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Group Shop History, Part Two

GROUP SHOP HISTORY (1972-1992) Part Two – Business of Doing Business – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – February 2005
By Ed Welch
* See March 2005 “Journal” Issue for Part 1 of this series
In the 70s and 80s, I taught a course, The Business of Doing Business in Antiques. I wrote a book for student use. Recently, I came across a copy of the book while cleaning a cluttered nook in my office. Even though the course and the book predate computers and the Internet, all the business concepts are still relevant.
This is the third of four chapters gleamed from that book. I purposely changed each chapter as little as possible, and only for clarity.
The Northeast has hundreds of group shops selling the antiques and collectibles of thousands of dealers. Group shops, as a whole, can be divided into categories for the purpose of studying and understanding this tool of antique marketing. Dealers, collectors, and decorators who are able to stand back and look objectively at a particular group shop are in a better position to utilize the services offered by this sector of the antique marketplace.
Today, for the new dealer or collector, group shops must be seen like some complicated phenomenon. Group shops are everywhere. Some are large, housing up to three hundred dealers; others are small and are home to less than a dozen dealers.
A particular group shop can be well lighted or dingy, dark, full of furniture or full of smalls, clean and well displayed, or messy and cluttered. A group shop can limit the type of antique that will be allowed or simply permit the display and sale of anything a dealer brings in.
With so many group shops offering such a variety of antiques, collectibles, and stuff for sale, it is easy to understand why some dealers and collectors simply take the group shop, as a whole, for granted. To do so is a serious mistake.
Dealers who know and understand the market forces that enabled the establishment of group shops, dealers who can recognize aggressive and active group shops, and dealers who are willing to do the necessary traveling to find and to revisit active group shops on a regular basis can make a lot of money buying from group shops and selling through the services of group shops.
I entered the antique trade in the early 1960s. By the early 1970s, I was a well-established Central Maine PICKER. In those days, being an active dealer meant that you bought all winter and sold all summer. Very little selling took place after the tourists went home and while the snow was on the ground. In the fall of 1972, a southern Maine flea market promoter moved his outdoor flea market into a building on his property. Little did he realize that this simple move would be the seed that would start a revolution that changed the way antiques would be marketed in the winter. This business is still operating at the same location.
The ten year period 1972-1982 brought the establishment of many group shops as each antique area of Maine experimented with the possibility of selling year round. Many of Maine’s best-known antique malls date from this period. The group shops of this era had many things in common, one of which was that the physical size of the rented display space was small (usually 4 x 8 feet).
In the summer of 1983, a different type of group shop opened in southern Maine. This shop was unique and different at that time because the owners of this shop rented eight, ten and twelve-foot stalls that were ten feet deep and encouraged the display of furniture. Within a month of the opening of this shop, I took a booth and began to sell quality antiques including expensive country furniture. Soon I took a larger booth and began to sell furniture at such a pace that it was hard for me to keep my display looking attractive.
The following seven years witnessed the diversification and the specialization of group shops. Today (1989), at varied group shops, you can purchase fine period antiques – both formal and country. You can buy small items such as Tiffany, Steuben, Galle, and so on. You can browse through aisle after aisle of fine early porcelains, fine china, cut glass, art pottery, art glass, and literally thousands of other small size antiques.
The group shop marketplace has shops that will help dealers and collectors find and buy the kinds of items they are searching for, or market the items they wish to sell. It is your responsibility as a buyer of antiques, or as a seller of antiques to become familiar with as many group shops as possible. I recommend the following procedure: First, buy a copy of the antique publications that serves the area you are interested in. Second, plot on a map the locations of all the group shops that advertise. Third, design circular inspecting, and buying trips that can be done in two days – one day out, the second day back by a different route. Finally, after you have completed several such trips and formed opinions about the shops you have visited, categorize those shops. Be positive, rather than negative in your assessments. Always ask yourself – will this group shop benefit my business and me?
Nearly four years ago (1985) I wrote a major magazine article on THE MULTIPLE DEALER SHOP. As part of that article, I made several predictions as to the course that I believed the Group Shop segment of the antique trade had to follow to gain respect, acceptance, and the trust of the buying public. It was my belief at that time that the total acceptance of group shops by the buying public would take at least ten years. I was right about the public acceptance of the group shop as a respected and safe place to purchase quality antiques. However, it came about much faster than I thought possible.
Today, the public no longer questions the authenticity of an antique just because it is offered for sale in a group shop. In fact, many collectors prefer to buy out of certain group shops because they have come to trust those shops.
The major problem facing the group shop today is not acceptability, respect, or trust. It is survival. The group shop segment of the antique trade has over-built. The number of available booths far exceeds the number of dealers who want to utilize this form of marketing. To make matters worse, new group shops are still being built because owning and managing a successful group shop is a good business.
Group shop owners can make a lot of money from a well-run operation. If you have owned a group shop for more than five years, it would be wise to stand back and carefully analyze your operation. Just because you were the first group shop in your area is no guarantee of future success. I know of several instances where a new group shop has opened and become so popular that some of the existing group shops were forced to close because of a lack of displaying dealers.
My predictions on growth and operation of the group shop segment of the antique trade for the near future are:

  1. Group shops will charge more money for their display space and services.
  2. Group shops will continue to specialize and become even more selective.
  3. Each group shop will have a library, reference, and research area available, both to the displaying dealers and customers.
  4. Group shops will spend more money advertising, as well as promoting special events.
  5. Group shops will spend money doing market research.
  6. Group shops will hire better-qualified sales people.
  7. Group shops will guarantee the authenticity of the items they sell.
  8. Group shops will arrange packaging and shipping of the items they sell.
  9. Group shops will sponsor lectures and seminars and bring in experts to talk about the antiques they specialize in or sell.
  10. Group shops will encourage (some will demand) that displaying dealers advertise on their own or chip in to an advertising budget.
  11. Most every antique dealer who owns a shop will also sell out of one or more group shops.
  12. The best of the group shops will challenge the top auction houses for the right and the privilege of selling the highest quality art and antiques. Do not be surprised when you hear that a world record price was set, NOT at auction, but rather at a group shop specializing in the finest of antiques.

I would like to conclude this chapter by reviewing several points. First, the group shop segment of the antique trade is strong, growing, and changing its style all at the same time. There is money to be made owning a group shop, selling from a group shop, and buying from a group shop. Second, the active dealer during the next five years has little choice, but to get to know and understand the group shop. That dealer must be able to recognize the elements that go into making a successful group shop, so that he or she can choose intelligently (rather than by guess) when it becomes time to rent space. Third, group shop owners must keep abreast of the changes taking place in their realm of the antique trade. Today’s group shops advertise more, promote more, and do things to keep their shops in the middle of all the action.
Finally, whether you are a dealer, collector, or group shop owner, understanding the forces that drive the group shop sector of the antique trade can only be a benefit. The group shop, as a whole, is fast becoming the dominant method of marketing antiques.
* See March 2005 “Journal” Issue for Part 1 of this series

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