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To Pick or Not to Pick: That is the question

There is a never a dull moment in the life of Antique Trader's The Buck Stops Here columnist Melanie Carnation Thomas. In this column, Melanie takes us behind the scenes of her first time on 'the pick'.

Not having a full-time brick and mortar store has left both Jay and I a bit off balance. We have all this stuff, like display cases in the garage, or our storage room, which houses artifacts and jewelry. And though we still set up at shows, we rarely reserve more than two tables, or sixteen linear feet of display space, because that’s really the most two people can keep their eyes on.

In essence, we have more “stuff” than we need or will probably sell within a year, maybe two, because we don’t have to stock a store while also filling up display tables. But we keep buying anyway. We miss shopping.

Pondering the Pick

So rather than continue shopping ‘til we drop or in our case burst at the seams, I decided to try my

 The place where Melanie Carnation Thomas putting her picking efforts to the test.

The place where Melanie Carnation Thomas putting her picking efforts to the test.

hand at picking for my dealer friends. I ran this idea by a long-time cohort named Pam, whose kindness and patience over the years taught me much about antique and vintage jewelry.

“Absolutely not!” she exclaimed. “You’ll hate it!”

“But why?” I was thoroughly confused. What could I possibly hate about picking for friends? “Because they won’t be your friends for long,” Pam explained. “You’ll hate the profit margin.”

Hmmm. I hadn’t thought of that. I was accustomed to a healthy margin, especially with jewelry.

Relics, not so much.

Speaking of relics, Jay pooh-poohed the idea.

“There’s no money to be made in one or two pieces if I’m picking,” he said. “Only if I get my hands on a full collection would make it worth my time.”

Taking on the Challenge

Being my usual stubborn self, I quizzed a couple of other dealers, getting similar replies. Still, I shrugged these reactions off. How much lower could the margin be?

I have always found pickers to be a strange lot anyway, notwithstanding Mike and Frank on American Pickers. And come on, let’s be honest. Frank is a bit odd, right?

Pickers seldom speak unless spoken to, rarely look up from the items on the table, and tend to be secretive to the point of sneaky. But, they make good money (again, Mike and Frank), were their own boss, and had complete autonomy of their lives. Sounds good, right?

I went back to Pam, who was set up at the Brimfield show.

“I’m going to do some picking. I’ll come back to you first with my finds,” I told her. She just shook her head.

Reality of Reason

Jay and Melanie Thomas

Jay and Melanie Thomas, seasoned dealers in Civil War artifacts, other antiques and collectibles.

Four hours later found me behind her table pulling necklaces, earrings and bracelets from my bag.

“This is nice,” she chose a gold-filled bangle bracelet from the 1950s. “How much do you want?”

I quoted her $100. Pam shook her head.

“I’ll give you $50, my only offer.”

“Fifty? That’s what I paid for it!”

“What did I tell you? You’re going to hate the margins.”

Still Satisfying?

Yikes! While picking might satisfy my urge to shop, breaking even was not my idea of having fun. I had to make SOMETHING.

“How about $60?”

“Nope. If I can’t double my money, I don’t want it.”

“So you’ll price it at $100?”

“That’s right, double my money, if I can get it. If it doesn’t sell within 45 days or so, then the markdowns begin. C’mon, Melanie. You’ve been doing this a long time. You know the drill.”

I did know the drill, but my drill was quite different from hers. If I’d been doubling my money all along, I’d of retired 10 years ago!

Recounting the Pick

At dinner, I told Jay about my experience with Pam.

“So what you’re telling me is we have more jewelry for the storage room.”

“Not unless I can sell to some other dealers tomorrow.”

Next morning, I moved with a purpose. I had about $1,800 of inventory to unload and I was hoping to make at least a couple hundred dollars.

After being snorted and laughed at by several snarky dealers, I stopped quoting my prices first, remembering the most important rule of negotiation. “He who names a price first, loses.”

Using this strategy got me a few sales, netting $10 to $25 per piece. Not much, but perhaps I’d pay for our dinner tonight.

Measuring Return on Investment

At the end of a long and meager day, I’d sold $1,100 worth of inventory and made $118, a little over

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ten percent. My feet hurt, my back ached and my head throbbed. This was too much work for too little return, but it did cover our dinner.

As much as I hated to admit it, Pam was right. I didn’t like these margins. And I still had $700 worth of “stuff” to sell.

In the meantime, Jay was having a blast adding inventory to our storage room. When I balked, he shrugged. “We’ll sell it sometime.”

At least he was enjoying the show, which is more than I could say.

Day three saw me needing to go further and further afield, no pun intended, because Brimfield’s fields were closing and moving to the opposite side of the street. It was getting harder to remember who I’d already hit up versus who was new to the show.

Seeing the Light In Swapping

For those who have never attended, the Brimfield Antique Show is a mostly outside venue on open fields. Certain fields open on specific days. After a few days, the first few fields begin to close down while others open up. Some dealers break down and move to another field. Others only set up once, going home after 2-4 days on a field.

At the end of the third day, I was stuck with $400 of inventory no one wanted to buy and had sold the rest for a measly $30 return. Again, a 10% profit.

Our last day in Brimfield dawned bright and sunny. Rather than try to outright sell the remainder of my stuff, I came to the conclusion I’d be lucky to swap pieces off for something else. Dealers are much more amenable to trades that involve cash in their pocket than out-and-out purchases.

Several hours later, I had unloaded the inventory but also coughed up $150 in cash to do it. In essence, I came in dead even, not making or losing any money.

So the moral of the story is, to pick or not to pick, I vote for swapping.

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