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So you want to be an Antique dealer?
It seems in this day and age many folks are looking for a new career, or a profitable way to spend their spare time. Some just want to leave the corporate rat race and do something they love. Many folks have chosen to try the antiques & collectibles business whether in a shop, with antique mall booths, auctions, picking for other dealers, or on the internet.
In this article, I will discuss some concerns and pitfalls, that folks will have to deal with, as well as some of the positive things to expect.
About the Author:
I have been a collector most of my life.I am a serious collector of antique fishing tackle and fishing & hunting related memorabilia. I have been a full time antique dealer for many years with a shop in Western North Carolina, Drexel Grapevine Antiques, and booths in numerous antique malls. My website is www.drexelantiques.com. I have been selling on Ebay since it started, as well as on other online auction sites. Licensed auctioneer in North Carolina and an appraiser. Undergraduate, and graduate degrees in business management.
In the beginning:
Many folks come into the business through prior interest. They may have been collectors who have decided to turn their hobby into a business. The first requirement is knowledge. Make sure you know about the items you want to sell. You need to know values so you know what to pay for the merchandise and how to price it to sell. Some prices will be regional, depending on scarcity and how collectible it is in your area. Books on antiques, the internet, and actual experience handling the items can all help you learn about your merchandise. Visit antique shows, auctions, antique malls, and shops to learn about antiques. There are many websites on the internet for collector's clubs and many informational websites on specific types of antiques. Ask questions of other dealers, many will be glad to share their knowledge and help you learn.
I will discuss each type of sales venue below, with some tips, and advice on each.
Location, location, location. You have to have your shop somewhere where folks can find it. Either on a busy road, in a tourist area, or you have to have something else nearby that attracts folks to where they can find your shop. Signs can help, but if folks can't find you, you will not get the traffic you need to thrive. Good parking is a must if you are selling larger items, or at least parking close by with access to a loading zone. It is nice if your location is near other businesses that draw customers that also like antiques. Rather than being competition, other antique shops in the area of your store will bring antiquers to the area.
Having a shop is a great way to get to talk to folks and a great way to buy antiques. Once you are known in the area, folks will start bringing items to sell. The most important thing to learn is how to say no. Some will bring utter junk, and you have to be honest with these folks, but nice at the same time. I have seen dealer after dealer buy junk, hoping that maybe next time the seller will bring good stuff. That almost never works. Once they learn you buy garbage, then that is all they bring.
Listen to your customers. Many collectors will be much more knowledgeable about what they collect than you will be. You can learn from them about many areas of interest. Once you get some regular customers you will begin to get an idea of what they buy and can tailor your purchases to meet their needs. I would not buy an item for a particular customer though, unless you think you can sell it if that customer doesn't take it.
You need to gear your merchandise to your clientele. If you are in a wealthy area, and attract wealthy customers, you need to upscale your stock. In my area I get a mixture, but concentrate most of my merchandise on middle to upper middle income folks. It is good to have some higher end items, as well as some less expensive.
The chief drawback of a shop is cost. Either rent or the purchase price for the shop and overhead. Without a good location, it can be difficult to make enough money to cover expenses. The other chief drawback is that you are tied down to one spot. You need to keep regular hours and days.
Make sure your antique shop looks like an antique shop. Either an old house or an old storefront is ideal. In my opinion a brand new shop in the middle of a strip mall is not a good place to sell antiques for the individual dealer, though it does work for antique malls and some shops. Good parking is a must.
Greet all your customers, offer to help them, and make sure to thank them as they leave. This will insure repeat business, and also will cut down on shoplifting. Make sure small, high value, items are either within your sight when customers are in the shop or are locked up in showcases. Your customers deserve your attention. Do not chat on the phone, work on the internet, or etc. while you could be helping the customers. Some customers need more attention than others, some just like to be left alone to browse. Over time you will learn the needs of particular customers.
