Discover Vintage America - APRIL 2017
Earning customer trust in an era of anxiety and cynicism
The last two decades have not been kind to the antiques trade. Shop closings and hours cutbacks (in which year-round shops are now open only in summer and fall in order to save money on fuel) continued apace. Traffic of actual buyers, as opposed to browsers passing the time between other destinations, has been sporadic. Competition from the margins of the trade – consignment and thrift shops, flea markets, and yard sales – has expanded even as the center has contracted. And the trade has not been immune from the single factor that affects the entire economy: consumer nervousness about discretionary purchases in a time of economic uncertainty.
A tall, whimsical version of a Rosenthal Dachshund by the famous Rosenthal artist Professor Theodore Karner around 1956. I collect Rosenthal and even though Rosenthal prices have remained consistently high, I probably paid more for this item than I could expect to get for it on resale (no plans!). Did it come to that, I would consider myself more than compensated for any financial loss on it by the joy the item has given me over the years!
Assuming nobody in a position of power to affect the economy does anything crazy or stupid to make the turtle of consumer confidence pull back into its shell, we should see that confidence continue to recover and the general economy, and the antiques trade along with it. The trade may not expand after the retraction of recent years, but it should be able to hold its own more comfortably.
At the same time, however, consumers have become more cynical about everything: political leaders, cultural trends, business of every kind, and – thanks to recent political developments – even facts themselves. The trade is not insulated from the effects of that cynicism.
The reputation of the trade has always been a tad sketchy; consumers have learned to be suspicious of its claims after being victimized by scams such as "married" merchandise presented as pristine period antiques.
While Internet auctions have been a boon to many buyers and sellers, they have also exacerbated consumer cynicism by too often misrepresenting age, authenticity, and condition of the items offered for sale. This all means that dealers in antiques and collectibles must work especially hard to gain and keep customer trust.
My predictions for the next 12 to 24 months in the trade:
- Dealers whose business practices have earned them a reputation for honesty and good faith
in dealing with customers will have a leg-up in the antiques market.
- With more disposable cash to spend, consumers will become more discerning in their choices, which means dealers carrying quality merchandise will be rewarded for their taste in inventory. (This doesn't mean dealers have to carry highest-end merchandise; it just means that whatever they carry should be among the best of its kind.)
- Most consumers will continue to be cost sensitive, which means dealers will need to be content with decent profit margins and avoid price
- Avid collectors, by contrast and depending on the type of consumer traffic in a sales venue, will continue to be willing to pony up at higher prices for older and rarer merchandise in pristine condition.
- Because collectors are more inclined to pay high prices for what they buy to begin with, collectors-turned-dealers trying to divest of portions of their own collections will have a tough row to hoe.
- High acquisition prices may mean little or no profit margin at all for resale and owners may even have to sell some items at a loss. (If you're in this situation and are serious about the trade itself, consider the monetary loss over collection acquisition as a kind of depreciation expense against the pleasure those items have given you. Then invest in some high-quality, low-acquisition-cost merchandise purchased specifically for resale so you can stay in business!)
- Buyers will continue to expect dealers to know what they're selling and to show some historical expertise related to the inventory they carry; tagging something a "glass dish" with little or no additional information may work if you're going to charge $2 for it, but not if you're going to charge $20 or more.
Peggy Whiteneck is a writer, collector (and now dealer) living in East Randolph, VT. If you would like to suggest a subject that she can address in her column, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.