Dec 5, 2009

Three Ways An Antique Business Can Surive The Downturn

lagging sales
For those who do not follow the antique trade, let me bring you up to speed: the antique business is in the toilet. Prices are at their lowest level in a decade, following the boom of the 1990s. Antique furniture is selling for 70-80% less than it sold for in 1998. Inventories are piling up. The customer base is shrinking, because the new Gen X buyers are not that interested in antiques, especially large furniture pieces.

Many antique dealers are giving up the trade. Other dealers swear that the downturn is just part of the normal business cycle, and that sales will rebound. These optimists point out that with prices so low, new buyers are attracted to collecting antiques.

Certainly the market has dropped; I cannot argue that point. And, certainly many dealers are going out of business. The question on everyone's mind is: which dealers will survive?

Nov 30, 2009

How the Antique Business Can Recapture Gen X

Today, the antique business has a new problem: old customers. Boomers and their parents, who have been collecting antiques for decades, no longer have the room or the inclination to buy more antiques. Their Gen-X successors do not seem to care for antiques. "The trend is away from antiques", says Red Whaley, owner of an antiques business in Forney, Texas since 1968. "I think it skips a generation. You just do not want what your parents had". Attend any antique show in the US, and all you will see is a sea of silver hair and bald heads. This leaves antiques dealers in a quandary: their customer base is shrinking, sales are plummeting, and they are buried in inventory.

The shrinking customer base is just phase one of the problem. When millions of boomers start to downsize and the antiques they have been collecting for decades hit the resale market, prices will plunge as well. There will be an overabundance of supply, and very little demand. Boomers that bought antiques as an investment are in for a rude awakening. In many cases, they will not recoup their original investment.

The antiques trade has tried everything to hook new buyers: scotch tastings, seminars, door prizes, even handwritten invitations. Little progress has been made in capturing the pocketbooks of Gen X. Why are they not buying? I think that Richard Whaley, Red’s son, hit the nail on the head when he said: "it is more functional now. We sell a lot of (decorative) mailboxes".

Functional; that is the key word. I have often been told by Gen X'ers that they do not buy antique furniture because it does not fit the needs of modern technology. An antique flat-top desk has no place to run computer cords, store cd's or comfortably place a monitor and keyboard. Old wooden office chairs are not ergonomic and one cannot sit in them for hours at a time. Even starter apartments have walk-in closets that make armoires obsolete.

The twin essentials of furniture making have always been form and function, or beauty and usability. For boomers and their parents, furniture was for sitting, eating, or sleeping. Simple functions. For the Boomer antique collector, beauty of form lent an added dimension to the simple functions of furniture. Function was a given. Boomers bought because the Form was beautiful. For Gen X’ers, the opposite is true. For them, furniture provides a place to eat, sleep, sit, play video games, and sit for hours at a workstation for work or socializing. Function takes precedence over form. The furniture has to perform. Beautiful antiques that do not function well in the Gen X lifestyle are an impediment. Why would they buy them? For Gen X, buying decisions are made on the basis of performance, not beauty.

How, then, do we sell to Gen X buyers? We stop trying to sell beauty and investment as our primary sales pitches. This is easiest to do with accessories and occasional pieces. Sell function first, then beauty, then investment. Functionally, a lamp is a lamp. An antique lamp will work as well as a new lamp, plus it has the added benefits of being unique, beautiful, and a good investment. See what I mean? Start by selling function. You cannot use that approach with a roll top desk. It is not functional in terms of the Gen X lifestyle. What does that mean for your business? Re-evaluate your inventory. If an item is not functional for the Gen X buyer, liquidate it or you will soon find yourself with a store full of inventory you cannot sell. Start buying inventory with Gen-X functionality in mind, and eliminate anything that does not fit that profile.

Gen X buyers will not completely furnish their homes with antiques as their parents have done but the market for accessories and occasional pieces will continue to be strong. As an added bonus, these smaller pieces are easily shipped. That makes them ideal candidates for online selling, which is where Gen X does a lot of their buying anyway.