Keep your merchandise fresh. Buy and display new items regularly. Move your current stock from place to place within the shop. This is one area that having other venues to sell can help. It keeps it from looking like you have the same tired old merchandise. Don't be afraid to mark an item down if it hasn't sold in awhile, unless it's something top notch, then the right person may not have come along yet. Also don't be afraid to mark something up. Believe it or not, some things don't sell because people perceive them as being too cheap. It's always good to have some unusual pieces around as conversation items, they are a good way to get the customer talking, which will keep them in the shop. Be ready to provide information on these items.
When pricing your items, keep in mind your clientele and prices in your region. You won't do very well if all the other shops in your area are cheaper than you are. Some shops bargain, some don't. I am one of the minority who doesn't. By the same token, you can be too cheap and not make enough margin to stay in business. Also one thing to be conscious of, unless it's your intention to be the wholesale supplier for all the other shops in the area, you need to price high enough to cut out the dealer. Let me explain this a bit. I sell to many dealers, and value their business, but by the same token I don't want my prices so cheap that dealers come in and buy everything, then I'm left with no bargains for customers. I have never seen the need to offer additional discounts to dealers I see once in a blue moon, and not give that discount to a regular customer.
You can advertise yourself straight out of business. The costs of running ads can bankrupt you. Make sure you target your advertising very carefully. if you are close to a major highway, and can give simple quick directions to your shop, a sign or billboard may help, but it needs to pay for itself. Word of mouth will be your most powerful tool, so the secret of this is to treat everyone as you would like to be treated. Swap with other shops, give them your brochures, and put out their brochures. Promote other shops as folks are leaving yours. The more successful shops in an area, the better it is for everyone. Give out business cards everywhere. Talk to people about your shop, about the things they collect, it will build business. The longer you are in business, the more you will be approached to advertise in trade publications. When this happens, ask about the distribution, think about where you have seen their publication. Some are worth trying, but only if they build your business.
Merchandise can come from other shops, malls, flea markets, auctions, pickers, and etc. The majority of my items come from pickers and from auctions. I do get calls to attend yard sales many times, and I get calls to buy whole houses. Sometimes these leads are worthwhile, sometimes not. You often can get a feel for what is there by asking the right questions on the telephone. Do not be afraid to say no.
Antique Mall Booths
A great place to sell for the dealer who does not have time to handle customers, who doesn't want to do so. It is also a great supplement for the dealer with a shop. Antique malls seem to attract some clientele that doesn't regularly patronize individual shops. You can often sell items in mall booths you couldn't sell in your shop because they will attract a more diverse crowd. Also if you pick some malls some distance from you, you may be able to see some regional items you couldn't otherwise sell. Pick your malls carefully. You need heavy traffic, and regular buyers. Also pick your booth location in the mall carefully. Observe the traffic patterns in the mall. Booths where folks begin their shopping and booths right at the end seem to do best. If you go into any given mall, you will find a majority of customers will follow a certain path, sometimes to the right, at times to the left . Avoid having your booth in an area folks tend to skip, or miss. I prefer booths close to the front, near the cash registers, both because I think it leads to impulse purchases and it provides greater protection from shoplifters. In most malls having a booth upstairs, or downstairs, from the main floor is not a good idea. Many customers simply are not going to climb stairs, and since these booths are generally discounted, and do not sell as much, your better merchandise is usually on the main floor. You may have to take one of these booths in a popular mall, but move as soon as you can to the main floor.
Antique malls generally charge rent by the square foot, and often a commission on sales. One thing I can't emphasize enough, cheap is not always the best choice. Some of the malls I am in are the most expensive in the area, but they justify the cost through traffic and sales. Other local malls that are less expensive simply do not have the traffic or sales. Look for high tourist traffic, quality merchandise, good parking, helpful sales folks. As the mall owners what most of their booths sell each month. I take what my merchandise I sell costs, add in the rent and other mall expenses, and if I can't double that for the average month, I will soon move out of that mall.
An attractive display is important. You need to have plenty of merchandise in the booths, but you also need to make sure they don't become so cluttered that buyers won't enter them. I am a large man, and I get so claustrophobic in some booths I hesitate to enter them for fear of knocking things over.
