You’re Selling Nostalgia, Not Antiques

In the mid-1970s, I took my first sales seminar from what was then the biggest sales training organization in North America. There I learned the most useless sales technique I have ever encountered. For decades, this technique was taught as a way to close sales when a customer simply couldn’t make up their mind. (Ever heard the excuse “I want to think about it? This was supposed to fix that.) All the sales experts of the era agreed that the technique worked. It didn’t.

The technique was called the “Ben Franklin Close.” Whenever a customer couldn’t make up his or her mind, the story goes, the salesman pulled out a blank piece of paper and said to the customer:

“Whenever Old Ben Franklin had trouble making a decision, he would take a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle. On one side of the line, he would write down all the reasons in favor of a decision, and on the other side all the reasons against. Whichever side listed the most reasons was the logical choice.” And then the salesperson would help their customer list all the reasons to “buy now,” and leave them on their own to list the reasons against buying.

There were times when I filled both sides of a customer’s sheet with reasons supporting my sale while listing scant few in the other column. I never did make a sale using Old Ben. Not once. Ever.

Despite hitting my sales quotas consistently, I always wondered why my “by-the-book” sales techniques didn’t sell everyone. It took me decades to discover the answer, and it is so simple I’m rather embarrassed that I didn’t figure it out sooner. Here it is: People buy based on emotions, not logic. Consumers may justify a purchase logically (after the fact, generally) but at the time the buying decision was made it was all about emotions.

Nostalgia creates an emotional pull

The dueling concepts of “logic vs. emotion” have been debated in college classes and philosophy forums for decades. The competing notions also allowed for some very entertaining Star Trek scripts; I always enjoyed the exchanges between logical Spock and emotional McCoy.

Neurological research on the topic was inevitable. In 1995, the publication of “Descartes’ Error” by neurologist Antonio Damasio (I’m sure you remember Rene “I think, therefore I am” Descartes) clearly demonstrated the effect of emotions on decision making; even decisions we believe to be thoroughly rational. The business world quickly adopted the “new” selling philosophy: An Amazon book search for “emotional selling” (sans quotation marks) returned 988 results.

Antique dealers should be jumping all over this concept. What we offer is pure nostalgia, and what’s more emotional than nostalgia? Few of us would challenge the notion that a customer’s strong emotional connection to an item usually results in a sale. The question is, how can we “pump up” customers’ emotions (nostalgia) so that the cash register rings more often?

To small degree, we have already been doing this: each year we go to great lengths to decorate our stores for Christmas, light scented candles and play seasonal music. We make a sincere effort to create a nostalgic atmosphere that will get shoppers “in a Christmas (read: buying) mood” to encourage them to spend.

Then on January 2, we take everything down and it’s business as usual. Why? Because “the season” is over, and antique dealers seldom jump on the Hallmark Holiday wagon train. Large retailers, though, gear up for those celebrations: Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Mother’s Day and so on throughout the year. Merchandising for those events usually revolves around a “guilt trip”: “Don’t forget Mom!” “Diamonds say ‘I Love You!’” and “What’s St. Paddy’s Day without corned beef and Guinness?”

Guilt is a negative emotion, and though most of us are socially conditioned to give in to it, we put off dealing with it for as long as possible. For an antique dealer, guilt isn’t a very effective merchandising strategy.

Sell nostalgia and watch your profits grow

Be assured that nostalgia isn’t just a technique to use on Baby Boomers. All age cohorts have emotional attachments to their past. In an article titled “As Millennials get nostalgic, so do brands”, Jeff Fromm points to three brands that have embraced nostalgia to capture a Millennial audience: Urban Outfitters brought back a line of Lisa Frank products that were originally sold to 1990s teenage girls; the television network Nickelodeon created a block of programming titled “The ’90s Are All That” (which enjoyed a 50 percent ratings spike), and Pepsi, who coupled their “real sugar” soft drink Pepsi Throwback with a chance to win an Atari Throwback game console.

Every item in your store appeals emotionally to some group. You just have to figure out who that is, how to attract the attention of those folks and whether the profit associated with the sales of those products is worth the effort. (If it isn’t worth the effort, I have to ask why you bought those items in the first place if you didn’t know who your potential buyers were.)

The key to effective antiques merchandising is to create displays that are nostalgia centers that focus on the various decades or other nostalgia triggers (like trades, sports teams, “back on the farm,” musical groups, etc.). Nostalgia triggers are endless; you just have to spend some time identifying them and visualizing your displays.

Antique dealers who master “nostalgia merchandising” will prosper. A good place to begin a study of the discipline is Clay Routledge’s 2015 book “Nostalgia: A Psychological Resource (Essays in Social Psychology)”.

You don’t have to have a PhD in psychology, though, to get started with nostalgia as a primary merchandising tactic. Begin by asking the following questions for each item you want to promote:

• What are you selling?
• Who is the customer for that product? What is their age cohort?
• What are the nostalgia triggers for that group? (Usually popular cultural events from school years 1 through 12).

When those questions are answered, you’ll find it easy to cross-promote items from the same decade, build period displays, adopt nostalgic signage and use period music as emotional reinforcement.

Don’t use a “one-size-fits-all” approach to merchandising your store; separate your displays to focus on a particular customer age cohort. Your displays will get more attention, your customers will linger longer and buy more.

This article was previously published in Antique Trader Magazine

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