The Floundering of Antiques Shows: Eight Ways to Bring Customers Back

An Ohio reader’s e-mail begins: “As a soon to be 30-year dealer, I want to weigh in on (the issue of the death of antiques shows). Our area is currently watching the demise of one of its premier shows. It is not the dealers or buyers that are to blame. It is the show promoter.

“An antiques show or flea market is not rocket science, so why is it so difficult for some promoters to ‘get it together?’ There is a saying in the show car trade: don’t go to a car show that is not run by a ‘car guy.’ This is also true in the antiques trade . . .”

Author’s Aside: As an independent researcher in the antiques and collectibles trade, I have the opportunity to view the trade through multiple eyes—appraisers, auctioneers, collectors, dealers, the general public, mall owners, show promoters, etc., I have learned many truths in my 30-plus years observing the field. Two are: (1) we can learn from each other, and (2) the blame game is counterproductive. I want to share my reader’s suggestions. My comments, which follow, are meant to add perspective, not detract the reader’s points. Her thoughts are valid from a dealer’s perspective, and every show promoter should take them under advisement.

“These are some of the issues,” my read goes on to say, “that show promoters need to address:”

Harry Rinker1. “Pick a time and location for the show and be consistent. If this is a regular show, strive to be regular.”

This is easier said than done. A large show in another venue, especially if it sells hotel rooms and meals, will bump an antiques show from its regular dates. Antiques and collectibles shows are fills for most convention centers, not prime clients. This is why many promoters have trouble holding fixed dates.

Author’s Aside: I appear at Home and Garden shows several times during the year. Promoters face the same issues as antiques and collectibles show promoters. Home and Garden shows are also one-day crowd shows. Attendees drive from home, shop the show and drive back. They do not go out for dinner in the show’s area nor spend the night. Many exhibitors stay in inexpensive hotels/motels in the area, as opposed to the more expensive hotels near the convention center. Convention center managers are pressured to give first preference to events that financially support local business.

2. “Seek out and promote quality dealers. They are out there looking for the right show… Give the perk to the GOOD dealer, not an extra space to the T-shirt guy, because he came on the last day and (there happens to be) an extra space.”

The golden age of the small (less than 50 dealers) antiques and collectibles show has long passed. A few shows survive, but their number continues to decline. Thanks to Super Malls, antiquing towns, Interstate intersection antiquing destinations and extravaganzas, buyers expect volume. The old business axiom of “there is money in the numbers” applies.

The attributes of a “quality” dealer very much depends on the person doing the defining. The traditionalist antiques dealer assumes “quality” identifies individuals selling objects made before 1920 or at the very least 1940. A show promoter assigns “quality” to those dealers who (1) price their merchandise to sell, (2) have merchandise that attracts customers, especially young buyers, to the show, and (3) have a client base that returns show after show.

I share my reader’s concern over the growing addition of non-related booths at shows billed as antiques and collectibles shows. If a promoter is forced to add this material to meet expenses, he should divide his exhibit space into sections that provide a clear merchandise distinction.

3. “Make sure that parking is done in a logical fashion. I once arrived at a show early and was directed to the back of the grounds.”

I am early because I am an interested buyer and do not want to buy things and schlep them across the grounds. I have visited many antiques and collectibles flea markets and shows where dealers take all the front parking spaces, especially on the last day. I tend to never return. Front spaces should be reserved for buyers.

Many show promoters designate special parking spots for dealers. The antiques and collectibles business, of course, is filled with an abundance of ornery and independent cusses who take special delight in breaking rules. This is one of many nightmare scenarios that haunt show promoters.

4. “Every location has ‘primo’ spaces. Make sure that these are awarded to the good dealers. Some of the best spaces at our local declining show are saved for a semi-load of European reproductions.”

Show promoters award front and end of row spaces to those dealers who sell the best or to furniture dealers, one of the most difficult groups to attract to a show. If I was a dealer, which I am not, my goal would be to keep the same space and not worry about its location. Good dealers rely on repeat business from steady customers. When a dealer moves from one location to another in a show, customers do not always find them. More often than not, the customer sees another dealer in the accustomed space and assumes the previous inhabitant is no longer doing the show. The customer does not take the time to check the show newspaper or walk the show to see if the dealer has moved. A good dealer makes whatever space he/she is assigned a primary location.

Ask A Worthologist5. “If the promoter is going to charge an early buyer’s admission, make sure that the buyer paying for that premium ticket is able to view and buy items from dealers. It is just as important (perhaps more) for dealers to be manning their booths during early buyers hours as it is on Sunday afternoon.”

Dealers traditionally used set-up as a time to roam a show and buy. The addition of the “early buyer,” a non-dealer who pays a fee to shop the show during set-up, changed the dynamics. Promoters introduced early buying in search of a new revenue stream. I have never felt comfortable with it. Early buying, like the buyer’s penalty (I will not call it a premium) at auctions, is now a fact of life. Little is gained by arguing.

Dealers deserve the opportunity to shop a show before the general public is admitted. Those dealers who do not have additional help face a dilemma—stay in their booth to serve early buyers or seek out bargains they can resell to favorite customers. The early buyer has to accept the show as he finds it during set-up. Dealers must be back in their booths when the doors open to the general public. However, they are free to do what they like prior to this.

6. “Advertise realistically. If a show is going to have 50 dealers state this . . . don’t advertise 500 when only 200 signed up.”

Nothing disappoints a potential buyer more than when a show does not live up to its advertising hype. An angry customer is not a comfortable buyer.

7. “Make it mandatory that dealers price their merchandise. I am not worried about the seller ‘sizing’ me up, but I weary quickly waiting for a dealer to give me a price on an item that should be marked. I know that tags occasionally fall off, but it is not unusual to go into a booth where nothing is priced.”

I do not buy from dealers who do not price their merchandise. The price is the offer to sell, not the fact that the merchandise is displayed for sale. I walked away from some highly desirable pieces because they were not priced. Alas, most customers do not find the lack of pricing objectionable. This is another practice like early buying and the buyer’s penalty that will not change. Each individual has to let his conscience be his guide in determining how to handle it.

8. If a promoter is going to host a Web site, keep it current!”

Right on! I could not agree more. Credibility and trust are critical elements in the antiques and collectibles trade. When information is not reliable, credibility and trust are lost. Alas, customers tend not to focus their anger on one individual when encountering a problem but the trade as a whole.

Thanks to all the “Rinker on Collectibles” readers who have taken the time to send e-mails and letters in response to issues I have raised in my columns or to share their insights into the business. Please keep them coming.


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

You can listen and participate in “WHATCHA GOT?,” Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show 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 letters will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5093 Vera Cruz Road, Emmaus, PA 18049. You also can e-mail your questions to 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. 2009

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