Running An Antique Mall
Your chief outlays will be rent (unless you own the building), salaries, and advertising. Many of the same criteria for an antique shops apply, location, traffic, and parking. It is a good way to go as your profit isn't necessarily dependant on sales as you also receive rental for booths. To me the ideal combination in this instance is to combine both the mall with your own merchandise. Rent out enough booths to pay for expenses, and make extra profit out of selling your own merchandise. One very important consideration here is to make sure you don't spend more time selling your items than you spend selling items that belong to other dealers. Starting as a small mall may be a good way to start a shop. The booths help pay for the building, and as you buy more merchandise, and dealers move out, you gradually replace their items with your own.
Knowledge of antiques is not as important in this area as it is for the shop owner, but knowing antiques will certainly help. It is always good to have employees who like, and are knowledgeable about, a wide variety of antiques. This may not always be possible, but one way around it would be to set up a work program for dealers, maybe giving them a discount on rent for days they work. You need to make it clear though that when they do work, their job is to sell everyone's items, not just their own.
The majority of malls I know charge a basic booth rental, locally around $1.00-$1.25 per square foot, and a percentage of sales as a commission. Anywhere from 3-10%. This will vary depending on location. If you are in a tourist area with high traffic, and your booths are constantly full, you can hit the higher end of this scale, and if sales justify it, perhaps a bit more. Your dealers need to be successful, or they will leave. Some malls also charge fees for advertising, electricity, insurance and etc., I've always thought it is best to build these fees into the rent.
One mall I am involved with lets the dealers vote each year on whether to collect a fee for additional advertising. With 100% of the fees collected used to advertise the mall. This may be a good way to increase the advertising budget.
The mall owner should also work to insure the quality of the merchandise in his mall. He should require dealers to either remove, or plainly mark, reproductions. A gentle word in a dealer's ear about pricing, or the type of items to offer, may help him be successful. This applies both for dealers who price too high, as well as dealers who consistently price too cheap. You do want there to be some bargains in the mall. It's important to recruit good dealers. If you do not have a good furniture dealer, find one. Ads in trade papers may help recruit, also talk to antique shop owners, you may be able to persuade them to try a booth or two. Talk to your current dealers, let them know what merchandise seems to be selling and encourage them to stock it in their booths.
An antique mall owner needs to do all he can to protect dealers against shop lifting. Both from browsers in the mall, and from other dealers ,sadly it does happen, I have been the victim of this several times. Keeping small, valuable, items in locked showcases, greeting customers as they come in the mall, and encouraging employees to walk around,. speak to people, offer to help, will add to security. Video cameras and even fake cameras can, and do, help. Since you are protecting other people's items, I would think it would be mandatory to have a top of the line alarm system to protect against break-ins.
It is very important for the mall owner to have a bookkeeping system for keeping straight all purchases, and to insure sellers are paid in a timely manner.
Some promotional ideas for antique malls include wine and cheese parties, art showings, Antique Roadshow style antique appraisals, auctions, and etc.
There is no reason not to add this as an option. Whether the website is your only way to sell, or just as an addition to an antique shop, mall, auction sales, or etc. a website can either serve as a sales venue, or just as an advertisement for your physical business. My website does both. It allows you to tell more about yourself, your business, interests, and more. Websites are bargains, small "signpost" websites can be had virtually for free. My website costs less than $300 a year and it pays for itself every week.
A website can be built with just a little technical knowledge. Anyone who can run a computer can do so. You can make them as complicated or as simple as you would like. I keep my website simple, and easy to navigate on purpose. You do not need a deep knowledge of computers or HTML for a successful website. There are some inexpensive, or even free, website creation software out there. Or your website host may have an editor to use. These are fine for a signpost site, or small site. For a large site something like Frontpage, Dreamweaver, or similar will be needed and will add site management functions.
No matter how good your website is, how many wonderful items you have for sale, it does no good unless folks can find it. Promote it on everything you send out. Business cards, brochures, mailings, stationary, and etc. Links on other similar sites are very important. The trade off is that to get others to put a link to your website, on their site, you will have to have a link page to return the favor. If folks don't find what they want on another site, they may find it on your site. Search engines are important, honestly, unless you have a huge budget to promote your site, you aren't going to be very successful getting a good listing with the most popular search terms such as antiques, collectibles, Pottery, and etc., but you can get good search engine rankings with more obscure search terms. It also helps to have articles, research materials, and etc. on your website. You can then often get links on other sites you wouldn't be able to otherwise. This page is a good example of what I mean. Banner ads and the like in my experience do not work very well.
