Shopping for antiques and vintage is a different experience than the local mall or department store, and if you’re new to antiquing, it can be a little difficult to understand. My parents were antique dealers, and I grew up going to antique malls, quickly learned the ins and outs of antique malls, and eventually became an antique dealer myself, but not everyone has had that experience. So here are some tips to help you out!
Antique malls are made up of multiple dealers, each has a booth/space/stall or case, however typically dealers don’t hang around their booths, only stopping in to put in fresh inventory, but every so often you’ll bump into a dealer or they will be working at the mall. Dealers are assigned booth numbers, which is written or printed on their price tags. The numbers help with accounting, and indicates what items are on sale, but more on sales in a bit. In addition to their booth number, some dealers may have a business name, and display it on a sign. When shopping at an antique mall, you gather your desired items from various dealers, and then pay for it all at once. Due to this unique format, there are some important things to keep in mind.
Not everyone understands the economics of antique malls and dealers, and I think it’s vital to discuss before diving into some of the dos and don’ts. While not all antique malls operate the same way there are quite a few commonalities. Antique dealers purchase their inventory at various places, such as estate sales, garage sales, yard sales, various second hand shops, and more. Often those items need some sort of work done to them before being placed in the dealer’s booth, this can include cleaning, any form of restoration, including stripping and refinishing furniture, reupholstering, making repairs and/or replacing zippers or buttons on clothing, etc. Items then need to be tagged (dealers often pay for their own tagging supplies as well) and then taken to their booth. At an antique mall dealers pay a rental fee, which is often per square foot, then there is typically a commission on top of that, which is often around 10 percent. To cover credit/debit card expenses, a mall will usually add a 3 to 5 percent fee when a shopper uses a card to make a purchase, however some malls, making the assumption most people pay with cards, will add this to the regular commission, making it 13 to 15 percent. Other dealers have told me of having to pay for additional bills, including electricity usage. It all varies from mall to mall. These are all things to keep in mind when shopping.
Do put items back where you found them. Maybe you picked something up to buy, but in walking around you decided not to purchase it, and that’s okay! Just put it back where you found it. Because antique malls are made up of various dealers, you can’t pick something up in booth and then leave it in another. I mean, you can, but you shouldn’t as it can cause frustration and confusion for employees, dealers, and shoppers alike. If you don’t remember where you found something, ask an employee to put it back for you.
Do understand the lingo. I’ve blogged about this before, but let’s go over it again. Antique malls have their own lingo, and if you’re new, you may not know what some abbreviations mean. “NFS” means “Not for Sale” and is often attached to fixtures, such as book shelves, racks, etc. Some dealers have it on signs or items they just want for ambiance. “ND” means “No Discount,” “NFD” meaning “No Further Discount,” and the word “Firm” written on a tag all mean the same thing, they do not want the item to be sold for less than the price they have placed on it. Sometimes dealers have sales in their booths, however they may have items they do not want to be discounted. It also means it is an item you cannot make an offer on, more on offers in a bit. “NRFB” means “Never Removed From Box,” a similar abbreviation is “MIB” meaning “Mint in Box” and these are often associated with vintage toys.
Do check for sales. Because antique malls are made up of multiple dealers, one dealer may be having a 50% off sale, but the dealer next to them may not. Dealers having sales put up signs in their space noting their space number and if the sale includes “ND” items or not. If you are in a booth with a sale, it is important to double check the booth number on the price tag, because someone could have been lazy and left an item that didn’t belong in that space. Like I said before, put things back where you found them!
Do check for case numbers. Some dealers have locked display cases, which require an employee to unlock it for you. If there is something you like, take note of the case number, and then kindly ask for the employee to open the case you’re interested in. If you don’t know the case number, they won’t know which key to get! If you decide to buy something from a case, the employee will take the item and hold it at the front for you until you are done shopping.
