Loose Ends in the Den – Business of Doing Business – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – September 2004
By Ed Welch
Many of my articles bring responses from readers. I have been neglectful in sharing these responses with the readers of the Journal of Antiques and Collectibles.
My article on the Reading Globe brought more than a dozen responses. It turns out that the correct name for this item is “Water Lens.” Water lenses were used by craftsmen and women to magnify and illuminate a work area. A candle provided the light source. The candle was placed behind the water lens, not in the top as I had thought. One reader sent an image from a London trade publication dated 1850 showing a water lens in use by an engraver.
My article on how to bid at auction brought positive, as well as negative responses. One auctioneer stopped me at Brimfield and literally gave me a scolding for encouraging bidders to disrupt the flow of an auction. He said that such action was detrimental to his auction business and cost his consignee’s money.
I wanted to tell him that this is precisely what I had in mind. After all, what is good for the seller is not necessarily good for the buyer. However, he was so angry that I decided to let him have his say and not to respond. Other responses were more favorable. One letter is included below.
I came across an old column of yours, on how to bid at auction, which I found fascinating (my interest is far removed from yours: medieval manuscripts). As someone obliged to bid by telephone, as the auctions are in London, and I am in New York, I have often wondered about whether to have a dealer bid for me in the room, a practice many others of my acquaintance follow, because of the same geographical problem. After reading your article, I could still see it either way: a poorly controlled dealer in the room could wreck as much damage as I might do myself on the phone. I wondered whether you had further thoughts about strategies, and could suggest anything for me to read.
In any case, thank you again for your insights, which I enjoyed hugely, Laura Jereski
My article on creating a customer database and tracking all sales made to a particular customer brought a mixed bag of responses. Most people thought that the process was too time-consuming.
My suggestions on sending invitations to visit my booth and thank you notes for sales made brought both positive and negative responses. Several dealers informed me that they had begun doing both. Other dealers thought the thank you notes and invitations would cost too much money.
My advice that “the customer is always right” had a few supporters. However, I was stopped several times by readers who disagreed with me. My policy is to satisfy my customer’s complaints even if I loose money and even if the customer is wrong. Many dealers, especially dealers who sell on Internet auctions related incidents in which buyers were obviously dishonest.
I must admit that I just had a similar experience. I had a customer who ordered an item from my website. He returned the item because it was not exactly the same color and hue as the one shown. I gladly refunded the purchase price. He then ordered a second item, which he returned. Again, I issued a refund. Finally, he reordered the first item again, the same item he had originally returned because of its color. A week later, he returned this third purchase. I, of course, issued yet another refund. Because these sales were paid using a credit card, I lost money each time an item was returned.
The insult to injury came when this customer demanded a refund of all shipping costs. His letter demanding a refund was obviously drafted by an attorney and contained words not commonly used in conducting everyday business. One word “erroneously” was repeated several times. I, of course, complied with this customer’s request and refunded the shipping costs. I did not do this because of the legal nature of the refund request. I made the refund because of a lifetime business practice of satisfy customer’s complaints, even if the customer is clearly in the wrong.
My article on group shop selling contained the following statement, Group shop rents are cheap, too cheap! Low rent has prevented the full growth and development of the group shop method of selling.
This statement has resulted in many conversations with group shop owners and dealers who display at group shops. Owners, of course, would like to receive more money for their space. Whether or not they would use the additional money for advertising and on promotions to attract more buyers is a matter of opinion.
Some owners would keep the extra money. However, many owners would use the extra money to grow their business. I visit thousands of group shops throughout the US and UK every year.
Seven years ago, I started keeping records on my visits to group shops. I did so because I purposely drove passed a highly respected group shop located in Pennsylvania for the third time in eighteen months. I know why I passed this shop. What I wanted to know is whether I had developed patterns in regards to which group shops I always visit and which I am willing to skip.
I developed a grading system based on the quality of merchandise, cleanliness of the shop, helpfulness of the staff, number of locked cases, miles out of the way, and my ability to buy and make money.
