10 Things Selling in a Flea Market Taught Me about Business – Part 3

10 Things Selling in a Flea Market Taught Me about Business (Part 3)

Lynn Serafinn shares what she learned about ethical business and marketing during her nearly 20 years running a market stall in American swap meets.

Last week, I took a trip down memory lane and started writing about my experiences running a retail business in the open-air markets of the American southwest. So far, the lessons we’ve talked about are:

  1. Know Your Audience
  2. Maintain Cash Flow
  3. Be Flexible
  4. Know When to ‘Deal’ and Not to ‘Deal’
  5. Understand Your Profit Margins
  6. Have a Diversity of Sources/Suppliers
  7. Balance Prices with Quality and Service

If you missed either of the first two parts of this series, you can read them by clicking these links:

Today is the final instalment of this 3-part series, where we’ll be looking at the last 3 of the ‘top 10’ business lessons I learned during those years.

Lesson 8: Work with the Natural Rhythm of Sales

We live in a rhythmic world. The rhythm of the Earth rotating around the Sun brings us the four seasons. There is a seasonal rhythm to the supply of our food (although refrigeration and global transportation has made many of us less aware of this that we were in the past).

Business is also rhythmic. There are times of year when people buy a lot, and times when they don’t. There are times of year when some products sell more than others. While this may seem self-evident, it’s important for businesses to find, and work with, the natural rhythm of sales so their company stays afloat. For example, when I used to sell in Phoenix – where temperatures are commonly between 105 – 125 degrees Fahrenheit (40-50 Celsius) for one-third of the year – outdoor sales would plummet as soon as the Easter holidays were over, picking up again around October. Many vendors who were unaccustomed to this rhythm would complain and suffer financially during those hot months. However, those of us who were ‘veterans’ learned how to maintain a rhythm in our businesses. I did this by over-stocking our merchandise in April, knowing we probably wouldn’t have the cash flow to replenish stock until September. This meant we had to put a lot of merchandise into storage as business was always very slow over the summer, but it also meant we wouldn’t run out of stock, and we would be able to survive as we wouldn’t be putting money back INTO the business for a few months. Had we not been able to dance to the rhythm of the sales, we would have gone out of business.

The Bigger Lesson: All businesses – not just retail ones – have a financial rhythm. Unless we understand that rhythm and learn how to dance with it, we will find ourselves struggling to keep our business afloat. For example, retail sales might take a dip after Christmas, but businesses that offer coaching, training or consulting services might experience ‘surges’ in their business just after the New Year, and again just after the summer holidays (at the beginning of the school year). Traditionally, these are the times of year when many people want to make a fresh start or learn new skills. Conversely, there will be other times of year – such as leading up to the Christmas season or over the summer holidays – when these kinds of services tend to be less in demand.

Obviously, unlike a retail business, you can’t ‘stock up’ on merchandise during the slow seasons. But what you can do during those leaner months is catch up on back-office work and cut BACK on business expenses. You can also budget your money throughout the year so that you always have a few months’ worth of income stored away to cover the months when you know business will be slower.

Those into natural health tell us that ‘eating with the seasons’ is part of the formula for staying healthy. Similarly, ‘spending with the seasons’ keeps our businesses healthy.

Lesson 9: Give People What THEY Want

One of the Twitter tips in my book Tweep-e-licious! is ‘Give People What They Want, Not What You Want to Give Them. As simple as this lesson might sound on the surface, I think many business owners find it difficult to master. What often gets in our way is a distorted sense of ego and a desire to control.