Do bring a tape measure. Not all antique malls have dressing rooms or restrooms. So it’s important to have a tape measure handy if shopping for clothes to know if something will fit or not. Sometimes I try stuff on over my own clothing to get a better idea of if it will work or not. If you’re shopping for furniture and art, a tape measure also comes in handy to know if it will work in your home.
Do be mindful of your surroundings. Some antique malls have tight spaces, so it’s important to pay close attention to where you’re walking as to not bump into something and possibly break it. Many antique malls have a “you break it, you buy it!” policy. It is also important to be gentle with the items you are looking at.
Do inspect items closely prior to buying. Most antique malls do not do returns, and typically a sign is posted at the register.
Do bring some cash. Some antique malls have a purchase minimum to use cards, or may charge a fee. So cash comes in handy if all you found is a $2 item.
Do return frequently. New inventory is constantly being added by dealers, and sometimes there are new dealers altogether!
Do join email lists. This is the best way to know about store-wide sales, yes, they do happen, and any other special events an antique mall may have.
Do follow booths and antique malls on Instagram or like them on Facebook. Some booths have their own Instagram and/or Facebook accounts (some may even have Etsy shops) to showcase items they have recently put in their booth, or if they are having a sale. The same goes for antique malls. They may showcase fresh inventory, new dealers, and sales. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen something put in a dealer’s space on Instagram and immediately went to their booth and bought it.
Don’t make unreasonable offers. Most antique malls allow for a little wheeling and dealing. However, some may have a price minimum, as they have to call the dealer to make offers. Some malls this is as low as $20, others it’s has high as $100. It just requires a little asking. If there is something you want to make an offer on, a discount of ten to twenty-fire percent is reasonable. Do not insult dealers by offering half of the asking price. And remember, don’t make offers on items marked “ND” or “Firm.”
Don’t ask for a discount if a dealer is already having a sale. Seriously, just don’t. As mentioned, dealers pay for a lot already, including commissions. If they are having a 20 percent off sale, they are typically losing an additional 10 percent on top of that.
Don’t make offers unless you are serious about an item. You are just wasting the employee’s and the dealer’s time.
Don’t expect employees to know everything. Some dealers specialize, meaning their booth is made up of one particular type of thing, such as vintage clothing, kitchenwares, etc. So if you’re looking for something specific they may be able to point you in the direction of certain booths, but because antique malls are full of multiple dealers constantly bringing in new stuff, it’s impossible for employees to know all of the inventory. They also may not be knowledgable about the items, such as age, value, etc. There is a massive rage of items in any given antique mall, from ancient fossils to Victorian oak furniture to records to action figures.
Don’t play dress up. Remember dealers search long and hard for these vintage items. They are here for people to purchase and enjoy. Playing around risks damaging the items.
Don’t pass on something you really love. It may be gone the next time you visit.
A Few More Things…
Most antique malls do not buy items. As mentioned, antique malls are made up of dealers who find and buy items and then bring them in to sell them. Often the mall itself does not participate in the buying of inventory. There are some exceptions; Retro Rejuvenation in Coburg, the mall my dad vends at, is one of those. Lindsey is the owner of the mall, sells her own finds, and is the cashier, so she is there every day, and therefore able to buy items that people bring in.
Antique malls typically do not appraise items. As mentioned, employees may not know that much about what dealers have to offer, and the same goes for an item you would like to know the value of. Some antique malls will have appraiser events, where and appraiser comes in and people can bring times to them. This is the type of thing that a mall would share on social media and e-mail newsletters.
There are antique shops. Sometimes a person has enough to fill an entire shop/store of their own. Often shops are smaller than a mall, and all of the items belong to the owner, or may be consignment. If a store doesn’t look like it is separated into different spaces, and/or if all of the price tags are the same, then you’ve probably walked into an antique store. If you don’t know, always ask!
Headed to a flea market or antique show? Here is some additional advice for a visit to a flea market and an antique show.