The family-owned Western Trading Post has a keen eye for the future, despite most of their products being rooted in the past.
When it comes to celebrating the past, especially the glory days of the Wild West, perhaps no one knows how to do that better than Western Trading Post, a family-owned auction and gallery specializing in Western collectibles, vintage jewelry, art, antiques, firearms, and more. But despite their products being rooted in the past, the company has a keen eye for the future. We talked with one of the business owners, Jim Olson, about how best to navigate the current and future market while honoring history.
Tell us about your brand/store style – what does style mean to you?
We are an auction and a gallery, so we do both, and we specialize in Western Americana and vintage turquoise jewelry. We look at it as that we are perpetuating history and keeping it alive, and most of the customers appreciate the fact of something made years ago that typically, I’m not saying it’s made better, but the craftsmen maybe paid a little bit more attention to detail back then. Now there are fewer craftsmen. Back then everything was made by craftsmen, and there was not a whole lot of mass-produced stuff. Over time the mass-produced [market] has taken over, and the craftsmen are fewer and farther between.
Do you feel buyer confidence has returned?
[Business] is really good. We’re busier than ever. We’ve been really blessed.
Has the company’s digital strategy evolved over the last year? What worked well?
We focus more on digital now than ever before. Fortunately for us, we were in the online space before this whole [pandemic] started. We’ve been selling online since 2014, so we already kind of had a leg up on the game, and whenever everybody got shut down we just shut the front doors and went to focusing 100 percent online, and so that was really good. [We sell] on certain auction platforms that we’ve dealt with for several years, but the main thing is our own website. Eighty to 90 percent of what we sell, sells on our own website.
What is your best tip for online growth/engaging with your audience?
Social is huge. Having a good online following is definitely important, but I think that you need to figure out who your customers are and where they’re at, because everyone is online. You’ve got to figure out where they’re at and how to get to them online, and that’s the most important thing. Don’t be afraid to advertise online, too. You’ve got to spend a lot of money advertising otherwise you’re just at the bottom of page 35 of Google results, and you’ll never get seen. The worst place you can be as a retailer is the first spot on page two of Google. If you don’t know or don’t want to learn SEO, you need to pay somebody to do it.
Do you have a brick-and-mortar presence? If so, how has the re-opening process gone – have you changed anything about the store?
When the whole pandemic happened we basically shut the front door and worked in here behind the scenes online, and even now everything has opened back up again, but our model has changed from what it was before. We are still 80 percent digital and 20 percent catering to people that walk in the door, less maybe. Our traffic is definitely not what it used to be. I think what happened, last year sped up the online buying habits that the public would have gotten to eventually, but sped it up by 10 years, so we had 10 years of growth in a few-months period with consideration to online. A lot of our customers that used to walk in the store and shop around, we’re still selling to them, but we don’t see them anymore. They’re buying online, even ones that live right here in the same town, and so our walk-in traffic is a fraction of what it used to be.
Are you planning to set up at trade show events this year? If so, which ones?
Before the last year, we would do a handful of the bigger shows a year, tradeshows, specific Old West shows and stuff like that, and then we have a booth at the NFR every year, and so we used to do that. This year, we have been to a couple of [shows] this summer that we had prepaid for a couple of years ago, and they were just way down. There was a lot of buying and selling going on, but the amount of people there was a fraction of what it was. So I think that there’s still a large segment of the public that’s not comfortable about getting out in large groups yet. A lot of the vendors that probably used to go to a lot of these shows are no longer in business, so the couple of tradeshows that we’ve been to this summer have been good but a lot smaller, and I don’t know if that’s going to continue or not. Our thoughts are that we’re going to continue to focus digitally and online, because that is working so well for us. I think trade shows definitely have a future. They’re viable, but I don’t know honestly for how long. I think what you’ll eventually see is just like in almost any market over the last 30 or 40 years, is there will be a handful of the bigger shows that will thrive, and a lot of the smaller stuff will go by the wayside, because the traffic won’t be there to support it. There will be consolidation in the industry I believe.
Which products are selling well right now?
In the last year and a half, anything that we sell needs to be easy to ship, because [when] selling online, shipping is a huge factor. Things that are easily shippable are easier to sell for us. The bigger, bulkier, and fragile stuff that we used to handle a little bit more, and we’d just tell people, ‘you’ve got to come pick it up,’ that stuff has not done as well unless it’s just a real special piece. So it needs to be easy to ship. What we deal with, the two things that we are selling like you can’t believe, are guns and jewelry. We’re a licensed FFL [Federal Firearms License] dealer, and most of our guns are more along the collectible line, but we can sell anything, and we’ve had just some huge collections of guns come in. And then turquoise jewelry has also just gone crazy. People are buying it like crazy.
What advice would you give to Western businesses in the current market?
I would say the most important thing that they can do is pay attention to their internet presences right now, otherwise they’ll go by the wayside. There are certain industries that we used to think didn’t necessarily need to have an online presence, and that’s just not true anymore. A few years ago I used to tell people things like barber shops and restaurants didn’t need to worry about having an online presence, but retailers do. Well that’s completely flipped. I don’t say that anymore, because if you’re in the restaurant business for example, and you don’t have an app that somebody can put on their phone and order or [make] reservations or whatever, pretty soon you won’t be in the restaurant business anymore. I think that an online presence is extremely important for any business. I don’t know of any business that it’s not important to anymore.
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Photography: (All images) courtesy Bobby Olson