Earning extra money can help just about anyone deal with the pressures of trying to make ends meet these days. If you have a job, even a good job, getting a pay raise has been tough over the past few years. It’s been so tough that side hustles, a way of earning extra cash, have become pretty common. It may be a cure for a specific financial problem (like getting out of debt), or it may be the way to get ahead long term. And even better, it can be fun and fulfilling too!
My own experience comes from something I did for several years…making money at the flea market. Many people are just interested in a weekend project to sell some of their old things and closet fillers to declutter and earn money at the same time. For me, it was more than that. Flea marketing was something my family and I enjoyed as shoppers (it’s in my blood) and on many beautiful weekends, we’d pile in our car and head for one of the largest flea markets located right here in New Jersey. As shoppers, we’d usually find bargains we really needed such as school supplies for kids or sweatshirts for the upcoming fall season. We concentrated on looking for and buying new merchandise, although many people are searching for old treasures that are widely sold by “one time sellers” who come to the market.
The truth is, many of the merchants are there every week of the year, and are in their own business. That’s what I call the ultimate side hustle I guess, that it’s such a good way to make a living that it evolved from a side hustle to a full time income. But the side hustle start is what really caught my eye. I wanted to know how, what, where, and all the specifics so I asked several vendors I had come to know, and here’s what they said to me that opened up my eyes:
- There is some timing involved as some seasons are better than others. Flea markets are best in summer for foot traffic and customers, but the biggest dollar sales are in autumn and Christmas season. September is the perfect time to begin the side hustle of flea marketing because you can expect to make the most money.
- To be legal, you need a license to sell and collect sales taxes. You are responsible for state sales taxes and federal income taxes. Most vendors form businesses as sole proprietorships. Information about all of the requirements is available through your state government.
- Markets operate in all weather and usually start their vendor set-up early in the morning before sun-up. The business hours are often 7 am until 3 pm, and it is worth it to be out there the whole time, but the best selling times are mid-morning to early afternoon. You can rent a table from the flea market or you can even bring your own table and/or racks to display your sale items. You can simply rent the space from the flea market either weekly or monthly. Keeping the same location is a real advantage for you. Customers will want to be able to find you again and again. You can eventually get a seasonal or even a year-long lease, especially if it’s indoors where you can make improvements to the displays to better attract customers.
- What you sell is up to you. The best way to make money is to find a source of goods that is willing to sell to you at wholesale prices. Factory outlets are a good starting point. Some will have overstocks, discontinued items and returns from stores and they are willing to sell cheaply to vendors like you. As long as they are in good condition, branded items are always a good seller at these venues. You can also look online at directories for wholesale/closeout direct sellers.
- You will need a vehicle to pick up, transport, and return your unsold products to your home or storage space. It can be a rental vehicle like an old van from your local “rent a wreck” location. That’s what I did and paid a very small amount for its weekend usage.
- Know your costs. You will need to estimate what your weekly expenses will be (like the cost of the merchandise, the rental space, tables, transportation, gasoline, and supplies) so you can plan the retail prices you charge to insure you are making a profit. Since I had a long retail background, I was able to do this quickly. Try to remember that retail prices should be competitive with other flea market vendors and based on the intrinsic value, not solely on the item’s cost to you.
- Keep accurate records of your costs and sales. You will quickly know if this is working for you and if you’re making money.
- Don’t forget you are there to make money! Try to pick items where the profit on each sales is in dollars and not cents. I often saw folks selling things like rawhide treats for pets that were sold at 4 for $1.00. After standing outside for 8 hours, and packing up for the day, they would have collected as little as $50 (and that doesn’t include the cost of their product and expenses for the day)! To me, that wouldn’t be worth my time.
- Consider items that you will want to sell that are basics or in high demand if you intend to sell them every week. Seasonal items are also very good, even if it’s just for Christmas time or another holiday like July 4th or football season. Also consider related add-on items to sell with your primary items to increase your sales. For example, if you sell a winter coat, offer a coordinating scarf and/or gloves.
- Think about your display and how it will look to your potential customers. You will need signage with prices (unless you like haggling over every penny!), a rack if the table won’t adequately showcase your wares, a mirror if you’re selling clothing or accessories, and bags for customers to carry their purchases. Always make it easy for the customer to buy.
- Dress appropriately. It can be very warm or very cold when you become an outdoor flea market vendor. Also consider your exposure to the sun. Pack a lunch and bring water. You’ll be glad you did.
- Strike a balance when it comes to interacting with your customers. You want to be friendly, but not so friendly that you drive them away when they first start looking. Don’t hover over them, but be helpful if they ask any questions. Just don’t appear pushy.
- Be prepared for hagglers. No matter how low your prices are, and even if you have signs and price stickers, someone will always want to pay less. After all, don’t you haggle when you’re trying to save money on purchases? Of course, a little wiggle room is fine, but some people take it too far. There are potential customers who have asked how much I’d take off the price if they buy 2 of an item, or 3, or even a dozen. If it’s a reasonable request, I agree. If they go over the line, I tell them that with this logic, at some point I’d have to pay them to take the merchandise away. Know ahead of time what the sale is worth to you.
- Be strategic. Whenever I went to the flea market, there was always a table up front filled with radios selling for $19 which no one seemed to buy. But on the next lane over, there was a table full of identical radios for $14 selling like hotcakes. One day I asked the vendor at the second table about this, and he confessed that the first table was staffed by his brother. Always showcase your wares to look like a great deal.
- Merchandise it. You’re in a business, just like any store. Make your presentation effective and appealing. Often people set up boxes making customers rummage through them as if it was simply garbage. While that may appeal to a few, it really isn’t going to be a long term money-making approach.
My success at the flea market was really amazing. During one fall season, I sold leather and suede jackets that were returned to the manufacturer from retail stores simply because they had too many in stock. They were all new and were tagged by the retailer at $100 or more. I was able to sell on average 20-30 per weekend and made a profit of well over $800 a weekend on average, every weekend from September to Christmas that year. I was fortunate to find the right resource. It doesn’t always work out that way.
Do your homework. Visit several area flea markets and witness for yourself the activity there. Check out the best times of the day, who the vendors are, what they sell, and what your competition may be like. Think about all the facets of making money at the flea market before you commit to it. If it’s supplementing your “real” income from your job, you can certainly scale it to fit your needs. Look for local flea markets and farmers markets near you at Shopify’s new resource.
What kinds of side hustles have you considered to help you make extra money? Have you ever considered selling at a flea market?
Originally published on February 24, 2015, updated on September 16, 2016