Show Business | Buying To Sell

Marian ParsonsRunning a Business74 Comments

 As I was preparing for Lucketts, I received some e-mails and comments from a few of my readers who are fellow antique dealers.  They were interested in knowing how I select what I buy to sell.  The short answer is…I shop for myself.

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I know that’s sort of a fluffy answer, but it’s true.  I buy what I would love to have in my own home.  It’s worth more to me if I love it.  Does that make sense?  If I only sold things I was “eh” about, I wouldn’t be very proud of my booth or shop.  If I sell things that give me a little pain to put a tag on…well, then I’m on the right track.


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So, more specifically, what do I look for in things I buy?  How can you translate my philosophy if you’re a dealer?


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  1. As I said, buy what you love.  I think that is the most important thing, because then your personal style will be shown in your space and people who love your style will be drawn in.  
  2. Look for pieces that are special.  This doesn’t mean that the piece is rare and expensive, but something that will stand out. A warm patina on a piece of wood, a pretty monogram on a textile, chippy paint, cool typography, great texture…something that makes the piece decorative, unique and desirable.
  3.  Be particular.  It can be easy, especially when you’re shopping in a crunch, to buy things just to fill your booth, space or shop, but it’s important to be choosy.  It might not make sense, but I’ll give away stuff I don’t like before I put it in my space to sell.  I don’t want a piece that’s not my style to distract from the pieces that are my style.  Remember – you’re selling your look/style/brand, not just stuff.
  4. It has to be profitable.  I know this one can be tough when you’re shopping for things you love.  What’s a good price for you as a buyer might not be good enough for you as a retailer.  You have to look for things that allow you to make money without inflating the price beyond market value.  I shoot for doubling the price, but sometimes it’s more and sometimes it’s less.  This is definitely not an exact business  Not for me, anyways.  Now, there are exceptions to the profit rule.  Sometimes I will buy things that I break even on or only make a dollar or two in order to fill my space.  With big profits made on some things and good profits made on others, it all evens out.  I try not to get too hyper about each individual item, but look at the big picture.
  5. Mix it up.  I know that some people have specialties, but, as a general rule, it’s nice to have a variety of items at different price points.  I make more on larger pieces, obviously, but the little things really add up and it’s definitely worth the time to focus on the smalls.  The ironstone pieces flew out of my space at Lucketts and I sold every single roll of upholstery webbing (and I had a lot of both!)
  6. Think through the display.  This really helps me with deciding what to buy.  I always look for baskets, crates, cool boxes, larger bowls, etc. that I can fill with small things.  If I have a lot of smalls, I need surfaces to set them on, so I make sure I have enough tables and dressers.  I look for baskets for lavender, upholstered pieces for pillows, shelving for ironstone, etc.  I never know how it’s all going to look, but I do have a rough plan in my mind of how things are going to work together in a cohesive display.
  7. Buy “like” items.  Displays are stronger when you can group things together that have something in common…color, style, function, etc.  A bunch of random things can be confusing to the eye and makes it harder for shoppers to spot things they’re interested in.  I usually group by theme and/or color.  At Lucketts this year, I had a school/office/red/white/black/wood section.  A red & white nautical flag was the backdrop for a wood table/desk, red desk chair, with a school desk and red metal stool beside.  Trophies, typewriters, blackboards, leather books, alphabet cards, etc. rounded things out.  Make sense?
  8. DSC_9726 (640x424)Inspect what you buy.  It’s such a bummer when you get a piece home and you realize it reeks of smoke or has a leg that wobbles beyond repair or a handle that was glued on in a sloppy manner.  Imperfections that you miss might make it impossible to sell a piece for a profit, so take the time to look everything over very well.
  9. Buy what gives you butterflies.  This may be redundant, but I view “buy what you love” as more of a general statement…like I love ironstone, Empire dressers and French chairs, so I buy those whenever I can.  Buying what gives you butterflies or giggles or goosebumps or whatever means to follow your gut.  When you’re excited about a piece and paranoid that other people are going to buy it before you make your mind up…buy it!  Trust your instincts.  I used to hesitate on purchases like these, because they’re usually impulsive and usually higher priced items, but I’ve learned to jump on it and not second guess myself.  The pieces that get me all a-flutter usually cause the biggest stir on my blog and sell the fastest in my space.  DSC_9820 (510x640)
  10. You never know what people will buy.  You wouldn’t believe some of the things I have put a price tag on.  It’s all stuff that I like, but I wonder if anyone else will.  This year, I sold the scraps cut off the barn door used as the top for the farm table.  They were cool, old, tongue and groove wood pieces, about 6″ long, and I thought I’d give it a try.  I sold them for $1.00/each and only have about 5 left out of about 30 that I brought.  I would love to see what people do with them!  I also included a “mystery item” this year that was a bundle of grain sack scraps from the pillows I made.  I sold the bundle for $1.00 as well and figured anyone who bought that bundle was a special person.  Someone who sees potential in little things.  Someone who’s an optimist.  I happened to write up the sales ticket for the woman who bought it and I smiled as I wrote it up and told her she was purchasing the “mystery item.”  Everyone who read about it on my blog cheered and, having not read my blog, she looked bewildered.  I apologized for the lack of confetti cannons and then told her she had $20 off her purchase for buying the mystery item.  For seeing the potential in my fabric scraps.  You really never know what people will buy.  I’m not saying to put a bunch of lame stuff in you space, but it’s okay to try things out and let your customers decide…and have a little fun with it.  

