How do antique dealers price their wares?

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  • Posted by kindle

I am moving my blog posts/articles from our store’s site to this one in order to preserve them for future viewing. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them.

As many different types of antique stores, vintage shops, retro dealers and other secondhand stores as there are, there are probably as many different ways these stores value and price their items.

Prices at thrift stores used to be far less than they are today. Part of this rise is due to factors such as inflation, but in reality, much of it is due to the internet. In the past many thrift stores put what they felt a fair price was on each item and were happy to make something on each item because the investment in each item was basically zero since most, if not all the items were donated to them. Anything they made was nearly all profit.

Sometimes they went by nationally printed price guides, but most stores didn’t care to make a large investment in a price guide library to price higher valued items they might not see often. When the internet and sites such as eBay came along, their world changed. It was now much easier to look up what the items were selling for in online auctions and price their items similarly.

The downside to this is that it’s dependent on who is doing the looking. Many folks look to eBay for pricing information and when they find their item or a similar one, they find the highest price they can, and use that. The problem with this strategy is that the price they found might not be valid.

Some folks on eBay are willing to fish. They dangle an item out there and put a pretty high price tag on their item to see if anyone bites. If they do, great, they made a lot of money on an item that was purchased on the cheap, inherited or gifted to them. Even if it doesn’t sell, they are not out anything. Some just keep relisting the item over and over again. The other option they have is to slightly lower the price each time they list it until the item sells. I have seen some listings on eBay & craigslist that have been there for years.

Price guides were the staple for many years, written by auction houses or experts who travelled around the country buying and selling the topic items, and they had a pretty good idea of what an item in their specialty would sell for be it in New York City, Peoria Il, or central Florida.

Again, this lasted until the internet and items were now being sold at a lightning pace instead of at one show a year in each major city. It became more difficult to keep up on pricing trends to print in a book that would be relevant for an entire year. This is why the use of pricing guides has decreased.

As far as antique dealers, there are several options open to price their items. One is their market. The saying of what ever the market will bear, is valid, if you know your market. What are the demographics of your market? Population, median income, average age, type of shopping/stores in the area, what’s popular and more, all make up information about your local market that an experienced seller can use to price their items.

Experience also can come into play. The longer someone is in the business of buying and selling antiques, the better they can get at pricing items so they sell. This also goes hand in had with knowing your market. There were items that I always bought, because they always sold. Now, this is not always true because trends have changed.

I have had conversations with other dealers over the years about how they set their prices. Some stick to a straight percentage similar to new retail items. This allows them to figure sales and discounts quickly. Other dealers told me that if they can’t mark an item up a set number of times, they won’t buy it.

Some folks who get into the antique selling business are smaller dealers who are downsizing or liquidating collections. Even if they kept meticulous records on what they paid, that data is largely irrelevant today as prices for most goods have fallen drastically. Much depends on what a dealer purchases items for. Some dealers won’t purchase anything unless they can get it at a very low price. Others (and I frequently do this) will spend a bit more up front and make a bit less on the sale in order to acquire a better-quality, or more unique item to offer. Some dealers are fair, some will lowball everyone they buy from. Dealers are as unique in their buying style as the goods they offer.

I will admit that I use eBay a great deal as a reference. However, I am very aware that what something sells for on eBay in New York City, will be vastly different than what that very same item will sell for in Central Florida. I also watch for the fishing prices. To negate this, I will find a high price, a low price and average them together. This is done using the sold listings, not active ones. Even then I sometimes need to pull the price back for my market.

I also rely on knowing my market, my experience and my intuition when pricing items. I always ask myself, “Would I be comfortable buying this at this price?” Sometime the answer is no, and I need to do some more homework. That also has to happen when I buy items. I ask myself the question “Can I make money on this if I pay this price?” Many dealers when shopping don’t ask this question and they seem to just continually ask the seller for a “dealer discount”.

There are cases when you find something in a store, and you love it, but you don’t love the price. A quick jaunt to your favorite online source may yield a better deal. But there are also other considerations such as the desire to support a locally owned business vs a major online monopoly. This is when the ability to properly haggle without offense is truly a skill to have. Another point is you are holding the item in your hand. With an online seller, you can only go by what photos they show and their description, and you have to hope that whatever shipping service is used handles your items carefully. Also many online sellers are now refusing to take returns, so even if you don’t like it, you still own it.

I won’t tell a falsehood. When I purchase items, I need to buy them at a wholesale pricing structure because I have to be able to earn a profit on each item I buy. I have to have room to pay my expenses and also to be able to lower the price if I have to offer it at a sale or discounted price. The old adage of “Buy high, sell low, and make it up in volume” just doesn’t work.

In addition to some real bargains, there are unique items out there that surely deserve a higher premium. Rarity, uniqueness, quality, condition, provenance, maker, style, age and many other factors all go into what something is worth. Knowing this information goes a long way in setting a fair price for an item and in being able to communicate that value to the customer about why it deserves the price that it is being offered for.

I am sorry to say that there is really no hard and fast rule on how antique dealers price their items. I use the methods that work best for me and adjust accordingly. But in the end, when all is done, an item is only worth what someone will pay for it, be it a small tchotchke offered locally, or a Monet.

Keep on collecting!



Published Vintage Finds Magazine April/May 2022 Edition