Survey Says: Antique Shops Must Adopt More Strategies

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I read with great interest Worthpoint’s 2011 Antiques & Collectibles Survey Results, released on Feb 14, 2011. Worthpoint is a leading provider of valuation and associated services for art, antiques and collectibles. The survey was taken from mid-January through early February 2011, and reflects the opinions of dealers and collectors who visited the Worthpoint website during that period.

As I reviewed their survey, my initial reaction was that its results must heavily favor Internet dealers; after all, it was an online survey. As it turns out, this initial assumption about the respondents to the Worthpoint survey was incorrect. Their survey sample was not dominated by Internet-only dealers, but included dealers who used a variety of channels for buying and selling, including the Internet, trade shows, estate sales, auctions, storefronts, and traditional media.

Reading the survey results, I recalled my experience last summer when I traveled to shows and antiques stores and interviewed dealers about “the state of the business”. I thought it might be enlightening to juxtapose my personal results (see Antique Trader’s Oct. 19, 2010, coverage of the Hillsville Market) with the results of the Worthpoint survey and attempt to assemble a balanced view of the buying and selling channels that are actually working for dealers. The Worthpoint group of respondents and my respondents were similar in makeup, so I would be comparing “apples to apples” in my analysis.

Just three years ago, (the now defunct) Antiques Dealers TV reported survey results that “only 12 percent of the antique dealers polled had any Internet marketing strategy other than an eBay account.” According to the 2011 Worthpoint survey, antiques dealers have since made remarkable progress incorporating the Internet into their business model. Eighty-one percent of dealers surveyed stated that the Internet was their main source of buying and selling opportunities. Sixty-one percent of Worthpoint’s respondents said that the Internet was their most effective promotional tool. In contrast, only 33 percent (eight out of 24) of the dealers interviewed at the Hillsville Market even had a website. But, those eight Hillsville dealers with websites also successfully pursued sales on eBay and other online venues.

As with other retail businesses, the antiques business is being transformed by the Internet. However, it’s difficult to build a sustainable “Internet only” antiques business. Antiques and collectibles, by their very nature, are rare. It’s difficult for a dealer to mount a “killer” Internet marketing plan when he’s selling one-of-a-kind items, one at a time. Unlike other retailers, antiques dealers can’t pick up the phone, call their wholesaler, and order a hundred more of a hot-selling item. Once an item is sold, a dealer may not be able to replace it. This makes assembling a saleable inventory a full-time job; dealers often spend more time acquiring items than they do selling them.

The key to analyzing the effectiveness of the Internet vs. traditional marketing channels is to separate fact from fiction and keep a broad view. Many “doom and gloom” articles have been written in the past few years, warning dealers that they would surely go out of business if they did not embrace the Internet.

Although there has certainly been a “weaning out” of dealers in the past few years, it has not been because those dealers failed to embrace the Internet. On the contrary, there are many dealers who employ only traditional marketing methods and do quite well, and some Internet-only dealers who suffer.

Consequently, the Internet can be part of a marketing plan, but not the entire marketing plan.

What both surveys showed was that the most successful dealers do not rely on a single strategy to market their products. Consistently, “one channel only” dealers were struggling, regardless of whether the channel was traditional or online. Storefronts, show-only dealers, and auction houses that sold online were all out-performing their counterparts who had no online strategy. Interestingly, multi-channel dealers also out-performed online-only dealers. In reporting their most effective selling and/or buying channel, 40 percent of Worthpoint respondents claimed eBay, 23 percent claimed tradeshows, 5 percent claimed auction galleries, and 23 percent claimed “other.” The most effective promotional tools were reported as the Internet (61 percent) trade shows (7 percent) word of mouth (21 percent) classified ads (8 percent) and 4 percent was relegated to “other.”

At the Hillsville Market, I interviewed two dozen dealers. Of the 24, 11 dealers actively sold on eBay. That’s 45 percent of the total, a number that corresponds to the Worthpoint survey number regarding eBay. eBay seems to be a strong source of sales and/or inventory for the dealers who use it.

A dealer’s Internet success seemed to have more to do with their inventory than their online marketing prowess. Both survey groups expressed the intent to reduce the size of their inventories and stock fewer, but higher quality, items. Inventories consisting of smaller shippable items were important to both groups.

The Hillsville dealers who were successfully pursuing Internet sales had re-configured their inventories to stock small, shippable items. Small goods sold briskly at Hillsville; decorative items, glassware, memorabilia, and musical instruments among others. Dealers did not eschew large items altogether, though; such items were sold in their stores.

The Worthpoint respondents, as well, stated that one of their key priorities for 2011 was to prune their inventories and focus on fewer items. Common Worthpoint themes were pruning collections/focusing on fewer higher-quality items; learning more about their items; gaining greater awareness/recognition for their collections and attracting a younger demographic into the collecting passion.

Overall, dealers were split over whether the economy will have an effect on their business in 2011. 51 percent of respondents felt that their business would increase in 2011; 15 percent felt that business would decrease, and 35 percent felt that it would remain the same. Generally, the multi-resourced dealers were more positive about their businesses.

Surveys like Worthpoint’s can be of great value to antiques dealers. In the absence of a strong national dealer association, there is a distinct lack of data that dealers can use as a baseline to evaluate the performance of their business. My hat’s off to Will Seippel and his crew at Worthpoint. I look forward to the next survey.

Previously published in Antique Trader Magazine


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