I know a lot of this advice is “soft advice” that might not make sense to people who are black and white about things, but this is the best way I can express how I buy to sell.

It works for me and I hope it works for you!

Show Business | Buying To Sell

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74 Comments on “Show Business | Buying To Sell”

  1. Thank you so much, Marian, for being so user friendly. I can’t tell you the number of DIYers I have contacted with random questions or just compliments and gotten nothing but silence from. It is exceedingly rare to find someone so willing to share their road to success. I hope to be as helpful to others as well…:)

  2. This was an excellent post! I whole heartily agree with running a resale business this way. Sticking to what YOU love will absolutely draw a following and faithful clients/friends. I think people love seeing YOU in what they purchase for their home. I know I do!

  3. Marian,
    As a fellow antique dealer your advice is my philosophy as well. MY problem is I buy what I like (Mostly at auction), but I have a hard time letting it go! My best friend calls me an antique hoarder and I know that is more truthful than not, but I am weak. I have just recently started putting more of “my” stuff in my booth and thinned some things out of our house. I just love old things and I started auctioning at the age of 5 with my grandparents. It is in my blood, they were always buying antiques for their home. I can remember some of granny’s pieces being several different colors as the style changed. I understand it now. 🙂
    I am glad you did well at Luckets.
    Blessings, Shelly

  4. Just picked up a J.B. VanSkiver serpentine buffet off CL today. I didn’t need it for myself as I purchased a buffet just a couple of months ago, but I LOVED it and wanted it so badly!!! Hoping someone else will love it and want it just as badly and I can make a dollar or two to support my furniture habit! Thanks for sharing ~ you are awesome!!!

  5. Thanks again for your advice. I feel like your soft advice was a hard answer for me! I am working on my smalls! And it’s exciting because I’m learning to use new power tools!

  6. Excellent advice!! I agree with every word… not that I have a shop, but it makes so much sense. All of your things are gorgeous, and it’s because you care about what you buy and you don’t just buy whatever is cheap that day.

  7. How incredibly kind of your to share these amazing tips! This came at just the right time for me. I’ve been searching for some clarity about what kind of direction I want to take in business, and your advice really spoke to me. I hardly ever comment on blogs, but I had to tell you you’ve been an inspiration. I appreciate your work, and I’m so happy for your success!

  8. Great advice all around. I enjoy creating a certain look for my booth also and tend to organize vignettes by color or theme. I agree too that it helps to have a variety of price points so that everyone can find something special to take home. I enjoy your blog too!

  9. I’m sure you’ve been asked (a lot) but where can a person buy the grain sack material shown in this post? Without going broke so to speak?? I have found it on eBay, but OH MY…. The prices!! I’m not so much interested in the antique ones right now because, well, I can afford them!! 🙂 hope you can offer some advise. Thank You! OHH… And when will your new paint colors be available to buy?

