How to start up a market stall

Trading from a market stall can be a low cost way to run a retail business. Get the essentials for starting up and running your own business in our practical guide.

Different markets

There are many different types of market that you might decide to take a stall or pitch in (known as 'standing' a market).

Permanent market

Permanent markets operate from established sites, some of which were set up many years ago. The market may consist of both a covered, indoor market and an outdoor area where additional stalls are set up, perhaps only on certain days of the week. Indoor stalls in covered permanent markets are often like mini shops in that you will be able to equip them with display and serving units and lock them up in the evenings, so that you can leave your stock there. These markets commonly also have an area where trestle table-type stalls are available, from which items such as local fruit and vegetables, plants, flowers and so on are sold. Stalls like these have no facilities to leave stock overnight.

Stalls in an outdoor market may be provided by the market operator, or you may have to provide your own. Some markets permit traders to bring their vans onto the market, out of which they can sell their goods. Others do not permit them at all.

Permanent sites at established markets are very popular with market traders and it is unlikely that you will be able to trade from one straight away.

The normal procedure is to attend the market of your choice every day as a 'casual'. This means getting up very early and standing in a queue with other traders, all hoping that a regular stall will not be taken up and so can be allocated to them. It would not be unusual to spend many weeks as a casual before being allotted a regular stall or pitch.

Some markets sell a wide range of different types of product, for example food, clothing, footwear, pet products, books, items of furniture, plants, toys and so on. These are generally open six days per week and attract both retail and wholesale customers. Other markets specialise in certain products - for example, antiques, bric-a-brac or books - and these may only open on two or three days a week. Still others specialise in a particular range of goods, such as meat or fish, but target wholesale customers rather than members of the public.

Contact the market in which you are interested and obtain a copy of their rules and regulations. These set out any restrictions with which you must comply and will tell you about the market's opening hours, facilities and rents.

Street markets

These markets are normally held once or twice a week in side streets which are closed off to traffic or in town squares and centres. They are usually very popular with traders and you may find there is a long waiting list to get on the market. You would set up your own barrow or stall at this type of market.

One-day open air markets

These markets are organised by operators at sites all over the country and may be held, for example, at airfields or racecourses. They may be specialist markets, for example, selling crafts or Christmas ranges, or they might offer a wide range of different products. You will need to book a pitch well in advance and bring your own stall or trestle table and something to sit on. You will probably have to send a deposit with your booking.

The National Market Traders' Federation (NMTF) website includes a searchable database of markets all over the UK.

Farmers markets

There are now more than 500 farmers markets in the UK of which just under half are certified by the National Farmers' Retail and Markets Association (FARMA). They are held in a wide range of different locations, typically on a monthly basis. Most genuine farmers markets only allow produce that is grown locally to be sold - in the case of FARMA certified markets, this usually means 30 miles although this is extended to 50 miles in remote and coastal areas and 100 miles for markets in London. The FARMA website provides guidance on the criteria that have to be met for them to consider a market a farmers market and on the Certification scheme. The website also includes a searchable database of farmers markets in the UK.

Car boot sales

Car boot sales are typically held in the open air, for example in large car parks, on playing fields or in the grounds of stately homes. There is generally a mix of regular traders (those that take a stall each week) and casual traders. Regular traders are generally permitted to set up their stalls first. Traders are charged a pitch fee and are usually restricted to a particular stall frontage size. Details of car boot sales around the country are available from websites such as Car Boot Junction

Research your target market

Estimating demand

As with any other business you will have to decide whether there is enough demand for the range of goods you decide to sell. Whichever market (or markets) you decide to stand, the market manager will want to know the line of business you are in so that a balanced market can be maintained. So unless you are planning to work from a specialist market such as an antiques or crafts market, you need to bear in mind that you might get a permanent stall more quickly if you sell something a little unusual. (The manager is unlikely to allocate you a permanent stall if, for example, the market already has a good number of greetings cards stalls and you also propose to sell greetings cards.)

Market traders compete with many other retail outlets, such as High Street shops and the supermarkets, all of which may sell roughly the same range of goods. However, people like shopping in a market because:

  • it is lively and colourful
  • there's often locally made or locally grown items for sale
  • many stalls sell cheaper products than their retail counterparts
  • there is typically a large range of different goods, fresh produce and takeaway food in a relatively small area

Which market to trade in

One of the first things to do is visit the market venues which you hope to stand. Go early in the morning to see how many 'casuals' are queuing, hoping to get a stall. This will give you an indication of how popular the market is.

