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VOL. 43 | NO. 29 | Friday, July 19, 2019

Millennials don't want your prized 'heirlooms'

Too much supply, too little demand as boomers downsize

By Joe Morris

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Everyone loves Grandma’s mahogany-inlaid sideboard. Stories were told of the horrors of moving it when she wanted to polish the floor. Its underbelly was a favored hide-and-seek spot.

Once upon a time, those memories would have sparked a battle amongst the heirs over who would get the piece with Grandma’s passing. Now, chances are the hulking beast will go to a stranger on the cheap.

That’s because tastes change, and that means items that were once in high demand can now be difficult to unload.

Exhibit 1: Dining-room sets. Many family battles have been fought for the silver flatware for 12 or more place settings and the accompanying china and crystal stemware. Now it’s about smaller furniture that dates from specific periods or unique items that are highly collectible.

Those shifting tastes – and the rise of online shopping – hasn’t skipped the estate-sale world and its cousins, antique resellers and consignment shops. Those in the business say they have to follow consumer trends just as much as anyone dealing in street-facing retail if they’re going to achieve their goal of clearing out a home.

“Prices are really low for plateware, china and furniture,” says Susan Morgan, owner of Dogwood Estate Sales in Nashville. “I’ve been doing this for 11 years, and I’d say that’s the area that has changed the most in terms of demand.

“But on the side of what’s stable, functional items always sell – people go to the garage, tool shed or kitchen first when they come to a sale.”

Dogwood Estate Sales priced this solid cherry dining table and chairs set in a a Nolensville home at $595. Younger buyers in smaller homes have little demand for furniture on this scale.

-- Photos By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

“People, especially millennials, have really gotten into midcentury modern furniture, as well as vintage clothing,” says Shannon Merritt, owner of M&M Estate Sales. Based in Union County, Merritt says she roams from Bristol to Chattanooga and all points in between, so she sees many different communities with similar trends.

“Big, wood furniture just isn’t selling well, especially big dining-room sets,” she adds. “I see some beautiful pieces, but people are buying smaller homes now and there’s just no room. If you don’t have a dining room, or only have a small dining area, you really don’t need a table and chairs for 12.”

But, she notes, “the dainty things, collectibles, usually will have a market. And any time there is vintage costume jewelry, people are going to go straight for it.”

Merritt, who is in her early 20s, got into estate sales after working for an auction company. She found she had an eye for the unusual items, she says, and because of her age has an idea what might move in her peer group, as well as the millennials and baby boomers who frequent estate sales.

“Nine times out of 10, we were handling auctions of estates where the children who’d inherited just didn’t want to deal with all the stuff in the house,” she explains.

“I thought it was just neat, all the cool things you could find as you went through to make an inventory. I learned some good lessons early, like everybody wants kitchen gadgets and power tools, no matter how old they are.

Figurines like these are now as old-fashioned as they look.

“I also learned that there are collectors out there for specific kinds of china and glassware, so if I find those pieces I can go straight to those people and see if there’s an interest.”

There’s also a certain amount of expectation-setting, especially when the owner or heirs think they have a priceless treasure. That might once have been the case, but the reality is the value of said object has come down with a thud.

“People will call us and talk about the Mikasa china or the Chippendale bedroom set, but the bulk of money is coming from the smaller items, the $5 and $10 regular household items,” says Jerry Evans, owner of Finders Keepers Estate Sales in Chattanooga. “Bath towels, fitted sheets, pots and pans, cookie sheets, power tools, all those things will find buyers.

“And people talk about their parents who never throw anything away, but sometimes that pays off. We recently had a home with a box of Pez dispensers in it. I would have figured I’d get a quarter a pop for them, and it turns out a collector wanted them all.

“I think the box of those got $500, and a Hummel figurine went for much, much less.”

Online portal markets

While estate sales don’t lack for physical shoppers, they also have become a significant online presence. That’s because estate sales companies, like most every other retail vendor, have websites to highlight the contents of each sale, and also tinker with pricing during an event as it unfolds over a few days. That enables them to leverage that middle space they occupy in order to tap into both the casual buyer and professional reseller pools.

Susan Morgan, owner of Dogwood Estate Sales, works on pricing albums and CDs in preparation for a sale.

“Some people are collecting specific things, and so I keep on top of what’s hot with collectibles and then place that item or group fairly high up on the sale’s page,” Morgan says. “And a lot of my best customers are dealers, so while I am trying to reach that in-person end user on the first day I also know that the resellers are going to be looking then as well as on the second day.

“Based on how the first day goes, we can look at how things are marked and adjust.”

That’s because resellers need to make a certain profit and have a different business model than in-person estate sales agents.

