Adapt or die

I wish I was an ostrich and could bury my head in the sand so I could ignore the growing Digital Age intrusion into my daily and professional life.  As a member of one of the last Industrial Age generations, I have fond Golden Age memories of life before the computer, mobile telephones, and cable television.  While there may be a few geographic locations that the Digital Age has not penetrated, they are not where I want to live.  The Digital Age is now global and pervasive.

I always knew one of the consequences of old age was the inevitability of change.  “Rinker on Collectibles” readers know I embrace change.  What I did not realize was that another major consequence of old age was to watch things die—family, friends, businesses, institutions, and social standards and mores.  Oh, to be younger again when one had an intense belief that things can and will last forever.

Tracking the antiques and collectibles trade during the past two decades has demonstrated the fallacy of this belief.   Recently, I started a list of what were once venerable antiques and collectibles institutions that no longer exist.   The Atlantique City Antiques Show (its promoter Norman Shaut died at age 86 in February 2019), Collector Books, and “Hobbies & Collecting Magazine” are examples.  As the list grew longer and longer, I became increasingly depressed.  When memories are the sole surviving entity, a realization that once those who remember are gone creates a sense of finality, one upon which I have no desire to dwell.

[Author’s Note #1:  Although a sense of gloom and doom and sadness will prevail in much of this column, I want to make it clear that I remain the eternal optimist.  New replaces old.  While I may not like nor feel comfortable with the new replacements, they represent the future.  “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking.  It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”  - Albert Einstein.]

Since the 2008-2009 Great Recession (it is hard to believe 10 years have passed), journalists have focused attention on the decline of traditional brick and mortar stores.  A recent story in the April 19th, 2019 edition of the “Grand Rapids Press” by Abha Bhatterai, the national retail reporter for the “Washington Post,” was headlined “The end may be nigh for brick and mortar.”  Bhatterai wrote that UBS, an investment firm, predicted that “An estimated 75,000 stores that sell clothing, electronics, and furniture will close by 2026, when online shopping is expected to make up 25 percent of retail sales.”  Stories about the demise of Bon-Ton. Gymboree, GNC, Mattress Firm, Payless Shoes, Radio Shack, Sears/Kmart, and Toys R Us appear constantly on the internet and in the news media.  For those who do not follow economic news stories, a drive by any strip or large shopping mall is all that is necessary to confirm this trend.  There is not a hole in the brick and mortar floodgate, there is a major breach.

[Author’s Aside #2:  As a historian and antiques and collectibles writer, I am or have become familiar with the back stories of these chains and other brick and mortar stores, especially department stores.  Bigger is better and diversification is best were common business rallying cries in the last half of the twentieth century.  Horizontal and vertical consolidation, even in the antiques and collectibles trade (a topic for a future “Rinker on Collectibles” column), were applauded.  Crown America’s 1979 acquisition of the Hess Brothers chain, a major downtown Allentown, Pennsylvania, department store that had expanded into malls, impacted my childhood and young adult memories   Hess’s was never the same.  In 1992, Crown America started to shutter and sell off its holdings.  Bon-Ton’s acquisition of the Hess’s Allentown store in 1995 and its subsequent closing in January 1996 was a dagger through my memory heart.]

The antiques and collectibles trade is a brick and mortar business, albeit most individuals do not think of it as such.  Auction galleries, flea markets with permanent sites, malls, and shops are brick and mortar operations.  Those flea markets and shows that rent fairground and other buildings utilize brick and mortar buildings.

The brick and mortar sites have one thing in common.  They exist based on the premise that customers will come to them.  “If you build it, they will come” may apply to a mythical cornfield in Iowa, but it no longer is applicable to the antiques and collectibles trade’s brick and mortar concept.

Over the past decades, antiques and collectibles pundits have focused on the increasing age of the traditional collectors, the slow but seemingly unstoppable decline of the dealer base, and the shift in generation interest of younger individuals to explain changes in the antiques and collectibles trade.  Few pundits have focused on what is happening within the realm of the trade’s traditional brick and mortar stores.  Ask this simple question:  How many new antiques and collectibles auction galleries, flea markets, malls, shops, and shows have been opened within the past decade?  There were some.  Try as I might, I cannot think of one immediately.

 The arrival of the antique malls in the early 1980s was the catalyst for the demise of the individual antiques shop.  In the good news category, one brick and mortar sales entity replaced another.  The arrival of eBay in 1985 and subsequent antiques and collectibles internet websites launched a wholesale attack on the brick and mortar antiques and collectibles mall portion of the trade.   A virtual internet shop is not a brick and mortar operation even if it is based in a home or building.  There is no place one can visit, knock on the door, and ask to see and handle the merchandise.

The lack of concern by collectors, dealers, and others about the demise of brick and mortar operations is disturbing.  It is best explained by the fact that such declines are gradual.  Since most antiques and collectibles brick and mortar operations are individually rather than chain owned, the demise of one has only a local or at best regional impact.  No one in California cares if a flea market or mall in North Carolina closes.  There is no collective whole in the antiques and collectibles field.

As the percentage of retail online business sales continues to grow, the antiques and collectibles trade continues to drag its feet.  The advanced age of participants and desire to “do business the old-fashioned way” are the primary reason.   The “why change things that are working” trade traditionalists are wearing blinders.  The antiques and collectibles retail trade does not exist in isolation.  Trends in the general retail marketplace apply to it as well.

[Author’s Aside #3:  As an advanced senior citizen (I turn 78 on October 1), I understand that I am no longer a viable and valuable asset in the modern consumer retail marketplace.  I am set in my ways and buying habits.  Retail is now about the Millennials and younger generations.  They are retail’s future.]

Millennials and younger generations also are the future of the antiques and collectibles business.  They are full-blown citizens of the Digital Age.  Online shopping is only one of their bailiwicks.  Social media websites such as Facebook and Instagram are the new information exchange channels.  Texting, tweeting, Facetime, Skype, and Whatsapp are the new methods of telecommunication.

The question is not how large the percentage of online sales will be in 2026 but when will online sales surpass 50 percent.  I am no economist but if I live another 10 years, I suspect I will see it, especially given the fact that online sales increased by over 15 percent between 2017 and 2018.  The website Retail Drive predicts Amazon will control over 50 percent of eCommerce by 2023.

I am not arguing that the antiques and collectibles trade abandon its traditional brick and mortar operations.  The trade needs them.  If they are going to continue, they must adapt their selling style to attract the younger generations.  Traditional auction galleries, flea markets, malls, and shows will survive long after my death.  But as Montgomery Ward and Bon-Ton proved, nothing lasts forever.

When I began this column, it was my intention to talk about some of the new, exciting Digital Age adaptations I am seeing in the antiques and collectibles trade.  The future is brighter than some imagine.  I look forward to exploring this topic in a future column.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  Selected letters will be answered in this column.  Harry cannot provide personal answers.  Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned.  Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Point Court SE, Kentwood, MI  49512.  You also can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com.  Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered.