Selling antiques & collectibles in a brick & mortar store -VS- online

The difference between selling antiques and collectibles online, and selling them in a brick and mortar store are as numerous as there are types of items to sell. Let’s compare and contrast the two types of selling experiences.

There are some fundamental differences between online and in person sales, and then there are categories that split the two formats even farther. Online selling usually follows picking the online website or format that fits your style and listing your items. In person selling can be in the form of an individual business, a mall where space is rented, a flea market, a garage sale, or bringing people to your  item using an online site like craigslist.

Let’s begin.

Online selling is easier for some folks as it requires very little startup investment. You can choose a device like a phone or PC and once you sign up with a site and agree to their terms, you are ready to photograph your items and start listing. Other than having a paypal account the startup takes only a few minutes. Most online sellers start with items they have laying around their home, then use their phone’s camera to take the photos of their items to post online. The only other requirement is a space to photograph the items, and having shipping supplies on hand to package purchased goods. Pretty simple to get started. Once you start making sales, then the auction site usually assesses a commission on the sales as payment for using their site. The buyers pay any shipping fees.

There are people who take their online store to the next level. They actively travel and search out new and used goods to sell, working to create a brand and identity to gain repeat business online. Some even go as far as setting up an account with a wholesaler overseas, and drop shipping the items for a sales commission. You can make it as simple or as complex as you want. There are many things that folks who have a brick and mortar store have to contend with, than online “store” owners have.

There are many expenses that a person who is considering opening a brick and mortar antique store must consider. The largest of these is usually rent. You can find some locations affordable, but the best and most trafficked locations usually have the higher rents. Some leases called triple net or NNN leases even go as far as making the lessor responsible for all routine and emergency maintenance of the building they are in.

Then we have expenses such as electricity, telephone and internet, signage, advertising, trash removal, water & sewer bills, credit card fees, and insurance. All necessary to operate a successful business. The online merchant, simply allows and actually depends on the website’s owners to bring the traffic to them. In a similar way, if you are planning to rent a booth in an antique mall, the mall’s owners will handle most of the heavy lifting for you. Credit card fees, advertising, utilities, etc. will all be covered in your sales commissions or space rental agreement.

In addition to all the expenses that a brick and mortar startup will incur, one of the largest is inventory costs. If you are a small online store that is downsizing your own home or liquidating the estate of a family member, this is fairly easy. To fill a 1,000 plus square foot space takes a bit of buying. Quite a bit.

A small antique store owner also has to have some other skills that are pretty important. Some basic marketing knowledge is essential. Also some design experience helps when dealing with advertising. I am fortunate that I do my own design work (have the equipment) and can create my own ads. If you don’t have that ability, that’s okay as most newspapers and magazines have staff to assist, but a bit of experience can help you communicate your ideas to the person who will be creating your ads.

In addition to all these skills, a brick and mortar owner still needs to have as much online savvy as an online store owner, maybe even more in these days of social media marketing. There is real skill in getting your message out to people. It has been shown that you need to get your name out in front of someone a minimum of 6 times before it starts to take effect. Even large businesses like McDoanld’s and Wal-Mart must continue to advertise to keep their customers loyal and to try to gain new ones.

In addition to all this, as well as having an idea of the types of items you want to sell in your store, you have to have some idea just how to price your items for sale. Experience in items as well as knowing your local market, knowing online pricing, and sales trends in addition having insight as to supply and demand all help.

Knowledge about your items is a must regardless of what type of store you open. Experience and research are two very necessary things.

One of the biggest investments that a brick and mortar antique store owner has that is often overlooked is time. The online store owner on a site such as ebay can work in their spare time. They can check on an auction in seconds on their phone at any time. A physical store owner must devote a set schedule of hours and commit to it. Customers come to know a business’ hours and when the owner deviates from them, unless it’s an emergency sometimes that is all that is necessary for a customer to stop patronizing a store.

Many small businesses fail for many reasons. Wrong market, wrong location, bad marketing, ineffective advertising, hiring the wrong employees, over shooting reasonable budgets and creating large amounts of debt, are the most common reasons. Even when done right, most businesses don’t succeed overnight. It takes years of cultivation and effort. Hours and hours are spent working behind the scenes to make the business grow and thrive.  Many sleepless nights are spent worrying about the business and thinking about how to improve it.

People who own small businesses are important workers. They provide goods and services as part of the community they are in. They are your friends and neighbors, not people wearing suits in an office three or more states away deciding on a policy for 50 stores. Local brick and mortar businesses inject much into a local economy, in addition to helping to create the character of a town or city. When they thrive, the community thrives.

There is a great advantage to shopping online. When you can’t find an item locally or within a reasonable distance, or when a local merchant just doesn’t have what you need when you need it, it can be a lifesaver, But remember, the next time you visit your local antique store, or any local merchant for that matter, take a moment to think about everything that has to have transpired to put that really cool item in front of you for your consideration.  If you like the store, tell them. Better yet, tell your friends and help that business stick around for everyone.


This article was published in Vintage Times Magazine in the July/August 2018 issue