Paul Andrews

How to Do a Swap Meet

In Bicycling on February 25, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Seattle’s annual Bike Swap blowout will take place at Magnuson Park’s Hangar 30 on Saturday, the day before Sunday’s annual Chilly Hilly ride on Bainbridge Island. Over the years the Swap Meet has evolved into quite the bike scene, and this year promises to be no different.

Here are some guidelines gleaned from years of experience going to bike swaps. We hope they can be of use at the big meet.

1. Before you head to the swap meet, make a precise list of what you actually need (it’s also a good idea to write down the lowest price you can find on, say, the Web; you really need to know price points to know if you’re getting a good deal). You’ll see so much at the meet that it’s easy to forget what you really came for. I typically have half a dozen target items on my list, e.g., new cable housing, backup pedals, some winter tights, a cluster set, saddle, and so on. Note that although it’s a swap meet, you’ll find a lot of new stuff on the floor, especially clothing. Much of it will be at prices you’ve never seen before. Oh and don’t forget the crucial shopping bag! Or do as I do and wear a big ol’ backpack.

2. Bring lots of cash. I don’t go with less than $500. Please don’t tell my wife, who thankfully never reads this blog. Although some of the vendors (stores) will take charge cards, cash is good for two things: Speed, and negotiating. “Oh, sorry, I’ve only got INSERT FIGURE HERE on me.” There will be no cash machine on premises. Some vendors may take checks (although they’re crazy to), but it’s not worth the gamble.

3. Arrive early. If you usually arrive early to things, arrive even earlier. My friend Jim Lyon and I typically show up 45 minutes before the door opens at 9 a.m. And we’re by no means close to the door. Typically a few hundred folks line up by opening bell, and the further ahead you can be, the better opportunity you have for scoring the best deals. Note: If you do run late, you’re probably better off showing up at 9:15 or 9:20 than, say, a quarter to 9. By a quarter after, assuming an on-time start (not always the case), the line has usually dissipated and you can blow right in. (Note: There’s bike parking, but bring your own lock. It’s unattended.)

4. I like to start off by cruising the entire floor in one sweep. The reason: The good stuff goes fast. Two things to keep in mind while cruising: Snap up a good deal that fits your needs. It won’t be there the next time you pass the booth. I once walked in and the first booth I encountered had brand new Nevegals on sale for $15. No need to negotiate, I snapped ‘em right up. Point No. 2: Make a mental note, or even write down, stuff you might want but is a bit overpriced, or that you doubt will go quickly. You might even make a passing inquiry, “How much are you asking for this?” Just so they see your face and know you’re interested. That means they won’t willy nilly lower the price to the next guy, figuring you’ll come back again. You can even mention a price point you’re willing to pay and have the vendor hold it for you on that basis. Most vendors won’t go for it, but again, it shows your interest.

5. OK, once your first pass is done, start the whole thing over, but this time with an eye on bargaining. Big Point: Never pay the marked price! Now there are exceptions, like that $15 set of Nevis. But typically even at swap meets vendors ask high. They expect to dicker. Here’s where knowing price points comes in handy. Once when I wanted a new cluster, I noted to the vendor that his price was higher than Performance’s, and I’d much rather buy from him. Deal made.

6. If you find something you really like but can’t get the price where you want it, just hang in there. Within a couple of hours, earlier even, the vendor will start to waver. A couple years back I found a primo full face helmet, brand new, going for $90. An hour and a half later I got it for $60. There’s a bit of risk in waiting, of course. You have to calculate your odds that others will find the item overpriced (or demand for it is limited enough to begin with that it won’t attract a lot of buyers).

7. Caveats: Look used stuff over pretty carefully. Last year some guy was selling used chains. Unless you have a chain tool with you or otherwise have an expert eye, chains would be the last thing you’d buy at a swap meet. Vendors also can confuse you by “mispackaging” items. One year I was set to buy a new Conti still in the box, when I happened to see the label underneath. The actual tire inside was different, an off-model I didn’t want. Check DVD boxes to make sure the right disc is inside. On tires, make sure you’re getting a 26-incher not a 29er (assuming you want the 6er). On clothing, check for snags, stains, dropped stitching, defects. Stuff like that…it’s easy to buy the wrong item, and then you’re stuck. No taking it back for exchange!

Good luck! Just don’t buy anything I want before me, OK?

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