The Business of Show Business
Part I: Selling at Shows

Most of us dealers are in this business because we love buying. We love the thrill of the hunt, we love driving home with a special piece and a big grin. And then we have to sit for hours at a show, suffering people ignoring our treasure. And the longer the show goes on, the grumpier we get. Selling is a chore. But the more we feel like this, the less we’ll sell, and the longer it’ll be before we can be out on the open road again, hunting and buying. A good dealer is one with good sources and good customers. Both are difficult to find, and both need nurturing.

This article is about the customer end of show business, and it is about indoor shows: selling outdoors is a different ball game. It’s a personal account of what I do and what I think about when trying to sell as much as I can at a show. It is about customer relations as much as salesmanship because I believe strongly that customers are more important than sales: I will happily lose a sale to gain a customer, and I will happily go the extra mile to serve a customer after I’ve made a sale.

Why Bother to Display Well?

Setting up a booth is hard work, and setting it up well is even harder. The extra effort will pay off in the long run, but its immediate returns are tiny. It will affect, probably, 1% of the people who enter your booth.

Yes, 1%; think about it for a moment. Of every 100 show-goers, 90 will not buy from you regardless of your display. You can look like Macy’s at Christmas, but if their interest lies in another type of antiques, they’ll pass you by. So that leaves ten. Six of them couldn’t care a two cent piece about your display: they are the dealers and the serious collectors. For them you might as well pile everything in the middle of the floor -- if you have what they’re looking for, they’ll find it and buy it. Now we’re down to four, of whom one, I believe, might be turned into a buyer by your display efforts. All this effort for a measely 1% return? Yes, that one person in a hundred is the one that makes or breaks your show.

You are doing more than just selling: your great display has an invisible effect far wider than that which is reflected in immediate sales. It enhances your “image.” In these days of branding, getting your name and your look recognized, remembered and appreciated is half the game. You want people to mutter, even as they’re not buying, “I love Angela Angel’s booth – it always looks so good.” One day, one of those mutterers will buy from you, or somebody she mutters to will. Word of mouth is the best advertising, so get people talking about your booth.

And don’t forget the show promoter. He or she is an important one of these mutterers. Promoters like dealers who help them make their shows look good. Look good, and sooner or later, probably sooner, you’ll get a better booth.

What Are You Really Selling?

When I was new to the business, a successful show dealer told me that what his customers were really buying was his “eye.” They returned to his booth year after year because they knew that his “eye” and theirs coincided. What caught his eye would catch theirs. His eye had performed the first, basic stage of the selection process, so that they didn’t have to.

Your booth should reflect your eye. Buying and selling antiques is a deeply personal matter, and the more of your personality that is in your booth, the more your customers will warm to you and your antiques. Other dealers may carry similar items, but the way you put them together should be uniquely and identifiably yours. Your booth is an extension of yourself.

Be Inviting and Friendly

Invite people into your booth. I don’t mean that you should stand in the aisle and buttonhole them, but, more subtly, your display and your behavior should be welcoming. Remember that you are part of your display. Don’t sit or stand in a position that makes it awkward for someone to enter. Never sit in your booth deep in a book with a sour, bored expression on your face – you’re telling people that you don’t particularly want them to come in, so they won’t.

You don’t need to greet everyone, some don’t like being spoken to on the first round. But you do need to exude an air of welcome. Greet some, smile at others, go googly-goo over their kids if you can (personally, I can’t, but that’s my problem.) And look happy. Smiles sell, study after study shows it. Waitresses who draw a smiley-face on the check get bigger tips – they really do! Selling is always a performance, perform well.

Hover, but don’t hog. Many show-goers, particularly novices, can feel somewhat intimidated by the dealer’s presence. They are often more comfortable in an empty booth. So hover nearby, and try and gauge from their body-language when, and if, they need help. Don’t move in too soon. I can’t tell you how often I’ve scared people out of my booth with my huge grin and friendly “Can I help you”!

Be friendly. Chat casually. Find points in common. People will buy antiques from people they like, and they like people who are like themselves. Casual chat sells, but be careful of your timing. Don’t distract a contemplative silence with gossipy trivia. A good customer conversation involves talking, listening, asking – and silence.

