Hillsville flea market

Flea Market Vendors Show Why Price Matters

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The entire town was swallowed whole!

Was it Hurricane Isaac? Nope. Sink hole? Nope. Flea market? Yep. For the 45th year, the tiny Blue Ridge Mountain burg of Hillsville, Va., (population 2,600) was engulfed by a half-million visitors to the annual Labor Day Flea Market and Gun Show. More than 2,000 vendors stretched for more than a mile along Route 58 through the center of town, spilling from the sidewalk onto adjacent fields for a quarter-mile on both sides of the road. Except for the Flea Market and a few essential services, the town was shut down beginning Friday morning. The schools were closed, the library was closed and offices were closed.

Dozens of business parking lots and residential yards were rented out for parking and camping. From the hill at the southeastern corner of Main Street, the view was a sea of plastic tarps, tents, RVs and signs. Shoppers pulling carts, baskets and children jostled each other as they struggled unsuccessfully to stay out of the street. The air was filled with the scent of french fries, kettle corn and impending rain. Sounds of Bluegrass music segued into beach music, and both were accompanied by the rhythm of feet shuffling on the sidewalk.

On Friday afternoon, dealers were hopeful for a good weekend; the crowd was good but hesitant to spend. By Saturday afternoon, wallets were being opened and dealers were having some success.

On Sunday afternoon, most dealers I spoke with had enjoyed “moderately good” sales, while a few struggled to break even for the weekend. By early Sunday evening, the rains came and the crowd thinned out. Dealers began to pack up, and by Monday only the die-hard optimists were still in the trenches wheeling and dealing.

Why do some dealers do well at shows but not others? Does it come down to inventory? Pricing? Booth location? Merchandising? Salesmanship? All of the above, to some degree. For starters, there needs to be a market for the merchandise. It has to be competitively priced, and you need an inviting booth display. Even with those three bases covered, if there is no traffic walking by your booth or if you are lurking in the back scowling or talking to your partner rather than engaging what traffic there is, you won’t do well. Dealers who made sales had collectible (clean!) merchandise, displayed it well, priced it right, had a reasonably good booth location and got up off their derrieres and engaged their customers. Dealers who missed any of the above five points missed sales.

Dan Vore, a dealer from Fulton, Mo., and owner of Country Store Antiques, reported that this year’s show was better for him than previous Hillsville shows. “Why are you doing well here when some dealers aren’t,” I asked. “I keep my prices competitive,” he replied, “and I don’t stock really expensive merchandise. All my inventory is affordably priced.”

Dan’s booth was on a prime location, the main lot near the entrance, in a parking lot for the local Veterans of Foreign Wars building. His merchandise was nicely displayed, and Dan was friendly, engaging and helpful to his customers.

John Brothers of Bristol, Tenn., echoed Dan’s sentiments. He said he was “doing OK this year.” Like Dan, John was actively engaged in working his booth, which was in a good (but not prime) location.

I asked John, who specializes in automotive and oil collectibles, if he was a follower of Frank Fritz from “American Pickers,” and if Frank’s affection for picking oil cans has had any effect on his business.

“Yes” John said. “He’s driven prices up. People who watch that show think they can get $250 for a rusted out oil sign. I have to be real careful when I buy if I’m going to sell at a good price.”

Lynn and Faye Strait of Strait’s Antiques and Collectibles from Chambersburg, Pa., were singing a different tune. The Straits, whose wonderful display of Depression glass was a real stand-out as far as presentation goes, were disappointed in their sales as of Saturday afternoon.

When asked why, Faye replied “Some say our prices are high, but this is quality merchandise. It’s getting harder and harder to find Depression glass and I won’t sell it for cheap. I say to people, ‘Do you even know what The Depression was? Do you know what people had to sacrifice to hang on to this glassware?”

Faye made a good point: Her glassware was too good to “sell for cheap.” But, in the current economy, I wonder if this year’s flea market, in spite of its size, was the right time and place to try to sell nice Depression glass. Perhaps an “antiques show” would have brought better results for the Straits.

Hillsville shoppers were spending, but they were looking for bargains and some dealers weren’t in the mood to bargain. The Straits were friendly and engaging, and their booth was in a prime location and expertly merchandised. The only essential element they were missing in their game plan was that their prices seemed to be a little high for the Hillsville crowd (I personally don’t think their prices were high at all, but I wasn’t buying Depression glass).

Apparently, some antique dealers who sold here in previous years decided to stay away; this year’s dealer mix was weighted in favor of flea market vendors rather than antiques and collectibles dealers. For the antique dealers who were present, that meant more booth traffic. Notably absent were antique furniture dealers. Although many booths displayed furniture pieces, this year I saw only one furniture-only antique dealer.

One thing that all the dealers and shoppers can count on is that it will all happen again next Labor Day. That gives dealers a chance to catch their breath and decide what worked for them this year and what didn’t. If booth location can be improved, the earlier you reserve a space the better your location will be. There’s plenty of time to think about what sort of merchandise will work next year, even though you won’t know specifics until close to show time.

So, unless a hurricane or sink hole swallows up the town, I will see you all in Hillsville next Labor Day!

Previously published by Antique Trader Magazine

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