If you remember the humble beginnings of e-bay way back in 1995, you will recall that it possessed all of the attributes of a secret club, occupied by a small group of antique aficionados.
We all recognized others’ user names, were familiar with the kinds of things we bought, and a certain civility and comradery prevailed between bidders when it came to items which we were both interested in, often conceding on an item to a fellow e-Bayer when we had outbid them on a similar item a week before. It was a great resource for mid-range accessories and I know of many a dealer who frequented it as it was an amazing venue in the early days for decorative arts and smalls. It was like a secret society for antique buffs, as well as dealers, with only a small handful possessing the decoder rings. Of course, we all relished that there were a relatively small group of us perusing, buying and selling, and it all felt highly democratic and, well, very congenial.
I have great memories of, and affection for, those early days of e-Bay. Little did we know then that it would grow to become the largest source on the planet for just about any kind of object one could ever want, across a multitude of categories, not just antiques. We also could not imagine that an entire generation of buyer’s sniping programs would be developed in response to the growth of a massive audience who somewhere along the way lost that sense of civility. Ouch, what a blow to my sense of nostalgia. e-Bay has never really been a threat to the traditional mid-range dealer – in fact, it was a great resource for accessories. Among the dealers in lower-range material who sell on e-Bay however, there has been much grumbling these days along the lines of not being able to make a profit due to dramatically increasing fees, etc.
Flash forward a number of years to 1stDibs, which operates not in an auction format, but as more of a showroom for dealers across the country. They also had modest beginnings and I remember when they used to offer to send their local photographer around to shoot pieces if a dealer was not too keen on doing any of the work associated with cleaning up or uploading their own photos. They recently have expanded into jewelry and couture, as well as antiques and decorative arts, and I imagine other categories are soon to follow. The format offered by 1stDibs has been very successful and you are beginning to see their advertising in national fashion/decorating publications, expanding into the more mainstream retail market. They have embraced the concept of excellent design and exposure in their marketing from the beginning and it has only become more sophisticated as time goes by.
Most dealers located outside of major cities have relied heavily on the exposure which 1st Dibs affords them, as fewer and fewer clients seem to be actually visiting physical showrooms these days. Even the largest dealers in major cities have established a presence on 1stDibs in order to avoid being overlooked. I have heard from numerous Interior Designers that 1stDibs is the first place they look when they are looking for a certain piece for a project. Remember, in a time when fewer antiques are being used in projects, the piece you have sitting in your showroom needs not only to have maximum quality exposure but also virtually tap-dance and offer to clean one’s house to be selected over another. The unfortunate downside to this is that many dealers have now given up their retail spaces and gone entirely to the 1stDibs format.
The addition of ArtNet and AskArt rounds out the list of leading players in technology related to the industry, and offers both collector and dealer alike a database of prices realized at auctions across the country. Pretty handy. They have made my life much easier on many an occasion.
You have to admit though that it seems, well, rather embarrassing that all of these ideas were not generated from within the industry, but from outside of it. Leave it to the techno-geeks to outsmart us at our own business. The question is, can the industry afford to continue to rely on them exclusively for our own sales and marketing efforts? Aren’t we in danger of becoming overly dependent on these formats? Already many very solid dealers have closed thier physical locations and have gone entirely on-line. This is clearly not good for the street visibility of antiques and may ultimately lead to over-reliance on these formats. Shouldn’t we be much more involved in our own product, as well as the future of the industry? Can we not be more competent in expressing our attributes? It’s not that I lack respect for all of the resources mentioned above. I truly think they provide a sorely needed service for smaller dealers who may not possess the time or funding to handle their own marketing and I have utilized all of them. I’m just not convinced that they should be the sole answer for everyone in addressing the question of a shrinking audience. It simply makes us, once again, passive participants in our own product. If the retail storefront mid-range antique trade wishes to truly remain competitive with the multitude of home decor retailers out there, as well as the auction houses and on-line selling it must justify it’s existence as well as speak its own praises. This will require a very strong presentation visually in as many areas as we can – Few if any dealers have a presence on Auction Central News or www.news-antique.com, although both of these sites encourage dealers to submit pr material. This is a good time to become highly creative with our marketing efforts if we wish to return from the recession stronger than when we went into it.