Today, I’m going to take a break from furniture makeovers and start a two part series on joining and selling goods out of an antique co-op. I’m often asked questions related to this topic, so I thought I would address them in a series.
For today, I want to tackle the process of joining an antique co-op and talk a little bit about what they are, how they’re different from consignment stores and give you some tips that will help you in your search for your co-op home.
As most of you know, I sell my furniture and paint lines out of my antique booth at Morgantown Market.
This is not the only place where I’ve sold my pieces in the past, but it’s the place where I’ve chosen to dig my roots the deepest. I’ve been a member of consignment stores and privately owned gift shops and they have all been wonderful well-curated places to sell.
Over time, it’s become clear to me that Morgantown Market meets the needs of my business and has lots of opportunities available for me to grow. Plus, I’ve been able to bring lots of business and promotions to the market, so it’s really been a win-win.
So how did I choose Morgantown Market? What about it makes me want to stay there? Why is it such a good place for my business? Let’s dive into some tips for hunting for an antique co-op!
What is An Antique Co-Op?
First, let’s start off by defining what a co-op is exactly. They are businesses that are operated out of a building by a central owner. The owner divides up the building into various sized spaces called booths. Each booth space is available to be rented out by dealers or vendors.
Every month, the dealers pay the owner rent on their space, which is often priced by the square foot. The vendors can bring in their merchandise and stage their booth spaces to their liking and customers can come in and shop from all of the booths. They can pick whatever they like from all of the spaces and they pay up front at a central register. The owner then pays the dealers what they have sold on a bi-weekly or monthly basis. The house makes money from rent and the dealers make money from sales.
That’s a really basic run-down of what a co-op is.
That’s much different than a consignment shop. When you sell your goods at a consignment location, the owner often takes your items that you drop off and stages them around the shop, mixing them in with the other consigner’s items. There are no booth spaces and you don’t pay rent.
The catch is that when your item sells, the house takes a percentage of the sale. There are all different types of splits. Some do a 60-40 split where the consigner (you) gets 60% and the house gets 40%. Others do a 50/50. Each place is different, but the draw of a consignment location is that you don’t have to pay a monthly rent. Your items can sit without you paying money out of pocket while you’re waiting for them to sell. The obvious drawback is that once your items do sell, you only get a fraction of the sale price. That means you really have to know your numbers and make sure that the cut you’re losing to the house is a cut you can handle. You may need to mark up your merchandise to compensate, but remember – there’s no monthly rent! So you’ll have to do the math and calculate which setup is right for you.
Another difference is that you don’t stage your items in a consignment location – the owner does that for you. That can go both ways. If you’re not into staging and merchandising, this can be a huge blessing! Letting someone else with an eye for design take care of making your items look amazing is a big plus. It can become problematic though if you don’t educate the consignment shop on how to care for your goods. If your succulents get over-watered and die, you’ll lose money. If your desk gets lots of scuff marks on it from merchandise being moved around on top of it, you’ll have to take it home and fix it. So there’s a give and take with this type of setting.
So now that we’re clear about how antique co-ops are different from consignment shops, let’s get into some things you should consider when looking for an antique co-op home.
The Exterior and Traffic
The first thing I suggest is to drive by the co-op you’re interested in throughout the week. The parking lot may be totally empty on a Wednesday afternoon but completely packed on a Saturday morning. Take a peek throughout the week and see how busy they are. If the parking lot is consistently busy, then you know the store is a popular place where you’ll get a lot of foot traffic. That equates to sales! If it seems like no one ever shops there, then that’s probably not a good place for you to invest.
Drive into the parking lot. Take a look at the entrances and exits. Is it easy to get in and out of? Is there enough parking? If you’re a furniture person like me, are there doors where you can easy get furniture in and out of? Imagine trying to move a china cabinet into the building. Are there stairs you’re going to have to go down? Is there a loading dock or garage door to keep everything on one level? How about an elevator? If you can’t get in and out easily, then customers sure can’t either! Plus, be kind to yourself. If you don’t want to haul heavy furniture up and down stairs, take that into consideration when you’re planning to join the co-op. Plus, if you do settle in there as a vendor, will customers be able to move your merchandise out once they pay for it?
