Stampshow Etiquette: How to Win Friends and Influence Philatelic People



One of the good things about the current state of the stamp market is that thousands of new collectors, and a small number of new dealers, are entering the fray every year.  One of the not-so-good things is that some of them, on both sides of the divide, have a strange way of going about transacting business, especially at stamp shows and exhibitions.

This little primer on how collectors and dealers should behave towards one another, is intended to help make your experiences at these events enjoyable and rewarding.  Obviously it's not aimed at the vast majority of collectors (or dealers), who are courteous, patient and appreciative of the opportunity to commune in this environment.

It is said that courtesy is its own reward.  As you absorb the tips offered here, reflect on how you can turn any situation to your advantage, simply by treating the other person with consideration.  That's right: walk a mile in their shoes.  (At the outset, understand that all we are covering here is manners, behaving with dignity, and treating other people with respect.  There is no attempt here to address criminal behaviour.  Just let it be said that taking an item without paying for it is worse than bad form: it is theft.)



By way of introduction, it may be helpful to bear in mind that the costs for a dealer to attend a show are often quite considerable.  Even local dealers will have higher insurance costs on top of the stand fees   Any dealer from out-of-town will have also incurred expenses for airfares, accommodation, advertising etc.   All this adds up to thousands of dollars of direct costs that must be recouped at the show to even justify the time away from home base.

Dealers aren't looking for sympathy or charity.  If the collectors in attendance are simply mindful that there is a substantial cost involved for the traders to be there to provide them with a face-to-face service, that should be sufficient to avert some of the difficult situations touched-on below.

1.        Be polite.  This is about as basic as it gets.  Sure, dealers are there to make money, but they are people too.  You wouldn't give your hairdresser or doctor a hard time: why be impolite towards somebody who is just trying to make a living, and who could become a very valuable asset to you?  Always apply the "Golden Rule": treat others as you would like to be treated.

2.        Take care to keep the stock in order.  While many dealers keep their stock (especially of stamps) in display books, many others prefer to have each item in a separate packet.  Please respect whatever method is preferred by the dealer.  Some dealers are very particular about the order in which their stock of covers and stamps in packets is kept.  Some like their items filed in front of the appropriate dividers (strange, we know!) while most want them behind the dividers. 

       Unfortunately, almost every dealer learns that by the end of a show, numerous items will have been mis-filed.  This causes irritation and requires time to rectify.  (Some dealers have become so fed up with material being put away any-old-how that they don't even bother sorting their stock.  This means you may have to go through large numbers of items to find what you are interested in).  Be considerate of the stamps and covers that have temporarily been entrusted to your care, and the dealer is sure to put a mental tick alongside your name.

3.        Don't abuse the stock.  This is very much related to the previous point.  Imagine you have taken your precious stamps to a dealer for an appraisal.  How would you like him to trash your collection, carelessly turning the pages, creasing the stamps, and showing contempt for your material?  Of course, you would be entitled to be very upset about such treatment.  When viewing material at a show, respect it as if it were your own. 

       Make sure your hands are both clean and dry.  Never place your half-eaten sandwich or coffee on the table: finish your meal in the appropriate area before approaching the booths. Use tweezers, especially when inspecting mint stamps.  Be careful not to fold the corners of covers.  In particular, take care when replacing items in their protective sleeves.  If you do damage an item, have the good grace to admit your fault and offer to pay for it.

       Dealers quickly learn who can be trusted with their valuable offerings.  Do yourself a favour and get in his good books from the start of your relationship.

4.        Don't dive into a box that somebody else is viewing.  Curb your impatience to look at material that somebody else is carefully processing.  The unspoken rule is that if John has possession of a box or album of material, you should allow him to finish, regardless of how long that may take.  You may politely ask John how long he will be but it is unacceptable to pressure him to yield to you.  (You may request to see the items with which John has already finished  -  often the dealer will do that for you  -  but he should be entitled to decline such a request.)

       You certainly don't want to be considered a pariah by other collectors.  While waiting for your turn, why not look through another box: who knows what you might find?  By all means advise the dealer that you would like to look at John's box as soon as he is finished.  Your polite request is sure to be honoured.

