How to Start a Swap Meet or Flea Market and Make Money

Flea markets and swap meets are fun businesses to run. Almost no days are the same, and you get to spend time with artists, entrepreneurs and collectors. Though the setting of a flea market or swap meet might seem more informal than, say, opening a mall (which is hard to recommend today), it is a bona fide business – one that makes real money and requires permits and licenses. In the battle of a swap meet vs. a flea market, there’s no one winner. They’re two entirely different things, and it depends on your goal.

What's a Swap Meet?

A swap meet is a gathering where people trade or exchange items. Today, it’s often a term used interchangeably with "flea market," but traditionally, it’s held in a much more informal setting like a community center, gymnasium or someone’s garage.

Though people do buy things with cash, that’s not always the case. For example, swap meets are common on college campuses across the country, and students trade old books, clothing and records. It’s a fun way to refresh their wardrobe without spending a dime.

What's a Flea Market?

Flea markets are typically more formal. There are vendors who show up every single week instead of just community members who want to make a few bucks after they’ve cleared out their garage.

Flea markets are often held in lots or permanently in large indoor spaces where vendors set up booths. It’s almost like a pop-up shopping mall for crafts, handmade goods, vintage wares and more. With the invention of Square and mobile-based credit card systems, most flea market vendors can even take credit cards.

Get a Permit

The odds are that you’re going to need a permit to launch a flea market or swap meet. If you’re choosing between starting a swap meet vs. a flea market, consider that a swap meet can sometimes fly under the radar if you’re not trading cash and are rather trading goods in someone’s garage, for example.

A flea market almost always requires the proper permits and licenses, so you’re going to need to check with your local government. Most often, this includes a business license, a reseller's license and a sales permit. Vendors need their own permits too.

Pick a Location

Flea markets require a lot of square footage, so you’re going to need access to a space. The more booths, the more flea market revenue you'll make. Leasing options depend entirely on how often your flea market or swap meet will occur.

You might be able to rent out a community center once a month, but you also might want to lease a permanent space to run a flea market indoors year round. Other flea markets rent lots seasonally.

Competition isn’t as big a factor as it is in other businesses. People who go to flea markets generally visit more than one during their shopping day, but you want to make sure that yours offers different products than any neighboring flea markets. The most important thing is foot traffic. The more foot traffic you have, the more people will want to stroll inside.

Figure out Your Vendor Pricing

A flea market’s revenue comes partly from charging vendors for their space. You need to examine the square footage of your flea market and figure out how much to charge per vendor to turn a profit. You can charge a higher premium for spaces with electrical outlets.

Get the Proper Insurance

Like any business, your flea market needs general liability insurance to adequately protect you against any injuries or merchandise damage that might happen in your space. Talk to an insurance broker to determine the best plan.

You’ll also need workers' compensation insurance if you plan to hire employees, but vendors generally work as independent contractors and handle their own transactions. You might still want an employee or two to help you coordinate things with vendors.

Find Your Vendors

A flea market’s revenue also comes from taking a percentage of vendor sales. For this reason, you want to choose vendors with the best-selling flea market items. Some of the best-selling flea market items include jewelry, furniture, crafts and vintage goods.

Including food trucks is also a good idea because hungry people will leave to get food elsewhere. If you can keep them around and keep them full, shoppers are more likely to stay.

All vendors need the correct occupational license required by the state. This helps prove that they’re going to pay sales tax on their goods. To land vendors with the best-selling flea market items, place attractive advertisements and cut deals to those who make the biggest sales. Take out a spot in a local newspaper or a niche craft magazine, utilize bulletin boards at community centers and churches and post flyers around town and in local businesses.

Open Your Flea Market

Flea market revenue will suffer if you struggle to find customers. The best way to get attention is to host a grand opening event, but also encourage vendors to advertise on social media. If your flea market is a permanent fixture, consider listing your business on Yelp and Google.

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About the Author

Mariel Loveland is a small business owner, content strategist and writer from New Jersey. Throughout her career, she's worked with numerous startups creating content to help small business owners bridge the gap between technology and sales. Her work has been featured in publications like Business Insider and Vice.