The Antique Dealer’s Guide to Surviving the Aftermath of the Great Recession

The September 2008 economic slowdown became the smoking gun for America’s Great Recession of the late-2000s. The Great Recession “officially” ended in June/July 2009. Individuals experiencing a prolonged unemployment, inability to maintain their mortgage or those who are overwhelmed with credit card debt would disagree. The aftermath of the Great Recession, especially among the middle and lower class, is the worst rather than the best of times. Columnists and commentators cannot agree on what to call the post-Great Recession period: Lesser Depression, Little Depression, Bush Recession, Obama Recession, Double-Dip Recession, or Global Recession.

No matter what name is finally chosen, the reality is that America’s economic recovery is slow or staled, depending on which financial pundit one believes. Assuming it eventually will occur, recovery is five to eight years in the future. The majority who lived through the Great Depression are no longer alive to console and advise us. Those who lived through the post-1945 economic slowdowns and recessions never experienced anything like this. Changes are occurring on so many fronts that the average person cannot track them or their consequences. Outside forces beyond individual control shape our lives. It is hard to avoid a feeling of helplessness.

Given the above, the proverb that “this too shall pass” is hard to accept. Yet, it is true. Ten years from now, those who survive will look back and ask: “was it really that bad?” Do not believe the prognosticators of long-term gloom and doom. The future is always bright. All one needs is patience and persistence.

As a historian of the antiques and collectibles trade, I am amazed at its ability to adapt. There will be an antiques and collectibles trade in 2026, 2076, 2126 and long after that. It will change shape, but not form.

For the moment, the antiques and collectibles trade needs to do a mind-meld and think survival. The need is to preserve essential trade institutions and philosophies. While no survival manual exists, some basic principles apply.

First, do not panic. The sky is not falling. The antiques and collectibles field is far from collapse. In fact, there are plenty of signs that the field is healthy. The auction community remains strong. New national houses such as Heritage Auctions, regional houses like Neal Auction Company in New Orleans, and specialized auction houses are booming. Although Christie’s and Sotheby’s are struggling, they are not in danger of folding.

Well-managed antiques flea markets and shows have stabilized their dealer decline. While flea markets and shows may be smaller, the quality of the dealers and merchandise has improved. During a recent visit to the Allegan Flea Market, I felt as though I was back in the boom times of the early 1990s. Show attendance is increasing and despite the decrease in average sale amounts, dealers are selling enough to encourage their return.

The same applies to antiques malls. Although few new malls are opening, quality established malls continue to attract dealers and buyers. Antiques malls are more customer friendly than ever before.

Poorly managed auction houses, antiques flea markets, antiques shows and antiques malls are falling by the wayside. This is a much-needed market correction. The antiques and collectibles market grew beyond its comfort zone in the 1990s and early 2000s. Buyers are better served when dealers and their products are the best quality.

Second, think positively and promote the business. For decades, sellers have relied heavily on the premise that “if you build it, they (the customers) will come.” Today, the customers need to be told that (1) the building phase if finished and (2) sale venues are filled with merchandise customers can use for a wide variety of purposes from decorating to reuse.

Everyone in the trade needs to be a promoter. Promotion has to focus on the trade as a whole and not the personal benefit of the person doing the promotion. Everyone needs to be a cheerleader. The great good needs to be center stage.

Competition, often cutthroat, always has been an integral part of the trade. For the moment, let’s confine it to the flea market, mall and show aisles. When promoting the trade publically, it is time to follow Johnny Mercer’s advice to “accentuate the positive / eliminate the negative/ and latch on to the affirmative / don’t mess with Mister In-Between.”

Third, accept the realties. Do not bemoan them. Respond to them. Adapt. We live in a global technological age. The world is interconnected. Events in Japan, Europe and the rest of the world impact America. There is no better example than the recent wild swings of the American stock market. While the American antiques and collectibles market still is heavily regional and national in scope, opportunities for the greatest growth rest with those willing to serve clients outside America’s geographic boundaries.

Although not a technological dinosaur, I am technology resistant. I still use a basic cell phone instead of an iPhone. I do not own an iPad nor do I Twitter. However, I just finished teaching my first online course and now use Blackboard and a host of other software tools when teaching. Although still hesitant to buy from online storefronts, I am doing more. My Amazon purchases contributed to the decline of Borders. I have graduated from eBay to specialized websites; a growing antiques and collectibles sales vehicle. While cyberspace is no longer a new technological frontier, it remains so for antiques and collectibles. Collector Books and Krause (F+W Media) now offer eBooks. WorthPoint continues its assent as one of the trade’s leading sources for price information.

