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10 Things Selling in a Flea Market Taught Me about Business – Part 1
Lynn Serafinn shares what she learned in her 20 years in the open-air markets of the American southwest and shows how it can inform today’s ethical entrepreneur. Part 1 of 3.
Today’s my birthday. I’m 59. I’ve never been the kind of woman who lies about her age. Quite the contrary, I’ve always looked forward to becoming one year older, and I love the shining silver strands running through my hair.
Something happens when you get to be a ‘woman of a certain age’. You look back on your life and realise you’ve learned a heck of a lot, and sometimes from the most unlikely places. One weird thing I did for nearly 20 years – and which I rarely talk about – is work in open-air ‘flea markets’ (also called ‘swap meets’) in the American southwest. It was my (now former) husband who inaugurated me into that world back in the early 1980s. We worked on Saturdays and Sundays from early in the morning until late afternoon. This was a way we could support ourselves while maintaining a decidedly Bohemian lifestyle of recording music, rehearsing with our band and playing gigs in the evenings. As time went on, we also started to sell on Friday mornings and Wednesday evenings. If you add to that the fact that Tuesdays became our inventory and ordering days, and Friday afternoons our delivery and restocking days, our artisans’ lifestyle eventually started to take more and more of a back-seat to our swap meet enterprise. Somehow I had become an ‘accidental’ salesperson.
Looking back on it, I realise now that I seriously used to underrate (and undervalue) what those formative years as a ‘hippie-preneur’ taught me. As musicians, we tended to view anything to do with money or business as ‘tainted’ – an attitude that undoubtedly resulted in so many Bohemian types staying stuck as ‘starving artists’ throughout much of their lives. But now, as someone who embraces my ‘whole life’ the same way I embrace my greying hair, I can see how my 20 years working in the often unforgiving weather of the Texas and Arizona swap meets gave me invaluable experience, instincts and (dare I say it) wisdom about business.
So as I begin my last year as a ’50-something’, I thought it would be interesting to share 10 important lessons I learned from selling in flea markets, which can be applied to any business – from retail to service provision, from bricks-and-mortar to online enterprise. In today’s article, which is Part 1 of 3, we’ll be looking at the first 5 of these lessons.
Lesson 1: Know Your Audience
One of the things that made me a good ‘salesperson’ (although I would have shuddered at the word, had you called me that back then) was the fact that I really knew my customers, their preferences and their tastes. Over the course of 20 years, we sold everything from printed t-shirts, to ‘knock-off’ designer perfumes and framed lithograph art prints. I got to a point where, simply upon seeing a person approaching our stand, I could predict precisely what they were going to ask for (or know exactly what to suggest to them, if they didn’t know what they were looking for). By looking at a person’s age, ethnicity, clothing and overall demeanour, I could instantly direct them to an item I knew they would be interested in purchasing, with almost 100% accuracy. Try to imagine having the ability to look at a person and just ‘know’ which perfume they would prefer above all the other 100 fragrances you had on your display. Sometimes I would astound myself at how good I was at this.
You might think this sounds like I was being horribly stereotypical, but being able to do this is actually a very intuitive and interpersonal skill. The truth is that my customers nearly always fit into a definable ‘profile’, and certain profiles wanted certain products and were willing to spend within certain budgets. The better I became at being able to ‘read’ what they wanted before they told me, the better and more efficiently I was able to serve them. When customers feel ‘served’ they feel understood; and when customers feel understood, they return when they need something else.
I could also tell, even before they passed by my stand, who was NOT likely to purchase. I would let most of those people pass with a smile and a ‘good morning’. But sometimes, I thought one of these ‘non-customers’ looked interesting, so I would strike up a casual conversation with them. Many of the other vendors didn’t bother with such chit-chat, thinking it was simply a waste of energy to spend time on people who weren’t going to buy anything. But often, because I had taken time to engage with them, many of these non-customers would also end up buying something. Many would come back week after week just to have another chat, always making a purchase before they left our stall. Over time, the more I got to know them, the more I could offer them new products that would complement what I knew they already owned.
The Bigger Lesson: The MOST important thing a business owner or marketer needs to know is who their audience/customers are. Knowing our audience is not simply a matter of describing them demographically, but understanding their taste, their values and their life motivators. Whether you provide a product or a service, knowing these things in detail and at a gut level is essential to being able to provide the right offer to the right customer/client. This is why, when I work with clients or we train people on our courses, we spend so much time trying to gain a deeper understanding of their audience.
Lesson 2: Maintain Cash Flow
Remember the Rubik’s Cube craze in the early 1980s? My former father-in-law, who was also a flea marketer, saw the fad as an opportunity to make a lot of money. So, he invested $25,000 in ‘authentic’ Rubik’s Cubes, believing he’d landed them at a great price and that he’d be able to move the lot of them quickly at a high profit margin. What he didn’t anticipate was that a bunch of Taiwanese Rubik’s Cube wannabe companies would flood the market with cheap imitations that were retailing at far less than he had paid wholesale for his own Rubik’s Cubes. It didn’t matter that his were the original brand and the others were fake; people didn’t really care when it came to the Rubik’s Cube. The result was that his money was tied up in ‘dead stock’, which limited his ability to buy items that actually would sell. Even though he eventually moved the ill-fated cubes at a severe loss, it took a long time for him to recover from this short-sighted ‘get rich quick’ investment (and for years he had a mountain of Rubik’s Cubes in his barn).
