The Psychology of a Well- Designed Antique Booth

The story is told and regularly repeated: in old-time antique dealers’ shops collectors had to work to find the best. Dealers would put precious pieces in the back of cupboards, hide them in corners and the like. I do not know if such is the case today, but reading again about how dealers used to make collectors “work” to find the best got me thinking about today’s antique shops and even more so of their show booths . . . and what I like and do not like in their layout and design. Let me for the moment examine what I see as the psychology behind, and complexities involved in staging a “wow” booth, and of course offer some opinions along the way.

I find it does not matter whether the show has just opened and its floor and booths are crowded or if it is a lazy late afternoon and all is quiet; a well-designed booth is a exactly that.  The person who has put it together has, intentionally or accidentally, mastered the psychology of display and merchandising. The visual merchandising literature presents some common elements of presentation done well, and while you and I may differ at times about what it says, I bet your tastes and proclivities share common elements with mine.

            A dealer I know thought that the contrasting poles of booth design are business and art, with most dealers falling in the middle. I am not clear one can so easily separate the two when it comes to a well-designed booth, though generally speaking presentation (art) may increase interest in its antiques and sales (business).

Visual Merchandising

            When the first department stores such as Chicago’s Marshall Fields began merchandising directly to the public visual displays of goods became crucial. These arrangements appeared both in the store windows and within the store. Visual merchandising’s goal was and is supposed to attract customers and increase sales. Visual merchandising can become a brand for a store (or antique booth). Certainly, anyone who shops at the same venue over time, if asked, could describe the recurring display themes. The difficulty is that establishing a “brand” may eventually become stale or cliched. A seller’s eternal problem is how to differentiate his or her store or antique booth from competitors’. In essence visual merchandising demands creating an inviting environment.

            Antique collectors may be familiar with the words “sales environment” but in my experience seldom use the term. An antique show as a whole has its own visual culture, its own ambiance – the use of tables, floor covering, temporary walls, lighting, flowers and plants, spots where food and beverage is available, sometimes music and its type. Within this environment each individual antique dealer’s booth creates its own mini-environment. All sellers have the same goal: to sell antiques to existing and new collectors, to reflect the personality and tastes of the dealer with the hope these resonate with collectors who buy, or keep a connection that will draw customers’ interest in hopes they will buy at a later date. The psychology behind visual merchandising is to fashion a mini-environment that showcases the wares in the booth while creating interest and trust. 

            Visual merchandising is meant to connect with customers in a positive manner. To fail to do so means these collectors may look elsewhere, regardless of the quality of the antiques on display. Of course, dealers may have different ideas of what constitutes such a milieu but there are some common elements that should be considered.

            One maxim is that design of a store window, display within the store, or an antique booth should attract and keep the collector’s attention, motivate the customer to enter the booth and look around, stay and look more, and of course, buy. To accomplish these goals the booth should be visually appealing, a concept that includes color, lighting, use of space, product information, sensory input (touch, smell, sound). The personal interaction between the collector and seller (dealer) is a matter for another time, but should not be dismissed or ignored. Color is an especially important element in a booth’s ambiance. At higher end shows some dealers “play” with the color of the booth’s walls – black, white, blue, wall paper, a window with valence, you get the idea. But the major source of color are the objects themselves. Even in booths with brown furniture, paintings, ceramics and other objects with color provide interest. Some dealers who sell art have booths awash in color.

            I remember as a kid being enthralled by the store windows of Marshall Fields & Co. downtown Chicago store windows at Christmas time. Toy trains running, Santa, the sleigh, elves, wrapped presents, snow on the trees, a Christmas tree, star or angel at top, tinsel, bright colors, small town scenes with stores and houses. Even today black and white photos of these displays or seeing such a store window in a movie brings me back to the 50s. While I have never seen a toy train running in a booth at an antique show (wouldn’t that be interesting) I like booths that draw my eye, seduce, whisper to me to look and enter. I know I am looking at a well-designed booth when it bends a finger and ushers me “come hither.”

Before Entering a Booth. The view of a booth from the aisle of an antique show is analogous to a department store’s window. Its goal should be to attract attention, to highlight what is special, to seduce. Unlike the store windows from my childhood at Christmas time this can be difficult to do in a booth crammed to the rafters, the dealer’s philosophy seemingly, “the more I bring, the more I have to sell.” The problem is that few pieces look special in such an environment (at least to me). It also can be difficult draw and keep a collector’s attention if the booth has numerous smalls in rectangular, waist-high display cases: they get in the way. I know – people would steal smalls if not locked in a case, something fragile will be broken. All no doubt true. Yet my reading and personal experience leads me to believe they must be used judiciously if at all. They simply are off-putting.

