Chapter 4 - Market Trading

What picture comes into your head when you hear the term Market Trader? If you're English, you might picture an open field on a cold, foggy morning, full of cars and vans, with men and women wearing rubber boots and drinking steaming cups of tea poured from industrial sized flasks. Americans might picture a farmer's market or a craft fair, where stalls are manned by leftovers from a bygone era with long hair full of beads, and flowery clothing.

The reality is quite different. Market Trading is a loose term, and various types of selling fall under its banner. At its most general, a market trader is someone who sells from a moveable stall rather than a fixed premises or shop. The following are all Market Traders:

  • Stall holders at regular, weekly street markets
  • Car boot sellers
  • Christmas fair sellers
  • Craft and other specialised fair sellers
  • Stall owners at farmers markets
  • Sellers at organised events such as concerts or festivals

Street markets have been a fixture of many towns and villages for centuries, with plots handed down from father to son, often staying in the family for generations. Though street markets have been in decline lately, as regulations tighten up retail environments and town centres undergo renovations, they are still the centre of many a market trader's business. A typical street market in an average town might include stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables, a selection of new clothing and footwear, second hand or damaged books, candles and incense, household cleaning products, and of course, at least one jewellery stall. The size of these markets is often fixed, with stalls in high demand and difficult to get hold of. An established stall at a busy weekly market can easily turn over as much as a high street shop on a busy day.

Car boot sales on the other hand are very much a free for all, with no set pitches, and sellers who turn up that morning on spec with a car or van full of stock to sell. The car boot environment may be a field in the countryside, a large car park in a city, or a warehouse district at the edge of town. Some sales have become so well established that they have large indoor areas for selling, as well as toilets, cafes and telephones. The more popular sales often allow a core group of traders to leave their stalls set up for the following week, giving them all the benefits of an established shop without any of the overheads.

Specialised fairs occur all over the country at different times of the year. Christmas fairs occur in most towns in early December, often kicking off the Christmas shopping season and providing a great opportunity to capture that Christmas trade at what is by far the busiest time of the year. There are Summer fairs, Spring fairs, and craft fairs occurring somewhere just about every weekend. Craft fairs are especially popular amongst jewellery sellers, as they provide access to a market that is predisposed to buy jewellery, adornments, or handmade items.

Farmer's markets, though primarily for the sale of fresh produce, often allow a small number of traders to sell homemade jewellery. This does vary from town to town, and you would need to contact the market administrators to find out if there is a place for your jewellery stall, but if you have the opportunity, they can prove quite lucrative.

The summer season brings with it a host of events such as weekend long festivals and afternoon concerts. Many of these events allow traders access to their grounds, and though admission is often quite expensive, can prove to be as lucrative as the weeks running up to Christmas.

True Story: I know of one jewellery trader in Ireland who sets up a stall at the National Ploughing Championships in the Irish countryside each year. Typical attendance at this event is around 200,000 over three days and their turn over is often as high as €20,000. All from selling costume jewellery and watches from a stall.

Stories like this abound, but you need to be careful when listening to them, and not assume that it will automatically happen to you, or that your first car boot sale will net you a four figure sum. There is as much variety in the turnover of market traders as there is in the turnover of shops on the high street and in the local shopping centre. For every trader doing well, there will be two who are just getting by, and two who are doing badly.

What is involved in becoming a Market Trader?

No matter how you sell your jewellery, you will need to purchase stock and packaging. This does not change regardless of where or how you sell. The initial costs involved in market trading are very low, though this may rise over time as you expand your operation and become more successful.

You will need some fold up tables. Though some markets provide stalls, you cannot rely on them being present, especially if the market is transient, which is the case for most festivals and yearly fairs. If you have the good fortune of landing a spot at a weekly street market or farmer's market, you will usually need to provide your own stall. A stall, at its most basic, is simply fold up tables covered by an awning of some kind to keep out the weather. All of these items can be purchased quite cheaply at any large DIY shop.

