retail truths

90 Years’ Experience Helps Antiques Dealers

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Featured in Antique Trader Magazine

What’s the best advice you ever received that you failed to take? I recently considered that question, and my thoughts went down a rabbit hole that became so deep, so fast, I expected to bump into Alice and the White Rabbit.

Yes, I should have bought Apple stock in 1986. Yes, I should have taken a raincoat to Woodstock. No, I never should have opened that second store. Although I’m not particularly good at taking advice, my hindsight is 20/20.

Humans often claim that a characteristic that sets us apart from other species is our ability to learn from one another. I’ve never entirely believed that. I believe that taking advice is just not natural. Right or wrong, we tend to take our own counsel. Advice is sought for comparison purposes, listened to politely and usually dismissed. Unsolicited advice is simply ignored.

Which, as often as not, gets us into trouble. As George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” For antiques retailers, the problem is compounded by the lack of historic information about antiques retailing. We can’t remember what we never learned in the first place. Most available retailing information is boilerplate about accounting and management practices, which provides little help in running our businesses day to day. Consequently, we have nowhere to turn for help except the advice of friends, colleagues and Web forums. Ouch.

Until now.

I recently had a nice chat with Chip Averwater, author of “Retail Truths, The Unconventional Wisdom of Retailing.” Chip is a third-generation retailer and owner of Amro Music in Memphis, Tenn. Amro was started by Chip’s grandfather and has been operating for about 90 years. Chip says that when he was growing up, he thought “going to work” meant “tending shop,” because every adult that he knew was in retail.

Ninety years of family retailing brings a lot of experience to the table, and with it a lot of wisdom. About 12 years ago, Chip started to write down what he considered to be the “truths” of retailing. A retail “truth” is something that can only be discovered through experience. You can’t learn these truths in business school. Learning these requires enrollment in the school of hands-on retailing.

Having been both a music store owner and antique shop owner, I can tell you that most of what Averwater says about musical instrument retailing applies just as well to antiques retailing — and retailing in general, actually. The book lists 427 truths about retailing. Averwater says that there are many more “truths,” but his publisher wanted to keep the book under 400 pages.

Let me share with you 10 of my favorite “truths,” and let’s see how they might help you improve your antiques business. I will precede each “truth” with its numbered location in the book:

(1) “It looks so easy to be so hard.” Ain’t it the truth? What could be easier than buying low and selling high? But add in leases, insurance, inventory, advertising, payroll, employees … well, you get the picture. No wonder the failure rate for retail business startups is so high.
(385) “A little success creates a lot of overhead,” and its corollary (427) “If at first you do succeed, try not to think you’re infallible.” Opening your first antiques store requires that you dream big and work hard. When cash flow is good, it’s natural to think that we have struck gold and our first impulse is to duplicate our effort with a second location. Don’t do it. Get better right where you are.
(105) “Love your products, but only for their sales.” One of my early auctioneering mentors once told me that I could either be an auctioneer or a collector, but not both. If it’s in your inventory, sell it. You’re not a museum; you’re a retail store.
(41) “Holding on to inventory mistakes only makes them more costly.” We’ve all made bad purchases. Why make them worse by giving them shelf space, insuring them, tracking them and carrying them to shows while you wait for a buyer to duplicate your mistake?
(110) “Outside storage is an addiction.” You can’t sell inventory that can’t be seen. Don’t hide it away in your “warehouse.”
(338) “You can go broke making a profit.” Dealers regularly tell me that they are re-investing their profits in inventory. Good idea — to a point. Their financials look good because they show healthy profits. But profit doesn’t pay bills; cash does. The IRS won’t take your Philadelphia Highboy as payment for your taxes; you’ll have to sell it first. You can be very profitable and still have no cash. Watch your cash!
(86) “You’re not in business if you’re not in show business,” and its corollary, (89) “Nothing is beautiful in the wrong light.” Antiques stores can be dreary places. Don’t rely on your store’s overhead fluorescent lights to show off your merchandise. You’d be surprised how good lighting can increase sales.
And my personal favorite:

(416) “You can’t hunt two rabbits with one dog.” It’s easy to get sidetracked into add-on products that aren’t really your area of expertise. If you’re an antiques dealer, don’t try to be an art prints dealer at the same time (unless you know something about art prints). Don’t split your time, energy, and money; focus on your core business.

Averwater offered some parting advice on how antiques dealers can cope with a declining market: watch expenses. As our businesses grow, we tend to make commitments to employees, landlords, suppliers and others. When sales drop off, don’t be afraid to prune expenses. Trees and vines require regular pruning in order to stay healthy, and so does your business. It’s possible, Averwater says, to make a healthy profit on fewer sales. “After all, they did it (made a profit) on the way up”.

Previously published in Antique Trader Magazine

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