Kicking and Screaming or How to Drag the Antiques Industry from the 18th to 21st Centuries- A Manifesto
Ladies and Gentleman,
Like all good nutcases (Marx & Engels, Ted Kaczynski) I sit here today composing what might be considered lunacy by much of its intended audience. I have observed the complete unraveling of our industry over the past 15 years. I feel the frustration at our inability to adapt, change and compete in a very different world than we could have envisioned. The need to act dramatically has become overwhelming. Our industry faces significant challenges that cannot simply be dismissed as being caused by the “bad economy”. Rather than sitting by as we collectively re-arrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, perhaps we can use the current circumstances as motivation to embrace necessary radical change. To start with, we need to put down the swords that we have been using to beat each other over the head with in the name of competition.
The time has come to cast aside the traditional labels that have divided our industry since the beginning: dealer, auctioneer, promoter, collector, appraiser, picker, door knocker and preservationist- and unite under the concept of “one industry- the Antiques Business”. The very nature of our fractionalized industry- a few large entities (large auction houses, museums, EBay and a few other players)- show promoters and larger regional auction houses- dealers( from high end retail shops and show dealers down to flea market participants) has led to a serious inferiority complex to the industry as a whole. As tens of thousand of small businesses, we fail to grasp our importance, scope and impact on local and national economies. Every group has reasons to dislike and view with skepticism the others, but in reality we are all passengers on the same leaky ship.
Step 1- Start talking and acting like a significant Industry.
Without taking the time to add up what numbers are available, it is clear that the antiques & art business represents a multi-billion dollar industry. Any ability to solve our big picture challenges will require cooperation on a near industry wide scale. Lobbying anyone? Media Campaign? We need to start acting collectively otherwise we will continue to flounder towards irrelevance. We need to realize our perceived competitors are actually our closest allies. A broad based industry group dedicated to addressing our collective challenges is an immediate necessity. We need a fundamental change in the way we see ourselves in order to change how others see us.
Step 2- Use our collective knowledge to fill the most gaping hole our industry has- the internet.
Now before you start screaming “I have a website”, that’s not what I’m talking about. The problem is that you may have a website, but “we” don’t. The lack of a cohesive, definitive industry internet presence is in my opinion, the key obstacle to attracting the next generation of customers. This may seem like one of our biggest challenges, the ’big question” so to speak, but solving this the easiest part of the equation. A definitive knowledge based website, to educate, entice and inspire actual and potential customers is simply too easy not to do. Many in the industry love to bemoan the “young people don’t like antiques” or “all they do is sit in front of their computers” arguments until they are blue in the face. When many of my 30-45 year old friends encounter the antiques in my home, the almost universally enjoy them. Yet when I try to explain where they can get them- shows, auctions, out of the way shops, malls, the excitement fades and they are out the door to Pottery Barn to buy knock-offs of what we collectively sell. The knock-offs are for the most part significantly more expensive and are destined to be part of a garage sale or landfill trip in the next 10 years. Part of turning this enthusiasm in action is making our industry more accessible. A cohesive industry presence on the internet is the key step in getting this ball rolling.
Step 3- Big Picture Industry Marketing and Advertising.
Now that we have our industry association and website problems solved, it is time to get to the problem of marketing and advertising. Individually, we market and advertise to get the attention of people already on the boat. We are spending precious resources fighting over a shrinking and aging customer base. Collectively, we need to allocate the resources to attract a new group of passengers. The industry association would be the natural body to do this, but think about a “Use Antiques” campaign. The arguments that we all recite ad naseum to each other about the reason the buying antiques and art make sense (Green & Recycle, Retained Value, Uniqueness, Etc.) need to be exposed to a broader audience through an Advertising and Marketing campaign on a scale never imagined or possible. Time to pull out all the stops. I would propose a one tenth of one percent of gross sales as the membership fee (with a cap) to the national association, to cover association costs and to create the necessary resources to “make some noise”.
Step 4- Change the Image & Message
One of our large challenges is changing the perception of the Industry. See if any of these ring a bell.
1. Grandma’s dimly lit Victorian home with her oak china cabinet and “special” dishes.
2. Hipsters clad head to toe in black at a gallery opening of a recently discovered photographer.
3. The Country Club set at a $500 per person preview party for a charity antique show.
4. The “Antiques Roadshow” phenomenon, where everything is worth a great deal of money.
To sum up these 4 images- boring, unnecessarily hip, elitist and unrealistic. The message and image needs to reflect, fun, accessible, relevant- Think antiques for Main Street. Antiques can and will be sold to younger customers, how many of them is the challenge.
Step 5- Reaching out to important media and publishing entities in an unprecedented PR campaign. We need shills. Shill is a bad word in the Industry, but not in this sense. Reaching out and identifying publishing and media types to help get the message out is key. We don’t have enough style makers in the main-stream media on board. Oprah, Martha anyone? Advertising puts your commercial on tv, PR gets you on the news. Advertising buys a newspaper ad, PR makes you the story. Both are important and necessary.
Step 6- Compete with our real competition- Our real competition isn’t each other, it’s Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, Restoration Hardware and every other store knocking off our looks, raising the prices and essentially beating us at our own game. Time to take off the gloves when it comes to the reality of the scam they are running. Under the right circumstances, most of us would buy back sold inventory at 50% of sale price, a new furniture store wouldn’t dream of that. Exploit their weaknesses!
Step 7- Educate and Integrate- We need new customers at every level of the business. It takes years for a customer to mature from first time show, shop or auction attendee to Winter Show preview customer. We need to spend more energy being active participants in this crucial process. The National Association should reach out to schools from elementary to college and offer the wealth of knowledge that we posssess as educational resources to re-kindle interest in decorative arts starting at school age.
Step 8- Remember that the business is driven from the bottom up- as I mentioned earlier, the first time show, auction or shop customer needs to be inspired, educated and nurtured. Much of this process starts at simple flea markets, small auctions and in one on one conversations between dealers and customers. Although the headlines in our trade press often focus on the million dollar object, the $20 first purchase of a customer is really more important to the industry as a whole.
Step 9- Look outside our Industry- There are many examples in business of industries or companies that face challenges the scope of our current predicament. What can we learn from the classic story of the buggy whip industry who went from relevance to obsolescence in the blink of an eye. Should we be inspired by Apple Computer, who went from a dynamic industry leader, faded to nearly nothing and re-invented itself to have perhaps the most devoted group of customers in the world today.
Step 10- Be Happy- The challenges faces by the Antiques Business have left us puzzled, confused and in many cases depressed and contemplating a career as a Wal-Mart greeter. The economic situation that many of us find ourselves in can certainly be blamed as being a major cause of our “collective bad mood”. We are engaged in the attempt to sell discretionary income products (antiques) in the most difficulty economy our lives. The long faces I see in shows and shops are well earned, but customers pick up on this, the mood is contagious. The desperate guy never meets the girl, the unhappy salesperson will sell less. This is supposed to be fun, and if it isn’t, fake it for your own good.
Ten Steps, just my opinion, let the debate begin. But let me close by saying, insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results.