Internet Antiquing Growing Quickly

Monday, August 7th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEWBURYPORT, Mass. (AP) — John Crowder's shop looks, sounds and smells like any of those he's owned during three decades in the antiquing business — incense burning, classical music playing, customers meandering.

Yet something unseen is forcing a fundamental change at State Street Antiques and throughout the industry: online auctions.

``What this shop has become is a two-week way station for merchandise,'' Crowder said. ``If it doesn't sell, I put it on eBay.''

Antique shop owners now have access to thousands of customers that never would pass through their doors, a luxury that allows them to be a little more impatient with items that don't sell quickly. It's a change that has its critics within the antiquing business.

There are an estimated 10,000 online auction sites, of which San Jose, Calif.-based eBay is by far the largest. The site, which sells more than just antiques, had 15.8 million registered users by the end of June, compared to 5.6 million a year ago. It's a market antique experts ignore at their own peril.

``It's turned our business on its head,'' Crowder said.

Dealer Marie Rivers said she's sold items on eBay because of the sheer number of potential customers.

``You reach so many more people, all over the world, not just the U.S.,'' Rivers said as she spent a sleepy weekday in the Rowley Antique Center, where she rents space. ``Here, if you have a certain item, you might wait three months before the person who wants it comes in.''

Entry onto eBay is relatively pain-free. The typical collectibles seller provides a digital picture, description and an ``insertion fee'' of a few dollars. If the item is purchased, the seller pays a percentage to eBay, depending on the sale price.

It's so inexpensive that retailers all over the country are cutting back on antiques shows to focus on Internet sales, according to Jim Tucker, director of 4,000-member Antiques and Collectibles Association in Cornelius, N.C.

Others are moving their businesses into their homes, an option that occasionally tempts Crowder as he contemplates his rent, overhead expenses and risks such as theft.

``Once a week, I hear a story about somebody in the business closing shop,'' he said.

While the online market has helped to boost antique prices as demand grows, some dealers say online auctions are stripping antiquing of its romance, reducing the thrill of the hunt to a bland point and click.

``It's cold,'' said Paul Klaver, an Arlington-based dealer of fire fighting collectibles. ``There's no personal interaction.''

Robert Cianfrocca of Salt Marsh Antiques in Rowley has told his customers that he will never sell on the Internet. He said he wants them to know they aren't picking through leftovers that weren't posted online.

``Shop owners who close shop trying to make a quick buck have forgotten the value of their business,'' said Cianfrocca, whose two-story shop smells strongly of its pine-board flooring.

Tucker said he believes the most successful dealers will be those who combine the sensory antiquing experience with the expanded market on the Internet. He also said the early buying frenzy of antiques online has abated, less than half of all items posted on eBay are sold and bids for most average items are generally the same as what items would bring in a store.

``Yes, there's turmoil now,'' Tucker said. ``We don't think there's going to be much change one way or another.''

Rick Grobe, owner of The White Elephant Shop in Essex, has ventured onto the Internet. He has found that taking pictures of the items, describing them, selling them and shipping them is more time-consuming than he thought. The Internet will never replace his two roadside businesses, he said, but he plans to take advantage of its resources.

``It is fun,'' Grobe said, ``I want to get better at it.''