Make the most of flea markets

By Geoff Harris

Yesterday I went to the first flea market since last autumn at The Bath and West Showground near in Somerset, and a lot of fun it was too.

With flea markets now hopefully becoming a regular fixture up and down the country as lockdown restrictions lift, here are some useful tips to help you have a great time and bag the bargains.

The Giant Shepton Flea Market

Get there early…

This sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s worth repeating: get to the market as soon as you can in order to snaffle the real bargains. There is a reason that the savviest shoppers, including other dealers, tend to arrive at the crack of dawn. While an early start on a Sunday morning can be painful, it’s somewhat easier in the summer. Keep hydrated, take a hat or sunscreen, and make sure you don’t get cold or too hot – this is not conducive to savvy flea marketing.

Get there later

Or, arrive about a couple of hours before the market closes. While a lot of good stuff may have already been snapped up, you might get in free, leaving you more money for shopping – but more importantly, you might also be able to negotiate a real bargain. Weary dealers will have had a very long day and might be willing to do a deal on a particular item to save them the hassle of having to pack it up again. This can be particularly true with larger and bulkier items, or fragile ones.

The Giant Shepton Flea Market

Haggling tips

Haggling, like any skill, takes practice but I have found the following to be helpful. First, smile, keep it friendly and positive, and look the dealer in the eye. There is nothing to be embarrassed about. Second, be respectful – most vendors aren’t there to rip you off, so offering a fiver for a well-presented item priced at £50 might sound like a clever move, but you can end up offending the seller and scuppering any chance for further negotiation.

Before you put in an offer on an item, get a sense of how much you are prepared to pay, and work back from there. People do business with people, and chatting to the vendor a bit before making an offer can help to create a friendly atmosphere.

Choose your language, too. Try phrases like “what’s your best price on this” rather than simply asking the price. You can also try “this is on for £xx, right?” shaving a few pounds off the price ‘by mistake (!)’ Experienced vendors will be used to such tactics, but so long as you don’t take the mickey, it can be a good starting point for a mutually acceptable discount.

Take your time

Unless you are very pushed for time, it’s worth doing a few rounds of the stalls before making an initial purchase; nothing is more frustrating than blowing all your cash on so-so items you spot early, only to find a real bargain right at the end when all your money is gone (the ATM, if there at all, could be out of order).

Think about who are you buying from

Consider paying more from an established dealer. Unlike a car-boot sale, bigger flea markets will often attract full-time dealers with whom you can check the provenance of an item or get an invoice. If in doubt, walk away.

If you are buying from a full-time antiques dealer, your rights as a customer will apply; it’s a different story when buying ‘sold as seen’ from somebody who’s there after clearing out their attic.

In this time of Covid, you might even be able to pay for pricier items by card or PayPal, giving further protection (or if you arrange for an item to be delivered and it never arrives). Take people’s business cards and phone numbers, too: a seller of Asian art, for example, might not have exactly what you are looking for that day, but they might get it in stock the following week.

Or, you can call them the day before a market starts to ask if they have anything particularly interesting (make sure you also check exactly where their stall is if it’s a very big event).

Research your area

Flea markets will attract their fair share of knock-offs and fakes, so it’s important to bone up on your particular area of interest before arriving. Then, check items carefully for damage, or tell-tale signs that can affect the value. Some items of old furniture, for example, were often made without nails or screws, so check these haven’t been added later. Obvious repairs to cracks or dents are something else to watch out for, too. It’s also worth taking your fully charged phone to check websites or eBay for the market value of particular items, or warning signs to watch out for.

And finally… take lots of bags

Not all vendors have bags, or they may only have flimsy small ones – so take your own sturdy holders to avoid damage or discomfort. Some vendors might hold on to items after purchase so you don’t have to lug that big heavy vase around all day, but if you get delayed or can’t find the stand again, it can be very stressful.

Look out for items with their original packaging too – as well as being attractively retro, it can increase their value

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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