Finally, look at the actual building. Can you see it from the road? Is there a sign? Is it clearly marked as an antique co-op or do you have to guess what it is? Does it look well-maintained? Are there broken down stairs and dingy paint on the shutters? Or is it adorable, hip, funky and appealing to the eye? Does it have an aesthetic that is appealing to you? Would your style of goods fit in this setting? These are all things to consider as you build your brand.
Once you’ve evaluated the exterior of the co-op, wander around inside. Take note of the lighting. Is it well-lit, bright and cheerful? Good lighting makes everything look clean and fresh. How does it smell? Is it musty or cotton fresh? Now to be fair, old things do sometimes smell, so be fair. I’m talking about an overall smell of the building. I’ve been in some co-ops that feel like a cave and they smell like mildew. They’re damp, cold and uninviting. Is that the feeling you want to share with your customers?
Take a walk around and notice the quality of the merchandise. Do you see really good stuff that you want to scoop up and buy? Or does it feel like a flea market that’s junked up with cheap and uncurated things you’d find in your basement? Now every co-op may have a booth or two that are a bit disorganized, but evaluate this in general. What’s your overall perception about the quality of the merchandise inside the shop? Often, co-op owners have standards that they enforce with their merchants/vendors. Items that are damaged and dirty are often off limits, but each shop is different in how strictly these standards are enforced.
Take a look often too! How often do you see new merchandise coming in? Do you see an influx of new items on a weekly basis, or does it seem to be the same ‘ol stuff every month? Now keep in mind that some booths don’t change out for a few months because they have big pieces that need longer to sell (like mine), so consider the store as a whole. If the merchandise changes often, it means the store is healthy! There are lots of sales happening so the vendors need to bring in more new items. It also means that the vendors are actively going out and either making, picking, or purchasing new inventory to keep their booth spaces fresh. A stale co-op leads to stale sales.
Can you move around in the shop? How are the aisles? Are they clean and vacuumed? Is there enough space for you to walk up and down to browse freely, or do you have to suck in your gut and squeeze through? Think about your potential customers who are in wheelchairs or may have walking canes. Could they get through? Would your booth be at the bottom of a flight of stairs that’s inaccessible to someone who has bad knees?
I had to think about these things with my booth space. Mine is on the second floor of Morgantown Market at the bottom of a flight of stairs. What’s nice about where I’m at is that there’s a door on the second floor so folks can drive around and not have to worry about using the stairs.
Finally, take a peek at how many booth spaces are already doing what you do. If you want to sell pottery, are there already five potters there? If you’re a furniture painter like me, go check out the work of your potential fellow merchants. If a co-op seems to be overloaded with painted furniture or ironstone collectors or primitive collectors, then they may not let you in because the shop is already saturated. A good co-op owner will balance out the type of merchandise that’s in the shop so customers have a well-rounded shopping experience. You don’t want to be a dime a dozen! Now when you join a co-op, stick to what you say you’re going to bring in. If you sign a contract saying you’re going to sell picture frames and you switch to coffee grinders three months in, that’s bad form. Always communicate with the co-op owner before you make major changes to your inventory.
Speaking of the owner…are they nice? Do they seem friendly? How long have they owned the co-op? What do other people say about them? How long have they been in the business? Are they organized and on top of things or do they seem frazzled and stressed out all the time? Do you think you can get along with this person? Can you have a good working relationship? Are they respectful of their vendors or do they consider them to be hired help? How do they treat the merchandise in their shop? Are they excited about what people bring in or do they not seem to care one way or the other?
This one is a little tough because you can’t evaluate someone from a few chance encounters. A good working business relationship is one that happens over time, so be respectful and give the owner the benefit of the doubt. Look at the operation they have to run! Be a team player and give it a few months. Don’t try to change the system as soon as you come in. Listen to their suggestions if they give you some and understand that they’ve been here longer than you. They know their customers and they know what sells. Stay humble and observe for a bit. Get a feel for the place and ease yourself in. Don’t be quick to judge and ask questions if you need clarification on policies or preferences. There’s always a reason why they do things the way they do and there’s probably a story behind it too!
Social Media & Marketing
Like it or not, social media is here and it’s not leaving. It’s the way information is communicated and a successful business needs to understand and utilize social media on a daily basis. Go on Facebook and Instagram to search for your co-op. Do they have an online presence? Can you even find their social media feeds? When was the last time they posted? Are they responsive to questions that are asked by followers? How’s the quality of their photos and content? What are they posting about?