One word of caution if you run an antique shop or mall, you will get calls from people wanting to build a signpost website for you. Often they say they can bill it to your phone bill. Do not do this! The site may actually be created, but nobody will be able to find it. Get a domain name and build your own, or hire someone locally who is knowledgeable about computers to do it for you. Best to do it yourself, really it's not that hard. If you have any questions in this area, I would be glad to help.
The site needs to be easy to navigate, clear, easy to read, and needs to load reasonably fast. Make sure to test your site with both Internet Explorer and other browsers. Items for sale need to be categorized and easy to find.
The site needs to be updated on a regular basis. When you sell an item, it needs to be removed right away. If you let a site get stale folks will quit coming.
If you use your site as a signpost for your shop, auction, eBay auctions, or etc. make sure folks know how to find you, tell what you are about, and tell more about yourself and your business. Online users haven't met you face to face and it is important you do everything you can to let them know they can trust you and that they want to do business with you.
Online Antique Malls
This is an area I don't know a great deal about, but it may be an alternative for some folks to the traditional antique mall booth. I would think it would be important to pick an online mall with many users and a good reputation. Price fairly and competitively, but keep in mind the costs for listing the items. Good pictures and a full description would be a must, the same as you would need for a website or online auction. The advantages of it over a website would be ready made exposure, search engine rankings, and traffic. This would only be an advantage if the site had a good search engine and your items were not buried with hundreds of similar items. Some of the online malls I am familiar with allow folks to open storefronts within the mall. This will give you the opportunity to tell a bit about yourself, and your business. Two of the malls I know of are www.tias.com, and www.rubylane.com. Both eBay and Amazon both also offer shop format listings.
"Picking" for other Dealers
If you enjoy, and are good at, finding bargains, and do not have the time or the inclination to deal directly with retail customers this may be something for you. It is also something that can be done in your spare time. You can find items at yard sales, flea markets, and even in auctions, shops and malls, but you have to be able to buy it where you can sell it wholesale to a dealer. This takes knowledge of antiques, and time. Build a good working relationship with area dealers. Find out what they look for and will buy. Make sure when you price your items you leave the dealer enough room to make a fair profit. Don't be disappointed if a particular dealer doesn't take something you thought he would, another dealer will probably buy it. Get an idea of how much they will pay for different type of items. I have good relationships with many pickers, the secret is to let them know exactly what you are looking for, and educate them on these items.
Selling at Brick & Mortar Auctions
If you have storage space, or if you are good at finding some high value items, this may be an alternative for you. If you have the space, buy items and store them, until you have enough to hire an auctioneer to sell for you. Either at your place, or at their auction houses. You need to make sure you buy items folks want and that you can make a profit on. At most auctions, many sales are to dealers, so you will need to get merchandise you can afford to sell at wholesale prices. Some items will go for retail and beyond, those are the gravy for the auction seller. Commissions will run 15-25% and depending on the auctioneer, there will also be some advertising costs, set up for the auction itself, expenses and etc.
If you have a good eye, and know higher end antiques, you may also be able to do very well buying individual items and submitting them for auction, maybe just a few at a time. The key to success for items such as these is to find an auctioneer who has the clientele to pay top dollar for your items. Whether locally, or one of the big national auction houses that specialize in certain types of merchandise. I do this myself from time to time on high end items I know will not have much success selling locally. Commissions for the auctioneer are going to run from 15-35% of the selling price typically. Sometimes a cheaper auctioneer is not the best deal, one with better clients and more experience will make you more money in the end.
Running a Brick & Mortar Auction
First you will need to either be an auctioneer, or hire an auctioneer. You can either supply your own merchandise, or get items from sellers on consignment. In most states you will need an auctioneer's or auction firm license. You also will have to meet stringent bookkeeping requirements if you sell for other people. Good employees are a must to insure a friendly relationship with your bidders and to make sure everything runs smoothly.
