For the past month, Deal Hunter has talked holiday shopping strategy for the big-box retailers. With all the competition, it would seem you could buy every gift you need at a store. But Marsha Bemko, executive producer of PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow,” says there has never been a better time to shop for one-of-a-kind, pre-loved items.
“It’s low-hanging fruit,” Bemko said. “You pay less than full retail at flea markets, and you’ll look like you spent a lot more. There are bargains out there to be had.”
We’re not talking about shopping at Goodwill for silk ties or second-hand furniture (although we fully support that kind of thrift shopping). For the holidays, vases, colored glass wear and handmade items are the obvious gifts for picky loved ones, and they’re easy to find at secondhand markets across the country.
Bemko gives us some tips for haggling on price and finding memorable gems that you won’t see in stores.
Why people don’t shop flea markets
There are some people who avoid flea markets. Here are two reasons why:
1. They’re called flea markets: If you’re among those who are turned off by the term or the idea something might be older than you, we’re tempted to say, “Great, more for us!” It would take too long to convince a modernist that something old can be beautiful. We’re not going to try.
2. They’re intimidating: Some markets are so vast, they can be difficult to navigate. But Bemko assures us that it’s easy when you’re spending in small amounts. “Used objects are almost always less expensive than new ones,” Bemko said. “You don’t have to be a terribly savvy shopper to buy at flea markets. You won’t go wrong until you start to spend a lot of money.”
Know your limits
Most of the time you’ll be paying cash, so having a finite amount of bills in purse or pocket will help you from overspending. “Say, ‘I’m going to find fill-in-the-blank,’ and then set forth a reasonable budget before you go,” Bemko advised. Otherwise, you’ll tend to overspend. But she also reminds us that part of the fun of antiques is taking little risks. “First-timers who are going out there without a huge budget can really learn from taking risks,” she said. “But if you’re spending $10,000, you need to worry about authenticity and you need to be cautious.”
Half of antiquing is showing up
Although you can get great antiques on eBay, there’s no substitute for in-person shopping. “You can’t get smart enough about this stuff, and when you really want to comparison shop, you’ll need to go to more than one place on foot,” Bemko said. Use the Internet as a resource, but this is one realm of shopping where you’ll want to touch the products beforehand. “You can’t get a sense of feeling, what’s really old and what’s reportedly old, without going in-person.”
Take your time
You don’t order the first item on a menu, so why would you stop at the first stall and buy everything you see? It’s a common rule: Prices are higher in the front of the market. Start in the back and scope out everything before you buy anything.
Take the smartphone
The smartphone is your weapon. It’s not that people will lie about products, but often, people just don’t know how old or rare something is. Use the Internet as a resource. It’s especially important if you’re about to buy something that is marked up because it’s “one of a kind.” “With certain one-of-a-kind objects, you’ll go online and see hundreds of them,” Bemko said, indicating that they’re not unique gifts. “Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s rare.”
Don’t be afraid to ask
As with all great deals or breaks in life, you’ll never get what you want if you don’t ask. Ask for a discount. At antique or flea markets, you are expected to haggle. “Assume it’s overpriced from the start,” Bemko said. “It is always worth asking, but be respectful of the fact that people need to stay in business.” Bemko recommends starting with, “Can I make you an offer?” before naming a price. See our previously published guide to haggling for tips.
Too good to be true?
There are cases of people finding “flea market Renoirs,” but those stories rarely have happy endings. This year, a woman found a painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir in a West Virginia flea market. The Washington Post’s Ian Shapira discovered that the painting had been stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art more than half a century ago. (The woman no longer owns the painting.) Moral of the story: Beware of deals that seem to good to be true. If you’re shopping at the international flea markets of Berlin or Vienna, those silver-dollar coins selling for 5 euro a pop are probably counterfeits made of lead and worth less than 10 cents. Flipping flea market finds for profit is a tough business. If that’s your goal, know that you’re gambling, not shopping.
Gifts to get this season
For the holidays, Bemko says, glassware is a common, reasonably priced gift you can find at most flea markets. “There’s a lot of colored glass and art glass out there right now, and they make great gifts. They’re popular.” Waterford glass or manufacturers of cut crystal are also flooding the flea markets because of the lack of demand. Bemko also recommends old laces and linens for textile enthusiasts, but she cautions that expensive heirlooms are hard to find in good condition. “With art glass, there are pieces at every price point,” Bemko said. “You can pay $5 or $50,000.” Most people won’t know the difference. And handmade holiday crafts, whether you visit a local craft show or a flea market, are always worth their time and creativity.
TThe Bottom Line The holidays are a great time to try your hand at antique and flea markets. Because many markets sell items for a fraction of what you’d spend in a store, it’s a good way to save while also giving a memorable gift.