In my former career in the banking business, ‘disintermediation’ was the term we used to describe the dwindling of the cash the bank held on deposit for customers, flowing as it would from time to time from bank directed investments- usually money market accounts- toward customer-directed investments. Hardly exclusive to banking, in simple terms the phenomenon would accurately be described as cutting out the middleman, and in these days of internet trading, disintermediation is an occurrence every retail merchant must be able to cope with.
I suppose the most immediate effect has been the shrinking bricks and mortar environment, with those merchants who represent a variety of product lines finding that their stores are used largely for display, with the shopper making the eventual purchase online and frequently directly from the manufacturer. For the rest of us, particularly in the art and antiques world, where our stock in trade is not just distinctive but in most cases unique, one would presume this wouldn’t happen. However, as a friend and colleague whose speciality is decorative boxes pointed out, his competition for sales can come from bizarre places, Target being one of them. Although we wish it were otherwise, not all of our prospective customers are of shall we say a connoisseurial bent. Say for instance one sought a Regency period decorative box to use to discreetly store the TV remote- this is a common contemporary use!- highly likely one will come up with something in period style and, viewed on the screen- or more frequently these days the iphone- the style example for $26 will look just the ticket, and the $2,600 period example, albeit fairly priced for what it is, will be given the go by. But more than that, when searching online, the browser will be met with a panoply of different items, far removed from what might have been the focus of their search, and like as not their ultimate purchase itself equally as removed as the apple is from the orange.
That’s a lot of the problem the trade faces, with internet shopping largely determined by the key words merchants include to describe their products. Nothing governs this, and the result is a fragmentation of the customer’s online search, carrying them very far afield from what it is that they originally had in mind when the search was contemplated. But even when the search remains relatively focused- using the Regency box example- price shopping becomes the order of the day, and the independent merchant in the antiques trade finds himself competing head to head with mass market merchandisers. And the result? The better capitalized merchant will survive, and the independent merchant will go the way of the buggy whip.
With the struggle the trade continues to undergo despite the improving worldwide economy, the general presumption- or at least the opinion we’ve heard most often- is that tastes have changed, and there’s less of a passion for period material. We tend to discount this, as our buyer demographic has remained basically constant since we established our retail gallery nearly 12 years ago- the buyers are basically the same age, in the same lines of work, and in the same geographic areas. What has changed is the increase we’ve experienced in the online, price driven ‘spot’ buyer of less expensive material- people who are unlikely to ever darken our gallery threshold.
What all this leads me to believe is that the online sales phenomenon that is quickly displacing bricks and mortar, is also fragmenting the dollars normally spent on antiques. The disintermediation that is an inherent feature of online purchases also exposes the buyer to a dizzying panoply of items to purchase. What might be assumed to be, with an improved economy, more money to spend on antiques, is, to the detriment of the antiques trade, hugely fragmented by a disproportionately larger number of items to spend that money on.