The Bigger Lesson: Entrepreneurs know that you need to spend money to make money. However, it’s important to ensure a healthy cashflow in your business. This is just as applicable to non-retail businesses as it is to retailers. If you spend on a fancy website (or hire a marketing consultant – like me!), make sure you have also designed a marketing strategy that will ensure it gives you a ‘return’. If you hire admin help, make sure you are using the time it frees up for you to create more products or meet with more customers so you are attracting more income into your business. If you spend lots of time blogging, be sure it speaks to a definable audience, and underpins a viable business.
Lesson 3: Be Flexible
One of the biggest things I learned from being in the flea market was to be flexible. Trends that were huge one week would suddenly fall flat on their faces the next. The people I saw fail in the flea market were those who continued to flog the proverbial ‘dead horse’ by refusing to change their product line when it was no longer making any money for them. These kinds of people would always grumble about customers, about the economy and about the flea market itself; they simply couldn’t grasp the fact that buying trends always change and they needed to change with them if they were to stay in business.
The Bigger Lesson: Good retailers learn how to be flexible, but what about the visionary entrepreneur who is providing a value-driven service to society? How can the visionary learn how to be flexible while adhering to their values and keeping the vision intact? The challenge in such a case is to be able to see the difference between our vision and how we deliver it to the world. For example, I once had a client who couldn’t figure out why his leadership training courses had suddenly taken a nose-dive after years of success. There was nothing ‘wrong’ with my client’s service or with his vision. But, trends will inevitably change over time. People will develop different expectations and needs. Changes in technology, the economy and the simple passage of time can make our products and services less relevant to our customers, even if the vision is still relevant. The way to vitalise a flagging enterprise such as this may not be to inject more into marketing or to get a new website, but rather to revisit the vision to see how it may have shifted in today’s world. Sticking rigidly in one place when the world is calling for a change can make even the most noble of visions dissolve.
Lesson 4: Know When to ‘Deal’ and Not to ‘Deal’
Back in the flea market, I developed an instinct about when it was appropriate (or inappropriate) to offer a customer a ‘deal’. Offering a discount on multiple purchases was commonplace in the market, but it was not necessarily a ‘given’. Price haggling was also much more common (if not the expectation) amongst certain groups, while almost unheard of in others. For example, if I did not allow my Mexican, Vietnamese or Ethiopian customers to ‘negotiate’ prices with me, they would simply walk away and I would lose their sales entirely. In sharp contrast, Japanese tourists and Anglo-American men seemed to believe they would insult me (or look like misers) if they paid less than full price, no matter how many items they bought. Sometimes the men wouldn’t even stick around to get their change!
The Bigger Lesson: There are no fixed ‘rules’ about offering ‘deals’ and discounts, and don’t let any marketer tell you differently. They change according to context. For example, I think my accountant would find it amusing (or insulting) if I asked him to give me one free tax return for every nine I bought at full price. At the other end of the spectrum, offering ‘deals’ on multiple purchases can often be used as a high-pressure tactic to coerce a customer into spending more than they actually need (a common practice in supermarkets and amongst old-school internet marketers). Don’t fall into this pattern simply because ‘it’s what other people do’. Deals and discounts don’t automatically result in more sales or happier customers; they can actually end up making your customers feel manipulated and cause them to question the quality of your offering. Learn the ‘culture’ of your professional practice and don’t be tempted to follow cookie-cutter sales strategies.
Lesson 5: Understand Your Profit Margins
Back when I was selling in the flea market, I knew how much every single item cost me, and how much mark-up I had on each. This knowledge told me exactly how much money I needed to make every week, how much leeway I had when offering discounts, how much headroom I had to account for damaged goods, how quickly I needed to turn around products, which products I needed to invest in the most, etc.
The Bigger Lesson: These days, like many other social entrepreneurs and online marketers, most of my ‘products’ (apart from my books) are intangibles, i.e. services. In my case, these services include things like courses, consulting, copywriting, social media support, etc. But these intangibles also have a ‘profit margin’ to them, just as physical products do. Your overhead includes things like your website, your hired help, your computer, your software applications, etc. But most of all, your costs include the time you put into product development as well as delivery. All of these need to be calculated into your pricing, so you have a good handle on how your business is actually doing. Too many solo-preneurs I know look only at their ‘time for money’ figures. That is to say, they think ‘I’m getting paid $100 an hour, so that’s good.’ But they fail to take into consideration the actual expense of what they are offering, and the turnover they need to make the business function in a smooth, sustainable way. Without this kind of thinking, service providers are likely to be continuously chasing their tails, constantly trying to make ends meet in their businesses.
Coming Up Next Time
I hope you liked some of my flea market reflections, and can appreciate the lessons I’ve taken away from them. Next time in Part 2, I’ll be sharing the next 2 lessons I learned from my dusty days in the swap meet. After that, I’ll round of the series in Part 3 with the final 3 lessons.
I hope you’ll swing by and give it a read. So you don’t miss it, you might want to subscribe to the 7 Graces blog via the form at the top of this page.
Do share your thoughts, experiences and reflections in the comments below!
28th January 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: 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 #
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 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.
(not just for Londoners, as we meet also on Skype)