Published: June 16, 2020
By Greg Smith
March came and brought with it a wave of cancelled antiques and art shows that extend, in some cases, through October. With those cancellations came a number of online initiatives that aimed to boost sales for dealers in lieu of in-person selling events. They have had varying levels of success. We’ve witnessed the ADA Show, the Philadelphia Show, Brimfield, AFA Spring, Rhinebeck, the IFPDA, Art Brut Global, Frieze and others.
Every organized attempt to create sales in the absence of shows is worthwhile. Online selling events are not new, they have been tried in the past and were nearly always abandoned. But the current need for online shows has brought about renewed interest and investment among sellers and promoters. From our point of view, there are some very clear indicators on why some get it right and others don’t.
We’ll start with marketing and why slashing budgets and booth rents to put together a digital show will inevitably produce poor sales.
Welcome to the world of digital retail. Your new neighbors and competitors in this arena are the platforms 1stDibs, eBay, Chairish, Etsy, Ruby Lane, InCollect, and every auction house that’s running on LiveAuctioneers and Invaluable. Every last one of them has secured market share and drive sales through established and well-founded marketing machines. Just one example of a robust marketing budget includes 1stDibs, who spends $2.4 million every month to drive sales on that platform.
The digital retail industry is crowded, but there is great opportunity for a unique sales channel that the platforms don’t have: an event-based digital show. Sure, the platforms produce showrooms (think “New Chairs This Week” or “Nate Berkus Picks His Faves”) that get pushed out through emails and on front pages, but those are not to be confused with a selling event. They are much less powerful than the rallying cry of a canceled show and its digital replacement or supplement.
The platform is the bare minimum required for an online show. To illustrate, it is the base of the tree. To put it technically, it is the catalog, the buy-it-now button and the seller interface/upload process – but that’s about it. The tree thrives through its canopy, and in this illustration, those are the sellers and their inventory.
A platform does not bring the buyers to an online show, it is in fact the other way around entirely. The show brings the buyers to its online catalog through a canopy of branches that have been growing a client base for decades.
Not a single platform exists that has the promotional power of a crowd-sourced seller marketing campaign, which utilizes, at heart, those client relationships. In the absence of a big marketing budget, it is for that reason that an online show is only as successful as the sellers make it. They must collectively push and amplify it each day, and they should be contractually obligated to do so. It cannot be understated – it is the most important part. As physical shows opened in the past, all a dealer could do was sit there and hope someone interested would walk by and purchase something. When an online show opens, and indeed before it opens, it’s time to blitz. Sellers should be promoting at the top of their lungs to create interest and link clicks.
The marketing must be constant and organized, scheduled by a professional who orders directives on down to the roster of sellers. That person’s job is to create momentum by utilizing every seller’s individual channels. Think: “post this to all of your social media channels 30 days, 20 days, 15 days, 14 days, and every day on down through the final day of the show.” Think: “here is a list of template posts you may customize with the inventory you’ll offer: one for an artist spotlight, a provenance spotlight, a form spotlight, a movement spotlight, etc.” Think the same thing but in a series of email blasts.
The ADA Show did this well. We were constantly seeing messages about the online event through a variety of sellers in the run up and during the show run. There were 50-some dealers out there with megaphones and if you were connected via social media or through buying to any one of them, you knew about the show.
ADA president Steven Powers told us, “Given the time that we had from getting the show going and the date of the online show, we knew that social media and online marketing would be a key component to our marketing. Not only did we not have much lead time, we wanted as much dealer participation as possible, so our fees were low, which meant our marketing budget was limited. This was conveyed to the dealers and noted that they had to bear some responsibility in getting the word out. The ADA is an organization of members who want to see each other succeed – so we encouraged each to promote the show through social media and their mailing lists.”
There are barriers to entry that promoters must reckon with, all of which have the power to stifle sales. An aging population has difficulty with certain internet functions that many find simple: sorting, for instance, by genre, price, dealer or otherwise. We’ve heard grumbles about this, though we haven’t experienced the same issue. Others voiced consternation that they had to create an account to communicate with dealers at a show. These are things never explicitly taught but naturally learned in Internet 101, and we must recognize that there exists an audience of buyers who are poor at navigating websites and adapting to the digital age. Others attempt to view the shows from their phone or tablet when the ideal way is a desktop or laptop. That should be communicated.
