Shopping at the Flea Market

Posted: April 26th, 2010 by: h-2

Now that we’re about to enter into the long descent (oil is now officially declared to be in decline by 2012, with global demand shortfalls of 10 million barrels per day predicted by 2015), it’s probably a good idea to start developing some slightly more useful skills.

All you so-called ‘free market’ fans pay special attention, this is about dealing with real free markets, not those abominations of corporate oligarchies known as big box retailers, that receive the benefit of this term with virtually no critical thought at all.

Let it first and foremost be noted – I love free markets. I love local markets, I love the interaction, the process of getting to know the various proprietors, the products they have, the way they treat you, if you get ripped off, if you find a great deal, whatever. I love the whole thing. I also love farmer’s markets, for the same reasons, plus the added one that the food is simply better, and cheaper often, than supermarkets, but that’s a topic for another posting.

Obviously, not everywhere has a vibrant flea market locally, some only have the more antique type ones, which are useless if you’re actually looking for something useful or cheap, if that’s your case in your area, sorry, this posting won’t do you much good.

Shopping, Price, and Bartering

If you’re used to unfree markets, like for example Walmart, Target, Safeway, Lucky’s, Vons, and so on, entering into real free markets might come as something of a shock. First of all, the prices aren’t set in any predictable manner. They don’t have sales, although you can try to barter for items if you think the price is too high.

Bartering is a craft that is well worth learning. Personally I dislike vendors who want to barter just for bartering’s sake. Middle Easterners, Afghans, Pakistanis seem especially prone to this game. In general I won’t deal with people who want to just barter, and who start off their offer too high just so they can barter. I know it’s a cultural thing, but it doesn’t interest me.

This group also has a disturbing knack at selling things that appear to work but when you bring it home, you find something wrong in a place or way you simply would never have thought possible. Live and learn.

Mexicans, on the other hand, tend to be fairly reasonable. But there’s a wide range, some are very cool people, honest, reliable, you can trust them when they say stuff works, or that you can bring it back. Others are basically just gangsters reselling hot property. Latin culture is complicated, it helps to be able to read its signs.

Older white guys tend to want too much money. These are the ones with sort of half antique looking junk and who seem to be lifers, they also tend to have those old wooden cases with glass tops. Avoid these guys, they are almost always better at whatever game they are playing than you, watches, jewelery, coins, whatever. Don’t bother unless you are a real expert, and even then it’s probably not worth your time, since they also know what the stuff is worth, so it’s unlikely you’ll find a real deal.

I know, I know, I’m doing racial stereotyping. Sue me. This is what I’ve seen over years, and it’s a reasonably accurate guideline. Test it for yourself if you don’t believe me. None of these are hard and fast rules, although almost all Middle Eastern type guys will try to barter. So be ready to play that game if you want the thing. Also make sure to check it VERY carefully before buying it.

However, there are times when I have a price in my head, a value, when I pick up the object, and when I ask the person, one of three things can happen:

  1. The price they offer is so absurdly high it’s not even worth talking any further. Solution? Put the object down, sigh, and walk away. There is no point in having any further discussions about the matter.
  2. The price is a bit more than you wanted to pay. Try a counter offer, but be fair, don’t play the “I offer less hoping to get to the price I want to get after bouncing offers around a few times” game.
  3. The price is fine. Buy it. Don’t play the “oh, maybe I can get it for even less” game. These people have to pay booth fees, they need to buy more inventory, they have lives, rent, families, and so on. Is that extra dollar you might squeeze out of them really worth the effort? Sure they might agree, but they won’t be happy. It’s better if they remember you in the future, and remember you didn’t screw around with them. Who knows, they might even give you a good deal in the future. It’s happened to me, might happen to you too.

And that’s what these markets are good for, real human interactions, decisions based on something more than pure price. Value not as sole determining factor. A step back from the brink, and back towards real communities doing real things. We don’t have to dive off the cliff, even though some people want you to think it’s all or nothing. It’s not, don’t believe them.

Home Electronics

You should view all electronics purchases as a lottery ticket. If you win, it works. If they are asking any amount of money at all, insist on plugging it in to test it. If they say they don’t have a plug or outlet, and if they want more than say $20, just walk away. Usually they do have access to an outlet, and I’ve found all the honest vendors always agree to let you turn on the stuff to test it. The dishonest ones don’t, or say they have no outlet. These guys are all friends or at least acquaintances, and can always borrow someone else’s outlet, so don’t believe that story.

