“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”
– Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking Glass,” Chapter 6
In our information-heavy, digitally-driven world of antiques, dealers have learned to choose their words wisely. No one wants to risk bad feedback from an online buyer or a lawsuit from a disgruntled auction bidder because of poor product descriptions. We know the difference between “antique,” “vintage,” collectible” and “retro.” Or do we? And if you have answered that question with an enthusiastic “I certainly do know the difference!” then listen up; this article is for you. You may not know as much as you think you do. In fact, clinging to outdated words and definitions may be hurting your business.
Consider this: “Antique” is now an offensive verb, as in “I totally antiqued that guy!” (This may be peripherally related to the tacky furniture painting technique called “antiquing,” but I digress.) In the modern usage defined by urban dictionary.com, the verb “antique” means to toss flour, sugar or another type of powder in someone’s face — usually while the target is sleeping — to make it appear that a great deal of time has passed. Some variations also call for covering the victim’s body with the powder, which can cause a fair amount of discomfort. This nonstandard definition of antique — which coincidentally is the least offensive one listed — can be traced to “Jackass,” a reality TV prank and stunt show that also spawned several movies. (I will avoid the other definitions related to “antique,” as none of them should be published in a family magazine.)
Contrast “antique” with the word “vintage.” All the urban dictionary definitions surrounding the word “vintage” were positive. It seems that, to the younger generations, vintage is “cool,” and antiques are not. Antiques are great-grandma’s smelly old junk.
Among the young, the word “antique” has fallen out of favor. The traditional meaning of antique was nowhere to be found in urban dictionary. What does this mean for your business? By association, antiques stores are not cool. Why would young professionals go into an antiques store if antiques are not desirable?
Say you have essentially the same inventory as the vintage store across the street. Which store is going to attract young professionals? The vintage store, because the customer is predisposed to shop there.
Product descriptions have power
Words are convincing. Words are the building blocks of thought. Consumers attach an emotional charge to words and use those emotions to guide their buying decisions. “Antique” is apparently a negatively charged word to many of your future customers.
Sally Schwartz of Chicago’s Randolph Street Market Festival puts it like this: “It’s a marketing issue, because the word ‘antique’ connotes — for people who don’t know — old and smelly … But when they hear the word ‘retro’ or ‘vintage,’ young people get excited, because that’s what is very hip right now. Movie stars are carrying vintage handbags and dressing in designer clothes from the ’60s and ’70s … The strategy is straightforward: to have a different look for a different audience.”
There’s an entire science dedicated to choosing marketing words to target certain consumers (there is always someone willing to finance marketing research). The science, called Semantic Differential, measures consumer’s attitudes toward stimulus words, objects and concepts among different age groups, cultures and languages. The semantics of “antique” vs. “vintage” has moved away from the retail floor and into university laboratories.
Know your customers
The question then is “Who are you marketing to?” rather than “What are you selling?”
Most dealers carry a mix of antiques, collectibles and vintage goods. If all of your advertising emphasizes “antiques,” you probably aren’t attracting many new young customers. Perhaps the word “antique” is even part of your business name. What message does this send? What customers does the word attract? How old are they? Will these customers still be viable in 10, 15 or 20 years? How long do you want to stay in business, and who will your customers be 10 years from now?
Is it necessary for you to reposition your business as a “vintage” store? No, it’s not. Antiques and collectibles are still in demand; they’re just not in demand with younger buyers. The problem that presents to antiques businesses is that their customer base isn’t growing as fast as it could. Younger customers are shopping vintage stores, not antiques stores. Here are a few ideas on how to capture vintage buyers without making a major change to your business:
1. If you sell at outside shows and fairs, choose venues that aren’t exclusively promoted as “antiques” events, such as arts and crafts shows, major flea markets, boat shows and music or food festivals. These events will attract a different clientele. Make sure your merchandise complements the venue. Show primarily vintage goods instead of a lot of antiques. You want to establish your store as the place to shop for vintage items while still leaving a door open to show and sell antiques. After all, everything has a vintage, even antiques. Track the profitability of these events by modifying your accounting to include a profit center for the outside venues where you promote vintage goods. In your customer database, create a field that identifies customers obtained from outside venues so you can track customer growth from such events.
2. Segment your print advertising. Limit your advertising for “antiques” to publications that are read by the 45-50+ demographic. When you advertise in publications that have a younger readership, emphasize that you’re a vintage seller, and advertise your vintage goods. Include a coupon or premium in such ads so you can track where your new customers are coming from.
3. Hold an in-store contest that encourages participants to come into your store to identify a group of antiques and vintage objects (make it difficult, but not impossible). Offer a substantial prize, like a $500 shopping spree at your store (your cost: around $200), event tickets or something else enticing. In your contest ads, show a picture of just one of the items; you’ll be surprised how many people will say, “I know what that is!” and come down to your store to have a look at your other items.
Alice was correct: Words mean many different things. To paraphrase Humpty Dumpty’s question, who will be the master (of the words that define our business)? We can be the masters — as long as we use the power of words to capture the attention and interest of new customers. If we don’t, we’ll end up like Humpty Dumpty, where all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t put our businesses back together again.
Previously published in Antique Trader Magazine