I travel extensively throughout the Northeast. I cannot possibly stop at every group shop along my travel route. If I must choose which group shops along my route at which to stop, I want my choices based on facts.
Most of my findings are relevant only to me and to my business. However, a few findings are worth mentioning because they apply to all businesses. I was more likely to stop at group shops with friendly courteous employees. I never failed to stop at group shops at which the owners notified me by email, postcard, or telephone whenever one of their dealers brought in something that I would likely buy.
I do two shows in Charlotte, North Carolina each year. On each trip, I drive thirty miles out of my way, sixty miles round trip, to visit one group shop in Pennsylvania. I do so because the owners of this shop send me photos and descriptions of the items I normally buy two weeks before each of my trips. I also stop at a group shop in Sturbridge for the same reason. In fact, over the years, I have spent many thousands of dollars at this group shop.
If group shop rents were higher, the owners would have more funds for advertising and for providing personal services.
On Internet selling: I received a phone call from Queens, New York from a dealer in the process of developing a website to sell antique furniture. After listening to his plans, I am convinced that his web business will fail. I am afraid that I was hard on this individual. I actually discouraged him from building a web business.
This business will fail because the dealer is paying others to build his site. He will have to pay a fee each time the site is updated, corrected, and when sold items are removed. He will have to pay to have new pages made for each new item offered for sale. All of the above plus maintenance costs will be more expensive than a small business can afford.
Selling on the web requires that the dealer learn how to build, update, and remove and amend all web pages. A dealer selling on the web must be willing to pay a minimum of two thousand dollars a year in search engine fees. Start up cost for a viable web business is now between five and ten thousand dollars. Annual maintenance cost is between three and five thousand dollars. This cost takes into consideration that the dealer learns how to build and update his own site.
Five years ago anyone could build a website for less than a thousand dollars. With a little luck and a lot of hard work, that website would make sales. Today, the Internet has become commercial. Search engines no longer give away their services. Search engine programming must be precise. The business owner must buy major keywords from several of the top search engines.
The above are just a few of the things necessary in order to have a web business that will make sales. In plain English, opening a web business today is the same as opening a business on Main Street. It costs thousands of dollars to start and ongoing expenses are high. Also, the time required is the same as in any small business, ten to twelve hours each day, seven days a week.
Finally, items offered for sale must be specific. You cannot sell furniture. You can sell Chippendale furniture. It is impossible to sell “antiques” but Old Ivory China will sell well. If you sell ten different types of items, you will need a separate web page for each item. Ten different websites will work a thousand times better.
I own four different web sites, three for selling, and one for buying. Each of these sites cost thousands of dollars to build and thousands of dollars a year to maintain.
It is now 11:17 p.m. I began work this morning at 7 a.m. I am in the process of renovating my warehouse. I enjoy this physical work as much as I enjoy buying and selling antiques. Today I helped my electrician install a three phase 200 amp electrical service.
While I was working on my warehouse, one of my three selling websites produced more than five hundred dollars in sales. My buying website generated two inquires. One of the calls was from a collector with a major collection for sale.
I have been working on this column for the last three hours while waiting for a call from Houston, Texas. I am in the process of buying a large collection. The opportunity to buy this collection is a direct result of my “Wanted To Buy” website.
I know first hand how much work is required to build and maintain a website that sells, I have done so four times. Actually, I have done so seven times, and only four sites worked. I am now planning yet another website. I have spent hundreds of hours doing the research. I have visited every similar site on the web.
I am certain that this site will sell. However, I question my ability to replace sold stock with quality items. As every dealer knows, it is easy to sell quality antiques. This is true regardless of the selling method used; auction, show, group shop, personal shop or website.
My new website will cost more than ten thousand dollars the first year. Much of this money is for search engine programming, buying keywords from the top three search engines, and paying search engine performance companies to analyze my site.
I must also consider the added demand on my time should this new site prove successful. At the vary minimum, I would have to make one additional trip to Europe each year to buy stock. It takes me about three weeks of hard shopping to put a container shipment together.
I feel badly that I was so hard on the caller from Queens. However, the day of the casual website has passed. I have not stressed this fact enough in my writings.