Stamp Dealers: The Travel Agents of Philately

Earlier this week I had a conversation with a philatelist who responded to my blog posts this past week. He said that he thought that the widespread availability of basic stamp information had made the professional stamp dealer somewhat obsolete, and that this was why dealers like myself were having difficulty building loyal customer bases.

I thought about it for a while and then I realized why I felt he wasn't 100% correct in his analysis:

Knowledge does not equal experience!

Then I had a thought flash in my mind - about travel agents. When it became possible to book airline trips and vacations online a number of years ago, the conventional wisdom was that travel agents were now obsolete and would soon be out of business. But, almost 20 years after online booking of trips became a thing, they are still going strong. Sure, the worst ones went out of business - those that provided little value. But the better agencies are still thriving. Why is this, and what does this have to do with stamp dealing?

If you think about vacations, particularly those that are long and involve travel to exotic locations, you realize that:

  1. They are expensive: for many folks, this will be their first and only chance to travel.
  2. There are a lot of moving parts and things that can go wrong: missed connections, customs issues, theft, tourist traps, bad hotels, etc. 
  3. There can be issues involving health and personal safety to consider.
So, while most people can be perfectly comfortable booking a basic flight across the country, or a single destination trip to a relatively familiar locale by themselves, they are less comfortable putting together the bigger, more expensive trips on their own. 

This is where a good travel agent comes in. A good travel agent knows their client and through speaking with them can get a sense of what they want out of a trip and can then:

  1. Find them the best air and hotel deals for the level of comfort they are looking for and can afford. 
  2. Advise them as to the most important sights and activities for them to see when they are on their trips, as well as those to avoid. 
  3. Handle all the bookings for the above and schedule them in a way that prevents the traveler from trying to cram too much into one day and gives them ample time to enjoy and get the most out of each experience. 
  4. Advise them as to which areas to avoid at night and other personal safety issues as well as giving practical advice as to what can make them sick on the trip.
  5. Advise them about aspects of the local customs that they need to be aware of and observe in order to enjoy their trip.
So, there is way, way more to being a good travel agent than just punching a bunch of keys on a computer terminal and filling in paperwork. Most good travel agents now tend to specialize in certain regions or certain types of vacations which allows them to develop the knowledge and expertise to effectively do the above. A good travel agent helps ensure that your trip will be memorable to you for all the right reasons. 

And so it is with a good stamp dealer:

  1.  A good stamp dealer gets to know you and understand what drives your collecting interests. With this knowledge, and a knowledge of your condition preferences and your budget, a good dealer can make several alternative suggestions to you about what to collect, and how much scope to include. 
  2. A good dealer has a good understanding of how collections develop and can help you choose the appropriate scope for your collection and pace yourself so that you don't bite off more than you can chew, you don't lose interest for lack of material and you don't run into a situation where you can't afford to add to the collection any more and have to stop. The fact is, most collectors think they can collect and study far more material than they actually can, and so many collectors over-reach and wind up having to cut back later. 
  3. A good dealer helps advise you as to the pitfalls to avoid in whatever area you choose to collect and can help you avoid running afoul of them. 
  4. A good dealer is ethical to the point that you can trust them to act in your best interests when sourcing material for your collection. You can purchase with confidence from them, knowing that their prices are fair and sustainable, and that what they are selling has been professionally vetted by them and is, what it is purported to be.
  5. If you run into a situation where you have to sell your collection, a good dealer will help you sell it in the manner that is consistent with your best interests. 
  6. A good dealer helps you get the most out of your collecting experience while you are collecting by providing free information to help you better study and understand your stamps and supplies, for a reasonable price, reference works written by others that relate to your collecting field. 
  7. A good dealer leverages their professional collections to either build a comprehensive stock of material for you to shop from, or otherwise locates specific pieces for you, for the best long-term prices. 
So, as you can see, there is much, much more to being a good stamp dealer than amassing a stock and hoping that people will buy from you. Indeed, being a good stamp dealer requires the mastery of several best practices and skills. A good stamp dealer provides a full range of services to collectors through the life cycle of their hobby, from the first conception of their collecting interest, through to the sale of their collections, and does so with the highest standards of professional integrity. 

Of course, as with all professions, there are people who do it well and people who don't, as well as people who just do a mediocre job. The key as a collector is to be able to identify which dealers are the good dealers. How to do this?

The first thing you should look for is: does this dealer approach his or her profession as a calling? or just a way to make a living? If they approach it as a calling, then there will be some indications that they care about the future health of the hobby of stamp collecting and stamp dealing as a profession, sufficiently to be motivated by a desire to serve the collector, with making a living as an important, but secondary consideration. 

So, when evaluating a dealer:

  1.  Do they do anything within the broader community to promote the health of the hobby? I am not suggesting here that they have to do a lot, or have to do things on a monthly or weekly basis, as being a full time stamp dealer is a lot of work. But over a 30 or 40 year career, I do think that it is reasonable to expect a good stamp dealer to have done at least something to give back to a hobby that has done so much for them. 
  2. How are they with the kids and those collectors of lower means? Do they patiently and cheerfully serve them, or are they impatient, rude or generally unappreciative of the business these collectors are giving them?
  3. Do they appear to make an attempt to learn as much as they can about stamps and are they open to learning new things?
  4. Do they help you avoid making purchases that they could reasonably be expected to know you will regret later, or do you feel like you are playing poker every time you deal with them?
  5. Are they fair to everyone involved in the transaction stream? Or do they only treat their customers fairly and not their suppliers? You may not know the answer to that as a customer right away, but you can get the answer soon enough if you carefully observe a dealer who is buying a collection. A word of caution though: speed is not necessarily an indication of dishonesty or unfair dealing. A dealer who is an expert in their field can rifle through a collection pretty quickly to determine (1) if they are interested in purchasing it and (2) an approximate, ball-park value. However, determining a final figure that they will pay does require a methodical approach, because there is so much that cannot be properly identified by a casual glance. Similarly, most dealer's margins have to be much higher than 100% over cost, because their inventory does not turn over quickly enough for them to make a living unless their margins are relatively high. However, gross margins over 300-500% are not likely to be fair in most cases. You can determine what the dealer's average margin is by looking at what they are offering versus what they charge. 
  6. Do they specialize? If they specialize in one area or a group of areas it tends to suggest that they recognize that they cannot be an expert in all stamps and they they are more likely to be involved in acquiring and disseminating more knowledge about their chosen field. I am not saying that generalist dealers are not good - they can be. But, in my experience, they tend not to be as knowledgeable as the specialists. The thing is, you can't hide a lack of knowledge or competence if you are a specialist, but you can if you are a generalist. 
So, for these reasons, I do believe that there is a definite place for professional stamp dealers in this hobby. It is just a matter of finding dealers you trust and then allowing them to help you enjoy your hobby to the fullest. 


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