If you are looking at a laptop, watch for a few things. Make sure it turns on. Make sure the battery works. Make sure the battery is holding a charge. Laptop batteries are really expensive to replace. Make sure the screen works, that it doesn’t flicker or fail when you move the lid back and forth. Make sure the keys all work.

If it’s windows, check the system event viewer, which you can find in Administrative Tools, and check for red flag warnings, especially disk warnings.

Needless to say, laptops are stolen a lot, and are sold at flea markets, often without their power supplies (that’s the common grab the laptop in a cafe and run with it symptom, almost always means it’s stolen if it has no power supply). Remember, buying stolen goods is bad karma, so don’t be surprised if something goes wrong with the laptop at some later date if you did succumb to temptation and buy a stolen one.

Many laptops however are not stolen, you can usually tell the difference fairly easily, both by who is selling it, and how the vendor answers your questions.

To buy new crap or not?

There’s a tendency in these markets to attract vendors who are selling new junk. This is almost always more or less the same stuff you can find in Chinatowns, though the vendors tend to be nice, mostly Asian, sometimes Mexican. Just remember, nothing they sell with name brands tends to be real. And the imitations are often really bad quality, so don’t think you’re getting a deal unless you really, really, know how to identify a product’s features.

I have been especially astounded by the range and incredibly low quality of so-called ‘RayBan’ sunglasses. Most break within a week or two, and of course, the lenses suck. Keep in mind, cheap lenses are actually bad for your eyes, so don’t try to save money that way. Real versions usually cost about 1/2 of what they cost new, and sometimes are seconds or store demonstrator models. Be very careful when buying sun glasses, if you can’t tell the difference, assume they are fake, you’re probably going to be right.

I have no idea about perfumes and clothing, I assume most of it is counterfeit, so just use your judgment. I also assume that counterfeit name brand clothing is stitched very poorly, and will fall apart. But then again, who the hell cares? If you’re buying clothes based on the label, with the exception of things like jeans etc, you deserve to get ripped off.

In general, I avoid new stuff, except socks, underwear, t-shirts, all of which are easy to check the quality of. The deals on these can be really great, so stock up, just check the stuff carefully before buying.

The real stuff

This is what we’re actually looking for, the gold at the end of the rainbow. Despite popular myths about flea markets being simply poorly disguised thieves markets, in fact, most vendors aren’t thieves. I mean, sure, yes, the young guys selling $4000 carbon fiber bikes, new laptops, minus the power cords, and so on, are of course in many (but not all) cases selling stolen property. But most vendors are not selling that stuff.

One common source for their products is storage bin sales, professional yard / estate sale purchasers, and similar fringe resale niches. In other words, when someone stops paying rent on their storage container, or when they die, or move, or are evicted, these people come in, bid on the lot, and then try to sell the stuff as quickly as possible. These are the vendors where you will find the best deals.

They are also my favorite vendors, because they tend to be reasonably honest. From what I can see, it appears that wholesalers may appear early in the market, mornings, and others buy from them. I can tell this because many times different vendors will have books or other items that follow a specific theme, often very specific. And you will never see that theme at the market again.

So that brings me to the first real advice I have. When you find something you’ve been looking for, or that you know you need, or might need soon, buy it. You may never see this object again. Every time you put the item down, thinking to yourself, oh, well, maybe I’ll get it later, you are deciding not to get it.

This is what makes flea market shopping much more interesting than big box or standard shopping, it’s a game, and you can lose the game, or you can win it.

Other treats – Food and more

Unless you have a really bad flea market, you will probably also find some great food there, sold from carts. I find the food from these carts, while varying in quality, tends to be quite good. Sometimes even great, but often quite good. And if you add in the ambiance, the people walking around, the families, the sun, it’s generally a very pleasant experience eating there.

I also like the fruit/vegetable stands at the markets, even though the produce isn’t that great quality, it’s cheap, and its there, so I usually pick up some produce.

Often I’ll go to the flea market and not even buy anything, just get a taco or something else tasty to eat, and walk around a bit looking at the different people doing their thing. That’s always entertaining. For some reason, our local flea markets have a nice, family type vibe to them, and have a human quality no corporate store I’ve ever stepped into has. And that alone is worth the price of admission as far as I’m concerned.

And that’s it for today’s tips and tricks on shopping with very little money.

Remember this: the more you support true free markets, and the less you support the entire fake, non-free market system, like supermarkets, department stores, etc, the better your local community will be. And the better your local community is, the better life is for everyone, including you.

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