Part 2 of 2 (click here for Part One)
In part one of this review, I mentioned that I would speak more about the Russian immigrants that are heavily represented at Philadelphia Flea Market. This information could help vendors understand the Russian-born flea market shoppers better and may even assist in alleviating some tension between the two groups. If it makes just one American vendor overcome his or her animosity towards Russian shoppers, then I expect to be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. If not, then Time Magazine’s Person of the Year will do.
From Russia, With Tough Love
Russian immigrants seem to love flea markets since wherever they show up, there are normally very many of them. And, they are certainly no wallflowers. They make their presence known with their upfront personalities and their tough, incessant and relentless bargaining that at times includes boldly making the most ridiculous of offers. In addition, they often do it with an unbridled, straight-from-the-Cold-War-era, sometimes condescending, attitude. Quite a few American vendors I know don’t like dealing with them and some have even told me they “can’t stand” the Russians. A few other vendors I know have said much worse.
Personally, I never felt this way but I understand why vendors become frustrated. As Americans, most of us are not hardwired for the serious, no-holds-barred, bargaining that is commonplace in most other countries. Sure, we all know that bargaining is part of the flea market process but we engage in it on a much simpler and more innocent scale. (If we want five dollars for something, we price it at six. Twenty dollars; make it twenty-five.) When shoppers follow script, we are happy but when someone offers us two dollars for a twelve dollar item, we get thrown off our game and often don’t know how to react. Since Russians commonly make these types of potentially offensive offers, feelings of animosity tend to develop.
As I said, I understand where these feelings come from but have never felt that way myself. My personal opinion is that the Russian immigrant flea marketers are no different than any other group, they just have their own approach. Also, they do tend to spend money so, from a business point-of-view, I would never shut them out. Besides, I have always been equipped with a bit of “secret” information about Russian proclivities that has served me well. At the very least, this knowledge saves me time and frustration and, at best, it helps increase my profits.
How to Handle the Russians
The first time I sold at Philadelphia Flea Market this past summer (I sold at the racetrack a few times) a middle-aged couple came by my space and began digging through a pile of clothing I had on one of my tables. Given the facts that I got the clothes for free; almost all were used; and I was selling at a buyer’s market, I priced this merchandise very low. After about fifteen minutes of intense searching, the husband and wife picked out two items and asked me the prices. One was a brand-new dress that still had a $30.00 price tag attached and the other was a used, decorated tee shirt in good condition. I told them I wanted three dollars for the dress and two for the shirt. They immediately became loud and irritated. They obviously did not like my price. The woman was almost mean. She scowled, shook her head, and threw the items onto the table. Her husband was more civil but no less persistent.
“Two dollars.” the gentleman said. After pretending to think about it for a moment, I said I would take a dollar off and make it four dollars. This was still not good enough and the gentleman persisted in offering me just two dollars. Finally, I laid down the law. Four dollars would be my rock-bottom price. I accentuated my announcement with a gesture that resembled a baseball umpire signaling a runner safe.
Meanwhile, as her husband and I negotiated, I noticed over his shoulder, that the wife kept wrapping the dress around her body and then would stare at it at arm’s-length. I then knew I had them right where I wanted them. She obviously loved the dress therefore I had no doubt they would pay my price. I was wrong. Seconds later, the wife once again threw both items on the table with a disgusted look on her face—as if they were trash. This time she walked away and her husband followed.
I have to admit, I was confused. How could anyone spend so much time seemingly admiring two items that were extremely under priced to begin with, and then just walk away? And, how could I have misread them by so much? It didn’t make any sense. As I sat and thought about it for a minute or two, the answer finally came to me like a slap in the face. (I had the proverbial light bulb moment.) The accents, the attitudes, the persistence. Suddenly, it all made an enormous amount of sense. I said to myself, “They’re Russian! They’ll be back!”
Many years ago, before I started selling at flea markets, I took a college course that I don’t recall the name of but fell into the general category of business anthropology. It was to teach students interested in doing business internationally the importance of knowing the customs, traditions, habits and characteristics of cultures they might be dealing with on a business level. Several cultures were highlighted in this course including the Russian culture.
According to this college course, Russians have a distinct way of negotiating. First of all, they like to take the upper hand and assume a very tough demeanor. They also have no problem making a lot of noise even to the point of becoming disruptive. (Picture Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on a table at the United Nations.) Then, in the middle of the heated negotiations, which more often than not they made heated, the Russians will surprising leave the negotiations.
That’s right, grown men and women, politicians and international businesspersons alike, will simply get up and walk out of the room in anger. But that is not the most interesting aspect of the Russian business style. With most cultures, this would clearly be the end of negotiations. But with Russians, it almost never is. At some point, they return to the negotiations much calmer and seemingly much more levelheaded than when they left. Then, remarkably, they will agree to the original terms as long as they were reasonable to begin with.
A few years after taking this course, I began selling at flea markets and one that I frequented back then was the Roosevelt Mall Flea Market in Northeast Philadelphia. As I mentioned earlier, there were a lot of Russians that shopped at that market and, time after time, my negotiations with them followed the pattern from the college course.
- They would see something and give the impression that they really liked it.
- I’d give a price and they would act as if I asked for their right arm.
- They’d then make a lowball or even ridiculous offer.
- I’d stick to my original price or come down just a little bit.
- They’d walk away, often huffing and puffing.
- Minutes later, they’d return and give me my price.
Warning: Do Not Try This on Tennis Stars
The behavioral characteristics outlined in my college course most likely only apply to Russians and Russian immigrants. It may or may not apply to the children of these immigrants, depending on how “Russian” they are raised. They surely do not apply to third and fourth generation Americans of Russian ancestry and certainly not to your neighbor who had one great-grandmother from Vladivostok. They also do not apply to very Americanized or Westernized persons even if they were born in Russia. For instance, in the extremely unlikely (nearly impossible) event that the very-worldly, longtime-Florida-resident, superstar tennis professional, Maria Sharapova, a) shows up at the Philadelphia Flea Market, b) finds something at your table that she likes and, c) offers you half your asking price, if you say no and she walks away, then she’s probably not coming back.
(My advice in this situation would be to give the item to Ms. Sharapova at her offered price and ask for a picture and an autograph. Keep the picture and sell the autograph on eBay. I’m sure you’ll make more than enough on the sale of the autograph to make up for what was lost on the flea market sale and you’ll have a great celebrity photograph with which to impress your friends.)
The Couple’s Return
Oh, and as for the middle-aged couple that liked the dress and the tee shirt at Philadelphia Flea Market: fifteen minutes after angrily walking away from my table, they returned. The husband led the way this time and, as he approached, he softly and very politely said “three dollars?” I shook my head no and he immediately handed me the four dollars he already had in his hand. I placed the items in a bag and thanked them. The husband smiled and the wife, though still scowling a bit, softened her eyes and nodded her head in what I believe was her way of saying, “nice doing battle with you and don’t expect us to make it any easier next time. By the way, you’re right, I really do love the dress.”