If you notice in this photo, Morgantown Market posted 22 hours ago and they are sharing the booth space of one of their vendors. Will this market help promote you and your goods?
This is another one where you may want to be a little gentle. Older co-ops may be struggling with this, so if you have anything you can offer, this would be a great area to be a team player and contribute. Who knows – maybe you’ll become the Instagram manager of the place?! But in general, having a strong presence online will bring in more customers from further away and ensure that the co-op stays on the radars of its customers.
When it comes to marketing the co-op, do you see business cards and postcards out? Do they send out mailers and flyers to advertise upcoming events? Is there a book to collect emails for an email list? Places that are word of mouth only aren’t going to get you the far reaching attention that you’re going to need to sustain sales for the duration. Like I said, social media isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Just like anything in life, there is probably going to be a contract that you will need to sign with the owner of the co-op if/when you join. It’s soooooo important to read this document thoroughly and ask questions about the terms so you understand it 100%.
Most co-ops require their vendors to volunteer their time every month in the form of a work day. This is how co-ops have people on the floor assisting customers and monitoring thefts without paying staff to do it. There may be a standard amount of work days regardless of the size of your booth space, or they may be proportional. You’ll have to read the fine print to see. I work two half day shifts a month for my booth space. The shifts are 4 hours each and I have to work one weekend a year (but I do this just about every month so it’s not an issue).
Also included in your contract will be some percent that the house will take from each sale. Typically this number is small (10% or less) and it usually goes towards covering credit card processing fees. There may also be verbiage related to discounts. Some co-ops have a blanket house discount of 10% which means that if someone asks if the dealer can do better on a price, the house will offer an automatic 10%. Other places leave it strictly up to the dealer. Again, you’ll have to read your contract and ask the owner what the policy is.
At Morgantown Market, I pay a monthly rent based upon the size of my booth and the floor I’m on. I’m not going to share how much rent I pay, but I will say that I pay less in Morgantown than I would if I was in a co-op closer to where I live in Chester County. This is why I chose to be there – I can afford it! The lower floors are less expensive than the main floor, and I pay by the square foot. So a small booth on the main floor may be the same price as a bigger space on the bottom floor. There is a general house discount if someone asks for it, plus a fee that the house takes to cover credit card charges. To compensate, I mark my items up. So let’s pretend that I want to sell a table for $100. I’ll add the percentage I’d lose with the discount and the credit card fee to the price. That way, if someone wants a discount, I can give it to them and still make the amount of money I wanted to when all is said and done. I do NOT discount my paint products or supplies, but that’s a blanket policy that Morgantown Market has on any paint supplies and sundries. So I’m good there!
I have mixed feelings about discounts, and every co-op treats negotiating prices differently. Some are quick to work with you on a price while others are firm with no wiggle room. My suggestion to you is to respect the policy that is there. If you don’t want your items being discounted, then don’t sign up to be a vendor.
I personally feel that constantly offering discounts to people trains them to expect it. Customers will wait around until something goes on sale and they’ll never pay full price. I work really hard on my pieces and everything is done by hand. I have hours invested in some pieces and I’m a professional. I know what I’m doing. I’m not a novice and I have a lot of experience doing what I do. I know a lot about the products I use and can teach others how to do it too. My pieces are one-of-a-kind and they’re literally my artwork. Why should I lose money because someone doesn’t want to pay me what I’m asking?
So I walk a tight line between offering discounts and staying firm on my prices. I abide by the house discount at Morgantown Market but I’m trying really hard to stay firm on my prices (which I feel are fair given the quality of work I do) and not give in when someone wants a lower price. And I have to be willing to let customers walk away if they don’t want to pay me what I’m asking. Everyone has a budget and some folks simply don’t want to pay what the price tag says. That’s okay and there’s really no hard feelings one way or the other (although I’m still building up my tough girl skin).
At the end of the day, I’m running a business and I have to make money. It’s hard to put a monetary value on yourself and remain humble, so rest assured that I’m still working this one out. But I will say that I’ve made a lot of progress from when I first started!
I hope that my tips and suggestions will help you in your search for an antique co-op. Perhaps you learned a bit more about the inner workings of places like Morgantown Market and now have a deeper appreciation for the work that goes into owning and operating one.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series when I’ll focus on what it’s like selling your goods in an antique co-op. I’ve touched on this a bit in this post, but I have many more tidbits to share!