I scored a booth for my vintage business, BackGarage, at the Edgewater Antique Mall last November. Selling Mid-century furnishings at an antique mall has been sort of a life goal of mine since I discovered the Broadway Antique Market at age 20. Now I’m like, “Hey, it’s my stuff in there!” Which is cool. But it’s also way harder than I thought it was going to be. And I already sort of knew it would be harder than I thought. Some weeks sales are great, some weeks sales are meh. Some stuff flies off the shelves, other stuff ends up rotting in the corner and embarrassing me. And I have to keep it up! A lot! Browsing customers are equivalent to herds of wildebeests, basically.
So to help with my newbie questions — and to keep them from becoming doomsday frustrations — I contacted Sue, who writes the fantastic DC-based junking blog Vintage Rescue Squad. She literally wrote the book on selling in an antique mall (seriously, the book she co-authored is called Selling in an Antique Mall: A Beginner’s Guide) and she’s got lots of great booth tips and advice on her blog. I thought she’d have some much-needed sage advice for me, so I picked her brain on the ins and outs of mall boothing.
TVB: How many booths do you have and how long have you had them?
S: Right now, just one large booth. In the past, I’ve had two at a time, but it wasn’t working out. I’ve been in my current space for three years, but have had booths for over five years.
What kind of stuff do you sell in the booths? Does it fit in well with the rest of the stuff in the mall?
I specialize — if you can call it that — in ’30s and ’40s merchandise, but it can vary. I started out with the girly shabby-chic granny stuff, but my heart wasn’t in it, and it went out of favor in our area. Right now, it’s more vintage industrial, schoolroom, and mantiques. I’m not sure it fits in with the rest of the mall, which is more traditional, but it’s working!
Did you have to be selective about what mall you sold at so it matched the kind of merch you sell?
When I first started with the shabby chic items, I DEFINITELY researched which malls I thought would be a good fit. For my second mall, I actually asked the owner, who told me a shabby chic vendor had just left the large mall, and they were looking for another one, so that worked out… sort of.
I think there’s a lot to be said for being different, however. Initially, it might be hard to get sales to take off, but if you’re selling mid-century in a sea of all-white, that can be an oasis. I always recommend talking to the owner/manager of the store or mall. They truly want you to succeed. If you’re not a good fit, or there is a history of your style not selling well there, they’ll tell you.
What are some of your best sellers, smalls and bigs?
Bigs aren’t selling nowadays, which stinks. My most reliable sellers are always typewriters and cameras. I also do surprisingly well with anything having to do with a profession or anything people are passionate about: religion, military, journalism, etc. Books are the bread-and-butter, though. Some months, most of my money comes from books. I recommend you carefully choose which books you carry, though. Actually curate what you’re selling.
It’s crazy, I’m already finding my books are my biggest sellers. I specialize in vintage how-to, decorating, art and design books. Just curious what kind of books you sell?
I’m drawn to foreign-language dictionaries and children’s books, which sell quickly, as well as century-old bibles and religious pocket books. Because I’m outside Washington, DC, I also sell a lot of military manuals, old presidential books, and local history. I also sell a lot of technical manuals, really old engineering books, astronomy books, and carpentry books. Anything having to do with a profession sells very well in my area.
Do you keep an inventory of the stuff in your booth?
You’ve GOT to! I have one Excel file for everything I buy, which I close out every 6 months. I list which month I bought it, where I bought it, and what I paid. That’s the easiest way for me to recall items later. I then have ANOTHER Excel file where I list things as they go in my booth, with their item number, price, date I brought it in, and cost. When I get my bi-weekly reports, I reconcile there, so I can see what the profit was for each item. The Excel files make it easier for me to compile a variety of data: how much I spend for each month, where I buy most frequently, which months I need to budget more. For the sales, I can easily track how I’m doing. For instance, if November seems really slow, I can see that Novembers are always slow. Keeps me sane.
I clearly need to start doing this, because I don’t. Speaking of mistakes, what have been some of your biggest mistakes so far?
