Shock of the new

Thomas Woodham-Smith frets about how to handle real, live customers

This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

As we emerge blinking like moles into the bright light of in-person shopping, we find that it is a new world. Once again, our hair is trimmed, our bellies are full of freshly-pulled beer and in the slightly chilly spring weather we brave alfresco dining. As we survey the fallout from our year of absence it is apparent that the antique world has suffered during this period of neglect.

The normal inertia is currently replaced by a strange tension. If a customer arrives how will they behave?

Not only have the shops been shut but the art fairs have been silent. Consequently fair organisers and exhibitors are suffering too. If that wasn’t enough, foreign travel is out of the window for the moment, so they cannot travel to buy. Spread that across the canvas and you have a picture of the trade that is arguably in its worst condition ever.

Yet the boundless enthusiasm of dealers cannot be crushed and there is good news. Some trade dealers have really cracked selling on Instagram. There are dealers out there who schedule a run of photo releases for a certain time each day. They have followers who sit by their phones at the crucial hour and then send direct messages as fast as they can. Fresh goods sell in a few minutes only.

I watch a couple of these and whilst I don’t buy much, I gape slack-jawed in awe as the red dots pepper the screen. I spoke to one dealer who used to have a shop in Lewes. Now it is just storage and he spends his time photographing and measuring and lining up his Instagrams to drop at the right moment and in the right order.

Not just on the internet, but also amongst traditional shopkeepers there is a festive and positive atmosphere. The normal inertia is currently replaced by a strange tension. If a customer arrives how will they behave? Will they come in head to toe in PPE or will they insouciantly breeze in with their mouths visible?

Many shops have used the quiet time to repaint or remodel and now they have the chance to present their wares in an ideal setting.

It is early days yet in the removal of barriers. All goods now look bright, cheerful and fresh to the market. Sometimes an object will look completely different by being simply moved across the room. Now, “for a limited time only”, everything is new and exciting.

The biggest hurdle to overcome is the international one. Visitors from the USA and Europe have historically accounted for a significant proportion of business. Furthermore, those foreign nationals who have homes in England used to like to buy for them and they too are not around — many got out in the early stages of the pandemic. For the moment, the UK trade will have to survive on its domestic community. But it is not just Covid-19 which stands in the way of business revival. We are all suffering from the complexities created by Brexit.

Moving goods between the UK and Europe has become a nightmare with many transporters going out of business or simply giving up on Europe as the paperwork is Byzantine, changing and expensive. It is no longer possible for me to buy something in France and simply go and get it.

The biggest hurdle to overcome is the international one

The additional issues to do with transport particularly hit the small traders who used to buy at the big open air markets that take place every month or so. Dealers would arrive and bustle around buying sometimes 20 or 30 items, often spending only a modest sum on each item.

These would be gathered up and brought back to England, again for only a few pounds per item. The system provided stock for what is called the “decorative” end of the business.

But that has now been Brexited away. As I write a £500 object will cost £500 or more to bring to England. Stating the obvious, that object is now twice as expensive and consequently harder to justify and harder to sell.

The hope is that over time things will get simpler — maybe we can negotiate a better arrangement with Europe. But currently Covid is stopping people travelling to buy and Brexit is stopping goods travelling to be sold.

We blinking moles might be better off burrowing back under ground, or possibly we need to find a new route into the light.

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