Americans and spending: a view from the antiques business

We talked recently about signs the region’s antiques business might be improving and asked if that signaled anything about the economy’s health. Local dealers were looking for clues from two big August antiques shows, including Gold Rush Days in Oronoco.

Now, one of our Public Insight Network sources, Duluth antiques dealer Richard Lee, tells us he saw positive signs at Oronoco, though there’s still plenty of uncertainty. He also gave us some great insights on the shift in American spending habits, a topic dear to us.

Here’s what Lee heard from other dealers:

At most shows (antiques and collectibles) are impulse purchases. It used to be in the ’90’s that one could count on the average impulse purchase to be in the $35 to $45 range. After 9/11 that dropped to $20 to $25. Customers now still want to spend money, just not a lot of money…This show/market the average sale was $5 to $8–it takes a lot of $5 sales to pay your expenses.

Furniture items are not selling due to the uncertainty in the housing market. Many purchased more house than they could afford in the ’90’s, and then they couldn’t afford to furnish them anyway. Now people are just having trouble holding on to their houses.

Dealer to dealer sales are down, “and that is what hurts sales the most.” Among the reasons: “No one knows what to buy, because customers have not followed any trends; prices are stabilizing after wild escalation, hence many are selling items for less than what they paid for them. No one wants to get burned.

Lee also reports the business is struggling to position itself for the future.

Items offered by dealers appeal to a generation that is attracted to items they remember their parents or grandparents valued. That generation is not buying, and the generation that is buying is looking for “retro”, or items from the 70’s and 80’s.

“Real” antiques are too old for the new buyers to know anything about and most of those are already in collections and won’t become available again until the estate sales start happening.

Most dealers have difficulty purchasing or identifying with items that they or their kids purchased new a mere 30 years or so ago, hence they aren’t able to offer the public what they want.

Many dealers are are leaving, he adds, although, “Overall I’d say that Oronoco was a success and it does seem to suggest that the future is going to be brighter for those who stay in the business.”


Got another take on the antiques business, as a buyer or a merchant? Drop me a line and let me know. Otherwise tell us what the economy’s like around you these days.

Check out the map below for what others in our Network are saying about money issues.

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