For Southern California residents on a limited budget, holiday shopping doesn't mean queuing up at Bloomingdale's or stuffing their carts at Toys R Us. Instead, these folks take their money and their shopping lists outdoors to a world of unfettered capitalism--weekend swap meets.
It's a freewheeling atmosphere where merchants from all walks sell an eclectic variety of wares from car seat covers to designer fragrances.
Will you find knockoff merchandise there? You bet. Counterfeit products? Very likely. Of course, the big question for most shoppers is whether they can find a bargain. The answer? For sure.
Despite their eccentricities, swap meets do have one thing in common with their regional mall counterparts, a big Christmas business.
That means adjusting inventory for the holidays, switching from automotive equipment or knickknacks to toys or Christmas decorations.
One entrepreneur at the swap meet at Orange Coast College meet said he bought ornaments, stockings and other holiday goodies in bulk after last Christmas when they were selling for a fraction of their original price. He stored them all over his house throughout the year, then marked up the price for the current holiday shopping season. One day the vendor, who asked not to be named, cleared $800.
These sellers get their products from a variety of sources--direct from a manufacturer who may have products with minor defects or surplus goods, from wholesalers, from retailers who are going out of business, even from other swap meet vendors who may have priced a product too cheaply. Everything's fair game.
For holiday shoppers, swap meets offer an opportunity to get a little sunshine while they search for bargains.
"The malls are too heavy with people and there's too much traffic," said Edwina Lupercio, 36 of Santa Ana who strolled through the Orange Coast meet in Costa Mesa Sunday with a friend. "Here I can find toys for the kids, cheap clothes and shoes."
Lupercio has plenty of company. The operators of Orange County's largest swap meet, the Orange County Market Place in Costa Mesa, said 60,000 came through the gates over the weekend, about 25% above the average crowd the rest of the year.
"I think clearly the swap meet phenomenon is gaining in popularity with certain segments of the population," said Nate Franke, partner with Deloitte & Touche's retail services division in Orange County. "You can go to one place and get a large spectrum of goods at a much lower price."
As a result, swap meets are taking business away from some lower-end clothing outlets and other retailers, Franke said.
Annual sales figures for this predominantly cash business are hard to track. The state lumps swap meet sellers in with part-time street vendors and home-based businesses, and not all merchants report their sales to the state. Still, these retailers generated $1.05 billion in sales last year, up 2.5% from $1.03 billion in 1994, according to the state Board of Equalization.
The California Swap Meet Owners Assn., which represents large swap meet owners, has 20 members who operate about 40 sites, said president Rick Landis. But there are hundreds of swap meets throughout the state, he said.
At most of the swap meets, shoppers dig through a mix of garage sale-type merchandise as well as the new goods.
The merchandise at Orange Coast, for example, included copycat Oakley Full Metal Jacket sunglasses selling for $15, a fraction of what the authentic version would command. Electronic toys and games imported in bulk from Taiwan were being snapped up at three for $10. Around Christmas, vendors say, the best selling items are toys, perfume, clothing and jewelry.
At some of the larger venues like Orange County Market Place and Santa Fe Springs Swap Meet, operators have become more sophisticated, adding food outlets, entertainment, ATMs and even a Santa for the kids. Some swap meets are operating extra days--and offering gift-wrapping services.
Some of the operators are also trying to change the image of the swap meet by cracking down on counterfeit products and trying to weed out sellers of obscene merchandise.
But many shoppers are looking for rip-offs at bargain prices, said swap meet organization's Landis, who also is general manager of the Santa Fe Springs Swap Meet. "Because of the high price of the branded items, there is a market for that," he said. "But we don't really want that market out here."
"It's very cheap for people to buy things here," said George Trejo, who sells toys from a booth at Orange Coast college. Trejo and other toy retailers may not be able to sell parents that must-have toy like a Tickle Me Elmo or Warner Bros.' Space Jam figure, but they can sell parents superheroes from last year or knockoff Barbies and baby dolls that will help round out a parent's list.
"Out here [shoppers] don't have to pay tax and its cheaper than the stores," said Huey Tran, 40, of Garden Grove.
Booth rents that range from $12 to $50 a day allow sellers to keep their overhead low and keep prices down.
Swap meets began to sprout up in California in the 1960s and 1970s and spread across the Sunbelt like wildfire in the 1980s. In many cases, they filled a void for drive-in theater operators seeking a way to use their space during the day. Many drive-ins have since closed and been redeveloped, but swap meets are hooking with another institution--colleges.
Faced with budget cuts, many schools are turning their parking lots over to weekend swap meets to raise money. In Orange County, Orange Coast College, Cypress College, Saddleback College in Mission Viejo and Golden West College in Huntington Beach have gotten into the act.