Wow Them!

Display is a performance, too. Plan your booth with an easy entry and easy circulation. At the back, put something impressive, beautiful, or peculiar – or ideally one of each. You want people to say, “Wow, I must get a closer look at that!” Use blank space and lighting to help this wow-factor. Don’t diminish the magnetism of a special piece by cluttering it up with other objects. If you think something is special, make sure that your display shows it as special.

A “what-on-earth-is-that?” item is always a good thing. It gets people talking, and once they’re talking, you can start to engage their interest. The longer people talk with you, the greater the chance they’ll buy something. But remember that listening is the most important part of talking. A stream of verbiage from you will drive people away like a dog scattering sparrows on the lawn. While you’re talking the customer is passive: get customers talking, and make their interest active. Ask questions – where will they put it, have they been looking for one for a long time, what do they like about this one in particular? What other antiques do they have? The more actively you can get them to engage verbally with the antique and with you, the more they will arouse and confirm their desire to own it. The customer is the best salesperson.

It Sells, Even If It Doesn't

A special item sells other things. I know a furniture dealer who buys an expensive painting every year that he does not expect to sell. It earns its keep by selling whatever piece of furniture he puts underneath it. At the end of the year, he sells it at cost, and buys another.

Always have something special in the booth, even if you think it’s too expensive for the show you’re bringing it to. People will love looking at it, even if they can’t buy it. It’ll bring them into your booth, and make them remember you before any other dealer. It will help the ‘wow’ factor. It will help the ‘word-of-mouth’ factor. It will cast its glow of excellence over other things in your booth. Always try and have at least one piece that is the best of its kind in the show. And, who knows, you might sell it!

Tag Informatively

The more information you put on your tags, the more comfortable you will make the retail customer. Origin, date, material, restorations (if any), and price are the absolute minimum. I know that some dealers give the price only in the belief that customers will ask them for the other information. Some may, but many won’t. Tags that give the price only send the message that the customer is expected to buy on price alone, not on what the object really is: they invite the customer to think “cheap”. Informative tags invite the customer to think “value.” It takes time to produce informative tags, but customers always appreciate them. Informative tags make the dealer look professional and knowledgeable, and thus someone in whom the customer can have confidence.

Inviting Lighting

Light the items, not the booth, particularly those at the back, and, often the hardest to light, those at the very front. You must overcome the facility lighting with your own. Facility lights are usually bright and bluish-white, and they drain the color out of everything. They are as inviting as a dentist’s office. Always use warm, yellowish lighting. Equip yourself with more spots than floods – spots highlight special items, floods light an area. Light reflective surfaces from an acute angle so they do not shine the lights back into your customers’ eyes. Table lamps in a booth, particularly towards the back, always create an inviting, homey look. And you can sell them as well! Your lighting should be much brighter than at home, but it should have a similar warmth. And it should always be directed into your booth, just like your customers.

Cover the Floor

A floor covering helps define and create your space; it sets your booth off from the rest of the show. When people step onto it, they’re on your territory and on the way to becoming your customers. Anything that identifies your booth as different from everyone else’s is good. Make sure the floor covering is a light color – dark ones absorb the light you’ve gone to so much trouble to set up. If you deal in furniture, make sure the covering is plain, so that legs and feet show up clearly.

Look Successful

Nothing succeeds like success. Dress for success. Look upbeat even if you’re not. Look as though you have a thriving business in general and are having a good show in particular. There are dealers who put red “sold” tags on stuff that hasn’t in the belief that red tags encourage sales. They may well be right. Personally, I’m always afraid that the item I put the red tag on would be the one that I would actually sell. But a “hold” tag…?

It’s not a bad thing to leave a gap or a naked hook on the wall where something has been sold from. On the second day of a show, the booth should look emptier than at set-up.

Hold? On Approval?