    1. i actually used canvas drop cloths and painted stripes and monograms on them before I started buying the real thing. I have bought many grain sacks from a dealer called “grainsack” on Etsy and more recently have purchased textiles wholesale from Hungary. I hope to offer some of those online to my readers to buy.

      1. Thank You!! You are such a sweet lady for passing on helpful tips!! I truly have joy everyday reading your blog!!

  10. Hi there, I have been reading your blog for a while. I am just starting in the business and at the moment is more of a hobby to be honest, but the trill of finding something unique is beyond comprehension. Your advices are spot on. I usually buy pieces I like and are so hard to part with. Thanks for confirming it and sharing all your experience and knowledge.

  11. Hi Marian…..thank you for this amazing advice. With one small booth at a local market for the past year, I’m finding that some of your ideas are things that are coming naturally to me. It is about developing your style and sticking to it. Whenever I buy something that isn’t “me”, it usually sits in my booth.

    I’ve been reading your blog for about 1 1/2 and think you are one of the reasons that I thought I could do this too. Thanks for your daily dose of inspiration.

  12. I do, I do, I do read and love your blog!! So many awesome ideas here every day. I never thought in a million years I’d win something from Miss Mustard Seed at Lucketts!! So happy I did and I’m already making trim with those awesome fabric scraps of yours. Thanks so much.

  13. It totally makes sense – all of it! And when my sisters and I stray from these principles, it usually becomes evident in our booth sales.

  14. I agree with every single thing you mentioned! When I am buying for our store I also snap a picture for my son (who owns the store) and we “shop together” if he can’t go. Although we have different design eyes, we ALWAYS only buy the things that we just can’t walk past. The items have to be stand-outs or potential room focal points (i.e., the cupola and weathervane from an Amish barn in Ohio which was snapped up in our store in three days), affordable to us, sellable and in great condition for our clients. The repurposed furniture must have great relief to showcase the paint, sturdy legs, working drawers. If the clients know we have them in mind in every way, they keep coming back!

  15. Thank you for the lovely words of wisdom! This post is extremely helpful. I dream of the day that I can be a part of an event like this in Houston. I know the Urban Market that hits Houston in the Spring and Fall has great potential. That is one of my goals in the next 5 years – to have my own little white tent at a market!

  16. Exactly! Thanks for the reminder. I’m trying to stick with that very philosophy in my latest booth. What’s hard though, is when you’re in a small area where nobody gets your taste and you have to try and figure out what it is they want. 1980’s traditional? Yard sale junk? Bleah. No fun at all! And *that* booth is in the town where I live. The booth I wanted to be THE one. But it looks like THE booth will be the one that’s over an hour away.

    Thanks for all your inspiration. I don’t think I’ve ever commented, but…. thanks!

  17. I appreciate the “focus on the smalls” advice. That’s nice for those of us who love your style but can’t buy the big stuff!

  18. Great advice and so timely for me. I’m still on the steep learning curve of finding pieces and what to price them at (and my area is so conservative financially that it’s hard to make a profit). Thanks for your willingness to share….

  19. Great information. Practical and simple. Selling and giving away can be freeing. I would have to agree with another post I read…the other side of the story. Sell in a booth/area that “gets it”. It has to be a place that will draw customers that appreciate the style, imagination and work that a person has done. Never saw a Pez dispenser or key chain that helped the cause of selling linens, empire furnishings or ironstone. :).

  20. Marian, I love this post!!! I started selling at a local flea market a couple years ago on a whim. I got invited to share a booth with a local blogger and at first thought this is nuts. I like making and upcycling things but could I actually sell them? And do this with a stranger? I was scared but I jumped right in. I only sold about a $100 worth of things my first time around but I became hooked. This summer my sister and I are doing one show every month from May thru November. So far we have done great and every time we get better at it and really learn through all the trials. Everything you said in your post is so true! I also buy the things I love and think will all go together nicely. I still am shocked when someone wants to buy the items I had no intention on selling but was using as a display. That taught me real fast that everything is for sale!