Then have a good look around the market. Note the different types of market stall - are there already too many traders selling one particular type of product? Are some parts of the market busier than others? (It might be there is a well known short-cut through the market, for example to the bus station. Everyone along this 'route' benefits from the volume of passersby.) Go on different days of the week to see which are the quietest. Are the rents cheaper on those days? Find out what facilities the market operator provides such as a lock-up stall, storage facilities, loading and unloading bays and so on.

One day markets

If you plan to attend one day markets rather than (or as well as) trying for a regular stall on a permanent market, you should try to find out as much as possible about:

  • how the market operator attracts visitors
  • the number of pitches normally taken up
  • the range of goods sold
  • the number of people who attend
  • what is provided and what you will have to bring yourself

Why will customers choose your stall

Having decided on the market or markets in which you hope to have a stall, the next thing is to make sure enough customers will buy from you. What will attract them to you rather than your competitors in the market? It may be that you have identified a niche that you could fill, selling a type of product that's not currently sold by any existing stalls. Check out the type of customers who use the market on a regular basis and if possible ask some of them what they think of your ideas. Look at any similar retailers in the area to know exactly what your competitors sell.

Research current trends, plus legal and tax issues

Working practices

Think carefully about the practical aspects of being a market trader before you commit yourself. It is likely that you will start off as a 'casual', queuing every morning at the market of your choice in the hope that there will be a vacant stall for you because a permanent trader has not turned up. Stalls may be allocated between 8.30 and 9.00 am. If there are none available, you may be too late to queue at another market, because all the available stalls there will have been allocated. This can cause difficulties for traders dealing in highly perishable goods such as fruit and vegetables - you might find yourself with a van full of stock which you are unable to sell.

When you first turn up at a market as a casual, you will fill in a registration form and this will be noted every time you attend. Once you have gained enough seniority you may be offered a permanent pitch when one becomes available.

Unless you have got a permanent lock-up stall the first thing you will have to do is unload your stock and put out your displays - known as 'the flash'. You must be prepared to cope with cold weather, long hours and the possibility of a lot of travelling. On top of all that you must be cheerful and prepared to chat and joke with your customers.

On some markets you will not only have to unload your stock and then pack it up again at the end of the day, but you may also have to erect the stall first of all. This can be particularly difficult when it is cold, dark and raining!

Some market operators specify that 'pitchers' and 'demmers' are not allowed to stand the market, so make sure you know what the position is at the market of your choice. Pitchers normally work out of the back of a van or from a raised platform, talking or shouting almost non-stop to attract customers to them. Demmers have some type of product that they demonstrate, for example a food preparation gadget, and attract customers by showing how well the product works and, perhaps, by handing out samples.

If you decide to trade at a car boot sale, you'll probably find that regular traders are permitted to enter the site first, with set-up time starting between 5.30 am and 9.00 am.

There are a number of things that will help your market stall business to be successful:

  • being cheerful and polite to customers
  • having good displays
  • building up a good reputation and a loyal clientele by attending the same market regularly
  • offering good value for money so that customers don't feel ripped off
  • offering good quality or unusual products

Selling on eBay

Selling online can be an excellent way of reaching new customers and boosting your sales, particularly if you're planning to deal in items like antiques, rare books, vintage clothing or secondhand vinyl. But setting up your own ecommerce website can be expensive and you may not be sure at the beginning whether the value of the sales you'll make online will justify the set-up costs.

As an alternative, trading on eBay lets you get a feel for selling online but with much lower start up costs. And you may decide to keep on selling through eBay even when you have your own online shop.

Getting started

You might already have your own personal eBay account that you use to buy items for yourself and to sell things that you don't need any more. But if you're trading as a business on eBay you're legally obliged to make it clear in your listings that you're a business seller. This means that you'll either need to register a new business account or upgrade your personal account to a business one. There's guidance in the eBay Business Centre on the definition of 'trading' if you're not sure whether you need to register as a business seller.

If you're not already running a business and you intend to start sellingthings on eBay - perhaps just in a small way to begin with - then you'll need to notify HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) that you're trading. There's a guide on what counts as trading and self employment which gives advice about notifying HMRC and other tax obligations on the Gov.uk website.

Decide whether to have your own virtual 'shop'

Having your own virtual storefront will give your business a valuable online presence and will allow you to display all your products together in one place.

When you sign up to sell on eBay, you have the option of setting up an eBay Shop. This allows you to create your shop using an existing template or to customise it to your own design. You don't have to choose the eBay Shop option straight away - you may decide it's best to wait until your monthly sales build up to a certain level and then upgrade.

How much does selling eBay cost?

Before you start selling on eBay it's a good idea to find out how much you'll have to pay in fees. Depending on the items you sell and the method you choose for selling them, your total fees can be quite substantial. And while some of the fees you pay will be linked to the number of items you sell each month, others are likely to be fixed costs which you incur even if you don't sell anything.

eBay gives you the option of selling as a business seller without paying any fixed monthly fees, although it's usually more cost-effective to choose a subscription-based package unless you're only selling a small number of items each month.

