Sunday, 13 January 2013

To buy or not to buy....sourcing stock

Once you have traded at a couple of fairs and had good results, you are probably ready to widen your horizons.  Perhaps you are thinking of trading at more fairs or even taking a unit in a centre.  Hopefully, you have got the bug and sooner or later will be going out on buying trips. And if you do a regular fair, your loyal customers will relish seeing a few new items each time.  This adds to the excitement of your stall and keeps it fresh.  As a rough guide,  I try to change my stock with at least 50 % new items at a regular fair - I keep back the older stock for my unit or for other fairs.  Or, if I can't manage to buy new stock, I vary how I arrange my display and give prominence to different items.

Finding good quality, reasonably priced stock is a constant challenge - you can spend every day looking or just a couple of hours a week if you are time limited.  There are many sources for buying stock, some more reliable and fruitful than others.  You can go far and wide, even abroad, to find pieces, but to start off with these are a few possible avenues to explore:

Buying at auctions is a relatively hassle-free way of buying, but not always at bargain prices.  Many of the auction lots will not be suitable or be within your budget.  But it's possible to buy a lot of items at one sale, saving you time and money, if you think of the cost of driving to a lot of different places.  Auctions can be found all over the UK and are often advertised in local papers as well as in the Antique Trades Gazette website and newspaper (  The Gazette has an extensive list of major auctions and fairs across the country. Also,  look out for the small, one-off sales that might not get widely advertised - charity auctions or house sales.  Many auctions allow on-line bidding or you can leave bids before the sale if you can't attend; location is no bar to bidding at most sales.  But bear in mind the cost of having items delivered if you are not close enough to collect them yourself.

Do try to go along and view the sale before it starts; most auction houses allocate several days to view in advance or at least an hour before the sale begins.  This is your chance to check over the items you want to buy very carefully.  If there are big lots of grouped items try to go through the boxes and see how much is damaged.  Damaged stock, unless very rare or unusual, does not sell well and you could end up losing money if you are not careful.  And you might find something really good in a big mixed lot, with any luck you might be the only one who spots it.  I used to love buying these big mixed lots for a few pounds.  These days, with online bidding, geographical location is no bar to buying so prices have gone up in many cases.  But the general sales can yield some great finds.

Many years ago I used to attend a Saturday auction in Romford - an eclectic mix of old and new items were sold there.  It was a great afternoon's entertainment, with a real East End wide boy auctioning off the lots in an old shack.  I spotted a Clarice Cliff dish, which at first glance looked damaged.  The "damage" was actually just paper labels that had stuck to the surface which could easily be cleaned off.   The auctioner was even going to miss out the lot, until I expressed some interest.  I secured the dish for a very low price and quickly sold it on at a great profit, having cleaned off the labels.  It really does pay to look at things carefully and not be in a rush.

To avoid auction fever, you can leave bids at the sale and then you will not be tempted to over-bid.  If you do go along, try to set an upper limit and stick with it - it is easy to get carried away. If you are bidding against a private buyer, they won't be thinking about re-sale value and often pay over the odds for something they really want.  Plus with a buyer's premium of 10-15% on top, you will pay more than your final bid if you secure the lot.  The disadvantage of not being at the auction is that you can miss some great bargains and buy them ad hoc.  If you are successful, you must collect your items within a few days and pay all the costs inclding buyer's premium.  I am told there are some great country auctions in Devon and Cornwall and also Wales, where you can come away with boxes of great things for little money! If you are holidaying in rural areas, it is worth asking about local auctions and sales - you might get lucky and stumble on one! Even agricultural auctions can yield some interesting items, in amongst the tractors, equipment and even livestock.

Car boot sales
Another great source of stock is from car boot sales and garage sales.  Buying successfully at boot sales requires perseverance and a lot of luck.  You are bound to find a boot sale close to home all over the UK.  There are lots of websites listing boot sales and your local free papers will probably carry advertisements for them, too.  Bear in mind more people go to boot sales on a Sunday than church! there will be alot of competing buyers looking for the same kinds of things as you.  Opinions vary on when to get the best bargains.  Some say get there as early as possible for the best pickings; others arrive later and find the items that get put out after the first rush.  I prefer the earlybird attack - a challenge  in the winter when it is too dark to see what you are buying, so take a torch.  Boot sales are frenetic and exciting, especially if you have never been to one before.  There are a few basics to consider;
  • if you like an item pick it up or hold on to it while making up your mind - otherwise someone may jump in and buy it in front of you;   
  • haggling over prices is totally acceptable and expected - and cash is king; people rarely accept cheques so take plenty of money including small change so you are not kept waiting if sellers don't have change ready at hand;
  • as the seller opens their boot,  ask them if they have the particular type of items you seek -  they may only have modern household stuff or clothes and you could be wasting time waiting for them to unload.  Also, if you ask and they do have something, you have a chance of seeing it first;  if you spot something in their boot of interst, ask if you can see the item when it comes out;
  • I always ask if I can look through boxes if they are unpacking very slowly - some sellers get very angry if you rummage without asking and manners cost nothing.  Sadly, some people are very rude and pushy at boot sales, and I have seen arguments and even fights break out.  By being polite and friendly you will stay out of these situations.