This was an especially challenging lesson for me in the early 90s when we used to sell UK and European records to Arizona DJs. This was at the peak of the ‘rave era’ and our DJ customers spun at local clubs, urban parties and desert raves. Originally, we had this grand notion that we could transform the local music scene by ‘converting’ the DJs to a more ‘underground’ kind of taste. But after spending a lot of money on the kind of music WE liked, we realised the error of our thinking. We had been listening to the music with musicians’ ears rather than DJs’ ears. The DJs didn’t want to be ‘converted’ to anything; they just wanted the best ‘floor-fillers’ for their Saturday night set. They knew exactly what would work on the dance floor and what would not. They knew what they could mix easily with other tracks and what would bring the energy to a screeching halt. In short, we thought we ‘knew better’ but we didn’t.

From that experience, I learned a valuable lesson in ‘ego’. I realised that our ‘DJ service’ was not so much a service as it was a vehicle for us to share (or even show off) our own musical tastes. We finally became a service when we set aside our own preferences and started listening to what our customers said.

The Bigger Lesson: If we are to run a successful business, we MUST be in dialogue with our customers. If we do not listen to what they tell us, we will go out of business very quickly. I’ve seen this happen in many a retail shop, where the owners stock up on items that they like, but which have no widespread appeal to the public.

This is not only relevant in retail. Even when customers/clients hire us as advisors, coaches or consultants, we cannot assume that we know what is best for them. My clients and I don’t always agree on everything. In such scenarios, I present my ‘case’ as best I can, but ultimately they are the directors of their own destiny. All I can do is express my opinion and then let them decide.

At this point, you might be asking, ‘But how can I be true to myself and run an “authentic” business if I’m supposed to set aside my own tastes, values and preferences?’

The answer is: you’re not supposed to set aside any of those things. However, if I were to start noticing that the majority of my clients disagreed with the advice I gave them, I would have to ask myself whether or not I am reaching the right audience. The first place to look would be my branding and marketing. Is there an incongruity between them and what I am actually offering? If so, it would be my responsibility to reconsider how I might reach clients who are more congruent with what I actually wanted to deliver.

If you find you’re continually having to give people what you DON’T want to give them, remember this:

  • It’s not your customers’ fault.
  • It’s not your fault.
  • However, it IS your responsibility to rectify the mis-match.

Lesson 10: Know When to Cut Your Losses and Grow Something Else

Remember the old 1988 song ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ by Bobby McFerrin? Well, the Christmas season when that song was popular we were selling ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ sweatshirts at the flea market. They sold like hot cakes, and we kept placing more and more orders as they were flying off the shelves as quickly as we bought them.

But the company from which we bought that particular line of sweatshirts required us to buy in pre-sorted sizes and mixed colours. This meant, for every dozen we ordered, we’d get 2 smalls, 4 mediums, 4 larges and 2 extra-larges, in a variety of colours. As you might imagine, the largest sizes always sold the most quickly. Also, certain colours were notoriously bad sellers – especially ‘gold’ (which was a fancy name for egg-yolk orange). In spite of strong sales during the Christmas season, come January we found ourselves with over 100 small, gold ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ sweatshirts. Aside from this size/colour combination being the absolute worst it could possibly be, the song was already starting to wane in popularity, and there was perhaps only one month left to ‘sweatshirt season’ in the Arizona desert. As we had paid about $5 per sweatshirt, this meant we suddenly had more than $500 of ‘dead stock’ (close to $1000 in today’s currency).

As there was no way to put away the sweatshirts for another year and sell them the following winter (as nobody would want them!), we decided to liquidate the dead stock right away by selling it far BELOW what we paid for them. So, we threw down a tarpaulin and made a mountain of small, gold sweatshirts, price marked $1. They all went within two weeks. While we took a ‘loss’ of over $400, we reinvested that money into stock that would sell quickly, thus keeping the cash flow going. Had we tried to recoup all the money we had spent on them, there was a good chance we would have still taken a loss AND be stuck having to store or recycle all those unsold sweatshirts.

The Bigger Lesson: Sometimes, in spite of your best efforts, a business venture goes belly-up. It could be just a part of your business or the whole enchilada. If you’re a very determined person, the temptation is to keep on flogging the proverbial ‘dead horse’ in hopes of resurrecting things. But sometimes, it’s best to cut your losses and put your money, time and efforts into something else that will grow.