The eBay website has a fee illustrator tool and a fee calculator that will help you compare the fees for different selling methods and get a good idea of how much your actual per-item selling fees are likely to be.

Managing your listings

Uploading your inventory to eBay and managing your listings can be a time consuming task, particularly if you're planning to sell a large number of items.

eBay offers various listing tools designed to streamline this process, some of which are free and others that you'll have to pay for.

Promoting your items

Because there's such a huge number of items for sale on eBay at any one time, it's very important that you do everything you can to stand out from the crowd.

Always make sure that your listings include accurate, spell-checked descriptions and that your photos and other images show the items that you're selling in the best possible light.

You might want to take it a step further and use the various marketing tools provided by eBay such as search optimisation and cross-promotions.

Your reputation

As an eBay seller your online reputation is extremely important. All sellers have a feedback score based on actual customer feedback and this is the main measure that future customers will use to check that you are trustworthy and reliable.

So you'll want to keep your rating as high as possible by providing an excellent level of customer service and fast delivery at reasonable prices. Make sure you always respond promptly to customer queries, deal with returns efficiently and keep an eye on your stock levels to avoid your listings showing an item as being in stock when it has sold out.

Be aware that packing up orders and sending them out can be time consuming, but it's important to stay on top of the job to make sure that the right items get delivered in good time to the right people. Very many parcel delivery services now offer bulk shipping tools that integrate with your eBay account and these can greatly simplify the process of arranging and tracking your deliveries.

More information

The eBay website has a great deal of useful guidance to help you get started as a business seller and to expand your business as demand for your products grows. There's also a lively seller community forum where experienced sellers are often happy to answer questions.

Decide what to sell

A number of factors will influence the product lines your market stall will sell, such as:

  • your own preferences or expertise (for example you might be a trained butcher or florist)
  • the number of other stalls selling similar products in your chosen market
  • the size and type of stall you will have. For example a lockable stall in a permanent, covered market will allow you to store quite a lot of goods, including perishable items. If you plan to operate as a casual from a series of one day markets, it is likely that your stock will need to be easy to handle and not too prone to deterioration
  • the profit margins you hope to achieve. Will you stock higher margin lines such as costume jewellery, gifts or cards, or lower margin lines such as groceries
  • your target customers. Your product lines may be different if you are planning to sell to wholesale rather than retail customers (for example, sides of meat instead of joints and other cuts). You might decide to target ethically minded consumers by offering a range of Fairtrade products

You might decide to adopt a general trader approach, dealing in a range of different items depending on what comes your way. This could apply to both secondhand and new goods.

Market traders say that the best lines in future will include:

  • cafes and take-away/hot food
  • handmade goods
  • mobile phones and accessories
  • fruit and vegetables
  • baked goods
  • chilled/deli food

On the other hand, they think that sales of the following lines are likely to do less well:

  • fashionwear
  • footwear
  • electrical goods
  • lingerie, nightwear and hosiery
  • books, magazines and stationery
  • leather goods
  • toys and games

Seasonality

Some permanent, covered markets are busy all year round, with most demand occurring on Fridays and Saturdays. Outdoor markets may suffer from low attendances if the weather is very poor. During the winter months you might have fewer customers if you operate from an outdoor pitch and also you might lose stock because it is damaged by wind or heavy rain.

On the other hand, good summer weather is likely to increase the number of people shopping in the market, particularly if you are located in a holiday area.

If you think that demand for your products will be higher at some periods than at others (for example at Christmas time) don't forget to amend your cash flow forecast to reflect higher sales income and also higher stock costs in those months.

Establish your customer profiles

Depending on the nature of your business you may be selling to other businesses or to members of the public. For example, you might be proposing to set up your stall in a wholesale market and sell to other businesses - perhaps selling fresh produce to greengrocers, convenience stores, catering and hospitality businesses and so on.

If you plan to operate from a retail market, your customers are likely to be mainly members of the public. Many of these will be local residents, but if you live in a holiday area you are likely to see many tourists as well. (Visiting a market is a popular tourist activity.) You might also have a certain amount of wholesale trade as well. For example, you might sell a range of takeaway ice creams to passing shoppers as well as supplying local cafes and restaurants with large 4 litre packs.

Retail market traders sell to customers of all ages of course but the most common age group for three quarters of market shoppers is 40 to 49. When you're deciding what to sell you might want to take into account the likely age group of your customer base.

