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SMART ANSWERS
By Karen E. Klein

9.16.99  
What Makes an Antique Mall Tick? Critical Mass
A group of dealers can do far better together than in isolated shops

Q: I'm considering opening an antique mall in my town, where we don't currently have one. I have a fairly solid business background but no idea where to start when it comes to this kind of operation. Any suggestions?
--S.B.

A: Antique dealers who display their merchandise jointly in a mall-type setting can benefit in many ways. Each one can generally afford a much larger space than they could alone. Since merchandise tends to turn over slowly in the antique business, customers are more likely to come back if there's a variety of items under one roof. If you include some retailers who specialize in collectibles, you'll attract an even broader audience. Create enough buzz and your mall could become a regional destination for antique hunters, especially if you locate it in a picturesque, historic setting near restaurants and other kinds of shops.

The typical mall starts with a successful antique dealer who wants to expand but doesn't want to take on a lease for a much larger space alone. If you're not familiar with the antique market, research the details of this business thoroughly. Meet with a group of local antique-store owners to get feedback before you sign any leases. Find out if they would be interested in moving into a mall and if they know of any other antique dealers who might join forces with you.

Many antique dealers start out as avid collectors who begin selling their pieces when they run out of space at home. Try advertising for dealers in a regional antique magazine if you do not find enough interest locally. Martha Richards, manager of the Antique Warehouse in Grayslake, Ill., started out with a small ad more than eight years ago. Now, her warehouse has booth space for up to 75 dealers. "We were the first mall in this area, and since then the idea has taken off. There are a dozen that have opened since we've been here," she says. Having some competition nearby hasn't been bad, she says. "Everyone has a different idea of what they like to collect. A lot of our customers enjoy the idea of taking a day trip to find antiques. If they can visit two or three malls in one day, that makes it nicer for them."

Richards and her daughter, Candy Martens, offer retailers a choice of three different-size booths on six-month leases, but some antique malls require one-year leases. Richards and Martens collect monthly rents from their concessionaires, who keep all the proceeds from their sales. Some malls charge rental fees and take a percentage of the sales. Richards and Martens thoroughly screen potential tenants to make sure they're offering bona fide antiques and items listed in collectors' catalogs. If you don't screen for merchandise quality, your mall will become a flea market.

Once your mall takes off, you can add a companion Web site. That's what the Antique Warehouse, www.antiquewhse.com, did about two years ago, Richards says. "Some of our dealers started listing their more expensive, more collectible pieces on eBay," she recalls. Martens jumped on the trend, creating a site for the warehouse that listed her concessionaires, with links to their eBay offerings. Martens includes small individual descriptions and a picture for each one of her dealers, advertises for new tenants, promotes sales and specials, and pushes a shopping service where clients can e-mail an order -- though they can't yet buy it online. Successful as the Web site is, Richards doubts it will ever supplant the mall. "People still want to see the merchandise themselves and touch it," she says.

For additional ideas about online retail opportunities, check out some of the Web sites that serve as hubs for antique dealers and collectors, including www.antique.org, which offers a bulletin board system, Web-page hosting for dealers, news on the business, and an antique dealers' search engine.


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