Saturday, August 28, 2010

The real competition

Recently, I've been having a riveting, albeit blood pressure-raising, conversation with an Indiana friend in the trade. He received the newest Pottery Barn catalog where they are hawking bad reproductions of 19th-century printer's chests and other things very clearly based on antiques. It's almost like they look through auction catalogs or go to shows to get inspired, and then send the plans to China to cheaply manufacture knock-offs.

And then the new Restoration Hardware catalog landed in both of our mailboxes. Hoo-boy...have you all seen this? Gary Friedman, the CEO, states, "No longer mere 'retailers' of home furnishings, we are 'curators' of the best historical design the world has to offer."

Um..excuse me? Seriously? I don't know what's more offensive, the fact that he described himself as a curator or that he claimed to have stuff that's better designed than the originals that his company has so poorly imitated.

I'm terribly sorry to inform you, Mr. Friedman, but if you want to find the curators of the best historical design, you need to look at places like Winterthur, the Met, and the MFA-Boston, as well as at antique auctions and shows around the country. Additionally, your customers would be better served by going to auctions, shows, and flea markets, where they will find better design AND better quality, all for a better price and in objects that will be worth something in 10 years.

Folks, you want to know where the (potential) young collectors are? They are at Pottery Barn, Target, Ikea, and they are shopping via catalogs like Restoration Hardware. They may not be as interested in history or art as you are or we are, but they are interested in style, quality, and price...and they aren't finding the best at those places, although they think they are. We need to get their attention and draw it to our business. So next time you see a Pottery Barn catalog on the coffee table of a friend or relative, surreptitiously swap it with an auction catalog or a copy of Maine Antique Digest, The Magazine Antiques or Antiques and Fine Art.

(And to my museum friends, you need to raise a stink with American Association of Museums...they need to protect the title "curator" the way that the American Library Association protects the title "librarian.")


Anonymous said...

You are so right! I have been annoyed by this for years, and each year it seems to get worse. 'Curator's of Design' - try peddlers of overpriced knock-offs which hold no candle to the real thing and have no resale value. What's next in line - reproductions of well-known paintings? The tendency of the catalog companies to 'gild the lily' to such extremes never fails to amaze me.

james conrad said...


Actually, i think the real problem
with marketing antiques is that there is NO INSTANT GRATIFICATION.

You gotta be pro active with antiques, research, hunt, and most importantly.....WAIT. Most folks are just not willing to do all that. The antique industry is going to have to figure out a way to adapt to the modern, wired and connected world, end of story.

Hollie and Andrew said...

The instant gratification thing is a good point, and in fact, will be discussed in an upcoming column.

Aside from auctions, which necessarily require some waiting, there is no reason that the antiques industry can't offer some instant gratification. Dealers have websites where they show off inventory. Add a shopping cart and can do it easily and cheaply, so there is no excuse not to. Let's remember that not all buyers of antiques are collectors...some are decorators wanting a look, some just need the type of item that can only be found in the antique.

We think that the non-collector is going to play a vital role in the future of the marketplace; or at least the next generation of the marketplace. Collectors will always be present and important, but simple users will become moreso. As we get the message out that antiques are green, reasonably priced, better quality, etc., we aren't going to necessarily inspire folks to collect, but rather just to use and live with.

james conrad said...

Yep, forget about collectors, they are already bagged, why spend marketing resources on a client base you already have?

The trick will be to engage the casual buyer or impluse buyer. For that to happen you first have to get their eyes on the product. Everything gets easier after that.

Hollie and Andrew said...

Every so often, we kind of wonder why we in the trade keep talking to each other. As you say, James, we need to get in front of the non-collecting potential user. We are 110% convinced that if you can get them in the door one time, they'll like it and be back.

Anonymous said...

Maybe if dealers would attempt to have a real online presence they would grab some of the young buyers.
Dealers need to utilize social media tools. The other thing that drives me crazy on dealer websites is the "Please inquire for the price". I do not mean to rant but as someone in their late twenties who buys and sells antiques it is just a little frustrating. Why market antiques in an antiquated way? I believe young collectors can be cultivated if the trade meets them halfway. Updated websites and social media outreach is the best place to start in my opinion. By the way, I love your blog!

Jared in New Hampshire

Anonymous said...

It's about recreating and repackaging to appeal to today's consumer... its rebranding. Lots of industries have had to do it... it's just time to move beyond the reasons why... and just do it!

Hollie and Andrew said...

A 21st-century online presence (as opposed to a 20th-century "billboard" website) would be a key part of a re-packaging of antiques to younger buyers, but the trade seems set in its ways (even many of those under 50). The trade needs a handful of members (dealers, auctioneers, show promoters) to have the guts to shake things up and REALLY do things DIFFERENTLY. Will it be immediately successful? Probably not, and the first few attempts may fail miserably. However, it'll be the only way we will revive the dwindling marketplace.