Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Marketing Canadian Antiques and Folk Art - the Need for a New Paradigm

I am not a full time antique dealer selling antiques but I am a full time media relations professional selling consulting services so I offer this opinion based on observations from being in business for myself since 1996 and conducting part time sales of antiques since the mid 1980’s. 
My main professional occupation has been hammered mercilessly by the recession. Since 2009, when Wall Street and others almost caused a global meltdown by selling the world a bill of investment goods comprised of those ridiculous sub prime mortgages, business has been a tough grind. It's not dissimilar to the recessions of 1991 and 2001. In 91, they said "survive til 95". In 2001, it took the killer application of something on a par with the printing press and the steam engine, to pull us all out of the hole - the Internet. 

This time, notwithstanding smart phones and mobile computing - there is no economic rabbit popping out of the hat.  Governments spend billions on infrastructure to keep the sluggish pistons of their economies firing while many other parts of their economic vehicle are rusting and falling off the car!

Against that uncertain and uncomfortable backdrop, the competition for your customer’s disposable dollars continues to increase.   Consumers, our potential customers, are being pulled in all kinds of directions.  The number of areas of collecting has exploded.  .  The “addressable market”, as the experts would call it, has changed, dramatically.

I remember in mid 90’s, during the recession, a very successful picker, offered me a stunning pine, glazed cupboard in original paint for $2,000. He said a year or two earlier, he could have got double that.  I declined. When the recession ended and the economy rebounded, he still had the cupboard. He raised the price to $4,000 and it sold. While we may not agree with them, a good percentage of our potential customers appear to think that country furniture is over priced especially in these market conditions.  Yes, if the economy came back with a roar, those prices might seem reasonable by comparison but so far, it hasn’t.  And, it doesn’t appear that it will anytime soon. The Bank of Canada keeps putting off any increase in the prime interest rate to “the 4th quarter of next year.”  Believe me those guys and girls in that ivory tower know the economy is on tender hooks.
By potential customers I am not including all those collectors who already have houses full of cupboards and other case pieces of furniture.  With some exceptions, those “customers” aren’t buying.  Price is irrelevant to someone who is not in the market.

You, as the dealer, may have crawled over broken glass to obtain a particular antique to resell at a premium but despite your passionate belief that it is so and must command that price the market may well disagree.

With all due respect to their owners and operators, a flea market mentality seems to have taken over. Any type of ploy or tactic in the negotiation of a purchase of an antique now seems to be fair game.  And really, when you look at a field show at an antique show, or a flea market - they all look somewhat similar – row after row of merchandise, all for sale. From a marketing stand point, did flea markets pull a fast one on antique shows by successfully borrowing their physical selling format? In a down market do buyers, knowing dealers are hurting, simply feel that the shoe is solidly on the other foot and act accordingly – asking for unreasonable discounts and making low ball offers?

So, in this complicated, interesting time in which we find ourselves, what must an antique dealer do to succeed? 

Price issues aside, antique dealers can certainly continue to rely on an independent store, an Internet site, a group shop, advertising and multiple antique shows to drive their business, although listening to the dealers it would seem that business model leaves much to be desired in this economic climate.

The process of marketing a product ends by filling a customer’s need.  It would appear that today’s potential customers for Canadian antiques don’t feel a “need” to buy.  As dealers we have to work harder to create that sense of need.  I have written at some length about the lack of editorial coverage in the mainstream media.  Changing that situation would help. 

I am constantly amazed by the media’s willingness to publish stories covering the announcements made by the big auction houses about their latest offerings in art and antiques.  The auction houses don’t own these items, they’re simply selling them! 
However, by virtue of distributing the news release, they do “own” the story and the media responds accordingly. The fact that the item may fetch a certain amount of money, that it’s the long lost something, that it’s an object that hasn’t been seen in a 100 years – the subject of the story doesn’t matter.  They are all good stories and with the cooperation of the media, the auction houses find a way to create excitement and anticipation, which drives people into their showrooms, to the telephone and on line for the actual auction. Auction houses truly understand the power of the media and how a good story can be leveraged to their benefit.

It’s ironic that as of late, auction houses are turning to brokering private sales as resistance grows against their traditional model – the public auction. Brokering a private sale is more efficient, less costly and far more predictable in an uncertain economy.

In my opinion, we have to create an air of excitement and anticipation around antiques, folk art and related categories.  You achieve this with change.  Pop-up retail events seem to be the latest fad.  An entrepreneur with a particular product rents a space for one week and stages a retail event and then disappears.  An up and coming artist in our community staged a pop up show in some empty retail space this summer.  He also did some excellent social media marketing. The result - he sold out!  What about a pop-up antique show?  Three for four dealers combine forces to go a three-day show in a major retail area. That’s new. And, that’s worth a press release too! In my consulting business, I try to go to one event per week where I can meet potential customers.  Do antique dealers network enough?   

Last year I developed a workshop on media relations for start up companies, which has been well received. I am currently working on a presentation about Canadian folk art called “With These Hands”.  When it’s completed I plan on offering it to service clubs and other gatherings in my community.  I would pay good money and travel some distance to attend a workshop on “Early Canadian Outdoor Signs and Advertising”,  to give you another example.

In this economy and given that so many of the good customers from the past have completed their collections, one can not sit back in a store or at the back of the booth in an antique show and expect customers to understand your offerings and to buy them.

The solutions I’m suggesting are not trivial. They will take time and effort to develop and implement.  Marketing my media relations workshop, isn’t easy. But in doing so, I know I’ve taken a fresh approach to marketing my services. No one else that I know offers this type of workshop.  It’s my unique selling proposition. And, to some extent, it’s worked – even in this dog eat dog economy. One client has retained me on three occasions to deliver the session. I am rebuilding my customer base - one transaction at a time.


I am in the process of doing the same for my antiques and folk art “business”.  That’s why, in part, I wrote the book Folk Art in the Attic. That’s why I’m writing a blog by the same name and working on a presentation about folk art.  In the end it may not work. There is no guarantee of success.  But at least I'll know I've tried something new and throwing myself into these initiatives is a lot more fun and interesting than doing the same thing that's not producing results. 
No one likes change.  We all want the old ways to continue working.  Sadly, it appears the old ways are failing and failing consistently.  It’s time for change in the marketing of Canadian antiques and I know the many talented and innovative people within the industry can rise to the challenge. 

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