When people go shopping for household staples, they want a deal. When they enter an antique shop, they want a story.
That’s something that Nicholas Hess, the owner of The Printer’s Cabinet & Curiosities in Oil City, PA (as well as an ongoing pop-up store New York City), knows well. His eye for color, pattern, form, and function is matched by his understanding that the context of an antique item sometimes matters as much as the item itself.
Putting things in greater context is a major part of how Hess makes his livelihood. He combines his flair for presentation and a knack for storytelling with his knowledge of human psychology to make his many one-of-a-kind pieces—and his store in general—more compelling.
“Presentation and curation are the difference,” says Hess. “Atmosphere can change the way people view a store and how much they want to spend.”
There are a few different ways Hess cultivates a more appealing aesthetic for both his store as a whole and his individual pieces, which vary in price from a few dollars into the four digit range.
Hess notes that one of the major differences between his store and chain gift shops is his knowledge of how to present his pieces.
“Thrift stores might have a necklace for $3.99, but I can sell that item for more, all because I’m taking it out of the sterile environment where it’s not displayed at all. It’s lying in a tray under harsh light and a drop ceiling,” Hess explains. “I love those places, but the people working there don’t necessarily know the value of certain items—and they have a pricing system that prevents them from taking advantage of it.”
The difference between the presentation seen at more corporate secondhand stores and Hess’ isn’t just to “pretty it up” and make the ambiance more appealing—though that’s part of it. Hess has identified that customers need to see how an item, be it a piece of jewelry or an item of clothing, might actually look in their home.
“For my store, I’m going to take that piece of jewelry, clean it, fix it if it’s broken, tighten it, then put it on a really beautiful book, or with an antique bust, under a light, surrounded by other beautiful objects. Then people can say, ‘This is what it looks like when hanging up, this is how it hangs or how it sparkles under the light,” he explains.
Hess has noticed this pattern with all kinds of items. A vintage dress that sat in his store for months didn’t sell until he put it on a mannequin. It helped customers visualize how the dress looks on an actual person.
“If I have a piece that’s expensive and hasn’t been moved, I know that I need to pull it out and put it somewhere where everyone can see it. They’ll be drawn to it and it’ll sell within a week—doesn’t matter how long it was in the store before that.
Good presentation isn’t just about selling one particular item. Rather, making the store’s ambiance more appealing can have a big effect on customer habits. While some of the variables of environment are out of the hands of retailers—like how when it’s too hot during the summer, walk-in customers are fewer and farther between—there are ways to increase customer attention once they’re through your doors.
Hess has found that cultivating the bold and curious nature of his shop with small touches, like flowers, candles, and cookies, makes a notable difference.
“Another way to increase the bottom line I’ve noticed is having fresh-picked flowers, or a candle burning, or fresh cookies out, people buy more. As soon as you evoke a memory—like the smell of a candle that reminds them of their past—they calm down, feel at ease, and then they feel more comfortable and look around, take in things,” he says. “It’s that they trust their environment and surroundings, which in turn means they feel more interested in buying something.”
Interestingly, Hess has seen more success with flowers he’s picked wild—out of fields or even ditches—than those he bought from a store. He attributes that to the vibe he’s worked to create inside the shop.
“My customers don’t want lilies and roses. They want twigs and hydrangeas,” he says.
There are plenty of stories about big brands hiking up the prices of their products, then concocting a story to justify the price increase. A good story does make shelling out cash for something more palatable, but for shop owners like Hess, the story comes first.
“The more story you add to an item, the higher the value of it can be,” Hess says. “If I tell you, ‘Here’s an necklace with a high price tag, would you like to buy it?’ You’d probably say ‘No, that’s too expensive.’ But if I say, ‘I bought this necklace in a tiny little shop in Paris right next to the Seine, it was raining outside, I talked to the owner for 25 minutes, and he got it from…’ then you’re falling in love with that piece, because there’s a story behind it.”
What a story does is provide context for the potential new owner. Spending money on an item that’s mass-produced in a factory and can probably be bought on Amazon for cheaper isn’t too appealing. Spending money on something that has a background, a unique origin, a path that can be traced beyond the warehouse shelf it sat on a few days earlier is much more compelling.
Of course, anything can have a story… If the owner thinks one up. For Hess, that’s not the case, and he prefers it that way.
“I think the trick is to have true stories—I don’t make up anything,” he says. “I go above and beyond to make sure I have the appropriate story. That makes things more valuable.”
When Hess first opened his shop in 2013, he looked to other places—Instagram and eBay, local shops, and stores abroad—for inspiration.
“I learned a lot from visiting stores in Europe, where it’s all about atmosphere. Ceilings with chandeliers, lighting, very expensive pieces—things that make you feel like you’re in a different social class, like you’re shopping somewhere you don’t belong,” he says. “But then there are less expensive pieces scattered about, and when you find something there in your price range, it can blow you away.”
Hess applied this strategy to his store in the form of clustering less expensive items around more expensive ones, to better show customers the range of prices they could be spending. This is a fairly common practice in merchandising called price anchoring, and it can play out in one of two ways for Hess’ customers:
They can be drawn in by the higher-end item, only to settle for a less expensive piece nearby that they might not have considered at all. Or it can be the starting point for a conversation in which Hess explains the better value of a pricier piece.
“Customers sometimes come in looking for a silver or gold ring—say a promise ring with stones,” says Hess. “They can usually tell that sterling silver rings, with fake diamonds, look less legitimate. Then when I talk about the difference between gold and silver, about how they both fluctuate with the economy but that gold is going to hold its value more than sterling, they’ll usually be more drawn to the gold ring.”
Just as with telling the provenance of an item, explaining why it’s a better purchase in the long run has helped Hess tremendously.
“9 out of 10 times, even if they came in wanting to spend under $50, they leave with the more expensive ring, but also the feeling that they made a better deal,” says Hess.
There’s something magical about a good antique shop. There’s a uniqueness that no big box store or chain could ever hope to replicate. That’s by design, not happy accident: If stores like The Printer’s Cabinet & Curiosities can’t beat Amazon and Target on prices, they’ll win on personality.
Cultivating that personality and making everything work as a cohesive whole—rather than rows and rows of similar items, with only a price placard to explain how one model differs from another—is how Hess turns thrift store throwaways from around the world into antique shop gold. Keep that in mind when writing the story of your own shop and the items you sell in it.