  21. Thanks Marian for this post sharing your concise resale strategy. I have used some of the same philosphies and have found not only success but happiness. I think selling something YOU aren’t in luv with would be like going to a job you loathed. We all have a design imprint so why not show it off!! I especially agree with being particular. I really get frustrated when I see masses of “stuff” in spaces. Hand picking items of quality for a shop or a “show” is the key to success. Thanks for being such an inspiration.

  22. Thanks so much for sharing your information. It is inspirational to those of us who are trying to get a business off the ground.

  23. Wonderful words of advice, Marian! This is exactly what I do when shopping for my Etsy store. If you buy things you love, you can also enjoy them for a while before they sell (since they match your style) AND you can trade up as you go. For those of you in ‘conservative’ areas, remember that selling online opens up the whole world to your ‘style’. And somewhere, you’ll find those who ‘get it’ and share your great taste!

    Copper and Tin

  24. been thinking of starting a business for awhile now but haven’t really known how to start. Guess a flea market rather than a brick and mortar shop would be a safe bet. Thanks for the advice. I have alot of things I’ve purchased and repurposed that could get the ball rolling. I simply buy what I love, fix it up, and then give it to charity! But I think I could be making some money.

  25. This was a WONDERFUL blog today, Marian! As I think about dipping my toes into refinishing furniture pieces, I’ve often wondered how you decide what to buy and ‘will someone really buy it?” The smalls you talk about are very helpful as well! Thank you for being so down to earth and especially sharing your experience! I appreciate it!

  26. Thanks Marian for your advice, I feel the same way. I have a little space that I put stuff in and it is stuff I love. You have a wonder eye for stuff, I just love your blog. Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

  27. Thanks for just being so real, Marian. So as you ask the question, “make sense?”—-why, yes….yes, it does!! I look so forward to your blog everyday. Thanks for sharing your inspiration and experiences with us all!

  28. Thanks for that post, Marian. The funny thing is, when I started my etsy shop, I was constantly thinking about what people might like to buy. Stuff that I’ve seen other people sell and gush about. That was about the same time when I started reading your blog and I realized pretty quickly that I’m going at it from the wrong end. Once I started to sell what I like I was much happier and more comfortable in general with my pieces. Reading your post now I’m discovering that most of the things you suggest are things I already do. I guess I’ve learned quite a lot over the year that I’ve been following your blog now 😉 I’m not trying to suck up here but I honestly think that if you weren’t so willingly sharing your experiences, my shop might have been a very short lived dream. So thanks for that 😉

  29. What a great article, Marian! This is such important information. It’s NOT an exact science, I’m learning! I wish it was a bit more exact but then it would be cookie cutter everywhere. Thanks for sharing!,

  30. I love these tips. You put into words what I kind of just do without thinking about it. I think for anyone who has been working in this crazy vintage/repurposing/resale business, they aren’t “soft” at – they make perfect sense!

  31. Marian,
    Great advice for the flea market vendors and shop folks. After doing Brimfield this year I was exhausted because I think I spent much more time really selling and it is work. Loving what you’re selling really comes in to play when there is lots of competition, everybody is retail-savy these days so if you love it, you can sell it!
    Sharing what you’ve learned to help others is so admirable. You have made such a difference to so many.
    Thank You

    1. Yes, it is so easy to feel lost in a crowd of other vendors who have equally amazing things. I do think selling your look/brand/style is the key. Buyers will want to shop there, because you show them how amazing it can all look together. I hope to make it to Brimfield as a shopper some year!

