The antiques industry is filled with small independent businesses, as well as bigger names, that rely on face-to-face contact in shops and at fairs to sell their wares. Yes, the online side of things has ramped up over the past decade or two, but when the products you sell are completely unique, it’s important to be able to share the story behind the piece. For many, this is why antiques and salvage items are so special – no one item is the same as another. Even those that were originally identical will have morphed and taken on new meaning over the years.
Now, dealers and fair organisers up and down the country have had to fast-forward into a new era, where digital looks to replicate what the trade has been doing for centuries. Some have set up Instagram fairs that pull together different traders in one place and Charles Hanson of Antiques Road Trip hosted a live auction in his garden shed to raise money for the NHS while Drew Pritchard of Salvage Hunters is reminding dealers to look to each other to get through this time.
Tom Burgess of Collinge Antiques shared with me, “I’ve just added a 200-year-old Welsh dresser base on the blog and Twitter – how many crises, recessions, depressions, days of tragedy and happiness do you think that has seen?” The sentiment perfectly sums up how the antiques industry will no doubt adapt, evolve and recover.
Launch a virtual fair
Lucy Fisher, who runs The Country Brocante, a series of well-curated country-chic fairs that pop up everywhere from the Cotswolds to West Sussex, couldn’t sit still and watch everything dry up overnight, and so The Country Brocante Insta Fair was born. The premise was to use a new Instagram page like the main marquee of a fair, posting photos of different traders throughout the day with details of the items on sale. The traders knew when their posts would be going live, and so could interact with people in real time.
Her events have always had a real lifestyle feel: think lovely country house settings, beautiful white tents and plenty of flora. The same ethos was applied online, with photos edited to include illustrated frames and matching fonts. In one day, the followers jumped from 1,300 to more than 4,000.
“There was a phenomenal response,” Lucy shared, “the engagement online, compared to any other time – there was just no comparison. And the thing that we felt from the day was that people were desperate for this feeling of community.” She is already planning another fair for Saturday May 16, which will include live workshops ranging from embroidery and Insta photography to printmaking. “Five years ago we tried to introduce workshops but people wouldn’t sit down and engage. Now we have a waiting list. The way people shop has changed...they want to buy something with a story, ” Lucy added.
Play with the idea of fairs only lasting one day
Tamara Broido and Sam Hansard of Your Antique Sourcing Studio also launched their own fair on Instagram, the Virtual Vintage Fair. The premise of theirs is completely different in that it doesn’t take place on just one day, but is a rolling fair with new posts twice daily from a selection of 30 dealers. Sam describes the whole experience as “a creative impulse born out of panic,” which has brought a lifeline to many. “This is their only source of income at the moment, so if they sell a couple hundred quids worth, that's really valuable,” she added. It’s also been a great tool to share knowledge – not everyone had the same skill sets in terms of producing stories, posts and more.
So far, their Instagram audience are really engaged, their number of followers has grown and lots of sales have taken place. “There are a lot of people sorting out their home," Sam shared. "They may be thinking I really shouldn’t be spending money, but it’s my environment and I want it to be nice. I will buy that oil painting to prop on my mantelpiece, or a couple of candlesticks to put on my Easter table.”
Paul & Lucy Vintage are one of the dealers taking part in the Virtual Vintage Fair. Lucy explained, “You’ve got to put as much energy into the posting as possible, and you do have to bite the bullet and talk to the camera, which is something I’ve never done… You've got to build the bridge between you both, with the flavour of the fairs.” For their latest post, they loaded up their van, and set up a stall in the garden of a big manor house near where they live, so they could film and take photos like they would usually at a fair.
Host a live auction
TV personality and antiques expert Charles Hanson (of shows such as Antiques Road Trip and Bargain Hunt) probably never considered that he would one day host a live charity auction from his garden shed. And yet when Covid-19 hit, that is exactly what he did, and he raised £36,000 for the NHS in the process, with more than 5,000 viewers. In total there were more than 50 lots on offer, including a day out salvage and antiques shopping with Drew Pritchard and Charles’s own gavel.
“I thought what could I do to help my NHS?” Charles explained to me. “Auctioning is the second oldest profession behind prosititution.” He realised he could still do that, but now the whole thing would instead be online. So he set to work bedecking his garden shed with a few flowers, got the lots together and set up a Zoom. “I raised £36,000 in my garden shed – me, and no one else there! This was a night like no other...I never thought I would get that experience without people.”