Always agree to hold an item to give a customer time to think, measure, drool, or gossip. Antique buyers don’t respond to pressure selling. They need time to think, and you must take the pressure off while they do. If you pressure a sale, the chances are the item will come back during pack-out. It’s much better to put it on hold with a time limit, so you both know where you stand. Write the time limit on the tag: “Hold till 2.00 pm.” A deadline helps a decision. And, if you’re lucky, it tells the next customer in line when to come back and buy.

Always let a pricey item go home on approval. People need time to get used to something new. And the reluctant spouse (every dealer’s bete noire) may slowly become less reluctant if he or she is allowed to gradually digest the look of the new antique. Anyway, it’s much easier for the customer to call up and say “I’ll keep it” than it is to lug a heavy item back to the show.

As with holding, agree on a fair “return time”. Overnight on a two-day show is ideal. That gives your customer time to appreciate the item, and you time to sell it if the deal falls through. This last point is an important one to make because it conveys the impression that someone else may want to buy it. The sense of competing with another buyer is a powerful motivator – ask an auctioneer if you doubt me.

Free Delivery?

Always offer free delivery, provided that the distance is reasonable -- and be prepared to stretch your first definition of what is reasonable. I’ve done a three-hour drive after a long day on the show floor, and had it pay off in another sale the following year. Last year we sold a big piece and agreed to deliver it on the way home. So at pack-out, it was the last thing into the truck, and we dropped it off at 9.00 pm, only to find that it was too big. So we called up a couple who had asked us to find another just like it, drove across the city, and unloaded it into their home at 10.30. At 11.00 pm we closed the deal, sitting around their kitchen table – us in grotty pack-out clothes, them in natty pyjamas. I’m sure that both couples, the ones that bought and the ones that didn’t, will come back to us next year to see if we have anything that catches their eye.

The better the customer service you offer, the more likely you are to get repeat business. And repeat business is what keeps us in business. Repeat after me; “Customers are more important than sales.”

Repairs and Restorations

Always point out restorations and repairs before your customer sees them. It’s best to do this on the tag, though orally will do. But always do it, and always, without exception, note restorations on the receipt.

If you let a customer spot a restoration first, you have allowed the suspicion that you were planning to keep quiet about it, and have set up a relationship of distrust. If you really do keep quiet about it, you’re laying up trouble. All restorations are eventually revealed, and will come back to haunt you. Maybe you’ll know about it, if the customer demands that you refund his money or take the piece back, or maybe you won’t – you’ll just never see that customer again. If an antique leaves your booth with restorations that you know about and your customer doesn’t, you will have made a sale, but lost a customer.

What makes a customer angry is not the restoration itself, but the fact that it was hidden. He will feel ripped-off, because he was. Some purist collectors will accept no restoration whatever, and you don’t want to sell them anything that they don’t want: OK, they won’t buy this restored piece from you, but next time you find one in mint condition, you’ve almost pre-sold it to them. Most buyers, however, don’t mind reasonable restoration if it is pointed out to them and explained, and if the price is appropriate. In fact, the quality of the restoration can become a selling point: “These swing legs always wear eventually, and it’s nice to see one that’s been fixed as well as this – you won’t have to worry about it working loose again.”

And remember this is one area where we dealers have a big advantage in our constant competition with auctioneers for retail buyers. Many of the pieces sent to auction have problems – we know, because we consign some of them. Auctions work on the caveat emptor principle, so auctioneers sell “as is.” A buyer has no come-back when he gets his saleroom bargain home and discovers it’s not what he thought it was. Auctioneers are under no obligation to point out restorations, and even the glossy catalogues, if they mention them at all, rarely specify what has actually been done. Auctioneers guarantee nothing.

Your expertise in spotting the restoration, your honesty in pointing it out, and your guarantee that everything you sell is as you describe it are powerful selling tools. Make the most of them, and make sure that your customers appreciate that only a good dealer can offer them this security.


It’s hard work selling antiques. Some will sell themselves, but most need our help. But, like all hard work, it can be enjoyable. Setting up a good-looking booth is a creative act, and looking at the fruit of your labor can provide a justifiable sense of pride and satisfaction. Talking with nice people about lovely things can be genuinely pleasurable. And making a good sale will always give you a rush that you won’t get anywhere else.

Read Part II