5.        Don't distract people who are viewing or waiting to view material.  This is one of the most exasperating offences you can commit.  The dealer may have been waiting all day for Mary to stop at his booth to inspect the thematic stock.  Mary has just settled in for serious browsing.  Then you come along, engage her in idle chat, or drag her off for a coffee. 

       By all means greet your friends but respect the fact that they are already busy and, more importantly, that the dealer's level of success for that day may be in her hands.  Tell Mary you would love to chat later or tell her that you and the gang will wait in the refreshments area until she has finished.  But don't encourage her to go with you and "come back later".  On the other hand, if you see items in which you think a friend would be interested, you can win major brownie points by making the connection for the dealer or, better still, bringing over your friend and introducing her to the standholder.

6.        Don't offer negative advice.  This is a great way to be taken off a dealer's Christmas card list.  It is the height of rudeness to offer unsolicited negative advice about the material a person is viewing. 

       Your friend  -  and sometimes the offender doesn't even know the person he is addressing  -  is an adult and quite capable of making his own assessments of quality, price and so on.  (By the same token, positive advice, affirming the quality of the material, the reputation of the dealer etc is always welcome.)

       Perhaps the most obnoxious piece of advice one hears regularly is: "You can't put THAT in your exhibit!"  If you cost a dealer a sale, even a small one, and even if your motives are "pure", don't be surprised if he bails you up later to give you a piece of his mind.  How would you feel if he caused your pay packet to be reduced?

       You owe it to yourself to enhance, not diminish, the relationships you have with the various traders.  Dealer X might not have anything for you this time but if that key item for your collection comes his way, he is far more likely to contact the person who has shown him courtesy than the galah who has aggravated him.

7.        Don't be a time-waster.   Often stamp shows can be very busy, especially at the beginning and end of the day.  Unless you have a real purpose in going through material, do your idle browsing in the quiet periods. 

       Dealers are usually happy for you to kill time looking at their material, but not if it is preventing genuine buyers from doing their viewing.  And don't occupy one of his two precious chairs as you gab on about the football scores while prospective buyers have to arch their backs to look through the boxes, or attempt an impossible balancing act that would challenge a three-armed man!  If in doubt, ask the dealer if he has any objection to you taking up space at his stand.  If he does, be gracious and come back later.

       Be mindful that while your time is your own at a show, the dealers are often stuck at their stands for hours on end.  Here's a great idea: especially if a trader is on his own, offer to get him some food or a drink.  He may not need it but he will be grateful for your thoughtfulness.

8.        Don't ask for items to be "held" unless you intend to buy them.  One thing that makes even the most placid dealer churn inside is the client who "puts things aside", and then doesn't come back for them.  While those items are off the counter, the dealer can't sell them to anyone else.  Other clients may be interested in those pieces, but you have "reserved" them.  All is fine if you return as promised to conclude the purchase but failure to do so is not only highly impolite, it may have also cost the dealer the opportunity to sell those same items to somebody else. 

       If the dealer says that he will hold stamps for you for a period of time, it is obviously in your own interests to observe the deadline.  If you are late back and the items have been returned to the boxes, or sold to somebody else, please don't get up on your high horse about it.  It's your own fault: if you had just bought them in the first place it wouldn't have happened.

       A simple way to avoid the potential problems here is to make sure you have your "wants list" with you.  The fewer items a dealer has on the back table the more comfortable he will be.  We all appreciate the client who is decisive and doesn't need to "check the collection" when he gets home.

9.        Don't expect a discount.  It's one of the strange features of the philatelic industry that many buyers expect to be able to haggle over price.  Naturally, you are entitled to request a "better price", but the dealer is similarly entitled to turn down your request.  The piece may have just been acquired.  He may have already reduced the price, perhaps to cost or less, in an effort to clear the item.  He may have had a great day and doesn't have any incentive to go lower. 

       Some dealers may give discounts only to other traders (as a professional courtesy) or to selected clients.  Some may give discounts as a matter of course, except to people who ask for them!  Believe it or not, some dealers simply don't discount, and it's their right not to.  Their business plan  -  yes, dealers are in business, not just "playing with stamps"  -  may require that they never cut their prices. 

       You don't hold out for reduced prices at the supermarket and very few would have the temerity to challenge a dentist about his fees.  Why would you expect that a stamp dealer should discount the price of his product?

