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Flea Market Q&A: Entrepreneurial Lessons from the World of Secondhand Retail

Flea Market Q&A: Entrepreneurial Lessons from the World of Secondhand Retail
by Erin McDermott.

Flea markets rang up $30 billion in sales last year, according to the National Flea Market Association. Ki Nassauer (pictured) is executive editor of Flea Market Style magazine and founder of Junk Revolution a popular online forum for devotees of tag sales, vintage markets, and “junkers.” She recently spoke with writer Erin McDermott about what small businesses can learn from the tables and stands of these surprisingly big businesses.

EM: We know the old saying: “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.” But that could also be called a niche market. What surprises you about what sells?

KN: The most difficult part is finding the place to sell it. So what sells in the West is different from what sells in the East; what sells in an antique shop is different from what sells in a flea market. That, to me, is the most interesting part of it all. There’s a buyer out there for pretty much anything, depending on your location.

EM: The Internet, with Ebay and Amazon, has added so much competition for many of the goods you might see at a flea market. And now there’s Etsy.com, which is so much more visual and appealing. How has this affected flea markets?

KN: It’s a different style of shopping. Etsy came at the right time: Everyone’s used to shopping online and they made it very easy. And in the last year, they’ve really improved their search, which personally has helped me dramatically with shopping online. You can search and go right to the vintage category and call up ‘crocheted potholders’ or ‘comic books’ or specifically search for the item for which you’re looking. And that’s actually easier than shopping at flea markets because you can narrow the search if you’re looking for something in particular. It’s more difficult to browse, certainly. I do it all of the time for magazine articles.

PQ_QAkinassauer.jpgEM: Flea markets are at the forefront of recycling, reusing, and repurposing materials. That’s also often true for entrepreneurs and small businesses when they’re starting out. What are you seeing in terms of a new focus on being green?

KN: It’s definitely a younger demographic than we’ve ever had before that appreciates flea markets. They appreciate recycling. They’ve grown up with it and it’s a cool thing to recycle, whereas, say, 50 years ago or even 25 years ago you didn’t see as many young people at antique shows or flea markets.

EM: What have you learned from flea and antique markets over the years? Are there lessons for entrepreneurs and small businesses?

KN: Flea markets themselves are an opportunity for people to start new businesses. There are people who would have never considered opening a small business, because of financial or time commitments. But here they can stick their toes in the water and try something. I get frequent calls and emails from people who say ‘I want to open a business’—maybe it’s decor or antiques or a vintage shop. I always recommend that they buy a few things, load up a truck, and go to a flea market. It’s the first step if you’re going into the antique or vintage industry.

Flea markets can teach so much to potential business owners. They won’t be isolated. There is competition among sellers and they will be right there with them. They can watch other vendors who’ve been doing it over the years. Be it business practices or their style, there’s so much to learn from the people who’ve been doing it. And it’s all around them.

EM: Have you seen some great success stories?

KN: Oh, absolutely! There have been a lot of small businesses that have started with people opening a booth with a friend. I think a lot of it has happened with women hitting mid-life or couples who are retired, or considering retirement, or, particularly, people who have had corporate jobs with crazy schedules who finally say ‘Enough is enough: I love vintage and go to flea markets as a hobby. How can I turn this into a business?’

And they start by just buying and selling stuff at a flea market, and that turns into maybe a shop, or something larger if they’re traveling cross-country to a show. And you know—people are earning a good living from buying and reselling. There are even people who get a TV career out of it!