Why the U.S. antiques trade needs a real national association

One of W. Edward Deming’s most-quoted aphorisms is “you can’t improve what you can’t measure.”  We have become a society of measurers: how much weight we lost, how many miles we ran, how much money we made, how much we can bench press.

If we have a goal to improve a certain aspect of our life, we generally use our past performance as a baseline to measure our improvement: i.e., “last month I walked 4 miles in an hour, now I’m doing it in 45 minutes”.

As antiques dealers, the only baseline that we have to improve our business is our own past performance. What we don’t know is what our numbers “should” look like. We have no idea what other dealers in our specialty are doing: what their sales levels are, what their payroll costs them as a percentage of sales, what their gross margins are, or how often they turn over their inventory. Those are not the kind of questions that you can ask a competitor.

That’s too bad, for a couple of reasons. First of all, having such information would help us run our own business. If we knew how much money others in our industry spent on payroll, and we were spending considerably more, wouldn’t we want to know why? Secondly, not having access to such information is bad because in other industries, having such information is commonplace.

Back in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, I owned a piano dealership. As a piano dealer, I was a member of the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM). Each year, NAMM would provide me with a copy of the NAMM Global Report, which is a statistical review of the music industry worldwide. The report would provide me with the following information:

  • Consumer attitude surveys
  • Annual overview of 15 music market segments
  • Annual sales totals for 25 market specialties
  • Breakdown of profit centers in each market specialty
  • Cost of Doing Business survey, including analysis of return on investment, gross margins, inventory turns, operating expenses, personnel productivity, and more.

The report was generally more than 200 pages. Each year when I received it, I would sequester myself for a couple of days with the report and my financial statements to see if I was gaining or losing market share and how my business was performing compared to similar businesses. The report was absolutely invaluable to me as a tool for running my business.

Such information is not available to antiques dealers for one primary reason: the antiques business has no strong national dealer organization. Antiques dealers generally fend for themselves in an industry that is rapidly changing. Knowing what other dealers are doing and how they are doing it would not only help individual dealers, it would help the industry as a whole. One way to acquire such information is through a strong national antiques dealers association.

When NAMM discovered in the 1980’s that consumer attitudes toward playing music were changing, they went on the offensive with a pro-music education public relations campaign. Because it was a national campaign, it got a lot of attention. In my home county, a school music program that was targeted for budget cuts was left as-is due to lobbying by concerned parents. The parents were spurred into action by the local music dealers, who were provided with a community action plan by NAMM.
Attitudes toward antiques and collectibles are changing, and a national campaign similar to NAMM’s is needed in order to strengthen the antiques business.

To be fair, there are some state dealer associations that are off to a good start when it comes to educating the public and helping their members. Maine has a good organization, so does Arkansas and other states. But, state organizations don’t have the membership base or professional management that is needed for an effective national dealer organization. Consider the National Association of Realtors or the National Auctioneer’s Association: they are strong organizations with full-time professional management and a national membership base. They have the resources to help their members succeed.

Lest I get angry letters from dealers who claim that there are some national antiques dealers associations, let me review what I found in this regard.

As I assembled my notes for this column, I spent some time on Google searching for “antique dealer associations” and variations thereof. Some search results were worthy of a phone call, some were not. In general, the associations I found fell into three categories:

1. For-profit insurance agencies whose marketing “front” was as an antique dealers association. Of course, belonging to their “association” would entitle dealers to purchase health and other insurance at reduce rates. But, the sources that I interviewed admitted that their primary function was to sell and service insurance. Associations such as these provide no assistance to dealers when it comes to operating their businesses.
2. Snob Appeal. Some so-called national associations appeared to consist mainly of dealers who organized in order to pat each other on the back. Reading their websites and dealer profiles, it was clear that they all thought very highly of each other. One association in New York City was so exclusive that it didn’t even post membership information on its own website. When I called to inquire about membership, I was directed to a non-working voice mail. Such associations are exclusive, not inclusive. It’s not likely that such an organization would do me (or anyone else) very much good.
3. State associations. As I mentioned, I found some well organized state associations. The state associations appeared to have regular education programs and active member networking schedules.
There has been much talk in the antiques community over the past few years about the need for a strong national dealer association. Talking is a good start, but it won’t get the job done. It’s time to move ahead by creating an exploratory committee. We need some well-connected movers and shakers from the antiques business to get the ball rolling. We also need volunteers to help them get the work done. Modern technology will make this easier to do now than in decades past; perhaps all that is needed to get started is an online discussion forum for the topic. Anyone care to step forward? Nominations, anyone?

Ideas and leadership are needed. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr.: “we all arrived here on different ships, but now we’re all in the same boat together.” It’s time for antiques dealers to get organized and start rowing in the same direction.

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 his website http://www.waynejordanauctions.com, at 276-730-5197 or auctioneer.wayne@yahoo.com.

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