       It's also worth remembering that the item you're considering may be very keenly priced in the first place.  A comment to that effect as you make the purchase will be taken in the right spirit by most traders.  And if you get a red-hot bargain, all power to you!  Tell the dealer how pleased you are.  Multiply the goodwill by telling others about it.  If new clients are generated for the dealer from your recommendations, who knows, next time he might give you a better price, without you even asking for it!

10.    Never try to intimidate a dealer.  Short of physical assault, this is probably the worst type of unacceptable behaviour at a stamp show.  If you want to be a standover man, join the Mafia. 

       Stamp shows are supposed to be fun, for everybody.  If you are upset to have missed a bargain, or feel that you were entitled to a discount that has been refused, don't behave like a petulant brat.  If you must let off steam, take it out on a punching bag at the gym or on a defenseless little squash ball. 

       At all times, you will gain far more by working with dealers, and not against them.  Go out of your way to make the dealers want you at their booths.  The rewards will come back to you time and time again.

If you have been "pinged" and are feeling a bit uncomfortable at this stage, all that is required is that you promise yourself that you will no longer engage in sordid behaviour at a stamp show.  If you want to earn back a dealer's respect, try apologizing for any previous infraction.  It's marvelous how a sincere apology can make him feel friendly towards you, and even more remarkable how good you will feel about yourself.

Now, if you're thinking that all this gratuitous advice seems a bit one-sided, please read on!



1.       Be polite.  Hang on.  Isn't that Number 1 for the collectors?  Yes, of course it is.  Why do you think you should be able to act like a mobile black cloud towards people who are potential buyers of your products?  And why would you want to!?  Once again, do unto others…and all that good stuff.

2.       Be patient.  Many of the people attending stamp shows are "newbies".  They don't have your experience, your knowledge, or your urbane sophistication.  Their questions may be basic, their comments simplistic, their collecting methods bizarre. 

Guess what!  There was a time when you were where they are today.  A little humility goes a long way.  Take the time to answer those daft questions, offer helpful advice, and take enough interest to point them in the right direction.  You mightn't get much benefit from it now but in the longer term the rewards will flow to you.

3.       Be considerate.  It's an obvious fact that not everyone who comes to your booth will be as handsome, debonair, and intellectually endowed as you.  Count your blessings, and don't be so base as to ridicule another human being for a speech impediment, physical infirmity, odd appearance, or an eccentric manner.  Some of the most affluent of people fall into one or more of these categories.  So do some of the most pleasant people you will ever meet. 

      There can be little doubt that everybody who collects  -  whether it be bottletops, fast cars, shoes, or stamps  -  is a bit "weird".  Well, here’s a revelation.  So is everybody who supplies them!

      Your empathy will be appreciated, and rewarded.

4.       Be grateful.  Outside the collectibles industry, how many people do you know who have had the privileged opportunity of turning their hobby into a business?  It's a great thing. 

      You are envied by most of your clients, many of whom harbour unfulfilled aspirations to become dealers themselves.  You choose the hours you work; you dress how you please; you travel seemingly at will and to what others often consider exotic destinations; and you have the opportunity to make good money.  Yes it can be hard work, with long hours, living out of a suitcase, and missing some special moments in your kids' lives.  But you wouldn't swap it for anything.  So smile!

      And spare a thought for your colleagues who volunteer to organize the shows, set up the tables, and clear up at the end of an exhibition.  How about getting rid of your own rubbish?  Take a minute to unscrew lamps and fold the tablecloths.  And thank them for doing the things that you are glad you don't have to do.

5.       Be happy.   Enjoy the moment.  Smile at your clients.  Make them welcome at your stand.  Share a laugh with your friends in the trade, but not at the expense of others.  Shake hands warmly, even with your competitors.  Be someone that others want to be around.

6.       Don't be demeaning.  Not everybody is rich.  Like you, many of your clients have children, and all the expenses that entails.  Many more are pensioners or living on accumulated savings.  Stamps are your livelihood but merely their hobby.  They don't owe you a living, and you owe it to them not to make out that they do.           Rather than looking down your nose at the person who is aching to buy an item he can't afford, offer some assistance.  Suggest terms, or lay-by.  How about an exchange of material?  Perhaps he could work off the debt by doing some of those jobs that you wish you had someone else to do. 

