If you’ve shopped a flea market or two, you’ve most likely experienced your fair share of haggling. But do you often leave wondering, “Did I do that right?” or “Should I have started lower?” Let’s face it, bargaining isn’t a skill we learn in school, but in the bustling flea fields themselves. And our team of pro-shoppers is happy to share some insight. To prep you for your next trip east, west, or abroad, we’ve put together the ultimate how-to-haggle guide featuring tips from top-notch collector, Virginia Chamlee of The Mostest Vintage and design maven Victoria Smith of SF Girl By Bay.

Tip #1: Do Your Homework

Whether you’re on the hunt for the perfect ’60s campaign highboy dresser, or gorgeous French bergere chairs, your credibility in the haggle game all starts with knowledge of the item—which means, you must do your homework. Research pricing ahead of time so that your starting price is taken seriously. And if you happen upon something special on-the-go, always consult the personal shopping assistant in your pocket (i.e. your phone). As Virginia put it, “A little bit of Googling goes a long way. I have the Chairish app on my phone, so when I’m vintage-hunting I’m always looking items up to see whether I’m truly getting a good deal or even whether an item is authentic.”

Flea Market Haggling
Photo by Victoria Smith of SF Girl By Bay

Tip #2: Don’t Show How Much You Know

In other words, do your research—but don’t show you’ve done it. One quick way to get on a dealer’s bad side is to insult an item’s price because you know it’s worth less. Virginia notes, “If you let on that you know too much—i.e. you know a piece is actually more valuable than its current price—that will immediately turn a dealer off. It’s much easier to get a better deal if you convey a sense of ignorance.”

Tip #3: Go Low, But Not Too Low

“As a general rule of thumb, I would never offer a dealer more than 20% off, unless you were buying multiple pieces or noticed some damage,” Virginia says. “Dealers want to move their merchandise and they usually price their wares with a little wiggle room. But they also invested a lot into the piece (the cost of the item, the cost of gas, the travel and physical labor required of getting to shows and unloading merchandise) and it’s important to keep that in mind. Lowballing can be offensive and once you offend them there’s really no going back.” Victoria agrees: “No matter what, I try to be respectful when haggling. This is their livelihood, so I don’t want to go too low and insult them. And I think if you can find a little humor in the way you go about it, they’ll often bond with you a little better and it becomes a bit of a fun game.”

Chairish Seller Virginia Chamlee with her recent scores.

Tip #4: Consider Extra Costs

If you think you’ve spotted a good deal, consider the costs of restoration, upholstery, or shipping before getting too involved—and use these to your advantage on the haggling front. Interior designer Emily Henderson advises, “Talk them through your future expenses and they might come down realizing that what they have is actually a future investment for someone, not an immediate gift. That gives you leverage for a discount, for sure. I don’t pay more than $400 for a sofa unless it’s super unique, important and irreplaceable.”

Tip #5: Take The Setting & Season Into Account

Before you start haggling, it’s important to acknowledge your surroundings. Virginia shared, “I base my haggling strategy on where I am and even what time of year it is. In general, the nicer fleas—Round Top, Scott’s in Atlanta—attract shoppers with higher budgets, so it’s going to be difficult to talk a dealer down too much. Some of the best shows are those that are off-the-beaten-path, because those dealers are looking to offload as much merchandise as they can so that they don’t have to haul it back home. My absolute favorite flea/antique market takes place in Mount Dora, Florida—I go in November, when the items are priced much cheaper than at the January or February shows (a dealer once told me that’s when all the snowbirds come down, so dealers will often hike the prices).”

Beyond the actual season, the time you arrive will also play into your haggling success. Victoria approaches all fleas in two ways: “Either arrive super early when it opens or towards the end of the day when it’s about to close. When you arrive early, you obviously have the best picks of the day, but you also pay a little more because vendors aren’t quite ready to bargain. But, should you go at the end of the day, vendors don’t really want to pack up their goods after lugging them all the way to the flea market, so they’re very often apt to give you a very good deal.”

Photo by Victoria Smith of SF Girl By Bay

Tip #6: Buy In Groups

As Virginia and Victoria both mentioned, dealers are often looking to sell as much as possible at one flea. This means that the more you can buy in one go, the happier they’ll be. The best strategy here is to gather multiple items together, and ask for a discount: 15% off two items, 20% off three items, etc. It’s also often easier to buy items in their “sets” —from china to chairs— because the dealer will have a more difficult time selling pieces individually.

Tip #7: Breaks Things Up

While group purchases can help you secure deals, you should never assume items are only sold in groups based on how they’re set up in a booth. One of Virginia’s favorite scores came from her ability to recognize an item as a standout piece within a group curation: “I have a really fabulous John Dickinson-style plaster stool that I scored for $5 at a thrift store. The store actually had it paired with a glass top which I knew didn’t belong with it, and the two pieces together were priced at $40. I asked if I could have just the base, without the glass, for $5. They happily obliged.”

Virginia Chamlee’s John Dickinson-style plaster stool.

Tip #8: Choose A Smile Over A Poker Face

As much as haggling may feel like a sport, remember that treasure hunting should be fun. Embrace the vintage community by showing warmth, interest and appreciation. Virginia advises, “A smile is always a good strategy. I love to chat dealers up and learn more about the items they’re selling—the provenance of a piece, how long they’ve had it. When you get to know them, they might even notify you when they find something they think you’d like in the future.”

Photo by Victoria Smith of SF Girl By Bay

In the event you’re shopping abroad, follow Victoria’s lead: “When we go to the French flea markets to shop, we always greet the vendors politely before entering their stalls. It’s just good manners and they appreciate it, and some really expect it. It’s always good to start off on the best terms possible before you start wheeling and dealing.”

Tip #9: Don’t Haggle Just To Haggle

We know first-hand how much love sellers have for their finds and the stories behind them. So before you start sporting your fresh new haggling skills, remember that while some items are expected to be haggled, not everything calls for negotiation. Emily Henderson says, “If it’s a fair price, just give them the cash. You don’t have to haggle just because you are at the flea market. When I overhear a conversation where the buyer offers $9 for a $10 item, I cringe knowing that they are haggling for haggling sake. It’s like they watched it in the movies and they are performing ‘haggling.’” Virginia agrees: “If you find a piece that you’re head-over-heels for, or one that you know is actually worth much more than its current price, take it and run.”

Lead photo by Tessa Neustadt


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June 25, 2019

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