Unique items: Finding inventory gold

Estate sales, auctions and antique stores can offer unique items

Terry Turner, CERP, owner of All Occasions Party Rentals in Knoxville, Tenn., always is on the hunt for something unique for his rental operation. Where does he go to find it? Estate sales, auctions and antique stores.

“I really enjoy going — not just for the opportunity to find a deal, but just as much for the atmosphere and excitement. I was taught to always look for opportunities to grow your inventory. Antique stores offer products that can be ‘one of a kind.’ When looking for a niche, this can be a good place to start. Early on, auctions were a way I was able to expand my inventory and do so with limited capital,” he says.

Heidi Whitcomb, CERP, co-owner of Ventura Rental Party Center in Ventura, Calif., also has been on a quest to find interesting items that make her rental operation different. Like Turner, she and her employees have found that estate sales can be perfect venues, particularly for vintage items, which continue to be hot in her area.

“The vintage look — also known as rustic or country-chic — is eclectic, warm and homey. It looks like you cleaned out your aunt’s china closet,” Whitcomb says. “People don’t care if things are matchy-matchy, which is good, because at estate sales you normally can find only a single item or just a couple of items. Typically, this would be difficult because, in the rental world, we usually need to have 12, 24 and 36 pieces of an item.”

Recently, Whitcomb and Georgia Robinson, her sales manager, bought a vintage collection. “These were all large pieces, including wood trunks, old suitcases and old, vintage typewriters. We negotiated the price and I bought the entire collection. We’ll buy just about any unique item if the cost makes sense and it meets the needs of our customers,” she says.

Turner continues to turn to auctions for “bread-and-butter rental items where the ‘used’ condition doesn’t matter as much,” he says. For instance, he has purchased storage boxes and transport cases. He even has looked for staging, tent frames and tables, if they are in good shape. The antique/farm house look is big in his area, too. Sometimes he finds décor items or centerpieces that fit that look, but he has to be careful because “they may be past their useful life,” he says.

Finding an item to fit a hot trend isn’t the only reason to head to your local flea market or nearby estate sale. Sometimes there is a specific customer request that will create the need.

“Recently, we had a customer who had a jewelry show and needed jewelry cases. This is not something we would normally carry, but we went out and purchased eight cases at an auction,” Whitcomb says, noting that the cases worked perfectly for his event.

Other times it is a need to find something “impactful,” says John Dunne, CERP, vice president of The Meetinghouse Cos. in Elmhurst, Ill. “Our owner, Robert Sivek, [CERP], travels to antique stores and always looks for very unique, one-of-a-kind, very impactful
items as a way to enhance the equipment we already have.”

That has translated into everything from fire department carts and ancestral tribal carvings to 9-ft.-high, hand-carved wooden giraffes. “We look for pieces that will reinforce or add value to a theme, or make a statement. For instance, with the giraffes, we have used them with artificial or live trees at the entrance to a ballroom, making them a focal point,” Dunne says.

Whitcomb has used most of the items she has found at auctions as accent pieces for weddings or special events. “We have used wood carts as flower carts or used trunks to hold gifts or hold scarves that the bride plans to give away,” she says. “People see pictures on Pinterest, Style Me Pretty and TheKnot.com regarding how to use these pieces. If we know what their theme is and they don’t know how to display something, we’ll suggest a piece that fits into their theme that could be used to display this or that.”

To market these types of unique items to customers, Whitcomb says they have a “vintage collection” in the showroom and added a “Vintage Rentals” link on the company’s website.

Turner also offers “setup areas in our showroom for new products. We may tweet a photo and put a photo on our Facebook site. We also try to showcase them at our bridal shows and displays,” he says.

Photography is a mainstay for The Meetinghouse Cos., too. “We’ll photograph how we have used these items and highlight them appropriately. These photographs can be our best sales tool,” Dunne says. “The trick is to make it effective for the entire sales team so they will buy into it, too.”

The question for many is when to invest in antique items. “I thought that the vintage look might be over, but it still seems to be moving forward. I think it will be hot for at least another year,” Whitcomb says. “Therefore I wouldn’t invest a lot more as I think it’s on the downhill slide. However, many of our pieces will hold their value. We could resell them if need be.”

“We always try to stay ahead of the curve and look for items that will help update or revitalize our inventory, or help us morph from one theme to another,” Dunne says. “You have to be open-minded and follow your hunch. If you say, ‘Wow that’s cool,’ it’s a good hunch to follow.”

The key is to “pay attention to what is popular in your area,” Whitcomb adds. “If it is a big enough trend, you have to decide whether you want to invest. If you think it will be around for a while, invest a little money and try to make some money while it is happening.”

“Be creative,” Turner adds. “Let your customers tell you what they are looking for and what they want. Get your money out of it as soon as possible because you cannot replace it.”