      Be creative.  It's good for business.  You might have to wait for payment but isn't that better than having the item in stock for an eternity?  And consider how much goodwill you can create, instead of destroy, which is what you will do by being condescending or rude.

7.       Don't disparage other dealers or their stock.  Of course you have the best material, the finest service, the most persuasive manner.  Well, let your assets work for you, without succumbing to the urge to reinforce all of the above by bagging your colleagues in the industry to your clients. 

      George may seem over-priced but it's his prerogative to set prices as he feels best.  Claude might have a reputation for having strayed from your path of righteousness but it's probably only hearsay and, anyway, remember what they say about people who live in glass houses…

8.       Don't approach prospective buyers at another dealer's booth.  Yes, this is another one that was on the list for customers.  And it's much worse when a dealer does it.  You don't have the right to interrupt a transaction or even a conversation to extol the virtues of your stock, promote your recent acquisitions or otherwise try to prevent the client's money passing from his pocket to that of another dealer.  This is a great way to, at the very least, invite a formal complaint against you to your professional association.

      Be patient.  There's more than one fish in the sea.  And while you're trying to unfairly manipulate a situation to your advantage, you may be missing out on far greater opportunity at your own stand.  Get back there!   Of course, if the client has left his coat/briefcase/tweezers/ credit card at your booth, it is both appropriate and appreciated for you to return the item(s) to him.  But don't make that the excuse for engaging him in further conversation and distracting him from his current project.  If you see an "old friend" at another stand, and feel "obliged" to get his attention, limit your comments to a brief salutation and perhaps an innocent "I'd love to catch up when you have the time."

9.       Don't go back on your word.   In business, as in life, your word should be your bond.  If a person is "shopping" his material around the bourse  -  which is his right, whether you like it or not  -  and you make him an offer, don't renege on the deal if he comes back to you an hour or so later.  If you didn't want to buy his stamps, you should have just told him so in the first place.

      If you agree to meet a client at a particular time, be there.  If you have told someone he can leave his coat at your stand, don't change your mind when he passes you the bulkiest jacket you've ever seen.  If you have told Emmanuel that you will "hold" an item for him until the next morning, don't sell it to someone else in the meantime: if you didn't want the item put aside you should have simply told him that you needed a commitment before you would reserve it for him. 

10.    Don't make indecently low offers.  Unless you have explained that you don't really want or need the items being submitted to you, you should decline to make an offer rather than come up with a very low price. 

      Most people will seek at least two prices before deciding whether or not to sell, and to whom.  If you are way under everybody else, the client is likely to experience anger, frustration and other negative emotions, all aimed in your direction.  If you are clueless about the items being offered, you are better to say so and perhaps be considered a dill, but an honest dill.  Make an uninformed guess at value and you may well come off looking like an unethical scoundrel.

      In the hopefully unlikely event that your pitiful offer is accepted, there is a good chance that the seller will find out from someone else that he has been ripped-off.  His reappearance at your stand, with steam pouring from his ears, is unlikely to be good for your business.  This might be one of those occasions when you should renege on the deal and give him back the stamps.

 It's an unfortunate fact of life that one dealer trying to rip off a member of the public  -  even if it's done with a degree of innocence  -  can cause that person to jump to the unfair and unjustified conclusion that "all dealers are crooks".  Your ethical colleagues would prefer that you not cause them to be tarred with that brush.

Well, there you have it: our Ten Commandments for both customers and dealers at stamp shows.  Of course, we would encourage you to apply these same standards to all of your dealings with other people.   And be assured that it's never too late to start.  Even if you have spent many years developing an unfortunate manner, you can turn over a new leaf.  TODAY!  The old dog can teach himself new tricks.  Do it, and watch the rewards of positive attitude and uplifting behaviour come back to you in spades.

Not sure how to go about it?  Here's a tip: act in all situations as if someone else was closely examining your actions, and reactions.  And remember, if you have to ask yourself "Is what I'm about to do the right thing?", you already know the answer!

Stamp shows are fun and exciting.  And you, yes YOU, can contribute to everybody enjoying the experience.

Gary Watson ©

Gary Watson is a senior and very well-respected member of the stamp trade in Australia and the director of leading auction house, Prestige Philately.