Having already waxed nostalgic, let me turn 180 degrees. While the holiday department store window of my youth seemed crammed to the rafters, a booth less profuse is usually more attractive. Standing in the aisle a collector is able to see the treasures within. With a sweep of his eye he can behold what is for sale. As best as possible the booth should be well lit, the cases with smalls should not impede looking or entering. Less is more. The antiques need room and space to speak for themselves, and do so loudly and grandly. No items ought to be hidden in dark corners requiring copious effort to be discovered. If a special item sits on a low platform it should not hide other, no doubt equally good antiques. As one dealer told me about designing his booth, “give the stuff room to breathe.”

One element that attracts attention is motion, often seen in the old-time store windows of major department stores at Christmas time – the toy train running or the nodding heads of elves. I have never seen motion used in an antique booth and believe it would be a powerful attraction. Imagine a booth at a high-end show with a wonderful Windsor chair (sitting on a platform for all to see, highlighting the piece) and a drop-front desk on a second platform. Now imagine each platform slowly turning, showing the collector what the chair or desk looks like from all possible angles. The desk’s backboards, the view of the chair from the rear. 

Within the Booth. The more technical term for the layout of a booth once one enters is its “interior display.” As already noted, severe and perhaps (to the collector but not necessarily to the dealer) unnecessary clutter and obstacles may frustrate potential buyers. Other dealers are minimalists, with only a few items. Most dealers seem to fall in the middle. Regardless, the interior display should enhance what is for sale, leaving room to view items from multiple viewpoints and to easily walk through the booth.

And how does a collector walk through a booth? Free form layout allows browsing. In these displays there is no one path in the booth (in contrast to the so-called race track display). A collector can walk around an item, approach the booth from more than one direction, turn left or right. This relaxed structure increases sales. I attended one show where a booth of a dealer I visited had three entrances/exits– one to each side and one at the front.  Where dealers place items, the platforms on which the items sit, the display cases can create pathways and enhance the display.

Once entering the booth, a good interior display allows room to look (of course crowds cannot be controlled but hopefully the dealer has not piled items on top of one another so closely that a visitor must sidle sideways if he can move at all). If two or three of the same genre coexist (desks, chairs, tables, Hudson Valley paintings) allow a collector to be able to visually place one next to the other in his mind and compare their virtues. 

When it comes to item descriptions and labels, a bit longer account (often “typed” and plastic coated) gives a collector a sense of who, what, where, and when — a mini history lesson if you will. Where was the table made? Who made the weathervane? And if attributed to a certain shop or area, what attributes lead to this conclusion or hypothesis? Many dealers save this “extended” information for verbally presenting to a collector interested in a piece.

            As for display cases, interior display with taller, thinner display cases with good lighting show off what is within without necessarily interfering with a positive booth design. Personally, the typical display case leaves me flat. I find myself bending over, working hard (too hard?) to see what is within. And items are seldom labeled or described (not enough room I guess). And such display cases seem to break up the ambiance of a booth and physically impede my movement. 

            The color of a booth’s walls, unless flamboyant and off-putting, probably matter less than the design and display that set items off. I think that is why I love to look at booths at high-end shows. The booths seem emptier than their counterparts at many lower-level shows. Fewer items allows those situated within to really “pop.” If I could define “pop,” you would know what I mean, or perhaps you do anyway. 

            In summary, the merchandise (antiques) must be visible, easily accessible, and available in a range to choose from. Even in high-end show booths with relatively few objects, a collector typically finds paintings, furniture, ceramics, folk art, etc. The dealer’s goal should be to create an emotional connection with the collector who is interested not only in the quality of a piece, but what it will look like in his home. When a dealer’s booth and its objects cause a collector to imagine where the object might be placed in his home, and what it would look like there, his imagination has been awakened. When this occurs, there is a better chance the collector will purchase something.

            A problem in creating interest is that many dealers’ booths are basically the same, show after show. A collector knows who the dealer is whose booth he is looking at regardless of the objects. Such “branding” by the dealer may communicate with collectors “here I am.” It also can be terribly boring. A cliched booth design can cause collectors to just casually glance at the objects within. The collector knows where the different genre will be displayed. Visual display research argues that the dealer should change things up with some regularity. The same objects may be more appealing and noticeable if they are found in different locations, one show to the next. 

