With Christmas Eve only a sugarplum's dance away, Cheryl Biggs has been spending nearly every weekend at one swap meet or another.
"You can save a lot of money," said Biggs, resting between purchases at last week's Rose Bowl Swap Meet & Flea Market. "There are a lot of clothes that department stores carry, and they cost about half."
Buena Park resident Christopher Perez said he visits the Orange County Swap Meet at the fairgrounds in Costa Mesa about once a month because "it's definitely cheaper. But there are limits. You can only get certain items there." Swap meets will carry some things, though, that can be found nowhere else, he said.
Swap meets once were exactly that--a group of people meeting to swap things. But since those first few swap meets and flea markets appeared mainly in Southern California in the 1950s, the business has never been the same.
Department Store, Carnival
Swap meets have ballooned into an multibillion-dollar industry supporting thousands of vendors across the country and providing possibly cheaper and certainly offbeat merchandise to millions of consumers, usually for cash. They are part department store, part Middle Eastern bazaar and part carnival. And the growth continues, swap meet operators say, particularly in tough economic times.
"It's unbelievable," said Jim Goodridge, whose Arnold, Mo.-based company puts out the Great American Flea Market Directory and other fair and trade show publications. "Flea markets have become such a way of life in our country."
No one knows exactly how many swap meets and flea markets operate nationwide. "That's a tough one because those little critters come and go," Goodridge said. They range from tiny swaps meets with only a few vendors meeting irregularly to indoor swap meets that are open daily to weekend super swap meets that draw 20,000 to 75,000 customers a day. They can be found in vacant buildings, parking lots, drive-in theaters or idle fairgrounds.
One of the nation's largest is the Flea Market in San Jose, which features 2,400 vendors and brings in 4 million people a year, said General Manager Tim Bumb. Another is Traders Village Flea Market in Grand Prairie, Tex.; with more than 2,000 selling spaces it is "considered by many to be America's finest flea market," according to the most recent edition of the Great American Flea Market Directory.
Other super swap meets include the Rose Bowl Swap Meet & Flea Market, which is held on the second Sunday of each month and typically draws up to 30,000 people, and the Orange County Swap Meet, which usually draws 50,000 to 75,000 a day on Saturdays and Sundays. To capture the holiday shopping crowd, the Orange County Swap Meet will remain open today through Christmas Eve. Each of those swap meets has about 1,500 vendors.
More Variety Than Sears
Theories abound as to why swap meets and flea markets are so popular.
"Malls are all the same. It's all the same stores, all the same brands, all the same stuff," Goodridge said.
"When you go to the flea market you get to be a participant" by haggling with the sellers, he said. "At Sears, you just go down the aisle. If you see something you want to buy, you pick it up and they ring you up at the cash register and send you home."
A swap meet's more informal atmosphere attracts many consumers, said Bob Teller, whose company puts on the Orange County Swap Meet.
"When you go into Saks Fifth Avenue or Robinson's, basically it's intimidating. You walk in there with marble counters and well-dressed sales people and you don't want to make a mistake," he said. "At a swap meet, the sellers are your peers. You get to deal with people on your own level." Bumb, whose family started the San Jose Flea Market in 1960, said he figures there is something "socially inherent" about swap meets. "This is something that society has done for thousands and thousands of years," he said. "This is just a little bit different name."
Along the way, the type of goods sold at swap meets has changed. The business once thrived on junk cleaned out of people's garages and then on antiques and collectibles, said M. Theresa Sutton, editor of the National Flea Market Dealer. Now new merchandise dominates swap meets--"everything from clock radios to the latest in jogging suits"--although most successful operations will retain a used section, she said.
The Orange County Swap Meet started in 1969 with all used merchandise, Teller said. Now 99% of the goods are new. "I think it's lost an awful lot of its charm and character because of that," Teller said.
The new merchandise sold at swap meets is often purchased from the same sources that supply retail stores. But the goods may be factory seconds, discontinued lines or damaged items that the chains reject. Swap meet prices are usually lower because of the vendors' low overhead, lack of customer service and no-return policy.