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Online Selling Trends 2014: Fakes Spell Trouble for Vintage Goods

Last week, we kicked off our third annual Online Selling Trends feature in which we ask a panel of industry experts about the challenges and opportunities they see for online sellers in the New Year. This year, we also reached out directly to sellers for their perspective.

In Part One, we turned to a small home-based seller who lists computer parts and upgrades on eBay, Bonanza and eCrater and find the rising cost of shipping to be a major challenge. In Part Two, we spoke to a seller of craft patterns and fragrances who sells on eBay and Etsy and who is looking for ways to automate some tasks and get better exposure for her products and is looking for additional venues on which to sell.

Today in Part 3, we feature a seller of vintage and artisan jewelry and antique silver smalls who has experience selling on several channels including eBay and Ruby Lane and who now concentrates by selling through two stores on Etsy along with a minor presence on Bonanza. She also holds an annual local event in which she sells overstock items.

“Bijoux Dragon” believes prices in her categories are being driven down due in part to demographic trends (an aging customer base), an uneven recovery following the recession, and a flood of counterfeits from abroad. Having sold on a number of ecommerce platforms, it’s this Etsy seller’s fervent wish that Amazon would start allowing the sale of third-party vintage jewelry.

EcommerceBytes: What is your EcommerceBytes Blog handle?

Bijoux Dragon

EcommerceBytes: Describe your business in general terms (what you sell, where you sell/have sold and how big your business is).

Bijoux Dragon: My business at this point is focused on two Etsy shops, Betsy’s Bijoux which is 100% vintage and antique jewelry with a focus on charms and sterling, and Mainely Collectibles which is an eclectic mix of vintage and antique silver smalls such as sterling salts, souvenir spoons, sterling tableware, my handcrafted artisan jewelry and vintage jewelry making supplies. I keep a few modern and uncategorized items on Bonanza at Betsy’s Bargains but do not invest the time or inventory there that I do on Etsy.

One weekend a year I have an overstock sale for which local folks wait the entire year. I hire some help and it’s busy and crazy and the most fun I have in a business sense all year. I miss the face to face customer contact of the pre-internet era.

I started selling on eBay in 1998 and kept sticking with the changes until the last year when it just became untenable. I felt that I no longer owned a business that paid for space on eBay but instead was the modern version of a serf, bound to eBay and beholden to them for any crumb that might fall my way.

When it became obvious that I could not trust transactions to go through the system without the constant fear of either a scam artist stealing my funds or a rival shop destroying my reputation by a small purchase followed by a glowing review but all “1”s in the hidden (DSR feedback) stars, I began to seriously evaluate the future of my business on eBay. This happened one time and I said never again, walked away and did not look back.

I sold on Ruby Lane from 2004 to last fall and, with the changes there decided to move shop. Their focus became on the high end stores with very little coverage for mid level shops. My inventory ranged between $15 for common charms to $500 for Karat gold, and when I spoke with customer service about the fact that I had gone from regularly being in their various mailings to no inclusions for 6 months, their suggestion was to raise the dollar value of my inventory and lose the low ticket items. Then the Red tag sales began. They were a good selling tool until the only discount allowed was 50%. I strongly feel that raising the overall prices to enable a 50% discount back to the original price is reprehensible and I refused to do that. That was the proverbial last straw, and at Etsy I have found a lovely combination of the eBay community atmosphere circa 1999 and the Ruby Lane customer base.

As for size, my businesses require quarterly tax filings so I’m not mini-biz, but I only hire employees approximately 8 hours a month, so I haven’t hit the level I would like to achieve.

EcommerceBytes: What are the biggest challenges facing you going into the New Year?

Bijoux Dragon: The biggest challenges facing me and many vintage sellers is the overall lowering of expected price points and the aging of the usual vintage customer base. The price pressures are in part due to the lowering of incomes across the board from the recession which is still live and well in many parts of the country. America is facing a very uneven recovery which is leaving many people behind which is reducing the total available disposable income. This leads to many shops running frequent sales, a la Ruby Lane’s multiple Red Tag sales, which in turn reduces price levels across the entire market.

The reduced price point expectations is also in part due to flooding of the markets by Chinese companies making copies of vintage products that are sold for pennies on the dollar when compared to the real McCoy. In the jewelry market, just look up bubble necklaces and antique world map watches on Etsy or sterling rings on eBay. Incredibly inexpensive, cheaply made, usually not of the metal content advertised but selling on the something-for-nothing principle. Then, the reviews come in, multiple customer complaints and the seller just re-opens under another name. In the meantime, dealers of quality goods that have been actually handcrafted with care or true vintage items get repeated requests to sell at reduced levels because the item is so much more inexpensive from China.