How it’s organized then becomes important. When an antiques week splinters off into various platforms, it introduces disorganization. Every new website that buyers have to learn to use, at the most basic level, becomes a barrier to entry. These barriers decimate selling opportunity. Online shows are most successful when they are plainly simple. Grid-style catalogs on platforms are the best way to sell a show online, but they are not necessarily in their ideal and optimized form, yet.
In the coronavirus era, content is back on top as king. Audiences are eating it up and it is a clear channel to sales. We have seen some novel approaches to content come out of some shows, including Art Brut Global, organized by The Outsider Art Fair, which placed an artist’s story and life at the center of the marketplace, using it as a lure to create knowledge and interest. Outsider Art Fair owner Andrew Edlin said, “Content and storytelling is inherent in most Outsider Art given that art historical references are not part of the equation.” After readers got through the story, they were presented with a standard marketplace of works by that artist offered from various participating galleries.
Other high-powered sellers have begun creating content machines that seamlessly infuse storytelling into traditional marketplaces. One example of this new kind of marketplace is found at Sotheby’s, where the new splash page for some auctions is an homage to the consignor’s collecting journey a la an Architectural Digest spread.
Content becomes the driver of interest in items and streamed events become the equivalent of an opening night party and programming – entertainment – which have always been used to drive sales and further collecting culture at shows. It’s what keeps people on pages longer and heralds their return to the show floor for a second look. A good approach to this was found when the New Antiquarians hosted a virtual panel at the Philadelphia Show focused on collection building. People attended – it was a draw.
Content is not just a placard with a title, maker, date and material. It is the story behind an object, and the online show format requires that story be prepared with enthusiasm and scholarship before the show begins.
Dealer Taylor Thistlethwaite recently told us, “In the current online formats, you don’t get the traditional experience of buying. If you ever spoke to dealer Paul DeCoste about something in his booth, that conversation was so exciting, you thought you were looking at the greatest stuff on earth. Walking into Frank Levy’s shop – that is something special.
“We need to be able to convey online how special our pieces are, and its hard unless you are kind of knowledgeable. The guy coming off the street is not going to understand the importance of a great pad foot North Shore lowboy. Any way we can educate through an online show, I think, is essential. It really is great material and antique dealers are wonderful people to learn from.”
Gone are the days of a ten-word description, save them for eBay. Speaking with dealers about their inventory is a form of entertainment, a special kind of dance, and it cannot be understated how much the success of an online show relates to its entertainment value.
Online shows are more successful with short date runs. Have you ever watched a marathon in full? Us neither. There is nothing that says “this is not an event” than a long show run. Be brief. Keep the dates tight and make it an event that will disappear so as to create a rush and a sense of impending loss on the part of buyers.
Quality over quantity. While sellers are accustomed to scrolling through an endless stream of items in the online catalog grids, some buyers do not have that same patience. They get fatigued and lost in the mix. Shows should consider limiting the number of items in their marketplace-some sellers are advocating for 1,000 or less.
It has become apparent that some items sell better than others in online venues, with shipping a chief concern. Furniture sales take a hit from this, while easily shipped smalls seem to sell better. Furniture can be sold online, but sellers should expect to send things out on approval while including photographs that illustrate proportion and scale.
Seller guarantees and a lax return policy are standards in online sales. Auctions do not have them, and shows should use that to their advantage and publicize their guarantees so as to create a foothold.
Photography sells. It is a crucial aspect of online selling and it has been eye-opening to see that varying qualities of photographs do better in different venues. Shows need to think about and require standards of photography.
On one hand is new upstart Chance & Patina on Instagram, which advocates for sellers to take shots of their items set up on a field for The Brimfield Show. They discourage studio photography as it feels out of place and inauthentic to their goal of recreating the Brimfield experience.
On the other hand, for a formal indoor show, quality studio photography is necessary. ADA president Steven Powers recently told us, “If the golden rule is ‘treat others the way you wish to be treated,’ the product photography rule should be ‘pretend you are your customer and photograph your objects the way you would want to see them for the first time.'”
In many cases, the thumbnail serves as the judge and executioner, the first and only thing a buyer ever considers as they sort through 1,000 items, each one the subject of a snap judgment based solely on that photograph. It is important that sellers understand that and put their best foot forward.
As the shows move forward and prepare their online iterations, we look forward to what the future brings and how the antiques and art event marketplace will evolve online. It will be a juggling act of both simplicity and complexity, of fleshed out content and momentary glimpses, and ultimately, of sales or silence.
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