How to present your antiques inventory for a new wave of buyers

As an antiques dealer for 15 years, antiques dealer Mitchell Sotka designs his shop in Rocky River, Ohio, for a traditional retail crowd. However, he wants customers to consider purchasing items that are antique or vintage to complete their interior or be given as a great gift. Thus his emphasis on staging his shop for success. Sotka’s antiques shop gives body to the intangible idea behind staging and merchandising in settings ranging from shops to shows to auction houses. There’s more art than science behind this concept: Those who do it, do it well. Those who don’t can still learn a few rules and tricks to help the right customers discover collectibles they didn’t know they wanted.


At a recent western Massachusetts auction, one of the runners looked like an extra who had wandered in off the set of a Vanilla Ice music video and another suffered from obesity — and, more pressingly from my view in the front row, a button-down shirt that was too small. Every time he lifted an object to display it, I would wince at the sight of his girth instead of focusing on, for instance, the Art Deco clock that otherwise might have been a perfect fit for my bedroom.

Tip: Laying out vignettes of quality merchandise helps customers envision pieces in their homes, which in turn helps to convert browsers to buyers.

A decade or two ago, auction houses, antiques dealers and show promoters could get away with this kind of non-salesmanship. Those days are gone, says Sally Schwartz, the promoter behind Chicago’s Randolph Street Market.

“The people who go to shows want an experience,” she says. “Anybody who walks into a store wants the fun of actually walking into a store. No one wants a bland, cookie-cutter experience; they can get that online. They want that stepped up, more extreme.”
In the old days, it was all about inventory. Today, though, anyone with access to the Internet has access to far more inventory than any dealer could ever hope to show — and so dealers have to step up their game.

“The people who sit there and eat hoagies in their booth are in trouble,” says Schwartz. “People used to just want the stuff to such an extent that the dealer didn’t have to sell it. Today, you have to be engaging.”

“The competition online has gotten just crazy,” says Stu Eli of Philadelphia-based shop Three Potato Four. He says that “weekend warriors” at flea markets and storage auctions are driving up prices, making it difficult for professional dealers. To combat the commoditization of the industry, he’s found success selling oddities rather than more traditional antiques: American jail mugshots, from the turn of the century through the 1960s, have turned into a big seller for him — especially overseas. “Japan has taught us how to collect Americana,” he says.

A merchandising success story: These Schwinn bicycles sold well at a recent show in part because of their attractive, orderly arrangement and floral accents.

Mitchell Sotka is one dealer who has tried to be engaging with his eponymous antiques store in Rocky River, Ohio. The inspiration for his shop, which boasts an on-staff interior designer, was the mistake he saw so many other dealers making.

“One thing that I’ve always noticed is that when you go into an antique shop that is inundated with merchandise, the average individual really cannot see it. It’s overwhelming,” he says. “You’ve got to present yourself in a clean fashion, so it’s not necessarily relegating all the silver together or the lamps together, but laying it out in vignettes so that buyers can envision it in their homes.”

Schwartz says that good merchandising can help items sell faster — and for more money.

At one recent show, a row of vintage Schwinn bicycles were arranged with floral arrangements in baskets near the handlebars. They sold quickly, as did vintage birdcages that were staged with greenery.

Taking ordinary-looking objects and making them pop is a key to success, she says.

Antique Trader 2012“Every single dealer needs to approach this, as it’s all about what people see and how they see it. Our first experience is the visual experience. If you think people identify things as having value before they see how it fits, you’re wrong.”

Sotka puts his retail background to work to help his store appeal to shoppers of all kinds — not just antiques aficionados.

“What is the rest of the atmosphere? What does it smell like? What is the music like?” are three questions he advises dealers, promoters, and auctioneers to keep in mind as they work on their spaces.

And, most importantly, make sure that all employees are well-groomed — and have shirts that fit.

Zac Bissonnette is the author of “Warman’s Antiques & Collectibles 2013 Price Guide, 46th Edition” to be released in March 2012 and “Debt-Free U: How I Paid For an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching Off My Parents.” He has appeared on “The Today Show” and CNN, as well as a contributing editor to Antique Trader on WGBH and NPR. Everything he knows about money was learned yard-saling with his mother.

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