Record prices, especially auction prices, continue to make news. There is no recession in the ultimate unit/masterpiece market. Although representing a high percent of dollar volume, high-end buyers are a fraction of one percent of the market. The average buyer only has a limited amount of disposable income and this amount has decreased. This is reflected in a decrease in the average per unit sale for traditional sale venue dealers. Savvy dealers have reacted by (1) continuing to reduce prices and (2) seeking merchandise that can be sold for a profit at these lower price points.

At the moment, the customer is king, a situation that has not always been the case in the antiques and collectible trade. What the trade needs at the moment are more customers and not more dealers. Dealers once again are discovering the importance of building long-lasting customer relationships.

Fourth, join forces with those who are doing well. The independent—sometimes arrogant and defiant—entrepreneur is the heart and strength of the antiques and collectibles business, one that encourages and cherishes characters. The current rash of cable television antiques and collectibles reality shows is proof. Hopefully, this trend will continue.

However, there is strength in numbers in difficult economic times. Rather than compete, it is time to join forces, to put aside any reluctance to make the strong stronger. The more everyone in the trade supports those businesses which are doing well, the greater the survival chances for the industry.

Fifth, work to understand the trade’s new customer base. This is not an argument for out with the old and in with the new. There is and always will be a role for the traditional collecting categories. Aesthetic principles and quality transcend time.

The trade’s new customer base was born in the late 1970s and 1980s. Their memories and desires are different from those born in the mid-20th century. How they define, collect and utilize antiques and collectibles differs from the traditionalists. Rather than criticize the tastes and choices of these new customers, understand and embrace them.

Finally, keep the faith. When you feel down, visit a collector or antiques and collectibles sales venue and interact with other devotees. Never lose sight of the fact that the antiques and collectibles community is timeless. This sense of community keeps me alive. It will do the same for you.

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Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out Harry’s Web site..

You can listen and participate in Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show “Whatcha Got?” on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on the Genesis Communications Network.

“Sell, Keep Or Toss? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, And Appraise Personal Property” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site..

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Pond Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2011

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  1. Michelle says:

    Good article, and I wonder if customers might even consider quality antiques and collectibles as a better investment these days than the alternatives?
    I would love to hear more of your thoughts about the new buying habits mentioned above (“How they define, collect and utilize antiques and collectibles differs from the traditionalists.” ).
    Thanks for sharing your insight.

  2. Michelle says:

    Very interesting and informative article! I feel that price point can be an issue so if one can be fortunate enough to be at the right place at the right time and find a good buy, this deal should be passed along to the customer, especially in these hard economic times. By doing this it will not only generate more business but will certainly help in creating a repeat loyal customer base. People who love to collect, in my case I sell Primitive Country Antiques & Unique Artist Offerings, will purchase an item at an affordable price because it makes them feel good! After all, our homes reflect our personality and individual tastes. They also can be a comfort as we are surrounded with carefully chosen antiques we love to enjoy and appreciate for years to come. Collecting is also fun and gives us pleasure when the world around us seems to be topsy ~ turvy! When times are tough people do spend less, I agree but still want to purchase something special because this lifts their spirits and makes them feel good too. If the economy is off we all have to buckle down and try to still offer nice antiques at a price that won’t break the bank so to speak. 4:00 in the morning does come early but bargins are still to be had!

  3. Mary Paquette says:

    hello Mr. Rinker, I collect antique cars, I have a few from the 1930’s, that I have to sell soon. The Greatest Generation is now dying off, these lovely people are the ones that are interested in these cars, so tempest fugit. I have purchased twenty years ago, nineteen sixty cars that my generation,(Baby Boomer) could not afford, but now can buy. Around the same time I purchased early 1970’s cars, general lee, somkey and the bandit , fire bird, that my children were interested in. I’ m afraid that, this is the end for car collecting at least American cars, not to many Camery’s and other Asian cars will be wanted in the future! But my goodness ,.every time I get into these cars It’s like going back in time, love my 1934 Chevy Master shades of Al Capone! 1949 bakery truck, wish I was a child again, and My favorite my 1960 Little red Corvette (Route 66). And all the rest Make me feel wonderful. Your article are great, I feel I have learned something every time I read one. Until next time, be well, Mary Paquette

  4. Pat Garrett says:

    Have found your articles “comforting” when much is in the news (and heard from auctioneers and dealers) about current “buyers” not really being interested in “antiques”, but preferring new etc. I find it interesting that a current “fad” seems to be decorating in the “60s” style – the colors, the furniture design, fashion. Eventually, things do seem to return in a re-invented way. Maybe someone would like my 60’s vinyl records!

  5. I agree with you about pricing. I try to buy right so that I can pass on the savings to my customers. Just a question that one other dealer also sent you: outside of Mid-Century Mod, what are people born in the above mentioned late 70’s & 80’s buying? Could you please address this in an article? It would be very interesting to see your comments. Thank you, Gina