Jan 31, 2014

Telling an Angel from a Wolf: Evaluating Antique Violins

First created in Italy in 1555, the modern four-string bowed violin is arguably the world’s oldest continuously used musical instrument. It’s been played in every musical tradition from Baroque to Bluegrass. In the past 457 years, there have been thousands of violin makers in dozens of countries. The instruments are pervasive; chances are good that you or someone in your family has an old violin, stashed— unplayed—away in a closet or under a bed. These sequestered violins are moving from the closet to the auction floor with increasing frequency.

To the untrained eye, all these violins look alike. They are all the same general shape, size and color. And, many of them (especially the worst ones) have a label on the inside that references Stradivarius. How can you tell if a found violin is a gem? Usually by playing it; but many of these violins have been stored for so long that they are in no condition to be played. Even if the violins are set up and ready to be played, few people have the skill to do so. Without being played, there is no way to tell whether a particular violin sings like an angel or howls like a wolf. Read More

Jan 30, 2014

Addressing the Uncertainty of Selling Online

You might be a crook. Your products might be of poor quality. You might not deliver once you’ve got my money. You might have misrepresented your product.

These are the attitudes of the nearly one-third of U.S. Internet users who are still not buying online. With about 245 million Internet users in the United States (www.internetworldstats.com/top20.htm), one-third constitutes about 80 million Americans who have never made an Internet purchase. Some of those are too young to buy and some don’t have credit cards, but the remaining number — close to 50 million, certainly — just don’t trust products sold online or the online trading process.

In some cases they don’t trust the merchants who are selling online, either.

Those who do buy online — some 160 million of us — have adopted defensive practices to mitigate our mistrust. One such practice is “showrooming,” wherein consumers take a hands-on look at a product in an offline store before they order online. Another is keeping our bids low. Yet another is avoiding auctions where the “deal just seems too good to be true.” All of these “defensive buyer” actions are costly to sellers. Read More

Jan 29, 2014

Following the Supply-Demand Antiques Prices Triangle

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been following a discussion of antiques prices on a LinkedIn forum. The participants are all dealers, and the conversation continues as I write. Supply and demand antiques prices. It’s been a lively discussion, and the general tone of the thread is respectful, which I find refreshing.

Here are a few of the comments:

• Antiques prices are too high.

• Prices are coming down due to lowered demand.

• Auction prices drive down retail prices.

• The downward pressure on prices comes largely from the lack of pressure that buyers feel to purchase. In the “old” days, if you hesitated on an item, someone else was behind you ready to buy.

• The only answer is to increase demand, or the downward pressure on pricing will continue.

The apparent lack of demand for our products is often a topic of discussion. Lack of demand is often blamed for lower transaction prices. Read More

Jan 28, 2014

Customer Service Policies: Help or Hindrance?

I couldn’t have been more embarrassed. I met some out-of-town friends for lunch, and I picked up the tab. We were in a small-town, mom-and-pop restaurant; the kind where you pay your bill at the register. I handed the clerk the bill and my debit card, and she said “I’m sorry sir, we don’t take plastic.” After a momentary panic, she told me they would take a check, so I paid by check. My friends were appalled; in the “big city,” all restaurants take plastic.

In the rural mountain area where I live, I run into this situation a few times a year. I’ve encountered the “no plastic” policy in retail stores, motels, restaurants and auto repair shops. When I first moved here, this was a regular occurrence. Now, unless I have a wallet full of cash, I avoid stores that won’t take my debit card. After the encounter at the restaurant, I’ve renewed my old habit of looking for the Visa/MasterCard logo as I enter a business. Read More

Jan 27, 2014

Has eBay Lost Its “Auction Edge”?

I miss Meg Whitman. You remember Meg: She was president of eBay back when it used to be an auction site. Meg’s philosophy was that eBay was in the business of connecting people with people; i.e., person-to-person trading. Ms. Whitman’s vision ended five years ago (2008) when John Donahoe took over eBay as CEO. Now, eBay’s mission is to connect corporations with consumers and boost eBay’s stock price.

Of course, I’m a firm believer in profits, and I support eBay’s right to pursue them…but not at the expense of the Mom-and-Pop businesses that made them what they are. eBay’s success was built upon providing a marketplace for small sellers, and eBay has all but abandoned such sellers.

At making a profit, Mr. Donahoe has been very successful. In the past five years, eBay’s stock price has risen more than five-fold ($10/share when Whitman left in 2008 to $52/share on Aug. 1, 2013). Five years ago, eBay’s listing composition was 70 percent auctions and 30 percent fixed-price items. Today, its listing composition is the reverse: 30 percent auctions and 70 percent fixed-price listings. At a Wall Street Journal “Executive Breakfast Series” earlier this year, Donahoe said that eBay will soon be 80 percent fixed-price and 20 percent auctions. Read More

Jan 26, 2014

Good or Bad, Online Reviews Influence Your Customers

Whenever I travel, my first order of business (after checking into a hotel) is to browse through the yellow pages. I can tell a lot about a town’s economy by looking through their phone book: What types of businesses are around, how many of each type and where the business center is. Multiple luxury car dealerships, fancy restaurants and high-end retailers tell quite a different story about a town than a single Ford dealership, fast food restaurants, a convenience store and a Dollar Store.

Regardless of the size of the town, when time allows I visit a few antique shops. Stores filled with the latest consumer goods don’t interest me. Such shops all carry the same merchandise and exist on the basis of price and convenience. Antique shops, on the other hand, are unique and reflect the personality of the owner(s). Even small rural villages seem to have at least one antique shop, and I am rarely disappointed by them.

In a city with multiple antique shops, I plan my shopping by Googling “antiques” and the name of the city, and then I read the customer reviews for each shop to determine which ones I’ll go to. Read More