“The online resellers are more patient when it comes to waiting out trends,” Merritt points out. “They are willing to sit on something for six months or more, and so they buy something from me and then store it.

“I can look at their sites and see what they are charging, so then I can price accordingly so there’s some room for them to make a profit. That way we are still selling the item and doing it quickly so the client is taken care of, and also helping that other client, the online reseller, keep their business going as well.

“The goal is to get that house emptied out, and this is one way to make that happen.”

For example, doing both online and then physical reselling led to Chattanooga’s Evans attending more and more auctions and estate sales, and eventually to his own company. Because of that history, he knows how to market to those online sellers and still keep to a very specific timeline for each sale.

“I’ll look up something online and see that it’s $300,” Evans adds. “If I have it priced at that on the first day the online people aren’t going to come after it. But on the second day, when it’s half price, they can buy it and make a profit.

“If you know how to make that work, you can build a decent clientele from eBay sellers. Id’ say about 10 percent of our customers are those people.”

Earlier estate sales

Another major change in the estate-sale market is the rise of “living estate” sales, or those that occur while the property owner is very much alive.

In some cases, it’s a senior citizen looking to liquidate a houseful of stuff before moving into a smaller place or assisted-living community. Other times it’s people nearing or at retirement who want to declutter and avoid a headache for their heirs.

In those cases, and as is often the case with true estate sales, particular pieces of jewelry and other heirlooms have been identified in the will as going to specific people, so they don’t wind up in the sale. Even so, there are plenty of choice items, Morgan says.

“Those sales where someone has been in a house for 60-odd years are fewer and further between now, and they are the fun ones,” she says. “But even in smaller estates there are treasures to find. Even though the market is down for them now, good antique pieces, no matter how big, will usually sell; they just need to be genuine, in great condition and marked. Just about any item of good quality will also find a buyer.”

The downsizing market is one that Nashville’s BLVD Estate Sales has been expanding into, says owner Lee Anne Patterson, who points out that the influx of new residents into Nashville has also boosted sale attendance in the region.

“We do a lot of moving sales, and people wanting to change up the look they have; maybe go from traditional to contemporary,” Patterson says. “In the case of an older couple or person, they know the kids don’t really want those ‘heirloom’ items any more because they don’t do a lot of formal entertaining where you get out the china and crystal and sterling.

“Nobody wants silver plate any more. The jewelry has usually been willed, so that’s not on the table. They simply want to get rid of what they have for something new, or just to have less.”

Buyers are younger now, and so what is antique to them is different from what ‘antique’ usually means to the baby boomer set, Patterson points out.

“Someone in their 20s or 30s thinks of the 1950s and 60s as antique,” she explains. “They want midcentury modern, and maybe some later versions of art deco and art nouveau. And they are fitting out apartments and first houses, so they want to know where the kitchen and garage are so they can grab bowls and tools.

“They want usable stuff that they know is available cheaper at an estate sale than it would be in a retail setting.”

Patterson, who has been in the estate sales business for almost 20 years, says it’s about identifying trends and picking and choosing clients. She seldom moves outside a 5- or 10-mile radius of the Green Hills area of Nashville, she says, simply because she doesn’t need to.

“I refer more sales to a lot of my colleagues than I take, just because I have been fortunate to get to a point where I can pick and choose,” she continues.

“The market is very strong, even if what’s selling continues to change. And the way Nashville has grown, we have more people coming to sales and looking at them online. I hear from people who think that I can do a sale two or three weeks out, and right now I am booking three months ahead.

“Most of us pretty much limit it to one sale a weekend; it’s just too much stress if you do more, even if you have the staff. You don’t want to spread yourself too thin and not do a good job. I believe we all want to do each sale as though it was for someone in our own family and do it the way I would want it done for my family, or myself.”

All that said, it’s vital to remember that trends are just that – trends. They change. In other words, for those who despair of ever turning a profit from their beloved china cabinet, take heart.

“That’s all going to come back,” Merritt predicts. “I’m already seeing some interest in things like milk glass. People are going to want bigger furniture again, too. You can always tell what’s going to come back by just going and looking at what’s on the shelves at stores. If you see some dishes with patterns from the 1950s and 1060s, or older ones, then it makes sense that people are going to want the original.”

And the cabinet itself? Get crafty.

“I’ve noticed a lot of really nice, antique, solid-wood furniture is getting bought cheap, and then painted and distressed,” Evans says. “People seem to have taken a liking to that look.

“I might sell that Chippendale buffet for $275 where a few years ago it would have gone for more than twice that. And that buyer may change it up and then sell it for a lot more money.

“It’s just how the market works.”

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