Charles was also keen to hammer home the point that there is an opportunity from the situation we are living through to look at the bigger picture of how we can protect our planet. “Many businesses will metamorphose to something very different,” he added. “I intend to go forward with this and look at doing a proper antique auction from my garden shed. I never thought that three or five years ago. This will fast track our business hugely.” He made the rather valid point that buying antiques is very eco-friendly – it’s all about reusing and recycling. Charles hopes the current situation will help spread the appeal of antiques too, “by making antiques more humble from the home yard or the garden shed, not the preserve of people with signet rings or red corduroy trousers.”
Matt Dixon of Tallboy Interiors is only 24, and has been running a successful online antiques business for nearly five years. On March 1 of this year, he opened his first physical shop. As you can imagine, the timing couldn’t have been much worse. Yet he still has all the experience of working online before and is using that to his advantage. The main thing he has learned is to adapt as times change. “We realised pretty much straight away that people were buying in a different way," he said. "They are taking a bit longer, so we started offering payment plans – four amounts over four weeks – which is more manageable for them and keeps sales going.”
He has also offered a storage option, so that customers can still secure the pieces they want, even if they can’t be delivered right away. This is particularly relevant for those that are moving house, and who now don’t know how long that will be delayed for. Dixon also shared that social media has been his biggest selling platform, and is invaluable in this tricky period. “We’re trying to elevate our presence, just so people don’t think it’s stopping. On the TV, it’s all negative, you can’t get away from coronavirus. On Instagram, it’s more motivational and nice.”
Tom Burgess, who works for Collinge Antiques in North Wales, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, is also applying the same flexible methods. “The antiques trade is perfect for online retail – putting a unique item in front of millions of eyes,” Tom shared with me. They have lots of space so can offer storage for people until things get back to normal if they prefer, too.
Remember your roots
Well-established antiques dealer Drew Pritchard is known as the face of television show Salvage Hunters. He shared his thoughts on Covid-19 with me. “It feels extremely similar to what I went through in the recession," he recalled. "Everything just stopped. The virus had a similar effect, and I recognised this and knew what to do.” On the first day, Drew dove straight in, setting up a home office in his spare room with a credit card machine, and got as much stock in as he could. He made sure his newsletters went out every Wednesday and Friday at the same time and also immediately started to ramp up his online presence. “We’ve been online since 1999. Super early adopters,” he added.
“What I am trying to do,” he shared, “is to teach younger members, and newer members, on how the old trade worked and how to manifest that in an online business.” He explained what he meant through an old joke – three antiques dealers and a chair end up on a desert island, and they still manage to make a living. The point is that dealers can always sell to each other.
“50 per cent of what I sell goes back into the trade. Trade is your best business, it’s a way of keeping money flowing in between yourselves,” Drew said. “If Joe Blogs buys off Joe Smith down the road from his website, he pays him and the pictures and details are removed – you do not have a sold section on a proper dealer’s website. You can then use those pictures on your website, and the goods stay in the same place. That’s exactly how we used to work. We’ve got modern technology to do an old job. That’s the catchphrase for it. I’ve had lots of people contact me and say it’s working.”
He’s also started a hashtag on Instagram, #SalvageSundays to get the conversation flowing. His response to dealers that aren’t on Instagram? “That’s not my fault, get on Instagram. It’s free. It’s almost as if Instagram had been invented for the antiques trade. It’s the perfect medium, it’s so visual. I’m not very good at social media, but if I can do it, anybody can do it.”
Create a directory
Alice Roberton, who handles the PR and social media for family-run businesses Arthur Swallow Fairs, knew the effect on the antiques industry would be massive from the get-go, because of how many people work offline. “There’s a lot of catching up,” she shared. “There are some amazing dealers who have no online presence.”
Arthur Swallow Fairs have been running antique fairs, markets and decorative home and salvage shows in the UK for 25 years. They have close to 8,000 followers on Instagram, and created a directory of sellers in their highlights. The success of that inspired them to also build a directory on their website, so that even those without social accounts can get involved. The directory can then be shared through newsletters to previous attendees of Arthur Swallow Fairs. Anyone with a business can email them with a line about what they do and their phone number. It’s old school, but it’s working.
As for the future, Richard Burgoin, co-owner of Arthur Swallow Fairs shared, “2008-9 was one of our busiest years – immediately after the 2008 credit crunch.” It leaves him hopeful that everyone will be desperate to get back out to fairs once they are back up and running.
Have you noticed your own nearby small businesses doing innovative, creative and kind things to adapt? Share your stories below or email [email protected] with pictures.
Read more: Brave New World