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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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