a bug-out-bag.
Food - I'm a real picky eater so I have never bought food at a flea market. On the other hand, the hot dog vendor at one flea market has the 2nd best hot dog I have ever eaten in my life. So I'm talking about the pre-packaged stuff. Check the dates, and make sure it's still sealed correctly.
Health and beauty products - You can find good deals on perfumes, deodorants, etc at some flea markets. I count toothbrushes that I'll use and toothpaste as food so I have never bothered. I have bought toothbrushes to clean parts and such at flea markets at a great deal. (10 for a $1)