            Not to be understated, a dealer’s booth needs a comfortable place where a sales slip can be written, and the item purchased discussed at more length. Depending on what is being displayed a couple of chairs and a flat surface (table, chest top) serves the purpose well. The recency effect argues for the power of our most recent memories and communications. A dealer wants the customer going away happy so to speak, wanting to return, feeling she has been treated well.

            The bottom line is that with a well-displayed booth the dealer could probably sell more antiques at a higher price. “Well there you have it,” I hear you say. “Those are pretty amorphous concepts – emotional connection, inviting, positive ambiance, attracting attention.” Yet I bet you can name a few dealers that always seem to have attractive booths, whether you collect and buy from them or not. Further, I can hear you also say, “Isn’t it really easy? (to design an attractive booth), if a dealer has drop-dead gorgeous antique?” Perhaps, but only with good visual display, important to any dealer, even those at the top.      

But, we don’t quite have it yet. A dealer must give serious considerations to other variables in trying to design a first-rate booth with all of the elements of a powerful and successful visual display.

            Let’s start with money. A dealer endures costs associated with doing an antique show – travel, lodging, show overhead, and then more for display cases, lighting, and his time. If the show is an expensive one the dealer has to decide what pieces to bring at what price point. An expensive show requires pieces that sell for more. A less expensive show, with collectors not expecting pieces priced in five or six figures can accommodate lower cost antiques. So, which pieces to bring? And will a lower-level show, with lower level pieces, allow the dealer to design a booth that pops? Can less expensive antiques pop at all? The answer is yes, depending on how the booth is designed and laid out. A department store can sell a lot of sweaters or other pieces of clothing priced reasonably if the display window outside the store, and the display of sweaters inside the store are creative and beautiful. Antique booths follow the same display rules.

            There is another side to money. What is the dealer’s experience in how much his booth must be valued at to reach his target revenue for the show? If a booth fee is $2,500 and the dealer wants to make $25,000 what cumulative value of antiques does, he need to bring and display? – $100,000, $150,000? Does he have items that will fit well together in a booth at those price points?

            A dealer’s booth is also constrained by what he has in inventory. He may well imagine what would increase the attention getting and beauty of his booth but if he does not own those items, he is only dreaming. Of course, he may buy well on the floor before the show opens. Then he is faced with how well and in what ways some of these pieces fit into a booth design, if he does not put them away, he has worked on for some time. 

            There also exist issues of dealers’ tastes and experiences. Would a pair of nice Philadelphia Chippendale chairs look good next to a gorgeous painted country tavern table? If yes, in the dealer’s opinion they can be grouped. If the dealer thinks, “no,” I like to group like with like, he now has two design elements in the booth to juggle, formal and country and may need other pieces to balance both. But space is limited as he and you know.

            The same decisions and juggling are needed regarding smalls, and again, how expensive the smalls are may depend on the show. A couple of beautiful painted small boxes would look out of scale on the top of a high chest of drawers or flat top highboy, and perhaps too busy also. Does the dealer stack the smalls, and if so, how high a stack? Where to put them to best effect? On a shelf I hear you say? Well then, the dealer needs a pewter cupboard or another type of cupboard with shelves, or just a set of shelves. Does he own one? Will it fit in this show and the booth he has in mind? Stay tuned.

            And there it is. A gorgeous booth. And then the dealer sells well during setup (to other dealers) and the booth’s standout star or two are gone. The dealer does not even get a nice photo of his booth as designed in any of the antique publications covering the show. Before the show opens, he must now remake a booth that attracts. And if he sells well on day one of a multi-day show, he must move pieces, add to them, and hope to design an attractive booth for day 2 and beyond. More than one star for certain locations within the booth are a must.

            I never really knew of or thought about many of these issues before working on this column. But now that I do, it makes looking at dealers’ booth much more interesting. “What,” I ask myself, “is the dealer trying to achieve?” “Do I find the booth well designed and inviting, both from the aisle and once I enter it?” I wonder if there are people who work with dealers to improve their booth design and display (and therefore sales) and if dealers would be open to working with someone with that expertise? 

            So, the next time you attend an antique show, look at it from a “meta-level.” What factors are pulling you in, are leading you to reach for your wallet, are causing you to pause or smile?  Who really seems to have mastered visual merchandising? And what do you like in a booth’s design?  Yet after all is said and done, and I think you will agree with me it still comes down to great stuff at a fair price. I’d love to hear from you.

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