By attending a specific boot sale on a regular basis, you will get to know the regular sellers and the best sources of your kind of stock.   It is helpful to get to know the regulars and some may even look out for stuff for you or keep things back, if you are a regular buyer and willing to pay a fair price.

Everything and anything eventually turns up at a car boot sale - but it is a case of buyer beware.  There are fakes around and even experienced dealers get caught out.  A very experienced kitchenalia dealer I know bought a piece of Cornish Ware which she thought was rare, for a few pounds. On checking the Internet, it turned out that the item had been faked and she had been unlucky enough to buy it.  But there are some amazing finds too -  I know of one specialist in Chinese art who found a small ceramic bowl, which later sold for over £30,000 at Christies auction house!  

Try and spot the sellers who are having a genuine clear out or selling off granny's bits and pieces, amongst the regular traders.  Their items will be new to the market and not have done the rounds of every boot sale in the county. The first-time or novice seller is often a bit slow to unpack and maybe a bit disorganised, but being patient and polite can yield results.  House clearance stalls can be good for inexpensive and unusual finds amongst the rows of boxes and crates.  The good stuff is often sold before the van is unloaded to regulars, but there is still a chance of finding a bargain or two.

Haggling is fine, but if you make a really cheeky offer, don't be surprised if you get a short and pithy response.  One trader I know smashed up a table in front of a buyer who kept on trying to haggle him down on price - he got so fed up with her, he made his point in very dramatic fashion!  I've seen sellers smash a piece of china rather than sell it too cheap.  You do get allsorts at car boot sales, so be prepared for anything.

Boot sales usually run on Saturdays and Sundays, but there are a few sales in the week, particularly during the summer. These can be less competitive and a bit more relaxed.  You will soon find the boot sales that you like and get to know the traders. It's a fun way to pass a morning and buy some exciting new stock.

Garage/house sales
Garage sales and house sales are getting quite popular in the UK, particularly when people are moving. Householders lay out their wares in their garage, garden or driveway and buyers come to the house for the event.  Usually the sale is only advertised locally or even just on posters and signs on the day - keep your eyes peeled for these.  Canny dealers get there early or sometimes the day before, to bag the bargains.  If a phone number is published, I usually ring to find out what is on sale and if I can come along early.  If it is just household stuff with nothing much else, I may not rush along.  But even then, it may be worth a look - people often don't know what they have got and their idea of old rubbish might be your idea of a bargain buy. In some places a group of houses, even a whole village, will hold a collective sale when any householder can put out a stall and sell in their driveway.

Jumble and rummage sales
In the 70s and 80s, I used to haunt local jumble sales and get some extraordinary bargains.  I bought vintage clothes and textiles for a few coppers as well as old books, pictures, china and old toys.  I would queue for an hour before the sale started to be at the front of the pack.  The old hands would try and see through the gaps in the door or the window where the good stuff was set out to plan their attack.  As the doors opened, the pack would rush in like hounds chasing a fox.  With no time to look at every item closely, I would just grab the things that looked good and pile up my purchases.  Very satisfying to get three or four boxes of items for a few pounds.

Sadly, the days of the traditional jumble sale are pretty much over - jumbles are still held, but tend to be full of plastic, kids toys and poor quality clothing. There is an art to finding a good jumble - go for a  sale in a well-to-do village or market town , and an event organised by older volunteers.  I find Scout/Guide jumble sales, Conservative club, choir and church group sales, theatre groups, and sales for animal charities tend to have a good amount of quality items. 

Charity/thrift shops
Charity shops are another source to investigate. Nowadays, most charities are very clued up about the value of donated items and quite rightly, are trying to achieve the best price they can.  The aim of the shop is not to provide bargains for the public, but to raise funds for their cause.  I buy some lovely things from my local charity shops (or "Chazzas" as I think they now get called), but rarely for a bargain price.  But, if I can still make a little bit and have something unusual or interesting, plus help a good cause, then it's a win win situation.  Personally, I think it is completely out of order to haggle for goods in a charity shop - the exception might be if they have the item for a while or it is damaged, and they have not noticed this.  If you buy regularly from these shops, you might be given first option on your "wanted" items.  And if they do help you in this way, pay the good deed back and take your unwanted items to them to sell.  A few years back, I bought a 1960s Oz magazine for 50 p in a charity bookshop; I had an inkling this was a good find although not my normal type of item.  I sold it on Ebay for a considerable sum - but I did give the charity a donation of 25% of the final selling price. 

Buying privately
This can be a convenient way of buying wonderful things, without the competitive atmosphere of a boot sale or auction.   But I have had my hopes raised and dashed many times when I have been offered items on a private basis.  Sometimes the items have been poor quality, damaged and not as described when examined. But you can never tell.  I know people who buy very successfully from the free and classified ads in their local newspapers and online ads.  You need to be quick off the mark and able to travel around and view things at short notice.  Sellers don't want to wait for two or three days for you to come along and view.  Often bargain buys get hidden in the ads if they get put in the wrong category.

