Good eye by Peggy Whiteneck

Discover Vintage America - JULY 2018

Using a flea market as customer research

In addition to my display at the antique mall, I'm a regular vendor at a flea market that runs the last Saturday of the month at a local church. I consider myself lucky if I can make my table rent plus a modest profit to return to the bank along with the $50 I took out to make change. I bring a few worthwhile older collectibles, but my chief reason to do a flea market is to offload new – sometimes brand new – unwanted "gifts."

The ducks amid water lilies motif on this large covered jar with a red Chinese seal mark is done with raised enamel paints. Anything with ducks on it got a lot of attention at the flea market, but the large size of this item (10.5" tall and 24" in circumference) seemed to be a deterrent to sale. We're not talking about something with great age here; the pastel coloring seems made to cater to modern consumers. Still, I quite like it and – as long as my collections don't drive me out of house and home – wouldn't be at all averse to keeping it if I can't sell it.


This time, I sold a large and ungainly wall-mountable wooden key chain holder shaped as a cute caricature of a seated cat for $5. For the same price, I also sold a large indoor/outdoor thermometer, still in its original packaging, with a squirrel motif and the legend "Welcome to the Nut House." Also sold a couple dozen DVDs at one dollar apiece and a barely used Cuisinart coffee grinder for $5.

Other vendors were selling used clothing, jewelry, crafts, and cookware. There was one small-business maple syrup maker with jugs of syrup in all sizes, who did a pretty good business that day. One vendor had brought several large framed prints and paintings, some of them old, and these sold with surprising briskness given what I imagine as the dearth of available wall space in most people's homes.

The ten-buck barrier

Generally speaking, people are not looking to pay double-digit prices for any object at a flea market. I had three small Fenton glass dishes dating from the 1930s and '40s that got a lot of attention, but while many picked them up, nobody was buying even at the modest price tag of $10 each. Likewise, I had two Metzler and Ortloff German porcelain pin dishes edged by small figurines of a mallard duck and a black swan respectively; again, only lookers but no takers at $10 each.

The eclectic offerings of a flea market are a consumer crapshoot. That means they attract lots of tire kickers not looking for anything in particular. Any buys, such as they are, are likely to be impulse buys. Consequently, while there was a modest but steady traffic flow all day, much of it tended to meander through, not looking closely at anything unless, out of the corner of an eye, something snagged their attention.

A surprising number of people in this consumer flow included the barely ambulatory elderly with assistive devices such as canes, wheelchairs, and even oxygen tanks. These folks were invariably friendly, and some admitted to me outright that they loved my "stuff" but were not in the market to buy, already having more in their own homes than they knew what to do with. I see these folks at the antique mall, too, and it makes me wonder why they bother if they've no intent to buy. My guess is they're engaged in that internal negotiation familiar to most of us: trying to exercise buying discipline but also secretly hoping to encounter something they just can't live without.

'Cute' sells, but 'functional' sells better

I brought a heavy, outsized duck-covered Hall Pottery casserole, "priced to move" at $5. It scored high with shoppers on the "cuteness scale," but no one bought it, presumably for its sheer size and limited functionality as a serving piece that I honestly admitted I wouldn't trust to be ovenproof. Likewise, a very large covered Chinese jar with a ducks motif attracted considerable notice (ducks being very popular among shoppers at this flea), but its size proved a deterrent.

Shoppers were buying functional items: clothing and jewelry they could wear, cookware they could actually use, and so on. This accounts for virtually everything I sold at the flea market: some items I sold may have been "cute," but they were also functional. Dealers paying attention will have noticed this "buy to use" bias operating throughout the broader secondary market.

Peggy Whiteneck is a writer, collector and dealer living in East Randolph, VT. If you would like to suggest a subject that she can address in her column, email her at