D.C. Big Flea draws them in by the thousands

How do you bring them to your door by the thousands and keep them coming back for more? How do you make each show a winner, even in tough economic times? If there is a magic formula, the D.C. Big Flea has it! The recent September show brought in thousands of customers, dispelling the idea that we are all staying at home to conserve on gas, while glued to our TV sets for the latest stock market news.

Adjusting to the times; that is a key factor in the D.C. Big Flea’s success. Here is a show that offers a winning combination of affordable booth prices – so important in this economy – along with strong dealer support in the form of advertising and promotion right where it counts – in the newspapers, on television and on the radio.

The D.C. Big Flea has fine-tuned its operation to adapt to the times with a show that is accessible and user-friendly for both participants and showgoers alike. “This was our fourth D.C. Big Flea,” commented Chuck Johnson of Emma Jean’s General Store in West Virginia. “Prior to the show, we were concerned about how the economy might affect sales, but, for this show our sales were actually higher.” At 9 a.m.. when the doors opened, my sister was alone, manning the booth and was overwhelmed with customers. The aisles were really crowded.” For Johnson, the pull of nostalgia continues to drive sales. High on the list are collectibles that remind customers of their own childhood and far simpler times with sales strong and steady for vintage advertising signs and children’s toys. He also brought a collection of store fixtures from the family’s general store in West Virginia, still run by Chuck’s mother, that delighted showgoers. The original display counters and such accessories as glass candy jars bring a much-longed-for homey touch to today’s modern kitchen.

An important ingredient in the fall show’s success was the willingness of dealers to self-promote. Ashley Dettor and Bob French of Antiques on Eleven in Richmond, Va., have participated in past D.C. Big Fleas and send invitations to their clients to visit each show.

“We have had wonderful response to our specialty – ceramics, decorative arts and period American furniture – from both customers who responded to the invitations and from fresh showgoers. Our intention is to exhibit in each of the upcoming D.C. Big Flea markets and actively build a following of dedicated buyers,” French said. It is this extra effort to build promotion into the show experience that is giving many dealers the edge.

“This is a time when it is especially important to work with your customers,” notes Johnson. One of the most unusual items that he sold at the September show was a two-seater playground carousel from the 1920s. The sale took place on a Sunday. When the customer expressed interest in the carousel, but wondered how to get it home (10 miles away), Chuck jumped into his van and solved the problem with no delivery fee. Now, that’s real customer service.

He adds that this is the time to generate booth traffic by offering special promotions. Signs in booths inviting showgoers to make an offer and special “mark-down” tables were spotted at the September show and did an effective job, while stimulating sales of higher-end merchandise as well. Once in the booth, customers not only checked out the marked down table, they gravitated to higher-end merchandise as well which resulted in additional sales.

Furniture moved well at the September show, with sales not confined to smaller pieces. First time exhibitor, Pat Kolby, sold a three-piece parlor set circa 1870s that was one of the most unusual and stunning pieces in her collection. The set, priced at $1,800, featured intricately carved female heads on the chair backs. A huge bookcase in tiger oak and a large primitive pine cupboard which sold for $1,275 were among her best furniture sales. “Everything was priced well at this show,” notes Ms. Kolby. Dealers were very realistic in terms of their prices.”

“You have to work harder in this market and be open to change,” adds Dick Timme of Antiques & Appraisals, who bypasses local Connecticut shows in favor of the D.C. Big Flea. “You need to keep moving and find new ways to present your merchandise.

Many of the antique dealers who did well at the show had an excellent presentation, setting up their booths as room settings. “If you present your merchandise right, it works! If it doesn’t it’s time to sharpen the presentation.”

Timme was among the dealers for whom furniture moved well. “Antique furniture is a good investment from the standpoint that you are getting a lot of design and craftsmanship for your investment. It stands the test of time. Not true for much of the furniture made today.” He sees 1950s mahogany furniture picking up in interest as it is very affordable. Timme experienced good sales in flatware, sterling hollowware and small paintings. He adds that silver is an excellent purchase for consumers as the metal itself will always have value.

Participants consistently commented on the quality of the show. “We were in excellent company,” Kolby said. “While the name of the show connotes bargains, the D.C. Big Flea delivers quality far beyond the average flea market, offering a vast array of fine antiques and popular collectibles. There’s truly something for everyone.”

The diversity of the show and its excellence have made it a strong contender in the fine arts and antiques category, as well as in the highly specialized collectibles market. And that’s no small accomplishment in today’s ever changing market.

For more information call Leigh Infield Associates, at 212-691-7297.

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