Good eye by Peggy Whiteneck

Discover Vintage America - JANUARY 2020

Making a difference both materially and philosophically

In any business, market differentiation grounded in consumer demand has been a classic – and effective – response to the forces of competition. The antiques trade remains very competitive, despite the retraction of recent years. Staying in business means making a difference, in both a material and philosophic sense. Materially, dealers can make a difference by understanding and responding to consumer interests. Philosophically, they can make a difference by highlighting antiques as artifacts of history.

"Hurricane lamps" that can accommodate a tall candle were useful in the days before electricity, and they remain useful today. During storms that knock out power, candle-powered versions of these lamps avoid the smell and mess of oil lanterns and provide a reassuring light. This pastel green hobnail version was made by Fenton Art Glass in the 1960s, but Fenton was making candle-lit hurricane lamps at least as early as the 1930s, and other companies were making them as far back as the 19th century. Fenton closed in 2011 after more than 100 years making American art glass, but its hurricane lamps and other candle-powered shapes such as fairy lights are still available on the secondary market.


Find out what buyers want

You don't have to hire a market research firm to get consumer information; all you have to do is talk to people. Conduct periodic and random retail customer surveys, whether oral or written, formal or informal. Focus your questions on the "big picture": What makes the customer want to stick around to browse in a shop? What turns him away? What things is she looking to buy? How does your shop measure up?

Condition, authenticity and quality

In some antiques venues, damaged and marred merchandise dominates the offerings. This doesn't mean dealers can't sell antiques that look as if they have some wear on them: you don't get to be 100 years old without looking that old!

But retail customers are looking for quality and authenticity in the materials and methods of which the piece is made. If you can develop a reputation for delivering that quality, your business will stand out in the trade.

Educate the consumer

Offer to have your business sponsor and organize a consumer education series on antiques, to be given at a public library, museum, college, school, or other appropriate spot – and/or offer educational programs in your own shop. Get your most competent and engaging fellow dealers to speak on various topics for the series.

Retail consumers who can't yet tell the difference between dovetailing and nailing in sideboard drawers, or between original condition and refinishing in a chest-on-chest, will welcome accessible opportunities to be educated in those differences. Those who can't tell pottery of the Arts and Crafts movement from something thrown yesterday on an amateur potter's wheel can be taught.

Those who can't distinguish between the pseudo-hallmarks on silver plate and the silver hallmarks on a Georgian spoon can learn. And such public exposure for the trade will serve a double purpose – educating consumers and marketing your business.

Here, also, is where the trade can make a difference in a higher, more philosophical sense by highlighting antiques as artifacts of history. What, for example, did people do for a nightlight "in the olden days?" Why do antique chairs seem so much smaller than those today?

Find a niche

Whether you're an individual shop owner, a dealer within a group shop, or an exhibitor on the show circuit, becoming known for a specialization within the trade can be an effective strategy for differentiation. You don't have to concentrate your inventory exclusively in a given area; you just have to have enough of it to become known for that type of merchandise.

Cede no ground to eBay™

Those who interact regularly with end customers in the trade all have their favorite outrages among the silly things people say – things like, "What's your best price on this?" as if the price tag were irrelevant. But perhaps no response is quite so irritating as the gratuitous observation, "I could buy it cheaper on eBay™." Much as you may be tempted to snap, "Be my guest!" – don't.

Use the occasion as a teachable moment: "That may be, but let me give you some reasons you might not want to buy it on eBay™": customer service, the ability to touch and examine the merchandise before buying it, not to mention the gratification of being able to take it home without waiting for it to be shipped and hoping it arrives in one piece!


Peggy Whiteneck is a writer, collector and dealer living in East Randolph, VT. If you would like to suggest a subject that she can address in her column, email her at