Why You Should Becoming an Antiques & Collectibles Show Dealer, Part I

During my February 2011 Oregon visit, I talked with Chris Palmer of Palmer Wirfs & Associates. In response to my “what’s new” question, Chris indicated she is offering a Dealers’ School this spring to encourage individuals to consider becoming show dealers. Debbie and Randy Coe, among others, are assisting her with the training.

[Author’s Aside: Rather than repeat the phrase antiques and/or collectibles dealer throughout this column, assume dealer means a person who sell antiques, collectibles or a combination of antiques and collectibles. What follows is applicable to all three types. Further, while this column focuses on reasons to become a show dealer, many apply to those thinking about becoming antiques mall, flea market or Internet dealers.]

The number of antiques/collectibles show dealers has been steadily declining for over a decade. Death plays a significant role. There are not enough new dealers, young or old, to replace retiring dealers. Show promoters who once had hundreds of names on their waiting list now face the prospect of reducing show size and canceling events. Recently, gate attendance revenue exceeded booth rental income at several shows.

The tragedy is that the show dealer decline is occurring simultaneously with a rise in show attendance. People are shopping. The demand for antiques and collectibles is growing. Show dealers, especially those willing to price their merchandise to market expectations and offer merchandise customers seek, are doing well.

Opportunities for new dealers to break into the middle level show circuit have never been greater. Show promoters, like Chris Palmer, are bending over backwards to provide encouragement and support. Hopefully, other show promoters will duplicate Chris’s Dealer School concept.

Chris Palmer and Debby and Randy Coe contributed their thoughts to this Top Ten list about why someone should consider becoming a show dealer. I added several of my own. My preliminary working list contained closer to 20 reasons. If I cannot convince you to think about joining the show dealer ranks after exploring 10 of them, an additional five or six is not going to tip the scale. While being a show dealer is not for everyone, including me, its appeal should be far more reaching than it is.

Reason No. 1: Become an independent business person; an entrepreneur

The dream of owning a business is almost universal. Being your own boss, the direct beneficiary of your labor and setting your own hours are just a few of the rewards.

While starting any business involves risk, becoming a show dealer is less risky than many other options, such as buying a franchise. Buying a franchise is expensive. In many cases, what appears to be independence is really dependence, almost to the level of servitude, to the franchiser. If successful, the franchise name gains more prestige than the franchisee. Establishing an independent storefront or service business places a heavy burden on the owner to be a jack of all trades and, like a franchise, requires a large amount of upfront capital.

The amount of capital to become a show dealer is less. If the potential show dealer is a collector, excess objects in the collection often comprise the initial show inventory. Selling material from an estate or downsizing is another common source of beginning inventory. Many begin with box lot material obtained at auctions. While an initial capitalization in the $5,000 to $10,000 range is recommended, many show dealers have started with less than $1,000 worth of merchandise.

Unlike other businesses, the support level for show dealers is high. Show promoters work closely with new dealers, offering a wide range of advice such as types of merchandise that sell well, proper price points and merchandising display tips. Other show dealers contribute. While there remains a small, old guard group that believes that since they had to learn by the seat of their pants, everyone else should as well, the majority of today’s dealers recognize every successful dealer strengthens the market. As such, they willingly answer new dealers’ questions and provide helpful tips.

Long-term success still depends on an individual’s buying, merchandising, selling and other skills. It also requires an ability to keep abreast of customer wants and to adjusting merchandise to meet these needs. While persistence and hard work is not always rewarded, the success rate is higher for show dealers than many other business ventures.

Reason No. 2: The business adjusts to the time you have available:

Becoming a part-time show dealer is the standard method of entering the business. Most dealers remain part-time. The show circuit provides supplemental income and/or a relief from full-time employment or retirement.

However, experienced and well capitalized dealers can make a living wage. Chris Palmer noted in an e-mail: “At our show two weeks ago, I spoke with a guy who has done our shows since he was in his mid-20s. He and his wife (they met in the industry) now have three kids, the oldest being 14. They have always made their entire living in the business. He commented that he works at is as if it was a 40-hour a week job, just like any other self-employed person . . . And there are many others in this category. You have to be flexible . . . and willing to put forth the effort.”

Show dealers have learned that the key to success—whether the dealer devotes 10, 20, 40 or 60 hours per week—is to treat what they do as a business. The goal is to make a profit. In the antiques and collectibles field, profit is measured in many ways. Financial profit is only one measure. Obtaining funds to add to a collection and/or cover travel expenses are others.

Reason No. 3: Experience passion, excitement, and fun:

Dealing in antiques and collectibles is not a neutral endeavor. While I advocate collecting what you love and selling what you hate (it is easier on the soul), most show dealers love what they sell. They sell the passion, allure and mystique associated with their merchandise. Dealers are as much dream and story merchants as they are recyclers of old things.

Excitement is everywhere, from the lure of the hunt to the joy of finding a new home for a treasured object. The show dealer’s hunt is far different from that of the collector. The dealer has eyes and ears everywhere. The challenge is to find objects as they first enter the market. The cost has to be such that it presents the opportunity for an honest profit on a quick turnaround.

Successful show dealers are aggressive and competitive. There is edginess about them. Adrenalin highs are par for the course. Pressure can and does build. When facing it, the best show dealers smile.

Authenticating and researching the history of the objects they sell is another source of excitement for the show dealer. Continuing education is part of show dealers’ lives. Object education is only one aspect. Show dealers enhance their skills by tracking trends within the trade, keeping up to date with the latest shifts in the decorating and fashion industries, utilizing new technology to expand their buying and selling efforts, and adjusting to global economic and social changes.

When buying and selling antiques and collectibles is done properly, show dealers have fun. This is a fun business. When I encounter a show dealer who tells me the business is no longer fun, I recommend he/she leave it. The business requires hard work and commitment. But when the work is fun, it is not hard. When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them I have fun and that I have never worked a day in my life. Of course, I am exaggerating. However, it is the passion, excitement, and fun in the world of antiques and collectibles that keeps me involved. It is the same for show dealers.

Hopefully, these three reasons have you thinking that becoming a show dealer has possibilities. The seven additional reasons in my next “Rinker on Collectibles” text column should clinch the deal.

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

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“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..

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