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What antique dealers can learn from wine sellers

In this Behind the Gavel column, Wayne Jordan examines the education-marketing approach implemented by Total Wine and discusses the opportunity that exists for antique dealers to mirror this business model.

By Wayne Jordan

I’m not a sophisticated wine drinker. I tell my friends that my wine knowledge is limited to the six basic categories: red or white, cork or cap, bottle or box. I also recognize the names of a few styles. But, hand me a glass of wine and ask me to identify the style and I’m clueless.

Inspiration Courtesy of Total Wine

Over the holidays I had occasion to go into a Total Wine store. If you’ve never been to a Total Wine,

Total Wine aisle photo

A view of one of many aisles lined with wine at a Total Wine store.

they’re the size of a major supermarket. The shelves are stocked with rows of wine, beer, and other goodies. I was completely out of my element. Shelves appeared to be filled with thousands of wine bottles, sorted by type, variety, country, state and region. When a store associate asked if I needed help, I didn’t know where to begin. I meekly admitted that I didn’t know anything about wine.

Soon, an “Aha” moment came when I made a connection between wine and antiques. I realized that friends who decline to go antique shopping with me because they “don’t know anything about antiques” may feel as lost in an antique store as I did in Total Wine.

According to Peter Todd of the University of Indiana, consumers generally buy products that they know. In addition, they will likely avoid products that they know little about. His January 2017 paper titled “Human Behavior: Shoppers like what they know” points out that buying what they know helps consumers avoid disappointment. It makes sense that consumers would avoid antiques if they don’t know anything about them. Our challenge is how to correct their lack of knowledge.

Experience Entertaining Education

Latent within the “buy what they know” proposition is a clue to an effective marketing strategy. This is: Build your customer base by educating your existing and potential customers. Total Wine understands that educated customers are good customers. They buy more types of wine, make larger average purchases, and come back more often. So, they reach out to customers through classes, events, printed guides, and signage.

Marketing products through education is trending. Retail advisor Stella Service asserts in their article “The Future Of Brick-And-Mortar Stores: Education And Product Discovery” [http ://] that “the opportunity to transform the role of the store into a place for education and discovery has already begun to catch on with consumers as a new reason to leave their computers and actually go to the store itself.”

Let’s have a look at how Total Wine nurtures customers through education and discovery, and then explore how their techniques can be adapted to the antiques business.

Classes and Events

Classes and events
From the Total Wine website: “The store has an event space where we’ll host classes to enhance your knowledge of your favorite beverages, and introduce you to the rock stars of our world: the winemakers, distillers and brewers who make the products you love. There’s a walk-in cigar humidor, featuring our primo selection of smokes. And a tasting table where we’ll always have something new for you to try. Stop by and join in on the tastings every Friday and Saturday from 12-6 p.m., or Sunday from 12-5 p.m.”

A handful of antique dealers offer classes as well. Some charge tuition, others offer classes for free. In either case, offering classes establishes a dealer as the local expert. A frequently offered class is the Annie Sloan Chalk Paint workshop (Google “Annie Sloan Chalk Paint Workshop” and many pages of results will return).

Restorers and dealers Gates Antiques of Richmond, Virginia, offers a six-class series on identifying antique furniture, and a DVD set of the class is available as well. Other successful class ideas are seminars on collecting jewelry, dolls, glass, and antique toys.

Light and Lively Learning

Hosting a class doesn’t have to be hard. Simply choose a topic in which you have in-depth

Shelf talker

An example of a 'shelf-talker' information guide at Total Wine. A versatile format useful for any shop.

knowledge and make a list of points that you feel need to be covered; then, address them one at a time in your class.

Keep it to under an hour, and offer light refreshments. Over time, interest will build. If you are not confident in your teaching skills, find a local collector who is willing to present (for pay or future discounts).

A strong point of offering classes is that they are portable. If you don’t have the space to set up a classroom in your store (many don’t) then you can “take your show on the road.” Libraries, senior centers, and recreation centers are always on the lookout for program classes. In such venues you can meet people who haven’t been in your store, but have an interest in your topic. An added plus is that community venues will advertise and promote your event for free.

Guides and Advice

Total Wine also offers seasonally printed catalog is offered, but such a publication is prohibitively expensive for an antique dealer. But there are some printed materials that are well within the reach of any antique dealer.

The first of these is what the wine trade calls “shelf talkers.” These informational cards are attached to a shelf beneath the wine, and contain a description and rating of the product. I rely on shelf talkers whenever I visit a wine store. Simple descriptions (like those you would use on eBay) are sufficient for shelf-talkers in an antique store.

Not to be ignored is improved signage. Salem, New Hampshire’s The Kitchen Place  creates signs with product ratings and reviews to help shoppers decide what to buy. Such reviews are for new products, not antiques, but the concept is still usable:

Smart Signage

Get more valuable business insights from Wayne Jordan.

If you enjoy this column by prolific Antique Trader contributor Wayne Jordan we encourage you to check out his book "The Business of Antiques," which is a compilation of past articles with wisdom from Wayne. It's available at our online store:>>>

Signs can be used to describe the period, style, or manufacturer for groups of products (ex: Local Milk Bottles, 1930s & 1940s) or to specify points of connoisseurship for individual items (ex: Rare E.H. Wood 1840 Stoneware Pitcher, Maysville, KY). Properly used, signs can answer a customer’s unasked question: “Why is this so expensive?”

Furthermore, dealers can create an atmosphere of discovery and learning that will keep customers coming back. One thing is certain: Few dealers will take the time to do this, so those who do will stand out from the rest.

I’m reminded of an art dealer whose customer said, “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like.”

What the customer meant, according to the dealer, was that the customer “liked what he knew.” The dealer felt obliged to educate the customer so that he would “know more” about art.

The antiques trade desperately needs new customers. If it’s true that consumers buy what they know, then it’s up to us to educate them about antiques, in the same fashion that Total Wine educates their customers about wine.

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