The Staying Power of the Flea Market
A denver business is a key player in a thriving $30 billion industry
Open air markets have served as community gathering spots for thousands of years, from the earliest forums of Rome to public squares and bustling mercados. In the United States, Flea markets emerged in the 1920s and evolved into social centers where new and used products could be found affordably. While dollar stores and big-box retailers popped up in the 80s and 90s, flea markets never lost their appeal, with many evolving to offer amenities like stages for live music, event spaces, rides and games and a multitude of food and beverage offerings.
Today, flea markets continue to thrive nationwide, comprising a $30 billion industry. There are approximately 1,100 flea markets in the U.S., with more than 150 million customers visiting each year. These platforms provide business opportunities for approximately 2.25 million vendors.
Many people are surprised by these numbers.
Flea markets don’t generate the buzz and attention of shiny new startups, retail “disruptors” or well-known retail giants. There are no celebrity endorsements or sexy ad campaigns, yet this segment of the retail industry is one of the few that’s growing despite increased pressure from online shopping. In a world of click-and-point access to most anything, flea markets prove that people still crave a human connection.
It’s this connection, paired with relaxed, highly social experiences, that sits at the heart of the flea market – a sharp contrast to the solitary experience offered by online shopping. Visit a local flea market and you’ll see multiple generations of the same family enjoying time together. Fresh produce, clothing, furniture, gifts, sporting equipment and knickknacks are available in abundance. For many, the thrill of the treasure hunt adds to the excitement. For older visitors, it’s a delight to introduce their kids and grandkids to the social outing they experienced during their own childhood. I often say, today’s flea market isn’t all that different from yesterday’s flea market – a fact that certainly plays into the industry’s enduring popularity.
Further driving the flea market’s staying power is a new generation of shoppers seeking products that have been recycled, upcycled or repurposed, and being able to buy local and assist independent, small businesses. Millennials have brought new interest and excitement to flea markets across the country.
That’s not to say flea markets aren’t evolving.
They are, but not in ways you might immediately notice. Nationally, we’re seeing a slight shift from what have historically been family-run businesses to more multi-unit operations. My own company, United Flea Markets, for example, has experienced significant growth since acquiring our first flea– Mile High Flea Market – in 2007. Since, we have expanded our portfolio and built a national presence with Rubidoux Drive-In Theatre and Swap Meet in Riverside, California; Cooks Flea Market, Inc. in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; the Awesome Flea Market in Shepherdsville, Kentucky; Flea Market Mobile in Mobile, Alabama.; J&J Flea Market in Athens, Georgia; and three properties in Florida including the Ramona Flea Market in Jacksonville, Flamingo Island Flea Market in Bonita Springs and T&W Flea Market in Pensacola.
A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work in this sector. Whereas larger ownership corporations might apply a cookie-cutter methodology to other retail businesses (rolling them up under one business model), flea markets thrive on their uniqueness and homespun appeal. For the United Flea Markets team, this means honoring our predecessors’ legacy while building out for the next 40 years.
In terms of capital investment, this translates to significant upgrades in technology and infrastructure as well as the benefits of a larger, deeper portfolio of experience, all behind-the-scenes attributes that deliver a more seamless experience for visitors and vendors, without taking away from the market’s mom-and-pop feel. Change is good, but where flea markets are concerned, a respect for the past is critical.
Rob Sieban is president, CEO and co-owner of United Flea Markets, owner of the largest portfolio of flea markets in the country, with nine properties nationwide, including Mile High Flea Market in Denver. The company counts 500 employees and 11,000 selling spaces across its more than 400 property acres. Prior to joining United Flea Markets, Sieban held executive leadership positions at Pier 1 Imports, Sunglass Hut, and Illuminations