The secret can be summed up in one word, Bidders. Without a good clientele an auctioneer is up a creek without a paddle. The secret of good crowds is advertising, insuring you have quality merchandise, and making sure everything is run fairly and on the up and up.
Know your local area, and your customers. What they are looking for and what they are willing to pay. You can be successful with either high end or middle of the road merchandise. It depends on if you can attract the right customers.
Written contracts are a must if you handle consignments. That and educating sellers on the auction process.
Meet and greet everyone before the auction starts, encourage them to ask questions. Once the auction starts do your best to accurately describe the items. make sure folks understand what is happening. Videotaping your auctions is a good idea in case there are any questions after the auction.
If you are already in the antique or collectible business, there is no excuse not to sell at internet auctions. Ebay, yahoo, Amazon and many others all offer venues for you to list items for auction In addition, Ebay and Amazon also offer storefronts that may be an additional area to explore..
The process is easy to understand and do. The key is finding merchandise you can sell and make a profit on. You may find items cheaply in your local area that will sell for much more somewhere else. They may do very well on eBay where you reach a much broader audience.
Ordinary items that you find in practically any antique mall, might best be reserved for malls and etc. Unusual items do best. maybe you don't have a collector for World's Fair items, and you buy a 1939 World's Fair bracelet. Put it on eBay, collectors will bid on it.
The key to success on internet auctions is writing a good description, with decent, fast loading, pictures, having fair terms, and offering good customer service. Price your items fairly, but research what other similar items bring. For popular items you often can start the bidding inexpensively. For less popular items you may need to choose a starting bid closer to retail price.
The more information you can provide about yourself, the more folks will trust you and bid on your items. . This can be accomplished through pages on the auction site where you can tell more about yourself and business, and through the feedback forums provided by most online auctioneers. If you provide good customer service, you will get good feedback. This helps you sell.
Income from internet auctions can serve as a good supplement to a shop, mall, website, or etc. It can help add some cash for folks with a full time job, or can even be a full time job if it interests you. it is one of the best ways to meet a cash flow problem. Say you have a major purchase you need to make, but don't have the funds, quickly run some auctions online to generate the money.
Even if you don't have merchandise to sell you could also do well handling consignments of antiques for others. Consignment customers could come from classified ads, antique shops, antique malls, and etc, who don't already sell online. Make sure you use a written contract if you handle consignments. make sure the person you are selling for also understands how the auction process works.
I hope you have found my thoughts helpful. If you have any questions feel free to contact me. I will be glad to help in any way I can. I hope you will visit other pages within my site. You will find many pages of items for sale, as well as other articles and pages that may be of interest.
It is tough to be an antique dealer right now, and even tougher to make entry into the business. I still see a bright future for the business, but before it become reality we must first ride out the current economic crisis, and the long term effects of debt, taxes, and etc. that result from it. In that time, tastes will change. Customer demographics will change. Antique dealers will have to have the resources to survive, will have to direct their buying and selling in new areas. You will see many antique dealers and antique malls go out of business. I have already seen that on a widespread basis over the last few years.
Prices for top end antiques and collectibles have stabilized, and in some cases dropped. The bottom has fallen out for more common items. Auction prices are down for more common items, many by more than 50%. Auctioneers are less inclined to risk quality merchandise in this current economy. Many new dealers are entering the market, on the internet and malls as they try to replace the income from lost jobs. New collectors are becoming hard to find.
Recently I received an e-mail from a young woman interested in entering the antiques and collectibles field, I thought I would post my response below, in the hope it might help others entering the business:
Handle and examine as many pieces as you can. It is very important that you do so as only then can you relate what you read in the books to actual items. Doing so you can learn to distinguish construction methods, materials, that will help you tell fakes from real period pieces. You will learn to distinguish quality period items, from later reproduction or "style" pieces.
I wish you the best of luck in whatever career you choose, I hope you will find my thoughts helpful. If you have any questions, I will be glad to help in any way I can.
I hope these comments are of some value to you. If you have thoughts, comments, or just want to ask a question, please e-mail using the link below:
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