As for aging of the customer base, many of the people who have been my customer since the early 1990s are now selling, not buying, to move to small apartments, and their children have no interest in vintage. Their grandchildren share their interest but are just trying to deal with college debt and their young families.

The most common vintage items purchased are those that bring forth a childhood memory, and the Millennials childhood treasures are not old enough yet to be seen on the vintage market, and many of their favorite items were electronic and the world has moved past the older technology.

EcommerceBytes: Name one or two things that would make your life easier when it comes to your business.

Bijoux Dragon: The primary thing that would make my life easier is a cessation or at least slowing down of changes at the venues. The amount of time I have spent over the last few years changing picture formats and then sizes is astounding. To make matters worse, it seems that every time there is a change at the parent site, the entire site goes down and is intermittent for weeks; this lack of stability is highly damaging to sellers.

Then the changes required to achieve the coveted Google ranking boggles the mind. Just when I get the Google demon behaving, they change something making for hours of work going through each listing. Of course, included in this no-change dream for the year is a year with no price hikes, be they called fee adjustments, additional services, value added benefits or the million other code words for a rate hike. As a customer at various sites, I hate fees going up because then the prices go up to match, as they should.

Final on my wish list is a fervent wish that Amazon start allowing third party vintage jewelry. I would even start to use the FBA service if Amazon would open the doors to vintage sellers! My business would really take off as would the business of many friends who hope for the same thing.

EcommerceBytes: What’s your most effective marketing tactic?

Bijoux Dragon: For marketing, I have found the team structure on Etsy to be invaluable. Marketing can be done as a group that cannot be done by each individual person.

The adage of strength in numbers is so much truer now that at any time in the past with all the possible sites to use for social media now. Don’t forget adding your website to your comments on the Ecommerce blog; anywhere you may get noticed could result in the next big sale.

Also, word of mouth is worth its weight in gold. Happy customers share your business cards and tell friends about your website. I always include business cards in each package that leaves here; they are like little ambassadors to remind my customer to stop back.

EcommerceBytes: Free shipping or no free shipping?

Bijoux Dragon: There is no such thing as free shipping. A business has to meet certain margins to stay a viable business. The shops that offer constant free shipping have just added the cost of the shipping into their base price. It is the bottom line, price plus shipping, that counts, not just the price of the item alone.

That said, if I receive a large order from a customer who has not requested any discounts and the items are not on sale, I do refund the shipping on that one transaction as a small thank you. If a customer is a repeat customer, I will send them a thank you code for free shipping on their next order with a minimum purchase price set. Because the items I sell are small and shipping is in the 4-5 ounce area, I have a lot more latitude than somebody who sells heavy items.

EcommerceBytes: What’s one thing online sellers may not know but should?

Bijoux Dragon: Sellers need to remember that worse than no information about a product is erroneous information. Just because “everybody” calls something by a certain name, or attributes it to a certain designer, does not make it so. When a knowledgeable customer sees this, they not only do not purchase the particular item but they leave your shop, never to return, and they tell other collectors to avoid your shop.

One example of this in the jewelry field, and this is one of many, is the plethora of sellers incorrectly calling Italian mosaic pieces Micro-mosaics. Huge difference between the two, and collectors avoid sellers who refuse to use the correct names.

EcommerceBytes: Will you be selling online 5 years from now?

Bijoux Dragon: My plan is to continue with selling online plus expand into a local antique mall, but with the internet changes over the last five years, I cannot even begin to guess what the online world will look like in five years.

I do feel that there are more changes to come, hopefully not focusing on cell phones because they are a horrible way to offer merchandise. All I do know is that life is change, but humans have adorned themselves with jewelry since prehistoric eras and will likely continue to do so.

Stay tuned as we hear from industry players in the days ahead as part of EcommerceBytes 2014 Online Selling Trends. Our thanks to participants for taking the time to share their perspective.

Comment on the AuctionBytes Blog, “Are Collectible Markets Really Dying Off?”


Ina Steiner on EmailIna Steiner on LinkedinIna Steiner on Twitter
Ina Steiner
Ina Steiner
Ina Steiner is co-founder and Editor of EcommerceBytes and has been reporting on ecommerce since 1999. She's a widely cited authority on marketplace selling and is author of "Turn eBay Data Into Dollars" (McGraw-Hill 2006). Her blog was featured in the book, "Blogging Heroes" (Wiley 2008). She is a member of the Online News Association (Sep 2005 - present) and Investigative Reporters and Editors (Mar 2006 - present). Follow her on Twitter at @ecommercebytes and send news tips to ina@ecommercebytes.com. See disclosure at EcommerceBytes.com/disclosure/.