For many years now, you’ve spent your weekends visiting yard sales, flea markets antique shows or conventions, looking for that rare wind-up tin toy to add to your collection. Or your shelves are filled with comic books, or action figures, or Frankoma pottery, or …
Antiques and collectibles are your hobby and passion; should they become a side business as a second stream of income?
Once you’ve decided to make the move from collector to dealer, you have three basic questions you need to answer: what will you sell, where will you get stuff to sell, and where (or how) will you sell it?
I’ve had my own collectibles business for over 30 years now, in one form or another. I started selling comic books in high school, and since then I’ve sold all manner of items from rare books to action figures to Halloween masks to collectible cars!
What Will You Sell?
The most important requirement in starting your collectibles business is being (or becoming) an expert in what you intend to sell. You have to be intimately familiar with what you intend to sell–when and where was it made, what are the different versions, are there common and rare versions that look similar, how many of each were made, etc. You also have to know the market–what do your collectibles typically sell for in the real world (versus what that price guide you bought claims they’re worth).
For instance, if you’re thinking of starting a business selling baseball cards, can you tell me what a 1984 Topps Don Mattingly Rookie card sells for? Without looking it up? You don’t need to know the exact amount down to the penny, but you do need to know that it sells for closer to $5 than $50. When you’re evaluating items to purchase to sell in your business, you’ll need to be pretty accurate at determining ballpark amounts to know how much you can spend in order to make a profit, especially in the case of a large collection where you can’t research each individual item.
Since you’re going to need to become an expert, then you probably want to specialize in something you’d actually want to collect yourself. In my case, I know there’s a huge market for older Barbie dolls, and good profits can be made once you know what to look for. But collecting Barbies is just not something I could ever become passionate about (no offense to the Barbie collectors out there), so that type of business would be much more difficult for me. My advice: if you wouldn’t enjoy displaying it in your home, don’t try to make a business of selling it.
Now, that doesn’t mean you should pass up buying something you’re sure you can quickly flip for a profit! These days my collectibles business is selling comic books, but I’ll buy just about anything else if I see it’s priced so low that I can make an easy profit. You just have to know the difference between “I’m pretty sure I can make a profit on this…” and “I KNOW I can make a profit on this!”.
There are thousands of categories of collectibles, but some of the more popular examples would include coins, stamps and paper money, children’s toys, lunch boxes, old movie memorabilia, comics books, glass and pottery, kitchen collectibles, sports memorabilia, music, cards and paper products.
The types of items I would recommend staying away from are anything manufactured and marketed specifically as collectibles–do they say “collectible” or “collector’s item” somewhere on the ad or package? If so, then chances are they probably aren’t either of those. Some examples of these would be collector plates, commemorative coins that aren’t made of gold or silver, and items made by companies like Danbury Month or Franklin Mint.
For instance, for years Franklin Mint sold a Monopoly game that was advertised as a “limited edition collectible version” for around $650. Five years after I first saw it, they were still selling it, so I had to wonder how “limited” it really was. These days you can pick it up in mint condition for around 150 bucks. They don’t carry it any more, but they do have things like a $50 Jenga game… how much do you suppose that will be selling for a few years from now?
Now, that doesn’t mean you should steer away from those items if you find them USED. If I saw that Monopoly game for 50 bucks at a garage sale, I’d buy it and flip it quickly on eBay.
That leads into another point–you’re almost always better off buying used items for your collectible business than new. It’s hard to tell whether a new item will be popular for the long term, or just have a short-term price spike. You don’t want to be stuck with a large supply of inventory after the bottom has dropped out on it.
It’s almost always better to walk away from a purchase if you’re not sure about it–you’re looking for items for a side business, not a once in a lifetime score, and something else will always come along.
You’ll need to calculate all your expenses when determining what to pay for your inventory. If you’re selling online this is relatively easy–you can find out how much you’ll need to pay in eBay (or other website) fees, plus what percentage you’ll be charged for accepting credit cards. For most online sites, this will work out to be around 15% or so.
If your selling at a physical location this is a little more difficult; if you’re paying $100 to rent a space then it will make a huge difference whether you sell 10 items or 100 that day.
Once you know what you’ll pay in fees, and you know about what your items will sell for, you can decide how much profit you want to make and figure out how much you should pay. For example, I usually try to double my money on items I sell for $75 or less. So if I know I can sell something for $75, then that means the fees will be right around $11. I’ll pocket $64, so I’d want to pay somewhere between $30 and $35 for the item.
