When terrified Chicken Little declared “the sky is falling,” was she referring to the Antiques & Collectibles business? One would think so, given recent headlines. Here are just a few:
“Why your collectibles are actually worthless” [https://bit.ly/2OY6uNX]
“People no longer go into antique shops” [https://bbc.in/2N6AIxH]
“How low will market for antiques actually go?” [https://nyti.ms/2OWS7cr]
Of course, these headlines don’t accurately represent the state of our trade. Mainstream – not trade – journalists tend to report on a small segment of the antiques and collectibles markets without considering the big picture. Most often, journalists report on events. A big storm, a disaster, or a store closing are events.
The above BBC story is based on the closing of Grays Antique Jewellery (sic) Company in Mayfair, London. To casual readers, the headline implies the demise of the antique industry (“people no longer go into antique shops”). Digging through the article reveals that Grays simply re-thought their business model: they closed their sidewalk-level storefront, moved up one level in the same building, and began to see customers on an appointment-only basis. They also began to sell online. They are still in the business of selling antique jewelry.
As for the article’s premise (no one goes into shops), I’m sure that would be “news” to the Crossroads Trading Company, the California company that operates 36 stores in as many cities around the USA and racks up revenues in excess of $20 million per year. Consumers love to shop; in the USA, shopping is recreation; the tongue-in-cheek term for the pastime is “retail therapy.” The curated, specialized inventories of antique stores are a lot more fun to shop in than Wal-Mart, and infinitely more satisfying than browsing the internet. Shoppers who might spend an hour or more browsing through an antique store are unlikely to spend an hour clicking through dozens of web pages. Despite the rise in online sales, bricks-and-mortar still dominates retail.
Hobbydb.com estimates that the (worldwide) annual sales of collectibles is roughly $200 billion (online and auctions). In the U.S., bricks-and-mortar antique and vintage stores rack up another $17 billion per year [https://bit.ly/2whpmiV]. Auction sales figures arrive in my inbox weekly, and I am consistently astounded by the prices achieved by antiques and collectibles. Is there really that much discretionary income in the economy?
A core difficulty in analyzing the Antiques & Collectibles market is that there is no central data repository for all market segments. Our trade consists of thousands of independent dealers who don’t particularly want anyone else to know what their sales numbers are. The numbers presented here (and elsewhere) are estimates, and are likely to be low because there are too many unconsidered sources: Who knows how much untallied revenue is created by Estate Tag Sale companies, Mom-and-Pop consignment shops, Antique Mall dealers, Antique Fair vendors, or independent pickers?
The most thoughtful and informed piece I have recently read regarding the state of the Antique & Collectibles business was penned by Ivan Macquisten, former editor of the UK’s Antiques Trade Gazette. The piece is titled, “Antiques are not dying out, they are just reincarnating” [https://bit.ly/2MPpnVX]. In the article, Mr. Macquisten says:
“It’s the news reporting and comment that’s out of date … The fact that run-of-the-mill traditional Georgian and Victorian furniture has suffered greatly over the last 15 years is hardly news. But extrapolating the collapse of the entire antiques market from what has been happening to a corner of the furniture market illustrates the level of expertise being applied here.”
Macquisten is correct; just because antique furniture sales are down doesn’t mean our entire trade is tanking. Collectibles are booming, as the above graphic shows. The graphic identifies 29 collectibles markets, positioned relative to their annual revenue. Many of the segments identified (like Victoriana and Art Deco) may also include furniture and furnishings. Most of the categories represented in the chart can be found on the shelves of your local antique shops.
A quick glance at the chart will tell you where the “big bucks” are in collectibles. These revenue numbers are growing at a rate of about 3 percent annually, driven by new collectibles entering the market, appreciation of private collections, and burgeoning interest in collecting. With gross profit margins that put consumer goods retailers to shame, the Antiques & Collectibles business is quite healthy.
Macquisten continues: “In my view, the most fascinating aspect of today’s antiques trade is that so many people are utterly unaware that they are part of it. If you have a shop selling vintage clothing, or stand at a weekly market punting fifties and sixties retro chic kitchenware, you are already part of today’s antiques trade.”
There are many ways to sell antiques. If your sales have been down recently, don’t use misleading headlines to justify poor performance. Do what Gray’s Antique Jewellery did: re-think your business model. Adjust your approach or refine your inventory. Ninety percent of the companies listed in the 1955 Fortune 500 have closed, gone bankrupt, or merged with another company. They couldn’t (or wouldn’t) change with the times. Jason Jennings, in his book Reinventors: How Extraordinary Companies Pursue Radical Continuous Change, writes: “Your job as you know it and your business as it is currently run will eventually change. The only chance any of us have for prosperity is to constantly reimagine, rethink and reinvent everything we do and how we do it to remain relevant. We must all become re-inventors, and we’d better do it quickly.”
Let those be our marching orders. The Antiques & Collectibles trade is thriving but changing. It’s up to each of us to decide how we are going to move forward.
This article was originally published in Antique Trader magazine. If you like what you’ve read here, consider subscribing to the print or digital versions of Antique Trader it’s available for $26 per year (print) or $20 per year (digital) to receive 24 issues.
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