New York - Deborah Torres had always dreamed of operating her own antiques and vintage business. As an avid garage sale attendee while in her teens, Torres would scour the east coast of Florida from Jacksonville to St. Augustine in search of anything that caught her eye and collecting interest. "I didn't really have a ton of money to start out with" says Torres, "but I had an old mini-van that was gifted to me by my father, so I had some cheap transportation and room for a good sized haul."
By the time Torres hit her mid-twenties, she'd run out of storage space for her collectibles at the family house, and her father was pushing her to either move, or move her "stuff" out. With her van and a trailer loaded up, Torres decided to take the plunge and rented a small booth at an antique mall down the road from her home. Fast-forward twenty years later, and Deborah Torres is still in business, and says she looks back fondly on those early years when she was just starting out, but wishes she'd known a little more about the antiques and vintage trade before fully committing to it as a lifelong career. "I love it, but having some training or guidance would've really helped me grow my business at the beginning," she says.
Torres isn't alone in that sentiment, with many dealers claiming that it's an old refrain; "How best to jump start one's antique and vintage business while making as few costly mistakes as possible." Jenn Gould who successfully operates a number of online concerns from Etsy and eBay to Artfire and Bonanza, says that there are some simple rules for helping people run successful decorative arts businesses. Number one she says is understanding your inventory. "Don't buy what you don't know (or love). I've seen so many people try to be an expert on everything, and end up making bad buying decisions on stock that eventually costs them in the long run." Gould believes that if you stick to what you know and like, you'll end up learning about it organically because you'll truly want to know it's history and value together. "It may sound simple," says Gould, "but you'd be surprised how many people get off-track and end up over-paying for items they'll never be able to sell for a profit."
Also on Gould's list for successful strategies is proper bookkeeping, which she says is paramount, and often overlooked, when it comes to tracking whether or not your business is actually growing. Lastly, knowing your customer base, especially if you're keeping a database of those who purchase from you online, as this can be one of the best tools for ensuring that you're matching your inventory to those who are interested in buying it. According to Gould, "Building up a profile for each customer, and trying to tailor your resale purchases towards that end is crucial." Gould attributes this process to return customers becoming the bread and butter of her business.
For those running strictly online concerns, there are a number of considerations one must take into account when attempting to strategize a plan of action for antique and vintage sales that may not necessarily equate with a bricks & mortar store. Charles Caulfield, who operates a wide range of collectible businesses on numerous digital platforms says that reveals and drops (the unveiling of products), can be particularly important to overall sales based on how they're presented. "When I'm selling Christmas collectibles," says Caulfield, "I'll drop my entire collection at once to try and generate some buzz, rather than just trickling them out one by one." However, sometimes it's not seasonal says Caulfield, but simply based on a theme of collectible items that he might have in stock. Key to employing this successful strategy, is using Facebook and other online platforms to poll his followers and customers about what they're interested in. "I try to stick to a schedule as well," says Caulfield, "once my contacts have indicated their interest in a particular genre or item, I try to drop those sales on a regular basis." Caulfield says that since he's started doing consistent reveals based on polling his sales have risen dramatically. Like Gould, Caulfield also attributes a large degree of his success to keeping detailed records along with a strong customer database.
For Deborah Torres the digital lesson came late. "After setting up my first booth in Florida, I concentrated on nearby locations and worked on adding additional spaces at new in-person venues, but my sales eventually began to flatten." Torres says her daughter finally convinced her of the benefit of having an online presence and since then she's gone all in. "It's not that I wasn't online," says Torres, "It's just I wasn't doing much with it until my daughter showed me how." Now she says that part of her work week is devoted solely to doing things like expanding her customer list by following and interacting with other sellers, doing live feeds and shows, and even hitting up Tik Tok. One area that Torres claims she's seen strong gains in are boosted posts of Facebook and carousel style ads on smaller venues like Pinterest. "It takes some time to figure out the process for placing the ads, and you have to be consistent and understand the feedback, but in the end my numbers jumped by over fifty percent," she says.
Interior designers and vintage gallery owners David Smith and his partner Neal Brown, are also of the mind that a good customer database can be an excellent place to start when trying to supercharge your business, but thinks that dealers should also take note of the broader scale of what's trending in the current decorative arts marketplace if they want to increase sales. Smith says that while you don't need to jump on every trend that pops up, keeping tabs on those that have some longevity can really help your business grow in the long run. "I've watched American Pickers for years," says Smith, "but what's really interesting for me is not so much the finding part, but what they end up bringing back to the store." Smith says that in all the years watching the show he's noted that they tend to pick a few genres in particular, from petrolina to toys, that always remain in relative favor with buyers and collectors alike. Smith believes that having a sense of where the market is in terms of popular trends can help both in minimizing costs for buying future inventory as trends ramp up, and also when it comes time to pricing an item before hitting the showroom floor. One thing Smith notes that he says might sound obvious, but is not, is offering customers and clients something for free. Smith says he works on a short monthly newsletter about trends, vintage items, interiors, etc. which is provided solely to his businesses social media followers and customer base. "It creates a feeling of exclusivity among our clients," says Smith, "and it also tends to keep them coming back as customers."
There is of course no iron-clad panacea for being able to drive sales and clients to one's business, however, for a number of antique and vintage dealers these are some potential strategies that have done just that. For Deborah Torres, building new relationships by reaching out to her community, both online and in-person have payed off handsomely. For Jenn Gould, tailoring the buying experience to established customers has provided her business with plentiful dividends. However, quite possibly the most nuanced strategy for achieving an exceptionally profitable decorative arts business may have been summed up best by interior designer Neal Brown, who claimed that the biggest reason for his rising success in the industry was due to a real-world alignment between how much effort he thought he was putting into his business, versus what he was actually achieving on a day-to-day basis. "Taking honest stock of one's efforts on a daily basis is simply a great motivator," he says, "it helps keep your business strategies moving forward... and upward."
- A.I.A. Staff Writers
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