I had this happen when I ran a community group called the Global Wellness Circle. It was costing me more money (and time) than it was making. No matter how wonderful it was when it first started, after two years it was getting in the way of my own personal growth and business success. Letting it go and focusing my attention on the emerging energy at the time was the best business decision I could have made.

Knowing when it is time to ‘dig your heels in’ and when it is time to let go and cut your losses is a vital part of entrepreneurial survival. Learning how to be unattached – while maintaining your passion for achieving your vision – is what will keep you in business in the long term.

Closing Thoughts

So that’s it. Those are the top 10 lessons that I learned from working in flea markets (well…the DJ excursion was more out of our home than in the flea market; it’s too hot to sell vinyl in the desert). I hope you were at least entertained by some of the stories, and perhaps could relate them to your own business experience.

As I said last time, I do thrive on your feedback, please share your thoughts, experiences and reflections in the comments below.

FYI, this Wednesday, we start our regular weekly column of articles by members of our 7 Graces community. This week, we’ll be hearing from corporate consultant Cindy Barnes, who will be talking about how emotions are now vital to business success in the modern world. Be sure to subscribe to the 7 Graces blog in the form above so you don’t miss it.

Lynn Serafinn
3rd February 2014

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Find out more about how changing the paradigm can help make the world a better place:

The 7 Graces of Marketing BOOK COVER The 7 Graces of Marketing: how to heal humanity and the planet by changing the way we sell, by Lynn Serafinn, where you can learn how the 7 Deadly Sins and the 7 Graces impact the world through media and marketing. Brit Writers Awards Finalist eLit Book Awards Silver Medal in Humanitarian & Ecological Social Issues


Tweep-e-licious: 158 Twitter Tips & Strategies for Writers, Social Entrepreneurs & Changemakers Who Want to Market Their Business Ethically by Lynn Serafinn, which can help you learn how to create meaningful collaborations through Twitter and other social media. eLit Book Awards Bronze Medal in Business and Sales.

Get instant access to a free 90-minute Twitter marketing class at http://tweepelicious.com

The Social Entrepreneur's Guide to Successful BloggingComing later in 2014

The Social Entrepreneur’s Guide to Successful Blogging: An Effective, Creative & Ethical Way of Marketing for Visionaries & New Paradigm Business Leaders. To receive an update when that book is available, just click here. As a thank-you gift for showing your interest, you’ll get instant access to an exclusive, free 5-page PDF revealing the exact same blogging template we use with our clients and we teach to participants on the ethical marketing training courses at the 7 Graces Project.

Lynn Serafinn author of The 7 Graces of Marketing LYNN SERAFINN, MAED, CPCC is a certified, award-winning coach, teacher, marketer, social media expert, radio host, speaker and author of the number one bestseller The 7 Graces of Marketing — How to Heal Humanity and the Planet by Changing the Way We Sell and Tweep-e-licious! 158 Twitter Tips & Strategies for Writers, Social Entrepreneurs & Changemakers Who Want to Market their Business Ethically. She is listed in the Top 20 of the Top Marketing Authors on Twitter by Social Media Magazine and was a finalist for the prestigious Brit Writers Awards. She also received the eLit Book Awards Silver Medal in Humanitarian and Ecological Social Affairs, as well as the Bronze Medal in Business and Sales. Lynn’s eclectic approach to marketing incorporates her vast professional experience in the music industry and the educational sector along with more than two decades of study and practice of the spirituality of India. Her innovative marketing campaigns have produced a long list of bestselling non-fiction authors through her company Spirit Authors.

Lynn is also the Founder of the 7 Graces Project CIC, a not-for-profit social enterprise created to train, support, mentor and inspire independent business owners to market their business ethically, serve society and planet, and restore all that is best about humanity.

7 Graces Project CIC

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