Armoires. Panic buying—when you have a hole in your booth, and pay too much for something just so you can fill that hole. And, for my first booth, trying to copy what other more-seasoned sellers were doing. My junk looked bad compared to theirs, and it showed.
What do you think are the biggest rookie mistakes new mall dealers make?
Under- and over-pricing items. Not WORKING your booth. Just placing items in the booth and waiting for them to sell doesn’t always work. You need to constantly bring in new items, rearrange them, and highlight what needs prominence.
Not thinking through the location. I get so many readers complaining that there’s no antique malls near them, so they don’t try it. My mall is an hour away; yes, it’s a drag to drive there on weekends, but it gets a lot of traffic. Wouldn’t you rather have more sales than convenience?
Not curating what you sell in your booth. Having a cohesive look (but it’s ok to have a few items that you got great deals on) establishes your viewpoint, and solidifies your expertise.
Decorating a booth, rather than merchandising a booth. Yes, you want your booth to look good, but remember the object is to maximize sales. Cram more stuff in there—never underestimate a buyer’s desire to dig!
Finally, buying crap. If your booth looks like a garage sale, then customers will either expect garage-sale prices, or decide they can find your items cheaper elsewhere.
How often do you do a total booth refresh? Like, do you take out duds and replace them? Do you do seasonal stuff?
I rarely do a total booth refresh; usually just moving the big pieces around, and changing up what’s on the walls is a big enough change for buyers. I definitely take out duds and replace them, though. Don’t be impatient though. Just because you’re sick of something, doesn’t mean customers are. Remember, most customers aren’t coming every week or two. This is more true when you live in a large city, or a touristy area. Personally, I don’t really do seasonal items. That’s my personal preference, because I’m not a big holiday person anyway. I don’t want to be buying seasonal items that then need to sit in storage for a year until it’s holiday time again. Also, because I can’t think that far ahead. Don’t get me wrong though; I hear from other dealers that seasonal items are good sellers. It’s just my preference.
How much time a week would you say you spend on your booths?
I spend probably 7-8 hours/week shopping, when I can (if not more). Thursdays and Fridays I head to estate sales, and weekends I head to flea markets, outlying antique malls, and barn sales (or a roadtrip). I also spend a few hours a week cleaning, fixing, tagging, and documenting items. For each visit I make to the antique mall, I probably spend between 2-5 hours. I’m a bum and can’t organize my pricing ahead of time, so do that all while I’m there. It’s the rearranging/foofing that can suck up a lot of time. I haven’t even factored in all the time I spend dealing with all the merchandise in my home! Be prepared for it to take over….
Have you had really bad months?
Hell, yeah. At my first mall, one month I made $5—just one measly book. There will always be bad months. Hedge your bets by having items at a variety of pricepoints. And by having an online shop.
I’m just terrified I’ll have a really long dry spell and not be able to get out of it. Do you have any advice for breaking a bad sales streak? Have you had any epic ones? Is the idea to not give up?
You’ll always have a long dry spell. I can’t even remember the last time I sold a piece of furniture! My favorite bit of advice is “love your booth and your booth will love you.” To break a bad streak, work harder. Bring in new items, do a big rearrange. Face the fact that some of your larger items might never sell, and get rid of them if you’ve had them for two years. When I neglect my booth for a few weeks, my sales go WAY down. Try having a sale, with lots of signs in your booth. About twice a year, my sister has a 20% off everything sale, and her sales skyrocket. But, if you’re in a very bad streak, it may be time to face the facts: maybe it’s time to move on to another venue (which I’ve done twice), or re-evaluate your prices. Or, take a hard look at what you’re selling. Are your items readily available elsewhere? For lower prices? Or are they simply not what people in your area want?
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone new doing this?
Mainly, be prepared for how the merchandise is going to take over your home. Additionally, if at all possible, have a designated space for it in your basement or garage. Keep good records of your inventory and sales. Finally, you’re going to need more than you think for that first booth move-in. Oh! And be realistic about pricing. I hear from so many new dealers who are either getting cleaned out every month because their prices are too low, or moaning about no sales because their prices are too high.