How to shop for vintage retail props like a pro

Sarah Wilson is a professional retail prop buyer who helps WBC source retail display and merchandising props that you’re able to buy online for use in merchandising. Sarah has a particular passion for 20th Century furniture, vintage props and decorative items. It’s a passion that propels her out of bed between 1am – 3am, four days a week in search of beautifully designed objects. The props she finds are in turn used across the UK retail market for seasonal displays and window dressing. Not all of us have time to get up that early.

As your retail resource, it’s one of the reasons our web store includes a specially curated Props & Decoration section that you can shop online direct. But for those interested in the life of prop buyer, we asked Sarah to give us her top tips on what to bargain hunt and how to shop for vintage retail props like a pro.

Q & A with a professional WBC’s retail prop & merchandising buyer

Sometimes when I enter a second-hand shop I’m so overwhelmed that I freeze on the spot. What is the best way to approach a flea market/second hand shopping?

A lot of second hand shops are so full it’s difficult to see the wood for the trees. That can be quite alarming in terms of visual merchandising! Have a good idea of what you’re looking for before you start shopping. Questions to always ask yourself are:

  • What do you need the prop to do?
  • Is it a decorative item helping you create a theme?
  • Do you need to display product on it or create display height etc?
  • Does the prop need to be shop ready or are you happy to refurbish it yourself?
  • What is your budget?

What’s the difference between a vintage market and an antique dealer?
Which should I look out for retail props?

Antique shops generally have carefully curated items that have been refurbished to be ‘shop/ready’. This along with all the associated costs of a shop, means that antique shops are typically more expensive than flea markets. The advantage is you’ll be able to ask questions and have time to make a purchase decision.

Props from a flea market will typically be fresh from the barn, house or factory clearance complete with dirt and rust etc.  These will be sold ‘as seen’ and you won’t be able to return the item if you later discover a fault. These props will be cheaper but you’ll need to assess how long it will take you to clean or refurbish them.

Antique fairs like Ardingly (www.iacf.co.uk) will have a mix of the two and it’s possible to get good value refurbished props. Remember, you’ll need to take cash to flea markets and antique fairs. It’s rare for stall holders to have card processing facilities.


What is always on your hunt list?

I always look out for reasonably priced items for the standard range of vintage props on the WBC website. The WBC showroom gives us an opportunity for one-off props, so if you’re in the market it’s worth making an appointment to visit. For the showroom props I’m looking for beautifully designed but functional items. Today items tend to be cheap, functional and disposable with little resource thrown at design. In the past, functional objects were relatively very expensive so were made with good quality materials for longevity. They tended to have a lot of resource spent on design, to make functional look beautiful.

How do you talk a dealer down on price? How much below asking is fair to request?

Occasionally the asking price is reasonable. Sometimes I’m happy to pay without question, but it’s generally acceptable to haggle at antique fairs and flea markets. Go prepared by having a good idea of what an item’s worth.  The simplest opening gambit is to ask ‘What’s your best price please?’.  If the best price is still slightly above your budget, then ask ‘would you be able to take £X?’. Not all dealers will be willing to negotiate and haggle, so be polite in this instance.

When you really want an item and it’s within your budget, buy it. Buyers snap up desirable and profitable items in minutes, so don’t hesitate. On the other hand, if it’s beyond the price you’ve set yourself, be prepared to walk away. Overpriced items tend not to see well. When you’re leaving it’s worth asking the dealer if they don’t mind you making ‘a cheeky offer’. If they’ve had the item a while and really don’t want to go home with it again, you can sometimes get an item half price.

Do antique dealers do discounts for trade customers?

Trade discounts don’t exist as everyone is ‘trade’ at antique fairs. Larger discounts are typically available the more you buy. At antique shops, it’s always worth asking if there’s anything that can be done on the price. Typically if an item is new stock then a discount won’t be available but sometimes larger discounts are available if they’ve had the item a while and want to get rid of it.

Any kind of ‘junk’ we should be avoiding?

When buying wooden props always check for evidence of wood worm, common in soft woods such as pine.

Avoid collectibles. Retail props are about creating a look so you want to avoid items that are rare or have a collectors value.  A very similar item which doesn’t have an all important name can cost a fraction of the price.

What are your favourite markets in the UK?

In the South London area my favourite markets are Ardingly and Sunbury antiques market at Kempton racecourse.

 You seem to pay a premium in London, is it worth travelling further afield?

Surprisingly the markets around London are the best value in my experience. The most expensive markets I’ve been to are in the West Country.  Personally my advice would be to stick to your closest IACF market and to your local flea/antique markets.

To shop WBC’s collection of props and decorations visit wbc.co.uk/props

Further reading:

WBC retail Prop Shop launches on eBay
The Prop Shop: Give your shop display a facelift

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