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Sitting in his cell awaiting trial for treason, Van Meegeren considered his options. The year was 1945, and the war was over. Meegeren had been arrested in his Dutch homeland for being a Nazi collaborator. His crime, according to Dutch authorities, was trading a painting by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer to the Nazi commander of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goering. Collaborating with the enemy was a capital offense. If convicted, Meegeren would hang.
At his trial, Meegeren offered a novel defense: that he had, in fact, painted the Vermeer himself. It was a forgery. In return for his forgery, he acquired from Goering six genuine paintings by Dutch masters. Meegeren had conned Goering. Meegeren asserted that he was, therefore, a national hero and not a Nazi collaborator.
To prove his defense, Meegeren painted another Vermeer before the court while under police guard. Compared to Vermeer, Meegeren’s technique was clumsy; but with the aid of a new product called Bakelite, Meegeren produced a satisfactory forgery. He was convicted of forgery and exonerated of the treason charge. He was sentenced to a year in jail.
Why was Van Meegeren able to avoid the hangman’s noose? Because his painting met the critic’s expectations of what a Vermeer should look like.
According to Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom, “expectation” shapes our entire sensory experience and is directly responsible for creating our sense of pleasure. In his book How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like, Bloom states that it “is not the world [that impacts] our senses. Rather, the enjoyment we get from something derives from what we think that thing is.”
Bloom offers much research to support his assertion:
- Gourmets were invited to sample canned dog food which was presented to them as pate de fois gras. They loved it.
- Researchers swapped the labels of several expensive French wines with ordinary California table wines. At the tasting, wine experts extolled the expensively labeled California wine while few liked the cheaply labeled but better quality French wine.
Bloom goes on to cite examples relating to sports, sex, cannibalism, art, music, religion and yes, antiques and collectibles. At the heart of his argument is humanity’s apparently deeply rooted but subconscious tendency to believe that objects are imbued with a sort of “invisible essence,” by their owners and/or creators.
A Vermeer is imbued with the essence of Vermeer. A tape measure that belonged to John F. Kennedy is imbued with the essence of JFK. Even if the Vermeer is a forgery and the tape measure belonged to Wayne Jordan, if your expectation is that you are admiring the “real thing,” your enjoyment of the experience is measurably enhanced.
If Bloom is correct, antiques dealers are not selling objects; they are selling stories. The inventory item is simply the physical representation of the story.
Antiques dealers have long known that documented provenance or a good story adds value to an item; such knowledge can be put to better use in most antique stores, though.
Consider this scenario: a customer walks into your store. A staff member greets them, and asks the usual question: “Can I help you?” or some variation thereof. What’s the customer’s response? “Just looking.”
What will they be looking at? Your merchandise, signage and price tags. If, as Bloom suggests, objects can be imbued with an “invisible essence” that makes them more appreciated, why not create signage and price tags that enhance your customer’s experience and enjoyment of the items in your inventory? Here are a few ideas on how to build a customer’s level of appreciation for the items in your store:
Use shelf cards to describe the item; tell what makes the item special and collectible. Wine merchants have been using this tactic for years.
A recent study by the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science (EBI) suggests that consumers lack sufficient expertise in wine to make a purchase decision based solely on a wine’s style, region and vintage. Instead, they rely on information provided on the label and on the shelf to guide their choice. Likewise, most buyers of collectibles are not “sophisticated” buyers.
Put the item’s price on the shelf card. Don’t let a price stand alone; most customers won’t relate the price to the value. Tell them where the value lies.
Make an educational display for your primary profit centers. Museums do this. Tell your customers the points of connoisseurship for your various types of glassware, for example.
Then make sure that your shelf cards reflect the information provided in your displays.
Arm your sales staff with stories about the provenance of your inventory items.
If you pre-educate your shoppers, here’s what you can expect to happen:
- Shopping in your store (or even just browsing) will be perceived as being more fun than shopping in your competitor’s store.
- Customers will perceive more value in your inventory items.
- You can increase your retail price on many items.Higher starting prices will give you more room to move when it comes down to negotiating the final selling price.
- Your overall profit margins will increase.
- Your inventory will turn faster, increasing your return on investment.
- You can get more “marketing mileage” by featuring your inventory items in press releases and YouTube videos.
Big corporations spend a lot of money to learn what makes consumers buy. Universities worldwide offer degrees in the art and science of merchandising. Much research has been done proving that consumers in a retail store behave in predictable ways (see the Feb. 23, 2011 edition).
If a dealer knows ahead of time that his customers will enter his store, stop near the door, move to the right and be affected by shiny displays and shelf cards, wouldn’t it make sense to capitalize on this behavior?
If there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that antiques stores will attract lookers; antiques stores are surrogate museums. People sometimes browse in them for entertainment. Why not take advantage of the “just looking” response to pre-sell your customers?
Like Van Meergeren, create an expectation in your customers. Let them learn to expect quality merchandise and a certain level of enlightenment and education when they enter your store. If you do, you will see them more often and sell them more merchandise.
Wayne Jordan is a Virginia licensed auctioneer, certified personal property appraiser, and accredited business broker. He specializes in the valuation and liquidation of estate and business assets. Learn more at www.resaleretailing.com.
More advice on selling and buying antiques & collectibles
- Behind the Gavel: Try negotiating instead of haggling when your customers shop for antiques
- Behind the Gavel: How online video helps antiques dealers tap a Super Bowl audience for pennies
- Behind the Gavel: Absolute versus reserve auctions: Is it ever legal to retract a bid?
- Behind the Gavel: Occupy Wall Street for Christmas – How antiques dealers can boost the shop local movement