Alongside your basic stall, you will need large velvet coverings for your tables, as well as some busts and other jewellery display equipment. A dozen busts, some bracelet and ring displays, and some display boxes for watches should not set you back much. Remember, if you start small, your initial outlay will be small. Upgrading from a pitch with one or two tables to one three times as large is usually a straight forward process, which means you can test the waters without spending too much on setup costs, and only increase your spend when you have proven that your stock sells and you can afford to do so.

You will need transport. A car is a requirement for even the most basic market trading. You will need it to carry your stock, your tables and display units, and you will need it to travel to each different market.

You do not need to buy a van. A hatchback with fold down seats is usually sufficient in the early days, though as you become more and more successful, and invest in more stock and larger stalls, you may decide to purchase a larger vehicle. Do not make the mistake of assuming you need to buy a van. Prove your concept first. Ensure you are selling the right stock to the right people at the right price and in the right location. You can do all this from a battered old Ford Fiesta. A common mistake amongst business start-ups - one not specific to the jewellery or even the retail industry - is that you need to have all the latest and best equipment, otherwise your business will fail.

This is not true.

If you do have money to invest, invest it first of all in stock, and secondly in improving your display. Your customers will not care about anything else.

A small number of miscellaneous items will also be required: a hand mirror so that customers can see how a necklace or earring set looks on them, a cash box, a lunch box, and some warm clothing. You should also invest in some form of liability insurance, in the event that a customer trips over the leg of one of your tables and holds you responsible. In the UK, membership of the Federation of Market Traders comes with associated insurance. Membership doesn't provide much beyond this, but it is a useful and quick way of ensuring you have sufficient coverage.

And that's it. Stall rentals are often very low - sometimes as little as £30 a day. There are no employee costs, no building and decorating costs, no advertising costs, no utility bills, and most important of all, no recurring costs such as a whopping monthly rent bill.

If a particular market is not working out for you, you pack up, move on, and try out a different location with different customers the following week. It really is that simple.

Which type of market trading should I try?

The easiest form of market trading to start with is car boot sales. A proportion of the sellers at each car boot sale will be new sellers, unsure of what they are doing or where to go, so starting here should not be that daunting. However, car boot sales are not great places to sell jewellery. Customers who visit car boot sales are looking for bargains. They often are unwilling to pay the true value of items, and so cannot be relied upon to bring in real profits.

So why do I recommend you start here?

You need to get a feel for markets and market selling. You need to become comfortable turning up at a new location with a car full of jewellery and setting up in the early morning. And you need to get used to talking to customers about your jewellery. You will meet a lot of people at car boot sales, and many of them will stop and browse your selection. The downside is, they won't buy.

I'm telling you this as clearly as I can, because you need to understand the mentality of car boot buyers, and not assume that they are a true reflection of consumers as a whole. You could very easily visit a car boot sale, set up your little stall, stand in the cold all morning and into the afternoon, talk to hundreds of women, many of whom love your jewellery, and sell absolutely nothing.

Be prepared for this.

What you should take from two or three car boot sales is the experience of setting up, and the knowledge that lots of women have liked what you are selling. What you should not do is draw false conclusions that lead you to assume you are overpriced, or that your jewellery business will simply not work.

Try the car boot sales, make very little money, and then move on to the craft fairs or the summer or Christmas fairs. Use the car boots as a training ground, and then graduate to the real markets. This is where the money is.

After you've done a few fairs, and made some real sales, you might want to look into regular weekly markets, but you don't need to do this straight away. The variety of fairs and events occurring each year is huge, and you can make a good living solely from selling at these events.

Starting out as a market trader is cheap and easy. Initial outlay is little more than stock and display items. You can test the market without re mortgaging your home, and you are not committed to your business for any length of time if it proves to be unsuccessful. It might not impress your mother in law, and you are unlikely to feature in the local newspaper, but these are the only real downsides.

What if you feel intimidated by crowds and cold mornings? What if the outdoor life is simply not for you? You could try the Jewellery Party route.