  32. Hi Marian, Wow that was such a great post, very helpful to beginners, among others, in the business. I read most of the comments and saw some others have problems with the market they’re faced with, different tastes, unwillingness to pay decent prices for items we work our tails off making desirable for sale.
    We’ve decided to make things in limited quantities for now the way we’d like them to be and if they don’t sell then we know not to make any more. We’ll be selling goods we produce.
    The availability of kinds of items you sell is pretty scarce in our area and we just don’t have the disposable cash to buy furniture to redo then sell. We have to deal with our particular situation and if things change then we can change our choices..
    I do realize you are one of the busiest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing about. For that reason I am asking if you could respond when it’s convenient for you of course. Any suggestions you can offer or criticism also if warranted will be appreciatively received. I think you have become a guide for many of us attempting to get the courage to stick our necks out, aren’t you the lucky one. You have been so generous and honest. I’d rather hear honesty than just words a person thinks I want to hear.
    I think it’s about time we renamed our business. We started out, mostly me really, making paper creations. We’re now making wood items again with pallets and lumber we mostly find places. We’ve been making different styles of “trugs”, tool boxes, carriers, whatever people would call them, also some signs, benches, soon will be some side tables, potting benches. We’re treading carefully to get started. My husband has even been reading your blog now. He was very apprehensive about what I had been talking about doing. He thought I was crazy when I suggested getting some pallets to make items until he got online doing some investigation of his own.
    Thanks so much Marian for taking the time to read my many comments. We will appreciate any “comments” you care to make to us. Happy Week
    Anybody else reading this is also welcome to reply to:

  33. I started following your blog right after I painted my first piece of furniture. Your advice, video clips and insights inspired me to try a few more, and start selling pieces I had painted. It has tapped in to my creative side and I love hunting for good finds and transforming them! Thank you! It was great to meet you at Lucketts this year. I am thinking of having a booth next year…we’ll see, it’s a bit intimidating. 🙂

  34. Couldn’t agree more! Buying what you love and showcasing a variety is so important and besides that allows us to change up the things in our house as well!

  35. Such a great post! I am relatively new to the business side of things, but I try to do the same thing – buy what I know and what I love. If I try to guess the value of something I know nothing about, or try to guess what my customers want, I end up losing money. But if I stick with things that I can see in a room I would design, then it all works!

  36. Thanks for such an informative post. This all makes so much sense to me! I have a little e Etsy vintage shop. Sometimes people ask me what I carry in my shop and I tell them, things that I love. After all it’s mine until it sells, and if it never sells I want to love it!

  37. I’m looking for french cream pedestal soup bowls . They look like mini terrines. I would love at least 6-8 of them. I was served french onion soup once, in a small casual bistro in Paris.
    Think you could find them. Thanks Lindy

  38. Thank you for sharing! I have a question…I live in a small town in N.H. on a five acre farm with a very large barn. For quite some time I’ve thought of opening my own shop in the barn. Most people tell me the location is not right…off the beaten path…who would drive that far out of the way. I will drive out of my way if I know it’ll be worth the trip. What are your feelings on this. Any advice would be greatly welcomed. Thank you, Robin

  39. Not!
    The first day of college ,with a retailing major, the Director of the school came into class and stated ‘You must be able to buy nuts and bolts just as well and with the same enthusiasm and knowledge as if you were buying high-end fashion. If you feel that you can only buy high-end fashion…. get out right now. If you feel that you can only buy nuts and bolts….. get out right now. You are not buying for yourself….. you are buying for your customer! Decide whom your customer is and provide the right goods, at the right time, in the right quantity and at the right price! In doing so, you will be successful’
    ie: All the ‘love’ in the world isnt going to sell your milk paint if it isnt the right color, available when I need or want it, and at a price I am willing to pay.
    Anyone truly ‘in business’ quickly realizes that what sells is what you ‘love’.

  40. Thanks so much for the post. I loved every word you said and really needed to hear it. I am preparing to go on one of our long highway yard sales coming up soon and I am also stepping up to a larger booth size at the local antique mall. I will be looking for some really great stuff to re-purpose or sell in that new booth. I can now go with a plan in mind of what to look for. Thanks again.

  41. What a fabulous post Marian! Thanks so much! I do have a small space in a shop and this was so helpful to me! I struggle with the smalls. I think I need to refine a bit more and buy what I love. What perfect advice.
    And it was great seeing you again at Luckett’s, btw!! 🙂
    Hope you have a great weekend xo

  42. This was very helpful! I tend to buy things I like to fill up my space, but I do not edit as much as you do. I probably should but for some reason sparse booths don’t do too well in this area (the ones that do best are usually pretty crammed) even tho I prefer them that way – that way you can really SEE things. Difficult to buy things too in this area to make money on, but I love the thrill of the hunt! Glad you did well!!

