Shy Girls Guide to the Flea

A few weeks ago I was invited by Stephanie of The Girl with the Star Spangled Heart’s blog to be a guest blogger while she was out having a fab vacation in Florida.  She said I could blog about whatever my little heart desired, and I found myself writing up a post about flea markets.

Shopping at the flea is fun and I try and go at least every other weekend since waking up super early, on a weekend, is hard to do for me.  As I was writing up my guest blog post, I found myself writing more and more… and more and more.  The post was really too long for one blog post and I decided to cut it in half (and yet it’s still quite lengthy).

The first half which is over on Stephanie’s blog, is all about my tips & tricks for shopping at a flea.  It’s my general guidelines and what to expect when you’re shopping a flea.  What got cut out was the second half which was all about the act of buying.

Being an introverted, shy(ish) girl shopping a flea is a challenge.  I have to muster up some spunk & energy at 7am to haggle and “discuss” prices with the vendors.  I’ll be the first person to tell you that when I first began going to the flea I went with my mom, who did the haggling for me since I was too shy to do it myself.  :)

Since then, I’ve progressed to walking around solo, haggling, the Liz-way.  What’s good is that the more I do it, the more confident I get.  Which can be said of most skills and crafts that you have personally acquired, the more you do the better you get.  I don’t consider myself a pro, but I do alright, and I find it’s a continual learning process.  You learn from your mistakes, but have fun along the way.

So for today’s post, I’m presenting a topic near & dear to me, with newbies in mind: The Shy Girl’s Guide to Shopping at the Flea. 


Negotiating Tactics

Besides the early start times, I think this is one of the main things that keeps folks away from flea markets, having to negotiate with sellers.  I myself am quite shy and I really don’t think I have the confidence needed to go back and forth with a vendor to talk down the prices of items.  But more often than not, I’m usually able to get the price down no matter what.

I’ve written up a list of topics you should keep in mind when haggling along with my tried & true negotiating tactics, complete with examples and dialogue.  This isn’t an exhaustive list, since I keep thinking of more and more stuff to say, but I’m writing it up hoping it will get you shy peeps shopping the flea in no time.


Go to the Flea with the proper mindset

The biggest tip I can share with you all is this: It never hurts to just ask.

It seems like such a simple idea, but this is the key for shy girls to go to the flea!  My mother taught me this one right away.  Before I was comfortable haggling myself, this is the one thing she reiterated to me again and again.  I watched her in action and slowly became accustomed to it myself, always thinking in the back of my mind… It never hurts to ask.

What’s the worst thing that can happen?  The vendor will say no.  But really….. is that soo bad???

I know no one wants to get rejected or be told ‘no’ to something, but in all actuality that’s not really what’s happening.  You asked if the vendor could go lower on a price… they say they can’t… and that’s that.  You asked and now you know.  No harm done!

Never fear asking, especially when you’re at the flea.  All vendors are expecting you to ask…. so why not just ask?!  :)


Act surprised upon hearing the price

Being a blonde girl of 4’11”, this is my #1 negotiating tactic.  (This may not work for the ‘gents reading this post.)  But even if you’re a gal of 5’9″ with dark hair this will most likely work for you also.  :)


Just last week, a guy was asking $8 for two old tablecloths from the heap of linens that is in the back on the left:

My truthful reaction was utter surprise and I loudly exclaimed “You want 8 dollars?!”  Seeing as how they were old, dirty, possibly stained and not even handmade/embroidered this price was too high.  I said that ‘I wasn’t even going to use them as tablecloths and was going to rip them apart’ (ie sew a skirt or dress with them).

I debated putting one of them back when the MALE vendor (the one you see with the black coat) said he’d sell them for $6 instead.  I agreed to this and paid $6 for both instead of putting one of the tablecloths back.  I got an automatic price reduction just because I had an honest reaction to the price he stated.

I probably could have haggled more to $5, but being my shy self a two dollar reduction was good enough for me.  I left happy that I didn’t even have to haggle and also was quite happy with my new purchase.  Not to shabby, right?!

This trick works for me A LOT!!!!  I’m not sexist at all, but the male vendors are usually more willing to suggest a lower price, without me even throwing out a number, based solely on my surprise.  I highly suggest to try it out and see for yourself.


Watch the words you use

To remain neutral in the negotiating process it’s better to ask “What do you want for this?” rather than “How much is this?”  The former looks only at the price the vendor wants instead of the latter which looks at the worth of the item.  You can haggle about what to pay not how much it’s worth.  Make sense?

