How to start up an antiques business

The antiques trade is very broad and includes everything from bric-a-brac to fine art. Check out our practical guide on the essentials for starting and running your own antiques business.

Research your target market

When you plan your new antiques business it's very important to research your market - how much demand there is and how well that demand is already being met.

Estimating demand

You will need to make an estimate of the number of pieces that you are likely to sell in the year, based on the number of customers you hope to attract. Much will depend on the nature of the business you are planning - if your stock is very expensive you may only need to sell a few pieces every month. If you plan to stock modestly priced bric-a-brac and collectables you will need to sell many more items every month in order to generate enough income.

Some antique dealers specialise in a particular type of antique and build up a regular customer base of other dealers and members of the public to whom they sell most of their stock. In some cases items will be bought with a particular customer in mind.

Demand for different types of antique rises and falls as trends and fashions in the market change. The industry journal Antique Collecting looks at current trends and is used by many collectors and dealers to keep up to date with the market. It may well be important to make sure that your stock reflects current trends in demand.

You might try buying enough stock to take a stall at an antiques fair or market as part of your market research. This will give you an idea of the likely demand for the type of pieces you plan to stock as well as the price that customers are prepared to pay.

Competition

Unlike some other retail businesses it can positively encourage trade to locate in an area which is well-known for its antiques shops and which attracts large numbers of dealers and amateur collectors. Because each item is virtually unique customers will buy from whichever outlet has the piece which attracts them and they will be prepared to visit every outlet to see what is on offer.

One of the best ways to attract custom is to stock good quality 'fresh' pieces which are well-displayed in a welcoming environment. Although the existence of other antique dealers in your locality can prove beneficial to your trade you will need to make sure that your particular business stands out and is memorable enough to make people return to your outlet.

Check out other antique dealers in your locality and note down details of their outlets - what sector of the market they target, the prices they charge, their opening hours and so on. This will help you to decide on the range of stock to offer and what you can do to differentiate your outlet from the others.

Trade sales

Most antique dealers sell quite a lot of their stock to other dealers, who may well call on you from time-to-time to check your stock. If you are going to specialise in a particular type of antique you might consider contacting other dealers in the same line with a view to offering them stock on a regular basis.

Research current trends, plus legal and tax issues

Establish your customer profile

If you plan to operate from retail premises you might have a mix of customers who include:

  • private individuals, many of whom are enthusiasts and amateur collectors
  • other dealers
  • corporate investors and collectors
  • interior designers
  • businesses such as hotels, restaurants or pubs
  • museums and galleries

Some of your customers may be located overseas.

You may decide that you are only going to sell to the trade - for example operating as a 'runner'. Runners generally do not have their own premises but buy stock which they then offer to other dealers. Some dealers just have warehousing facilities because they focus on supplying container loads of antiques to overseas customers in countries like the US, China and Japan.

Many of your customers are likely to become regulars, particularly if you are able to build up a reputation for good quality, fresh pieces.

Discounts

Haggling is an accepted feature of the antiques trade and many customers will expect to be able to negotiate a discount from the marked price of an item.

If you plan to sell a lot of stock at auction remember that you will pay a vendor's commission on each sale.

Advertising your business

No matter who your customers are, it's essential that they know about you. If you can locate in an area which already contains several other dealers you will benefit from a stream of visitors to the area. It is up to you to attract these visitors into your shop by having a good range of stock, which is well displayed. Once they have come through your door make sure that they receive a friendly welcome and that you have some printed material that they can take away with them.

There are a number of things you can do to promote your business:

  • advertise in your local newspaper and any other local publications and directories
  • produce a newsletter that you send to customers who collect or specialise in a particular type of antique
  • have your own website and offer a mail order service
  • use social media like Instagram to showcase new pieces
  • have leaflets printed outlining your range of stock - you might be able to arrange to leave some of these with local hotels
  • exhibit at antiques fairs and markets
  • choose a memorable name for your business and make sure your vehicle, stationery and literature carry this

What to sell

The range of items that you decide to stock will probably depend on:

  • your own areas of interest and expertise
  • the sector of the market you want to target
  • current trends in demand
  • where you will be located
  • how much space you have

You might decide to specialise in any one of the following or you could stock a bit of everything so that you appeal to as many customers as possible. Dealers outside London often carry a wide range of stock.

Just a few of the different categories from which you might decide to stock items include:

  • furniture - there is a huge range of different types, with some dealers specialising in country and farmhouse furniture, others focusing on Georgian pieces and so on
  • textiles and carpets, tapestries and needlework
  • paintings, drawings, prints
  • sculptures
  • clocks (including grandfather clocks) and barometers
  • ceramics, glass, decorative objets, metalwork
  • stamps, coins and medals
  • jewellery, silver, old Sheffield plate
  • oriental art and objets
  • books, toys, curios and collectables
  • guns, weaponry and militaria
  • musical instruments
  • other specialist items, such as antique fishing tackle
  • antiquities and relics
  • 'retro' and vintage items, which are not necessarily antiques

You might decide to specialise in a particular style, school or period.

Remember that the UK is set to ban sales of ivory items in the future, except for a few exemptions.

If you plan to do house clearances you will have many non-antique items to dispose of - you could have a bargain corner for the better items and sell others to secondhand goods dealers.

