|By Barbara Miller Beem
One quirky name. Two guys who had no idea what an antique mall was. Brick and mortar. While this scenario might appear to be an unlikely formula for success, the Brass Armadillo Antique Malls continue to thrive, overcoming obstacles and surmounting industry setbacks. The key? From the beginning, a solid foundation was established, thanks to sensible business acumen on the part of Dave Briddle and Larry Gottula.
Serious businessmen and not antique professionals, the pair has, from the start, applied sound principles to what might be described as an antique empire, working the same way in which they would approach any retail operation, certainly not as a hobby. And even as they continue to take a hands-on approach to management, “We try to stay out of the dealers’ business,” Briddle said.
As the story goes, the year was 1992. Briddle and Gottula had just finished a real estate deal and were having lunch in Kansas City. One of them looked out the window and saw an antique mall. “What’s an antique mall?” they asked each other and decided to go check it out. After all, they had three hours to kill. A crash course in the antique industry followed, resulting in the pair deciding to open a mall in Des Moines. They hired a consultant to select a catchy name (they liked the idea of incorporating some kind of animal) and soon after, opened the doors to a 20,000-square-foot mall. Two years later, they built what they now call their “prototype” mall in Omaha, with the stated objective to bring “advanced marketing, business discipline, and a standardized approach to antique retailing.”
Today, the Brass Armadillo consists of six large malls, each located near an interstate highway, with one mall located in Denver, Des Moines, Kansas City, and Omaha, and two in Phoenix. Combined, the malls encompass nearly one-quarter-million square feet, and if there is not a lot of brick and mortar involved, there certainly is a fair amount of pre-constructed concrete. Each mall is independent of the other, even though by design, they look alike. There are, however, subtle regional differences. Briddle said farm-related items sell well in Des Moines, items that reflect the beauty of the desert move quickly in Phoenix, and wares associated with mountains and skiing are ever-popular in Colorado. Meanwhile, in Kansas City, collectors continue to avidly seek Royals memorabilia.
Approximately 2,500 dealers, some of whom have multiple booths, sell their wares at a Brass Armadillo mall; many of them are teachers, attorneys, and other professionals (including rock stars, in the case of Alice Cooper, who was a longtime dealer, along with his wife and mother-in-law, at the Phoenix mall). Many are engaged in antique dealing as a way to interact with others who share their passion for old things, according to Briddle. All are carefully screened to assure that high-quality merchandise is offered, and everything for sale must be either an antique or collectible. In exchange for these standards, the mall management frees up dealers from many business-related chores. Electronic theft deterrent systems and trained sales staffs protect inventories, and professional packing and shipping of merchandise services are available.
Additionally, foot traffic as well as sales figures are closely monitored, and buying trends among categories (what’s selling, what’s not) are tracked. Because “we keep up with the times,” advertising has expanded from print, radio, and television to include social media strategies to keep customers connected.
To be sure, the industry has evolved over the years, Briddle continued, as the increased presence of online shopping made an obvious difference in the late-20th century market. “Some shoppers have been lost to the internet,” he conceded. “The niche collectors have been taken, ones who would have to walk for two years to find what they’re looking for. But we would have lost them anyway.” On the other hand, Briddle believes that because consumers make many of their day-to-day purchases online, they have more time and money for recreational shopping, which includes spending hours (and dollars) at an antique mall.
Whereas early Brass Armadillo purchases were likely to be furniture and pottery, Depression glass and Pez dispensers, today’s shoppers tend to seek items that have both a nostalgic value and a utilitarian purpose. Briddle cited Fire King mixing bowls as an example of something that is now considered to be reminiscent of Grandmom and, at the same time, still useful. Similarly, he is intrigued with the popularity of Pyrex wares and sees an upswing in vinyl record sales. Although the volume of vintage jewelry sales has declined, dollar amounts realized by dealers have not. Precious metals, he added, remain strong. Speaking of the shift in the market, he noted that license plates from the 1930s and ’40s have been supplanted by those from the last quarter of the 20th century. And while vintage clothing used to mean costumes from the 1930s, he recalled two recent college-aged shoppers looking for “jeans with big bottoms.”
As for the future, Briddle remains optimistic and, in true businessman fashion, related an anecdote to back up his positive attitude: There is a 13-year-old boy who has become a “regular” at the Brass Armadillo mall in Goodyear, Ariz., a young teen whose mother says prefers shopping in his spare time to diversions enjoyed by many of his peers. About every other week, he spends between $10 and $20, but only after carefully perusing what’s on the shelves. She says he is always in search of something “unique and interesting, and from the ’olden days,’” meaning, Briddle said with a chuckle, the 1990s.