Every day about ten thousand people come to the Roadium, a fifteen-acre plot in Torrance, California, to find bargains on everything under the sun from socks to RAM cards for computers. In times of economic downturn, vendors at mega flea markets like the Roadium give retailers like Walmart a real run for their money at prices far below the discounters.
Not much has changed in the nearly two decades since I came there to sell shirts on Wednesdays and weekends, save for the fact that the place is now open seven days a week with the increased demand. The air still swirls with the odor of textiles, plastic, metal, snack food, cardboard and dust all heated in the sun and carried in the South Bay breeze. The cacophony of vendors barking over each other to entice customers is a similar blast from the past. Distant memories become suddenly sharp and vivid.
While some might look back on the few years I spent at the Roadium and other swap meets in Southern California as “paying my dues,” I didn’t think of it that way as it was happening nor do I today. Certainly, it was an education all by itself, a laboratory for learning the fundamentals about every aspect of the clothing trade from manufacturing to merchandising and selling. The fascination and curiosity I still have walking through the site years later remind me of all the fun mixed with hard work.
Some members of my extended family looked down on what I was doing. “Don’t tell anybody that you’re at a flea market,” they warned me, as if I were somehow soiling their reputations by my action. If I happened to bring the subject up, they would quickly change it. All of that mattered precious little to me.
Instead, there were more urgent responsibilities that weighed upon my nineteen-year-old shoulders and thrust me into action. The helplessness of discovering my sick mother in bed in a pool of her own blood and the reality of my family not having any health insurance were beyond unacceptable. I was going to find a way to get it done. If any of those relatives had a better suggestion for me to pocket $500 or more per day than at the swap meet, I would have been all-ears.
The ritual of each day remained the same. Location is everything, and the best were lotted on a first-come-first-serve basis. It meant being there by 6:30 in the morning and sometimes as early as 4 a.m. The price of that premium spot could go as high as $500, but usually it averaged out to about $250. But on most days it was well worth taking the risk and going into the hole. Grossing $2000 in sales on a good day spoke for itself. Once the tent was set up, I would go to the nearby Carls Jr. for breakfast. By 8 a.m. I would have all the merchandise out and ready for the first customers.
Walking past row upon row of booths today as well as eighteen years ago, you can see all different levels of sophistication in how products are displayed. Some have their goods in a heap on a piece of plastic or a blanket covering the ground as if they were selling potatoes in a third world country village marketplace. At the other extreme you might see products displayed with the same care and attention to detail found at a high-end retail store. Some merchants cram every square inch with as much merchandise as possible. Others organize display their items to accentuate the quality and value that set them apart from their competitors.
I, too, started modestly with my t-shirts and others piled on the ground atop a tarp. I stood in the sun all day, but it didn’t take long before I invested in a tent. It was not rocket science that with each enhancement I made in the presentation, sales correspondingly edged up. The final act was to build a second story canopy on top of the tent that made my space and the goods I hung high atop it stand out from a good distance. That extra twenty minutes it took to set it up in the morning paid off big time. (That was my introduction to the power of merchandising!)
A couple of the shirt vendors I see on this return visit offer unmistakable knock-offs of the Roar brand, “borrowing” the distinctive cross and fleur-de-lis patterns and special patterns and stitching. Success in this business breeds its own notorious version of imitation as a highest form of flattery. Had it been J.C. Penney, it would have been a different matter. Trust me, I have seen first hand how audacious fraud can be. Factories in Asia have been discovered sending whole shipments of bogus Roar shirts to Africa and elsewhere, copying the labels and falsifying the RN identification numbers on the inside collar tags to perfect the illusion.
But the sellers here will hear no anger from me nor receive a cease-and-desist letter from my attorney. Instead I smile. It is poetic justice. I, too, was once in their shoes. I also sold knock offs of the big brands popular at the time when I first started. Back then, if an inspector happened to be on site busting people for counterfeit product, word would spread like the beating of jungle drums. I would quickly place some solid colored shirts on top of the stacks of Tommy Hilfiger or Guess fakes.
Fortunately, I soon moved on to something more legitimate and better. I decided then and there an important aspect that is still the lifeblood of the Roar organization. I had to offer something a cut well above the competition. I wanted to have the attitude that would invite a customer to go over to another booth for the simple reason to discover how no one else’s product could rival ours. People are intelligent! Quality does matter. They can feel the texture of a finer fabric and sense that the colors will not run or bleed. As a result, we cultivated repeat customers.
Looking back on the few years I worked the flea market at the Roadium, there were two incidents that rose to that level to be termed that cliché-sounding but appropriate expression “a defining moment.” The unifying factor with both is that neither story seems remarkable or noteworthy at face value. Yet they came together and worked in tandem to send me a loud message.
I had reached my goal of getting the health insurance coverage for my family. What’s more, I had a scraped together around $30 thousand in savings, a nice cushion in the early 1990s for a young man who still hadn’t turned twenty-one. Yet on one particular weekday, things were not going as well as I would have liked. With just $30 in sales for the day, I decided to take a break and walked towards the snack stand. I happened to pass by a guy selling statues. They were on a cloth on the ground, and without a canopy the statues glistened in the sun. Among them were all sorts of predators, including lions, tigers and panthers. One figure, specifically that of a black panther, caught my eye. His mouth was wide open, and he was roaring. I thought it was cool. Without giving it so much forethought, I bought the statue. I took it home and placed it the room that served as my first office. In the panther’s presence, I began to look anew at myself. Was there something in me of a kindred spirit? But was I engaging my life with anything close to the courage, passion and strength expressed in that animal’s roar?
On another slow day shortly thereafter, I was counting my losses, $100 in the hole after the expense of securing my premium spot. A man came up to me and suddenly asked if he could buy all the shirts I had. The whole lot. Wholesale. That opened up a whole new world. It was as if that big black cat at home looked at me from afar and winked.
“Roaring Flea” is an excerpt from the forthcoming autobiography, Roaring Failure, by ROAR Founder and CEO, Deepak Vasandani.
Copyright©2011 Deepak Vasandani. All Rights Reserved.