You might decide to offer a range of services such as repairs and restoration, valuations, paint stripping, re-upholstery and so on. Maybe you will undertake valuations and appraisals. Some of your customers might want reproduction items which can be ordered from a catalogue. Perhaps you plan to 'upcycle' relatively low value items to increase their appeal and give them a new lease of life. Maybe you intend to produce and sell 'recrafted' and 'new-old' items made to traditional designs out of old and reclaimed materials.

Displaying your stock

The nature of your stock will affect the way in which it is displayed and the overall effect of your premises. If you plan to deal in very expensive items you will probably space your stock out so that the full impact of each piece can be appreciated by potential customers. If you plan to target the bric-a-brac end of the market you may decide to indulge your customers' desire to rummage for bargains and cram as many pieces as possible into your premises. Take care to minimise breakages by displaying fragile items in cabinets out of harm's way. Don't forget that dishonest people may pocket small items while your attention is distracted.

Try to keep your displays as attractive as possible by constantly adding new pieces, or at the very least moving stock around so that it seems as if you have new pieces to sell.

A lot of dealers now use social media like Instagram to highlight new pieces.

If you intend to sell some items through eBay, another online marketplace like Etsy or Sellingantiques.co.uk, and/or through your own e-commerce website, then you'll probably need to take good photos and write complete and accurate descriptions to accompany them.

Selling on ebay

Selling online can be an excellent way of reaching new customers and boosting your sales. But setting up your own ecommerce website can be expensive and you may not be sure at the beginning whether the value of the sales you'll make online will justify the set-up costs.

As an alternative, trading on eBay lets you get a feel for selling online but with much lower start up costs. And you may decide to keep on selling through eBay even when you have your own online shop.

Getting started

You might already have your own personal eBay account that you use to buy items for yourself and to sell things that you don't need any more. But if you're trading as a business on eBay you're legally obliged to make it clear in your listings that you're a business seller. This means that you'll either need to register a new business account or upgrade your personal account to a business one. There's guidance in the eBay Business Centre on the definition of 'trading' if you're not sure whether you need to register as a business seller.

If you're not already running a business and you intend to start sellingthings on eBay - perhaps just in a small way to begin with - then you'll need to notify HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) that you're trading. There's a guide on what counts as trading and self employment which gives advice about notifying HMRC and other tax obligations on the Gov.uk website.

Decide whether to have your own virtual 'shop'

Having your own virtual storefront will give your business a valuable online presence and will allow you to display all your products together in one place.

When you sign up to sell on eBay, you have the option of setting up an eBay Shop. This allows you to create your shop using an existing template or to customise it to your own design. You don't have to choose the eBay Shop option straight away - you may decide it's best to wait until your monthly sales build up to a certain level and then upgrade.

How much does selling eBay cost?

Before you start selling on eBay it's a good idea to find out how much you'll have to pay in fees. Depending on the items you sell and the method you choose for selling them, your total fees can be quite substantial. And while some of the fees you pay will be linked to the number of items you sell each month, others are likely to be fixed costs which you incur even if you don't sell anything.

eBay gives you the option of selling as a business seller without paying any fixed monthly fees, although it's usually more cost-effective to choose a subscription-based package unless you're only selling a small number of items each month.

The eBay website has a fee illustrator tool and a fee calculator that will help you compare the fees for different selling methods and get a good idea of how much your actual per-item selling fees are likely to be.

Managing your listings

Uploading your inventory to eBay and managing your listings can be a time consuming task, particularly if you're planning to sell a large number of items.

eBay offers various listing tools designed to streamline this process, some of which are free and others that you'll have to pay for.

Promoting your items

Because there's such a huge number of items for sale on eBay at any one time, it's very important that you do everything you can to stand out from the crowd.

Always make sure that your listings include accurate, spell-checked descriptions and that your photos and other images show the items that you're selling in the best possible light.

You might want to take it a step further and use the various marketing tools provided by eBay such as search optimisation and cross-promotions.

Your reputation

As an eBay seller your online reputation is extremely important. All sellers have a feedback score based on actual customer feedback and this is the main measure that future customers will use to check that you are trustworthy and reliable.

So you'll want to keep your rating as high as possible by providing an excellent level of customer service and fast delivery at reasonable prices. Make sure you always respond promptly to customer queries, deal with returns efficiently and keep an eye on your stock levels to avoid your listings showing an item as being in stock when it has sold out.

Be aware that packing up orders and sending them out can be time consuming, but it's important to stay on top of the job to make sure that the right items get delivered in good time to the right people. Very many parcel delivery services now offer bulk shipping tools that integrate with your eBay account and these can greatly simplify the process of arranging and tracking your deliveries.

More information

The eBay website has a great deal of useful guidance to help you get started as a business seller and to expand your business as demand for your products grows. There's also a lively seller community forum where experienced sellers are often happy to answer questions.

Buy an existing business

You might decide to buy an existing antique dealer business rather than start your own venture from scratch. Buying a going concern can mean that the products, customers, regular sales, staff, premises and equipment are already in place.

Businesses like antique shops are popular with 'downshifters' - perhaps the current owner has decided that they made the wrong decision and wants to change career again.

If you are purchasing any stock, make sure that the seller has good title to it. Be sure to check whether there are any unresolved disputes over ownership of an item of value.

But buying a business can be a hazardous, expensive process unless you have the right skills and experience on your team, including legal and financial know-how. Establish the genuine trading and financial position, so that the price you pay for the business is not too high.

 

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