  43. Thanks for this post, sometimes I think I am crazy when I am out shopping for pieces to paint and resell and I only gravitate to the same old “look.” When I try to paint and refurbish things that someone else might like, it never quite works out for me. When I paint and dream of keeping a piece in my own home (I think I have managed to keep 4 china cabinets now, all with a “purpose”), they always look better overall. I have not had the opportunity to try your products yet, one day soon I hope! Thanks for your always insightful, down-to-earth, real personality, it definitely makes a difference.

  44. Thanks for the great tips. I just doubled my booth size. My tastes are similar to yours, and I will be trying your paint on some re-purpose projects and some re-do projects. Am very excited!

  45. Great advice! I was wondering what you do with the items you don’t sell? The one thing I worry about as I am planning my first Flea Market, is what I do with left over inventory? Nope it’s not a silly question…

  46. I am just seeing your site for the first time. How wonderful there is a good paint product for wood that doesn’t require stripping and sanding, which has been a major drawback for refinishing items. I am still making my way around your site, here but have a few questions.
    One is do you have any thoughts about painting over lead paint, since a lot of old(er) items may have been covered with lead paint at one time? Milk paint seems like a great solution to this since you don’t need to strip and sand.
    I seem to recall seeing somewhere here that the milk paint will adhere (even if you need to us the bonding agent) to ceramic tile and already-painted walls. What about glass?
    If you have to use the bonding agent, and therefore don’t have the chipping and need to distress after the paint dries, do you have any recommended DYI instructions for making a natural distressed look that you would have to try to create afterwards? There is a lot of info out there, just wondering if there is any instructions/advice you might recommend.
    Great product, that you so much. This might solve my needing to resurface my kitchen cabinet problem because we did not want to strip and sand and the cost to resurface is about 3K.

  47. I love this advice. This is the second time I have read this post, and as someone who is just getting started in this business, this post and your not-black-and-white style speaks lots to me. Thanks for being here. 🙂

  48. You just described exactly how I buy too. I only buy what I love…..I was thinking maybe I was a little sentimental, rather than business minded….but thank goodness you have put my mind at rest about that !! 🙂 Love your work, your page, your paint and everything you stand for.
    Happy New Year,

  49. This post was well worth repeating, but I want to remind you of the one thing you neglected to mention…and that is…… No one can duplicate Miss Mustard Seed. You have talents and gifts of vision and skill that are yours alone. Which is why we all love you and secretly want to be you, nose ring and all!

    Seriously, in case I haven’t told you lately, you’re one of my style role models. I think you’re simply incredible. And I so much appreciate your humility and “See? You can do it too!” attitude. And your generosity in sharing all of your gifts with us. I suspect God multiplies your talents!

    Happy New Year, my friend!

  50. Thanks, this was definitely encouraging! I have been stuck between what I love and what will sell for too long. It takes courage to step out and just be you, and just do what you love, who cares if its not mainstream or current? I have found that what I love usually translates to what others will love too, and that sets my stride and keeps me from burning out. Here’s to fresh energy and not getting hung up on profit politics, I’ll let the buyers worry about that. Yay to more creative freedom!

  51. I am so glad I read this. I have “piddled” for over 25 years with great junk. I have sold things as well. I totally get what you are saying. I am applying this to how I do things. I need to make some changes in my life. I needed some inspiration. Thanks!

  52. Totally agree with your comments. The other reason I buy what I love is that if it doesn’t sell, I can always use it in my house somewhere!

    The smalls are important. I have two booths in an antique and collectible mall, and I sell a lot of antique and vintage typesetter blocks – usually $2-4 each, burlap bags, salt and pepper shakers and other small vintage accessories. It helps create the booth’s personality.

  53. I don’t buy to sell, but a lot of your advice is actually how I’ve been trying to decorate my home. I always second guess myself, so thank you for sharing and making me feel like I’m doing something right!

  54. Great information and so helpful! Don’t you think part of the process is a little bit of natural talent for having a “great eye” for things? I’d say you definitely have a natural talent for picking things to sell.

    leelee @ paperbagstyling

  55. Thanks for the advice. I’m following a big dream and doing my first barn sale with a sweet friend. I’m starting to feel a bit nervous about it, but your wise words really hit home. I’m also loving how your paint turned out on a couple of pieces!

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