Here’s a few other ways to ask & negotiate prices:

  • I really like X, but I can’t spend $40.  If you could take $30 I’d buy it.
    • My exact phrasing would be more like: “I can’t spend $40, would you take $30?”
  • I’m interested in X, but $20 is a little steep. How about $15?
  • Could/Would you go down to X price?
    • I use the word ‘could’ since I’m shy and it’s a passive word, but my husband prefers the directness of the word ‘would’.


The Bundle Tactic

I’m always on the hunt for sewing & knitting related items.  So whenever I see a sewing machine like I saw in the ‘booth’ below, I take a closer look at everything.

A lot of the times at my flea the items came from an estate sale.  And like you sewists may know: where’s there a machine, there’s materials.  So whenever I find one sewing related item, there’s usually more.  This holds true with whatever you’re specifically looking for like cameras, old photos, kitchen utensils, and what-have-you.

What this all means is when want to buy more than one item, you can use a technique called ‘bundling’.  If you’re really wanting the sewing machine and the price is too high, propose the vendor to include item X & item Y along with it and you’ll meet that price.

You: “Would you take $20 for the Sewing Machine?”
Vendor: “I’ll take $30.”
You: Pause, think, & pick up the other items you want… then say “Would you take $30 ($32, or $35) for all of it?

You can meet his price if you get the other items, or raise the price appropriately to what you would pay with the other stuff.

Vendors don’t like to go home with full trucks of inventory but they also need to make some money since this is their livelihood.  This is just a technique to compromise so that everyone wins.  You get your item (with bonuses) and he goes home with a lighter truck.

So if you aren’t confident enough to push hard to get the price you want, this is a fair way to get the item you want along with a few extras at the vendor’s price line.  Everyone wins!


Have a price in mind before asking the vendor how much an item is

Once the vendor tells you the price and you think it’s reasonable, feel free to pay that amount.  No need to haggle if you’re comfortable with that price and you both win.  If you don’t agree simply ask “Would you be willing to take X for it?”.  The vendor will either say yes or no.  If the vendor declines your offer, they will most likely come up with a counter offer since they want to make the sale.


Watch out if they ask you what you would pay (before giving a price themselves or figuring out the price you would pay yourself)

I always get trapped in this game if I don’t have a price in mind already.  A few weeks ago, I had a package of buttons and a bias trim in my hand and asked what the vendor wanted for it.  He immediately turned the table on me and asked what I would pay for it.  He was sooo sneaky!

I said I’d give .25 or .50 cents and he immediately said he’d take .50 cents.  Yarr!!!  I know it’s only a quarter difference, but what vendor in his right mind would agree to the lower price instead of the higher price?!

He got an extra 25 cents out of me due to my own mistake.  This could easily have been $5 or $20 with a larger ticket item and I would have been stuck, unable to haggle him down again.


Don’t be afraid to be honest

You can go to the flea expecting a war, you vs. the vendor, devising complex strategies to get what you want at the price you want but I don’t think shopping that way is very fun.  Or you can go and just be yourself, being completely honest with the seller.

Example:  You bought something online, say 5 metal zippers for $15 total, or $3 each.  You go to the flea and see metal zippers for sale for $4 each.  But for the example’s sake, you don’t want to pay more for something at the flea which you just paid less for online.  Simply say to the vendor “I just paid $3 for the same type of zippers online.  Would you match that price?”

This way you’re being completely honest, to get a lower price, and you’re not even haggling!  That doesn’t sound too bad does it?  You most likely will be able to get the vendor down to a reasonable price this way.

I think it goes without saying… in the honesty game, you don’t want to lie just to get your way.  You’ll end up ruining it for everyone.


If you feel like being sneaky…

I don’t generally do this unless it’s actually true.  But you caaaan employ this question if you feel like being a sneak.

“I only have $5 cash on me.  Would you take $5 for it?”

You better have exactly $5 and pull it from a place where you have no other bills showing or else!!!

I’ve actually done this but only when I truly had that limited amount of cash.  Near the end of my shopping trip, I saw a really cool, aqua casserole dish and the vendor was asking $20 on it.  I think I had about $12 on me and asked if the vendor would take my 12 dollars…. she begrudgingly said yes and gave it to me for the $12 dollars.

I felt bad for the vendor but honestly it was her decision to let it go for $12.  I couldn’t help the fact that I only had that amount left in my pocket.  Again, when being honest, this is haggling without actually haggling.  (But if you were being sneaky… you were technically haggling, the vendor just didn’t know it.)


