Hillsville Hosts Largest Flea Market East of the Mississippi

HILLSVILLE, Va., — Every Labor Day, the town of Hillsville, Va., (pop. 2,700) becomes a flea market. The town doesn’t have a flea market; it becomes a flea market — the Hillsville Flea Market and Gun Show. In one weekend, the population of the town grows to nearly 500,000 people, and it takes an effort by the entire town to accommodate the crowd.

Residential yards are turned into parking lots ($5 per day). Route 58 through the center of town is lined with food vendors for more than a mile on both sides of the street, and 400 acres of open space is rented by more than 700 antiques and collectible dealers, flea market sellers and gadget hawkers. Vendors create a temporary city with row after row of RVs and tents set up behind the displays.

Largest Show East of the Mississippi

Sponsored by the Grover King VFW Post 1115, the show opened in 1967 and attracted 4,000 visitors. Today, dealers and shoppers come from Texas, Michigan, New York and Ohio; some have attended the show each year for decades. The event is a gathering place for both dealers and customers to visit, renew old ties, and scout for collectibles.

Results Tied to Inventory

Sellers’ success was tied to the size of their inventory. Dealers selling large furniture reported sluggish sales. Al Zimmerman, owner of Z’s Antiques of South Boston, Va., made a few sales reaching four figures: a pie safe, a Dutch cupboard and a chest of drawers. He said sales of large items were not as good as in previous years. Zimmerman, who started his antiques business in 1969, has attended Hillsville for almost 30 years. “Most years,” he said, “I came to buy rather than sell. Prices are really good this year. On some items, I’m paying less than I paid in 1984.”

Competing with Used Furniture Dealers

The sentiment that “large items did not sell well” was repeated by other dealers. Dealers complained of inventories heavy with large furniture items, slow inventory turnover and plummeting profit margins on large items. Retail prices, they said, have dropped almost to the level of used furniture.

Zimmerman said some of the regulars in his corner of the flea market decided not to attend this year. He jokingly referred to his section as “the Ohio lot,” because of the large number of Ohio furniture dealers who usually set up there. The Ohio dealers, disappointed in last year’s sales, said the lack of sales didn’t justify the trip from Ohio.

Small Goods Sold Well

However, small goods sold well in Zimmerman’s booth. Decorative items, glassware, memorabilia, antique firearms, military and paper items were popular. K.C. and Cheryl Jones, owners of Cabin in the Woods Early Primitives, said the show was the best they’ve had in five years, despite the fact that they opened their booth four hours late every day. The Jones’ spent each morning scouting for inventory and opened their booth at noon. K.C. was pleased to find a line of customers waiting.

Customers, K.C. said, were intrigued by the inventory of log cabin primitives. Questions such as “What is this?” and “How was this used?” are commonplace at shows, but the Jones’ answers and enthusiasm for log cabin life spread to their customers, who made the cash register ring.

Cheryl Jones said traffic and sales were nonstop. She was pleased to meet many young, female shoppers. Jones attributes this year’s solid sales to a shift in their marketing strategy, from a “show-and-tell” method to “teach and inspire.”

Her marketing focus is to educate customers, face to face, online (at www.cabininthewoodsearlywares.com) and in print. Cheryl said education helps the customer step into the picture. “Our approach is to capture the warm feelings of living a simpler life in a simpler time,” Cheryl said. “Whenever we show an item, we try to get the customer to connect with that warm feeling through the item they are holding in their hands; we try to create a sense of history.”

Cheryl’s effort to educate customers doesn’t stop when the show ends. She writes a column for A Simple Life Magazine titled “Pioneer Ways and Cabin Cookin’.” The column covers country home skills. Jones is well qualified to write such a column, having spent much of her youth in her grandmother’s Blue Ridge Mountain home. The Cabin in the Woods website is being overhauled as well, and will include a shopping cart and educational content.

Jones’ proactive marketing approach was refreshing. Many of the dealers at the Hillsville show only sell on the show circuit, and most were cutting back on the number of shows they do in a year, especially those specializing in antique furniture. Just eight of 24 dealers interviewed at the show had Web sites, 11 dealers sell on eBay, and seven dealers said they tried selling online but recently quit altogether.

Most of the vendors at this year’s show already have claimed their spot for next year’s show. The attraction of nearly half a million shoppers is tempting for any antique dealer. If this year’s success for Cabin in the Woods is a precursor of next year’s show, dealers would do well to start selling history, instead of antiques.

Previously published in Antique Trader Magazine

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