Shopping for antiques and vintage is a different experience than the local mall or department store. Antique malls are made up of multiple dealers, each has a booth/space/stall or case, however the dealer is not always present, often they only come in put in fresh inventory. 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 this dealer and that dealer, and then pay for it all at once. Due to this unique format, there are some important things to keep in mind.
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!
First, I would like to say it’s vital to understand the economics behind an antique mall and those who are dealers. While not all antique malls operate the same way there are quite a few commonalities. Antique dealers purchase their inventory at various places, estate sales, garage and yard sales, various second hand shops, and more. Often those items need some sort of help before they make it to their booth, this can include cleaning, any and all forms 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. Some antique malls will add a credit card fee, usually 3 to 5 percent, if one is used by a shopper, or some malls will just up their commission to 13 or 15 percent to cover credit card fees. Others have told me of additional bills, including electricity usage. It all varies from mall to mall.
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” or “NFD” meaning “No Further Discount” or you can simply see the word “Firm” on a tag. 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 huge sale of 50% off, but the dealer next to it 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 specific 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 pretty 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.
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.
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. Because antique malls are full of multiple dealers constantly bringing in new stuff, it’s borderline 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 store itself does not participate in the buying of inventory. There are some exceptions, the mall my dad vends at is one of those. The owner of the mall also sells 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. When I was a dealer back in Portland we did have an appraiser come in to the mall I vended at once a month to offer their skills, and other antique malls may do this, which is why it’s important to sign up for e-mails! Some antique shows may also have appraisal tables.
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.