Price varies depending on the item

This technically isn’t a negotiating tactic, but it’s really important for pricing and for potential negotiation.  The items I generally shop for are items that have lots of wiggle room in terms of pricing.

Like I said before, the main items I’m looking for are sewing supplies like metal zippers, buttons, patterns, fabric, etc.  If I were to look online for the price of any of these items the price would vary greatly.  As a result, you have more room to barter with a vendor since these items go for what you’re willing to pay for it (and also how much the vendor paid).

The items I want are kinda “fluff” items.  The vendor can’t make a ton of money off of what I want (maybe $2-$5 at most).

For example:  Above is an image of bags of buttons listed for $2.50 a bag… but not 2 weeks prior the same guy wanted $4 for a bag.  (I paid $3 for my bag when I bought them 2 weeks ago.)

One thing my example shows is that the vendor had lots of cushion built into his price.

The harder-to-explain concept I’m trying to relay to you all is soft pricing with sewing goods & other vintage supplies.  A vintage metal zipper doesn’t have a set price; the price isn’t really being dictated by the market or how “hot” the item is.  It’s a metal zipper.  Chances are there is a limited number of people even shopping around for them at the flea.  So you have less cost structure than say your Singer Featherweight machine; you have more bartering room for the zipper than the featherweight machine, even though the zipper will cost less than the machine.

These machines are *hot* right now and have a going price, wouldn’t you agree?  There usually is a going rate since the item is much more specific and the vendor usually has an idea of what it’s worth.  Same thing goes with Eames furniture, vintage cameras, photographs, etc.  The range of prices is more firm for these items than a 1940’s dress pattern.

What I’m trying to say is that the larger or the more specific/specialized the item, the less wiggle room you have on pricing & negotiating with the vendor.


Some vendors like to have fun

While shy girls will most likely shun this negotiating method like I do, I wanted to include this one just for fun… because it is fun.  heh

If you’re a vendor, chances are you had to load up your truck the night before, woke up before 4am to drive to the flea to start setting up your booth.  It’s pretty tiring work being a vendor.  Some of them may be grumpy but others are lively and have fun traveling around meeting buyers & other vendors while earning their living.

What this all means… vendors are willing to have fun with price negotiation also.  I’ve seen it on American Pickers, and just last week at my local flea I saw this negotiating tactic in person: the “Flip-You-For-It” fun pricing technique.

Once you and a vendor are stuck at your two differing prices, neither willing to go lower/higher.  You (or the vendor) can offer up this suggestion for fun.  It’s a Vegas meets Flea-market strategy.

Someone flips a coin and whoever wins, gets the item at price they want.  If the vendor wins, you pay their asking price (the one you initially talked him down to) or if you win you get the item at your asking price.  Fun right?!  :)

I myself have never been in a stale-mate with pricing before so I’ve never employed this tactic.  But it would be a fun way to get the item if the seller’s asking price isn’t too bad.



The biggest takeaway I want you shy peeps to keep in mind is this:  It never hurts to ask.

Keeping this thought in the back of your head is the first step to navigating & negotiating your way through the flea market.  You need to ask the vendor how much the item is & you need to ask if they’ll take a lower price for the item.  You can do no wrong by simply asking politely.


Last but not least…

If you’ve found yourself loving the flea market, an excellent book that I just finished reading is Maureen Stanton’s book Killer Stuff & Tons of Money.  Maureen is actually one of my husband’s friends from grad school many years ago.  He got the book last year and it’s what prompted him to come to the flea with me more willingly.

I put off reading this book for a while, but I’m really sorry I did.  IT’S GREAT!  When I was about 5 pages from the end I was thinking “Noooo! I’m not ready for it to end yet!”  It’s a book of non-fiction but reads like you’re watching a movie.

Maureen documents & travels around with a flea market vendor named Curt Avery.  She talks about primarily about flea markets but also delves into the other areas of selling antiques via Ebay, garage sales, auction houses, and even Antiques Roadshow.  This book gave me a great perspective on the other side of flea markets, life as a vendor, that I never get to see as I’m shopping around for stuff.  I feel like this book would make an excellent documentary or tv series.  I highly recommend reading it if you have the inclination.

Well….That about wraps things up.  Thoughts?  Questions?  Comments?  Also feel free to leave comments for me and everyone else reading with any of your tried & true negotiating tactics.

And if you haven’t already, don’t forget to read the first half of my post on the Star-Spangled Heart’s blog.

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