Selling at the MIT Flea

Today I was a seller at the MIT Flea market. Here is a report on my experience. Warning: this was my first time at the Flea and my first time being a vendor in general so future MIT Flea’s may be different. The MIT Flea is held on the third Sunday of the month April through October. The event takes place at an outdoor parking lot on Albany street in Cambridge. As a seller, you drive to the lot and are directed to a parking space. There’s enough room to set up a table or two behind your car to display your wares. The Flea lets sellers start setting up at 7:00 AM but doesn’t open the doors to buyers until 9:00 AM. I got there at 8:45 but found that I had plenty of time to set up before the market officially opened. The Flea charges $20 to sellers and $5 to buyers.

My motivation for going to the Flea was to sell off things that I no longer needed in order to declutter my apartment. I hoped that the Flea would be a good way to sell off a large number of things at once. Ebay and Craigslist are great for selling individual items but don’t really benefit from selling multiple items simultaneously. In the language of economics, ebay and craigslist have lower fixed cost but higher marginal cost while selling at the Flea has higher fixed costs — the registration fee, the time and effort of schlepping there, etc — but lower marginal costs — it doesn’t cost anything to have another items on your table.

I ended up bringing a few high value items: a cell phone, an eReader, autographed celebrity photos, and a projector; and a number of low and medium value items such as an unopened video card and a CPU cooler. I sold most of the low and medium value items and pretty much sold everything that I was willing to let go for $1. Of the high value items, I only sold the eReader.

Part of attending an event like this is the learning experience. Here’s the some of the lessons I learned.

  • The crowd at the Flea likes to buy things cheaply. The gentleman next to me was selling two classic Macs to the 1980’s. His prices were well within the online price range for collectible Mac computers (~$500). Although, many people stopped to admire them, no one purchased the computers. I couldn’t help but think that the crowd at the Flea are not the type to purchase expensive collectibles. But he was undeterred and plans to return next month to try again.
  • Some people haggle aggressively and obnoxiously. I priced the cell phone based on eBay and Craigslist listings. Some people offered a lot less than those values and most of the time that was no big deal. I simply explained that even with eBay and Paypal, I could make more selling online than what they were offering.  However, a few people didn’t want to take no for an answer to kept insisting I sell it for a lower price. One gentleman even throw some cash on the table and practically demanded that I accept his offer even though I had already told him that he was offering $40 less than the going price on eBay.
  • Be prepared for the heat and sun. The Flea takes place in an above ground lot with no trees. Even if it’s not a warm day, the constant sun can get intense. I had SPF 15 sunblock which was better than nothing but not enough. If I go again, I’ll wear a hat or have an umbrella set up at my table like some the veteran Flea attendees.
  • Bring food and liquids. Vending for an entire day takes a lot of energy so make sure you’re well nourished. Bring a snack or light lunch and plenty of water. There was only one food vendor and their items were limited to chips, grilled food, soda, and bottled water. I had to walk off site just to get some reasonably healthy food to make it through the day. (There are portable bathrooms so didn’t worry about limiting your liquids.)
  • Get there early and leave early. The Flea is busiest right after it opens at 9:00. New people come throughout the morning but by 12:00 things are relatively dead. Although the Flea is open until 2:00, I wouldn’t recommend staying much after 12:00. After the morning, I got few visitors and had no sales.
  • Carefully decide which weekends you want to attend the Flea. The word that I got was that the most active Flea’s are the first one (in April) and the last one (in October). The September Flea was said to be the third most active. Although the weather was excellent, I was told that the Flea I went to was comparatively poorly attended. It was also Fathers’ day which may have been part of the problem.
  • Have plastic bags. A number of people asked for plastic bags to hold their purchases. If you have a bunch of grocery store bags at home bring them along. Your customers will appreciate it and you’ll be able to rid yourself of some of the bags.

I haven’t attempted to explicitly calculated a return on investment from vending at the Flea but I didn’t think that it would seem like an impressive amount given that it took 5+ hours of my time. That said, I sold enough to more than cover the cost of my vendor’s fee and the process was kind of fun. With the exception of the few overly aggressive hagglers mentioned above, the people I encountered as both buyers and sellers were friendly and interesting. My goal had been largely to declutter and although I was not particularly successful selling my high value items, I did manage to sell off a box worth of stuff that had just been taking up space. There’s also something nice about selling something to someone who really appreciates it even if you’re only getting a $1 for it.