Rinker on Collectibles: City Prices vs. Country Prices

In a previous column discussing the current state of the antiques and collectibles market, I wrote: “Merchandise is priced to sell. Prices are the lowest I have seen in 10 years. In a few instances, price points have returned to those of the early to mid-1980s . . .” In response, I received an e-mail from Nick Ryan in Australia stating: “I would image the location of your markets would have the same impact on prices as it does here in Australia, with ‘city’ venues charging more for goods than their country equivalents. Of course city venues command a higher price for hire of location and other overheads being higher.”

Nick’s is not the first letter or e-mail I have received from abroad. “Rinker on Collectibles” is read globally. I take pride in keeping abreast of what is happening in the world of antiques and collectibles internationally, something that is far easier to do in 2011 thanks to a cadre of foreign trade periodicals, friends and the Internet. Each month I read “Antiques & Collectables for Pleasure and Profit,” an Australian periodical, within days of its arrival. No trip to Europe is complete until I acquire copies of the latest antiques and collectibles magazines and newspapers from the country/countries I visit.

Upon first consideration, Nick’s suggestion that city prices are higher than country prices appears reasonable. Growing up in Hellertown, Penn., I constantly was told “everything costs more in the big city.” The list was endless—clothing, health care, housing, insurance, meals, etc. Big cities and their wealthy suburbs still head all the “Most Expensive to (fill in the blank)” lists.

In the antiques and collectibles field, major auction houses are located in big cities—Boston, Chicago, Dallas and New York in the United States; Geneva, London and Paris in Europe. The same applies to antiques shops, antiques shows and art galleries. The high end of the business has an urban/metropolitan flair. Conceding this, it is time to move on.

Based upon my recent field experiences, I am going to take exception to Nick’s assertion. Depending on what you are buying and where you are looking, prices in the city can be considerably lower than in the country.

The Chicago Antique Market—in at the Randolph Street Market—located on the west end of downtown, is a case in point. Booth rent ranges from $75 to $350, depending on the size of a booth. The Ann Arbor Antiques (Mich.) Market charges between $90 and $295. A single booth at Zurko’s Midwest Promotions Grayslake (Ill.) cost $75 outdoors and $145 indoors. The cost differential to set up in the city is not significantly greater than the countryside. Although I did not do a similar cost analysis for antiques malls or mid-size antiques shows booth rental, I suspect the same applies.

Admittedly, booth rent is only one of the many costs in selling. Lodging and meals are cost considerations. Thanks to Internet sites such as Expedia and Pricepoint, it is possible to obtain city rates that are competitive with and sometimes cheaper than those in the countryside. The Holiday Inn Express just outside of Hellertown quotes single night rates ranging from $119 to $156. With a little effort and luck, it is possible to find rooms in even the largest city for $150 to $200 per night.

My wife Linda and I eat out a great deal. There is no price difference between the steaks on the menu at The Chop House in Grand Rapids and the better Chicago steak houses. The McDonald’s $1 menu is not limited to the countryside. I know this because I am cheap. When it comes to saving a buck, I am a pro. I would rather spend my money buying an antique or collectible than on something that provides only momentary pleasure.

After my quick walk through the Randolph Street Market on May 28, 2011, Sally Schwartz, the show manager, asked for my initial impressions. “I cannot believe how reasonable the prices are. Your dealers came to sell,” I said.

Sally responded: “The competition is fierce. Dealers have to price their material competitively. If they do not, they will not do business. Our customers know the market. They will not buy if the price is not right.”

The Great Recession taught antiques mall owners and managers such as Rick and Dan at the Little Antique Mall in Lincoln City, Ore. and show promoters like Chris Palmer of Palmer Wirfs & Associates the importance of encouraging dealers to focus on affordability and sell through rather than the one big kill. Sally obviously practices this as well.

The Chicago Antique Market was an eye opener. I had avoided big city antiques and collectibles antiques malls and street markets based upon the established belief that city prices are higher. I never took Linda to the SoHo Antique and Flea Market in New York, even though she constantly suggested we go and I keep hearing snippets from individuals who attended about the great bargains there.

I know better. I attended Stella’s New York Pier Show several times. Every time I went, I found plenty to buy at prices I was willing to pay. My mistake was viewing the show as atypical rather than typical.

As a small-town boy, I have an inherent prejudice toward the big city. Grand Rapids is a big city to me. I become uneasy when the metropolitan population exceeds 25,000. The problem is that I look at big cities as a whole rather than neighborhoods and suburbs.

Bindy Bitterman’s Eureka Antiques and Collectibles in Evanston, Ill., is an excellent example of the small, hidden treasures shop found in metropolitan areas. Specialized shops focusing on a single collectible such as comic books or toys favor the big cities. In the past, I have been more willing to meet their proprietors on the show circuit or buy via advertisements in trade periodicals than to visit their intercity shops. These general and specialized shops are located in metropolitan areas where overhead costs are manageable. Their prices are among the lowest found.

Competition and the need to turn merchandise in order to survive keep prices low. The more I examine city versus country prices, the more convinced I become that these factors weigh heavier on city than country dealers. This premise is still in the observation stage, and I plan to keep testing it.

I visited several countryside antiques malls and antiques shops during the past five months that I have lived in Michigan. My overall impression is that merchandise was priced to sell in these venues as well. However, I also remember stepping into several booths, examining the prices and thinking: “These are book prices. This stuff will never sell.”

As an author and editor of more than 20 antique and collectibles price guide titles, one might conveniently assume I would be a strong defender and supporter of price guide prices. I am not. Price-guide prices are not absolutes. They are guides. Dealers who rely on them as absolutes are fools. While I have only the highest respect for the general price-guide work of editors such as Kyle Husfloen, Terry and Ralph Kovel and Sharon and Bob Huxford, I have little respect for those price-guide authors who used their guides to manipulate market prices. When a price guide is a market prop, it is worthless. Price-guide prices need to be field and date checked. The price guide is unreliable if its prices do not agree with field prices. In today’s trendy market, relying on an outdated guide is fraught with danger.

Countryside dealers rely more heavily than their city counterparts on price guide data. They are more top-dollar driven and will keep a piece in inventory long beyond a reasonable time limit. I have seen the same piece in the same location in booths and cases in countryside antiques malls for years. Low overhead does not always result in good business practices.

I want to thank Nick for stimulating my gray cells, as Hercule Poirot would say. There is a distinct city-versus-country aspect—different from regional variations—to the American antiques and collectibles market. I would like to know your thoughts. E-mail them to me at harrylrinker@aol.com.

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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.

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