Discounts

Customers love getting a bargain and you may find that many of them will haggle to get a bit knocked off the price. Be prepared to round your prices down every now and then - it will keep your customers coming back to your stall.

If you have trade customers as well as retail customers you will probably allow them a trade discount from your normal retail price.

Price your products

Whatever you decide to sell, getting the price right is very important. You must make sure that the difference between the cost price and the selling price is enough to cover all of your operating costs, including your own drawings, and still make a reasonable profit. Customers often expect market traders' prices - particularly at single day events - to be lower than prices on the High Street so you will have to make sure that your prices are competitive and attractive. In particular, make sure that you always offer good value for money - market traders who sell highly priced poor quality goods quickly earn a bad reputation.

When working out your pricing policy, bear in mind that you may be affected by:

  • wastage and stock losses. Your goods may be highly perishable or they may become damaged because you frequently load and unload them at different market venues, leave them exposed to the elements and so on. The layout of most market stalls also encourages customers to pick things up to take a closer look, which can lead to damage
  • theft. Some market stalls are open on two or more sides and this can make it difficult for the stall-holder to keep an eye out for shoplifters. Be especially wary if you plan to sell toys; children often work in gangs and while some distract the trader, others steal from the concealed side of the stall

Market operators

Markets may be operated either by local councils or by private operators, with local councils operating three times as many as private operators. As a general rule, permanent daily markets are run by the council while private operators organise single day events such as craft fairs, Christmas fairs, car boot sales, farmers markets and so on.

A market superintendent manages the market, collects the rent and will:

  • allocate pitches
  • make sure that the market has a good spread of different types of business
  • handle applications for vacant stalls

Most market operators require traders to take out public liability insurance.

Fairtrade

Recent years have seen an increase in consumer demand for ethical products that help producers and farmers in the developing world. You could meet this demand by stocking a range of Fairtrade products. This would show potential customers that your business is ethically aware and committed to fighting global poverty. Offering Fairtrade products can also be a good way to differentiate your business from its competitors.

What is Fairtrade

Fairtrade guarantees a fair deal for disadvantaged producers and farmers by making sure they receive a fair price for their work and goods. Fairtrade items are generally slightly more expensive than similar products - but more and more people are happy to pay a little extra to help producers become self-sufficient. All Fairtrade products are marked with the easy to recognise Fairtrade Mark and there is a huge range available including fruits, teas, coffees, chocolate, and even footballs and clothing.

How does it work

The Fairtrade system works by paying producers a set minimum price for their goods, giving them a living wage. On top of this, producers also get an extra sum of money to invest in their business or community. This is called the 'social premium'.

In return, Fairtrade producers must meet certain standards. These are set by Fairtrade International. Only licensees, such as importers and manufacturers, that are registered with the Fairtrade Foundation can apply the Fairtrade Mark to a product. So you'll probably buy your Fairtrade goods either direct from manufacturers or importers or - more likely - from registered wholesalers and distributors in the UK. The Fairtrade Foundation website has a list of wholesalers throughout the UK that sell Fairtrade marked products to retailers.

Pricing

When you buy Fairtrade goods from a wholesaler or registered manufacturer, you can probably expect to pay a little more than you normally would for similar products. The slightly higher trade prices cover the set price and social premium that are paid to the farmer or producer, as well as supply chain costs and the cost of certification and product licensing.

Although trade prices for Fairtrade products are higher, you can probably charge your customers a little bit more for them. You may benefit from extra sales, too. The Fairtrade Foundation isn't involved in setting retail prices, so the mark-up you add is entirely up to you. While you'll want to cover your costs and retain a healthy profit margin bear in mind the purpose and aims of Fairtrade when you set your prices. The Fairtrade Foundation makes it clear that profit margins on Fairtrade items shouldn't be higher than on similar products.

Promoting Fairtrade goods

Offering Fairtrade products can be an attractive selling point for your business and can help to attract ethically aware customers. So it's important to make sure that potential customers know about the Fairtrade products you stock.

The Fairtrade Foundation is responsible for promoting Fairtrade in the UK and can provide useful materials and advice to help you to advertise your Fairtrade ranges. Any promotional materials that contain the Fairtrade Mark, like posters or leaflets, must be approved by the Foundation.

The Fairtrade Foundation organises a Fairtrade Fortnight each year to promote the Fairtrade system. This could be a good time for you to raise customer awareness about the Fairtrade products that you offer. For example, you could also put up posters on your stall promoting the benefits of Fairtrade and informing customers what Fairtrade products you stock.

Where to find out more

The Fairtrade Foundation is part of the international Fairtrade movement and oversees all aspects of Fairtrade in the UK - including retailing. For more information on Fairtrade, the range of products available and how you can get involved visit the Fairtrade Foundation website.

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