Antiques dealers must adapt more than inventory to stay relevant

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The Buck Stops Here by Melanie C. Thomas

Darwin’s theory of evolution culls the weakest from the species, allowing the strongest to survive by an ability to adapt in a rapidly changing environment. Or maybe I’m confusing this with “Only the Strong Survive,” a song recorded in 1969. Regardless, because we live in a culture fascinated by youth and addicted to everything electronic, there is one species fending off, as best it can, the threat of extinction. After all, no one wants to be compared to a brontosaurus or a buffalo. I’ll call this genus the antiques dealer.

So if Darwin is correct, adaptation is tantamount to our species’ survival.

Because knowledge is the first line of defense in the adaptation process, most dealers do their best to stay current on business trends, entrepreneurship, small business management, etc. And because I consider myself proactive versus reactive, I remain ever diligent in my quest to stay on top of things before they get on top of me.

For example, early on in our business partnership, my husband decided that marketing, merchandising and anything creative fell under my job description. He’s living to regret that decision. Now, whenever I begin a sentence with, “I’ve been thinking…” he’d rather have a stick poked in his eye than listen to my latest idea.

So what have I done?

A while back, we dabbled into antique furniture, primarily items from the early and mid 19th century. But furniture is big, bulky and forced me to dust, which is never a good thing.

Antique Trader 2012Next, I brought one of my passions to the table: coins. Coins have done well for us, so adding them to our business model created a plus on the balance sheet. Besides, they’re small and take up a lot less space than a mint condition cherry dresser, circa 1840, which, by the way, is still available. Pictures can be e-mailed upon request.

Flush with my coin success, I next decided our inventory needed more items for women, because women make up 51 percent of the population and men occasionally buy gifts for their ladies. I dug deep into my personal collection of antique and vintage jewelry to fill one shelf. Several months later, these bejeweled items now bedeck three separate display cases, racking up another plus on the balance sheet.

Excited by this business boom, feminine accessories like silk fans, perfume bottles and lace hankies were brought into the mix. But if I add any more “she-male” items, as my husband refers to them, I may need to rent a storefront down the street because my business and life partner has threatened me with eviction.

During all this Darwinian, adaptive-like behavior, we embarked on a vacation to the United Kingdom. And what did we do? Shop, of course. In every city, we queried B&B hostesses and hotel concierges about where to find antiques or the “antiques district,” then jumped into cabs, addresses in hand.

The good news is we found some wonderful items. The scary news is where there were once 15 to 20 antique stores in each of these cities, there were now only two or three, and the survivors were barely holding on.

So what happened to those missing dealers? Where did they go? Did their inventory get sucked up into some kind of black hole?

Remember Darwin’s theory: The strong adaptors (Bonham’s, Sotheby’s, and the ever present eBay) have not only survived, but thrived.

Has this new business environment been kinder to the auction behemoths, or have the behemoths been quicker to adapt?

All those empty storefronts dotting the cobblestoned streets in the United Kingdom point to the latter.

Realizing 90 percent of the antique dealers “across the pond” had gone the way of the buffalo catapulted my resolve. The minute we landed back in the States, our website was updated to a more “Google-friendly” platform and now oozes with SEO keywords, enabling us to be “found” by those persnickety search engines.

As I put the finishing touches on this project and wipe the sweat from my brow, I wonder what Darwin would have us do next.

Facebook and Twitter, two big white elephants, wait patiently in my office.

Ugh. Just the thought of adding these “social apps” to my daily routine makes my head ache. Besides, can cyberspace compete with the real thing? Whatever happened to the other senses, you know, the touchy-feely ones? By their sheer staying power, don’t antiques deserve this extra attention, not just links, clicks and tweets?

But then I take a second look at those virtual auction houses, the strong adapters.
I know I’m showing my age, or at least my angst. The future arrived while I wasn’t looking. Or maybe my adaptation skills have dulled from overuse.

Because if posting daily tweets on Twitter or updates on Facebook is part of Darwin’s latest adaptation process, then our genus may be doomed. I don’t know about yours, but my brain isn’t wired for the 140 character “tweet” format; my personality is not one to “friend” perfect strangers. And creating Facebook pages linking everything back to our website is a lot of work, virtual or otherwise.

The way I see it though, I have two choices: I can roll up my sleeves, get back on the computer and conquer this social media craze or I can search for a new home, where the buffalo roam.

Does anyone know Ted Turner’s Twitter address?

Melanie C. Thomas has 20 years experience researching, buying and selling military memorabilia. She and her husband run Arsenal of the Alleghenys, a Civil War artifact shop in Gettysburg, Pa.

More from Melanie Thomas


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