Selling Quality Antiques on the Internet

By Randall Decoteau

Reprinted by permission from New England Antiques Journal, January 2006.

PEOPLE HAVE BEEN SELLING on the Internet since the early to mid-1990s now. We constantly hear from dealers who sell on eBay and Internet group shops about how they are doing. This month NEAJ talked to several upper-end dealers in antiques to find out how things are going on their Internet web sites. You'll be happy to learn that the antiques business is alive and doing very well on the pages of their sites.

NEAJ: You have a prominent presence on the Internet. How long ago did you establish your site, and what criteria did you have in mind when creating it?

ELLE SHUSHAN: Mine was a very early site, probably around 1999; so early, in fact, that we initially felt that people wouldn't be able to digest run-on names, thus the early hyphen. My criterion has always been simplicity. I think people don't want bells, whistles and revolving pinwheels. So many sites have these, but I think customers want to come in, look at whatever it is they want, and move on. I have always thought that the easier a site is to navigate, the easier it is to sell on it.

JESSE GOLDBERG: I started my site approximately two years ago. My specialized area is American Federal furniture and related decorative arts, so I began by photographing some of the furniture and putting it into categories to make it easier for clients to see. For example, I have a gallery of seating furniture and related decorative arts, so I began by photographing some of the furniture and putting it into categories to make it easier for clients to see. For example, I have a gallery of seating furniture, a gallery of tables, and another for case pieces. Each gallery has small vignettes. By clicking on one image, a page opens up with more detailed shots, description, measurements, historical background, and most importantly the price. Creating a web site is strictly a trial and error process. You start with a skeleton outline and fill in as you go.

RUSS GOLDBERGER: We have had an Internet presence for about 10 years now. The site has gone through many evolutionary changes. Today, our comprehensive listing of at least 250 antiques and decoys are kept up to date daily on a site that is secure and accepts credit cards. We've been in the mail order antique selling business for 30 years, so it seemed to us that the Internet was another tool to take our brochures a step further. The web site allowed us to reach more people more effectively. Our site is hit heavily and our merchandise is seen around the world. We wanted, from the beginning, for our web pages to be both educational and functional. It's important to give customers the material so that they feel comfortable as prices continue to go up.

NEAJ: What was the cost of design and how expensive is it to maintain?

JESSE GOLDBERG: The initial cost of design was minimal, maybe $400-$500. However, there is an additional charge to add new pictures and descriptions. I let my web designer do all my maintenance. So, I spend roughly around $1,000 per year to maintain and update the site.

RUSS GOLDBERGER: Because we've evolved, I can't tell you what we paid, but we started at around $2,000 or so. Standard maintenance is under $200 a quarter. Maintenance of the site for a year is less than $1,000. Let's just say that it costs way less than doing a show.

ELLE SUSHAN: The cost of my current design was significant, around $3,500. Jill (Custom Web Design) and I spent four months by phone and Internet developing it. She had to buy everything from type to software to implement my ideas. I lose track of what these things actually cost, but updating my site costs $50 per hour. The cost of hosting is inexpensive, between $25-$50 per month.

NEAJ: Do you see your Internet presence as an advertising and marketing tool? How successful is your web site in terms of sales?

RUSS GOLDBERGER: Certainly, it's clearly an extension of everything we've been doing over the years. As support for the notion that this is an important part of our marketing program, we are increasing our Internet advertising to encourage more people to come to our site. As to sales, the site has become a significant portion of our sales mix. I see no reason why it won't continue to grow. There is still a huge potential for expansion.

ELLE SHUSHAN: I see my site as a huge marketing tool, and because I have software on my web site that tells where my referrals come from, I understand where people found me and why they came to me. Many of my visitors come from associations to which I belong. Last night I checked and found that I had six referrals from the Olympia site even though I won't be there for months yet. Right now my site is my largest source of income since I don't keep a shop. My business ebbs and flows with my shows. I send out announcements quarterly by mail to get clients to know that I've updated the site. People who want to be notified of updates simply need to leave their email address when visiting my web site.

JESSE GOLDBERG: The web site enables me to reach people all over the country. In the last year and a half I've averaged 140 discreet listings per day, and the web site has generated strong selling. I've developed lots of long-term customers in Texas, California, Florida, and other places that I'm not likely to visit. Here's something of great importance people outside of the northeast have little access to early American antiques and they need the Internet to find me.

NEAJ: How do people find your web site? What's the best way to drive clients to it? Could you talk about your use of search engines? Are there any technical shortcomings, advantages, or disadvantages that you want to talk about?

RUSS GOLDBERGER: I think that search engines are critical in having people who are unfamiliar with your web site find you. I feel that Google, by far, dominates, at least for now. You need to pay constant attention to the site. Stay in touch with your email. I believe that the Internet is most useful for shippable products that are easily photographed and described and that have a ready audience. Those clients will find you. The customer drives the transaction, and if you think about it, that's kind of neat.

ELLE SHUSHAN: Search engines work well, because I am in such a limited field that I am at the top of the list whenever anybody does a search. So, I'm fortunate in that respect. My site is hugely easy; you see exactly what you need to see. It's a very simplistic, but highly technical site.

JESSE GOLDBERG: If you key in 'Federal furniture' to a Google search, I will come up on the first page. You have to use key words to put into the search engines, and the more specific the terms, the better. The term has to be a very good discriminator. It's very difficult for a generalist dealer to attract people to a Web site because keying in a general term like 'country' or 'furniture' calls up a pool of dealers that is limitless.

NEAJ: When selling on the Internet, do you approach selling and sales strategy any differently than you might in the shop or at a show?

JESSE GOLDBERG: Yes! Because customers don't have the advantage of physically handling each piece, I send many more detailed photos before a sale is made. In addition, furniture is always sent on approval and may be returned for any reason. That's a big difference. When somebody is 3,000 miles away, you can't expect a firm decision based on an image. I want my customer to be happy and I must say I've never gotten a piece of furniture back.

RUSS GOLDBERGER: The only difference that I can think of for sure is that a certain number of customers will simply purchase items based on my guaranteed descriptions as well as the ease of purchase from a secure site. That's certainly different from my experience at shows.

ELLE SHUSHAN: Well, of course, you have to because you are not dealing with people face-to-face and your customer is not touching the object. You somehow have to put it in their hands by sending them extra images and by giving extra description - things you don't get from a one-dimensional image.

This article appeared in the Antiques Forum of the New England Antiques Journal, Jan. 2006 and is reproduced with permission. Published in Massachusetts since 1982, every issue is packed with quality feature articles, popular columns, information about antiques shows and auctions, news from antiques clubs, and more.