Flea Markets Thrive in Hard Times


A merchandising revolution spawned by the current economic recession can be seen all around America on Saturday and Sunday mornings, when parking lots and drive-in theaters become bustling flea markets.

Flea markets are old hat. What is new is the size of flea markets and the variety of goods sold. Rather than being sales outlets for second-hand goods, flea markets increasingly are selling the same merchandise as regular discount stores. Toiletries and cleaning agents, music and video cassettes, canned goods and hardware store items. Some even boast complete grocery stores.

Meanwhile, thrift shops are experiencing new popularity as consumers try to stretch the buying power of their dollars. Charitable and for-profit organizations operating such shops are increasingly moving to suburban shopping centers, reasoning that's where the customers are.

The strategy seems to be paying off. "Some people who never thought of buying used merchandise are hunting for second-hand things," reports David Cooney, president of Goodwill Industries of America, a major nationwide thrift-shop operator.

These merchandising trends underscore that today's Americans have rediscovered cost-consciousness. Not only that. If they no longer need something, they are likely to think twice about throwing it away. Yard sales are in vogue again. As a result, donations of second-hand goods to charitable resale organizations are down, even though a tax credit often can be claimed for such contributions.

The area's major weekend flea markets -- near Eastpoint Mall, at Patapsco Avenue and Annapolis Road, and near Westview Cinemas -- are a diversion for thousands of bargain hunters. But many of the merchants seem to view those markets not as a leisure-time activity but as a source of essential income. At Patapsco Avenue, in particular, second-hand goods are a distinct sideline to stalls that sell brand-new merchandise.

Flea markets still may be a way to do some redecorating at home or pick up some used tools. But for many Baltimore-area residents they have become one more place to do comparison-shopping for cleaning agents and paper towels.

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