You’ll also want to figure out what your time is worth to you. It takes about as much of your time to sell a $75 item online as it does to sell a $5 item, but using my math above I’d be making about $2.10 profit on the $5 item. If it takes me 10 minutes to sell either item (with photographing it, listing it, then packing and shipping), I make $12.60 per hour vs. $192.
Now, that really only applies to online sales–I have no problem selling comic books for $1 when I am set up at a comic book show, but I would never try to sell dollar books online!
Finally, get a price guide for whatever you’re selling, if one exists, but use it as a basic reference rather than a bible–just because it’s in print doesn’t mean it’s always right. More on this in a bit.
Some items that I have found are particularly bad to sell, and would recommend staying away from, are:
- Modern movie posters: Anything from the 1980s on. Unlike vintage posters, these were produced in such huge quantities, and kept in good condition by many people, that there is just not much demand for them
- Sports cards: While there are many extremely valuable cards, there are a hundred times as many cards that are almost worthless. Millions of people were buying cards in the 80s and 90s, and the companies were happy to sell them millions of cards. And the market for cards has shrunk considerably over the years.
- Beanie Babies: Yet another product that people bought tons of thinking they would be worth a fortune, only to find out that so many had flooded the market that anyone who wanted a beanie critter already had one.
- Hummel / Precious Moments / etc.: These are similar to Franklin Mint “collectibles”–they are made in such high quantities that there’s no real rarity to them, and most of the people wanting to sell them (i.e. the people you buy from) want more money than you can get selling them.
- Mass produced animation art: Many companies produce animation “cels” that are simply copies of the actual cels used on screen. So instead of it being a one-of-a-kind item, it’s something mass-produced with thousands of copies, basically the same as a poster.
- Autographs: It’s estimated that at least 60% of the autographed items for sale at any given time, whether they’re sports, comic book, or movie star, are fake. For me, there’s just too much risk involved.
Where Will You Get It?
Once you’ve decided what you’re going to specialize in, where will you buy inventory? You have many options:
- Garage sales and flea markets: This will likely be your best source. In most cases, people either don’t know (or don’t care about) the value of items, or they just want to get rid of stuff to make room. You’ll have a lot more room to haggle at these as well.
- Craigslist (or other online sales sites): You could just browse the listings every now and then, but it’s better to use one of several third-party web sites or phone apps that will alert you when someone posts an ad with the keywords you’re looking for. That way if you spot a deal, you can contact the seller within minutes of it being posted.
Also, don’t just monitor the Craigslist site in your area, spread a wider net. Craigslist has a map-based list of all their sites, and it’s worth monitoring cities within a few hundred miles of you. Obviously, you’ll want to factor in travel costs to your purchase and determine if you can still make a profit.
- eBay: Believe it or not, you can purchase stuff on eBay and re-sell it, again on eBay, and still make a profit. In most cases, this involves finding items that are listed as a Buy It Now rather than an auction–a seller will list something for considerably less than it’s worth, and you can snap it up and turn it around for a profit. You can have eBay email you searches on a daily basis, but these are worthless–most of the times these items will be sold by the time the email gets to you. Again, you need to use a third-party app or web site that will search much more frequently.
Being a programmer myself, I wrote an app that searches eBay for specific keywords every five minutes. I’ve purchased many things at incredible bargains, but even at five minute intervals I’ve missed out on some deals–I’ve seen items sell two minutes after they were listed!
- Facebook for sale groups: If you go to Facebook’s search bar and type in your city name plus “for sale”, you’ll likely find at least a few “online garage sale” groups where users sell their items. The groups are not easy to use, and you can’t set up alerts to search for items, but every now and then I’ll find something worthwhile.
- Antique dealers and malls: You probably won’t have much success at these type of places; most of the items for sale are marked at the absolute highest possible value, and at typical antique malls the owner of the booth is not present for you to haggle with. They’re worth checking every now and then if you’re already in the area, but I don’t spend too much time in these places.
- Running ads: For me, this is how I get the majority of my inventory. You can run ads on Craigslist, in the local newspaper, or in one of the local “Buy & Sell” papers. I’ve found I get a better response if my ad sounds like a collector looking to buy, rather than a dealer–I think people naturally think a dealer will offer them next to nothing.
- Consignment: You can offer to take collectibles on consignment, but be sure that it’s worth your time to do so. If your consignment fee is 30%, and the item only sells for $5 or so, it’s probably not worth your time.