Or you can advertise in your local paper or put "Wanted to buy" cards in local shop windows. State what you want to buy and make sure it is easy for people to contact you by phone.  Don't put your address or any other personal information.  It is usual to pay in cash, but do get a receipt for the goods.  If you leave a deposit because you need to go back to pick items up, get a very clear list of what you have reserved or paid for.  Sometimes items get removed before you collect, and then you have paid for items that are not there.   If you do go to a private home to buy, please think about your personal safety.  Tell someone where you are going and when, or better still get someone to go with you and wait for you outside.  Verify the telephone number you are given by calling it back.  Alternatively, you can ask the seller to bring items to you - either at your home or at a fair.  To start with, I would try to buy from people who you know, or through contacts and referrals.  There are a few potential pitfalls buying this way - you could even end up with stolen goods. Buyer beware.

Many private sellers are coy about giving a price, as they want you to make an offer. And people often have inflated ideas of what their things are worth and expect a retail price or what they saw on an Internet auction or on the TV. The phrase "I can't be a buyer and a seller" comes in handy, but if they want an offer then you have to come up with a price.  I am assuming you are not an antiques specialist with any formal training, so this can be really tricky.  Try to work out the selling pricee for the item/s and then offer a percentage of this - probably between 30-50%.  Remember, you are buying wholesale, in order to achieve a retail price and a profit margin.   Be prepared not to buy on occasions and find a polite way of refusing things.  "It's not really what I sell, but it is a lovely/unusual/fun item" is a nice way of saying no.  If there is masses of stuff, you might have to buy it as a job lot.  Work out the overall sale value and how much of the job lot is stuff you simply won't be able to sell.  It's easy to get lumbered with lots of unsaleable stock and then have the bother of storing and transporting it.

Fairs and markets
One of the best fairs for traders to buy at is the wonderful Sunbury Antiques Fair ( held at Kempton race course twice a month.  This is a great event with loads of sellers, a huge range of stock at all prices,a  fantastic atmosphere and a worthwhile morning out!  It opens at 6.30 am and the dealers come in droves to buy.  Sellers from France, Germany, Holland and Italy can be found with some eye-catching and different items.  Come armed with plenty of cash, a trolley and a large vehicle to haul away your finds. As well as the trade, props buyers from film, theatre and TV, photographers, stylists, interior decoraters and garden designers are there to source wonderful things.   It's also a great fair to sell at once you become more adventurous.  Other excellent buying fairs include the group organised by IACF ( including Ardingly and Newark.  Newark is the biggest fair in Europe with several thousand stalls.

Local antique and vintage fairs can also yield great buys, although on a much smaller scale than the big trade fairs.  But easy enough to make a quick visit, and perhaps find one or two bargains. Plus, great for market research, ideas for display and to see your competitors at work.

Online auction sites
People tell me that it is possible to buy some fantastic things at online auctions.  This involves being a little bit clever and thinking outside of the box.  Anything fashionable and popular, correctly described and listed will probably not go cheap.  But, items that are listed with incorrect spelling may not come up on searches; items that are not attributed to a maker or mark that slip through the net but with diligence can be found.  Another trader told me that she buys items that only allow for personal collection - this can mean that many buyers out of area are deterred from bidding.  If you are willing to arrange a courier or collect yourself, you can sometimes get a good deal on these items.  If you have to pay postage, this can add a considerable amount to your costs and make an item unprofitable.  Nonetheless, the Internet auctions give you enormous scope to find unusual items.

Antique and vintage shops
Despite these being retail outlets, it is still possible to find good buys in shops.  Antiques centres and the old-fashioned junk shop can yield bargains.  Not every dealer is an expert in every item; you may find a lovely piece of glass on a stall that is mainly furniture.  The seller may not be that interested or aware of the value of the item, but you might know it is a very special piece and underpriced.  Again, visiting these shops is part of your education - getting an idea of what's popular and any trends or fashions in particular types of goods.

Buying for your antiques or vintage business can be one of the most exciting and enjoyable aspects of the process.  I still get a real thrill and buzz from finding a fantastic item at a bargain price.  Just the other day, I managed to buy an Arts and Crafts bookcase for £35 from a local shop.  Polished up, it looks lovely in my study but could also be re-sold for double what I paid.

The next chapter will focus on researching and pricing your stock.  In the meantime, happy hunting for those hidden treasures that are waiting to be discovered.


  1. Really enjoying reading your posts, it's great to get the inside track from an expert.


  2. Im so glad you have started this blog,i have just read all three of your articles back to back and feel a bit nearer to go with my dream which is to start a small business restoring furniture and selling vintage gardening stuff in particular.My main problem is location,i live in the North and in a very deprived town with virtually no interest in vintage!!! its been my main stumbling block to getting started,i think my best bet is to make contact with fellow vintagy people online which is how i found you! sorry for going on a bit but am loving your blog and will spread the word if i can xxx Justine.

  3. thank you both for your kind words...I am really enjoying writing about my passion and glad it is helpful and informative.