A million people enjoy haggling and finding curious, useful and sometimes valuable items at car boot sales every weekend. But if local authority officials have their way, such sales could be severely restricted.
According to Britain's first study of the events, many authorities are arguing that the sales are unregulated, out of control and undermining traditional markets.
Authors Nicky Gregson of Sheffield University and Louise Crewe of Nottingham University argue that people get a kick out of the good-humoured atmosphere at sales which high street shops do not offer. Buyers are not just after bargains either: spending averages Pounds 8 per person per visit and earning between Pounds 80 and Pounds 800 per vendor.
The study was backed by the Economic and Social Research Council and involved interviews with 300 buyers and sellers at boot sales in Nottingham, South Yorkshire and north-east England. A postal survey of 350 local authorities was also carried out.
The most popular buys are children's clothes. Items bought to "sell on" include clothes and equipment for babies, videos, kitchen utensils and DIY tools. The maximum number of purchases by a consumer recorded by the researchers was 94 and the most spent was Pounds 100.
Far from being the poor and unemployed, 40 per cent of buyers were employed; 16 per cent in part-time work and 21 per cent retired. Two-thirds of the comsumers surveyed were aged 25-55 and men and women were found to be fairly evenly represented at the sales. Women typically bought and sold children's clothes, toys, ornaments and household goods with men showing greater interest in things such as DIY equipment, gardening tools and car accessories and parts.
The researchers say that while the chance of picking up a bargain is a key motivation for people going to the events, consumers are also attracted by the "human spectacle and the vendors' theatrical performances".
Many of the local authorities however are concerned that the events "flout retail legislation, especially trading standards". Metropolitan district councils were found to be the most aggressive enforcers of regulations with 58 per cent actively targeting car boot sales.
The authors say: "Car boots sales are clearly here for the long run. But any attempts to regulate them will kill off one of their principal attraction - the presence of a carnival spirit and the lack of conventionality".