Also, be sure you have the item in your hands before putting it up for sale. You don’t want to sell something on eBay only to find out that the owner has decided not to sell it, or has sold it to someone else!
Whatever route you choose, be polite in your transactions! The people that you buy from should never end up regretting selling to you–you never know when they could refer someone else your way. And if you have the chance, make friends with other dealers as well, even if they are your direct competitors. If they pass on a purchase they may let you know about it, and sometimes they may need to get rid of a large chunk of their inventory at a good price.
Finally, don’t go into debt to start your collectibles business. There’s no sense in running up your credit cards (and paying huge interest rates) buying merchandise when you’re first starting out. Start small, and re-invest the profits into more merchandise.
Where/How Will You Sell It?
Now that you have decided what to sell, and have started to accumulate inventory, where are you actually going to sell it? We’re assuming you won’t have a physical store–at that point it becomes more than a side job producing a second stream of income. So more than likely your collectibles business will sell items in one of three venues: online, in a rented space like an antique mall, or at live events like flea markets or conventions.
If you’re going to sell online, then you have a choice between setting up your own website, or using a shopping/auction site like eBay or Shopify. I would recommend against trying to sell things on your own web site–it’s next to impossible for you to get the kind of traffic to it that you’ll need to make a business. You can get 5,000 people looking at your item in a week on eBay, and you might be lucky to get 50 views in that same week on your own web site.
Another online venue is Craigslist, or one of the other “local sale” type of web sites. I do run ads on Craigslist, but sales are few and far between–most of the people using these sites are either looking for bargains (and not willing to pay a competitive price), or other dealers looking for more inventory.
Your next option is to have a physical space that you rent out in a larger store, like an antique mall. If you do your research ahead of time, and get in a good location, this can be profitable. Observe the mall for several weeks (or even months) before you decide to move in. Do you see traffic going through it, or is it usually empty? Do the booths frequently change to new owners? That’s a good sign that the previous owner wasn’t selling anything and gave up.
Be sure to have a clear understanding of the pricing–you’ll be paying a monthly fee to rent the space, then a percentage of every sale–many times in the neighborhood of 30%. Those costs have to be taken into account when your price your merchandise. Also, you’ll likely lose some products, due to theft, items being moved to other booths, and price stickers being removed or falling off (so the mall owner’s don’t know who it belongs to).
Finally, you can set up at flea markets, antique & collectible shows, or specialized conventions (like comic book and pop culture conventions). These are usually relatively cheap, as low as $10 to rent a booth space, and have the potential for a large crowd of people to see your merchandise in a single day.
If you have a choice between a show that specializes in what you offer versus a general show or flea market, the specialty show will almost always result in higher sales.
My choice of these three options is split between selling online and at live events–I run my comic book business on eBay, and sell at a live event (usually a comic convention) every 1-2 months.
The next step is knowing how to price your items. You can start by referring to a price guide, but the prices listed are really just a way of getting an idea of what to charge. For example, I sell comic books, and the industry standard price guide is The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide. It gives me a good idea of what comics are worth as compared to other comics, but I can’t just sell my books for the price they list. For one thing, most other dealers at conventions and on eBay sell comics for about half of what they are listed for in the guide. Second, there are comics that are just so unpopular they can’t be sold, and there’s no way to know that from a guide. It may list a comic as being worth $4, but I can’t even get 25 cents for it when I try to sell it. An item is only worth what the buyer is willing to pay, regardless of what any price guide says.
These days the best way to determine market value for something is to look at sold items (not current listings…) on eBay. This will show you what people around the country have paid for your item over the past few months, and give you a good idea of what you’ll be able to sell it for. Like it or not, your prices have to be competitive with eBay–in most cases, someone is not going to pay you $25 for an item that they can buy from eBay for $15 including shipping.
Now, this only applies to collectibles where there are several for sale at any given time. If you’ve got something so rare that there are none currently for sale online anywhere, then you’ll just have to experiment. Price it high to start, you can always go lower!
So once you’ve got everything priced to sell and listed online (or out in your booth), you just sit back and wait for the profits to roll in, right? Well, not quite. If you’re selling online, you may need to have several hundred items listed before you start seeing steady sales. And you’ll still be spending time hunting for more merchandise, shipping what you’ve sold, and just building connections. But as you learn, and your business grows, so will your profits!
How about you? Do you have a favorite type of collectible you could see yourself starting a business with?