When the economy took a downturn, and took tourism down with it, Paula Hutchison found it too difficult to keep her New Hampshire antique shop open yearround. Instead of letting her business sit quiet for six months out of the year, the seller decided to take her items online.
“I believe that [being] online has brought the convenience of antiquing into the home,” says Hutchison, who set up shop on Bonanza (then Bonanzle) in 2008.
Now antique enthusiasts, like herself, can browse through her rustic brick-and-mortar shop, an 1840s barn, from May to October, and they can shop any time of year in her Bonanza booth, Barntiques859.
Many of her local shoppers do both, she says.
Barntiques859 features hundreds of vintage finds Hutchison has uncovered at estate sales in her area, like primitive items, fine China and vases, rustic stoves and unique furniture.
The seller’s love for the old can be traced back to her youth. Having grown up in New England, Hutchison has been around items from the past since she was a kid.
“Colonialism and primitives were abound,” she recalls. “Grammar school field trips to places like the Old Sturbridge Village, the Plymouth Plantation and nautical museums were always my favorite times of my youth, and places to come back to when I brought my family home for visits.”
When she moved to Nevada, she learned to appreciate the history of her roots and items from yesteryear. And when she later returned to New England, the retired physical therapist went into the antiques business.
Venturing onto the Web
Hutchison sold in a brick-and-mortar shop for years, but ventured online to cut costs and reduce her reliance on tourists for making sales. She started on eBay, but after having a bad holiday selling season, the merchant sought another marketplace and discovered Bonanza, she notes.
“The auction format just wasn’t cutting it for me, and the store and listing prices were too high,” Hutchison explains.
Bonanza’s fee structure was reasonable, Hutchison says, and she decided to make it her business’ primary home. However, the seller does sell a few items on Addoway, a social marketplace, and still posts some products on eBay when she wants to move something quickly, or has a rarity on her hands.
“eBay still gets the traffic and is used for searches more than other sites,” she notes.“Some folks are inexperienced buying online. Try to see if from their side. As my kids say, suck it up and move on”
‘Old fashioned’ customer care
But regardless of the marketplace, Hutchison’s aim is always the same: Give customers unique, quality items and leave them smiling.
She does this the “old fashioned way,” by bending over backward and assuring customers “they’re always right,” she explains. Another key to building good relationships with buyers, especially in the online selling world, is describing any flaws—however major or minor—an item has, she adds.
This means noting all scratches and signs of distress in her descriptions, and providing shoppers with multiple photos of each product so they can see every angle.
“I sometimes double check with the customer to make sure they know [an item] is old, not new, and that there is a minor imperfection [if there is one],” she adds.
Being so thorough has helped Hutchison maintain a more than 99-percent positive feedback score. In the rare instance that buyers are unhappy with a transaction, Hutchison does what she can to make things right by accepting returns or giving a refund.
“I want us all to be happy,” she notes.
Hutchison reminds other sellers that it’s always important to admit mistakes and maintain a level head during every part of a transaction. “Don’t argue,” she advises. “Be gracious. Some folks are inexperienced buying online. Try to see if from their side. As my kids say, suck it up and move on.”
Stocking her inventory
New Hampshire, where Hutchison operates her brick-and-mortar shop, is a premiere spot for items from the past, and happens to be the auction capital of the country, she notes. There are also plenty of estate sales to attend in the area, and Hutchison goes to her fair share, though she admits these can be “tricky” sourcing venues.
“Buying is tricky. Bidding is trickier,” she admits.
This is because the deals are sometimes too hard to pass up, the seller says, admitting that she has to remind herself to look for craftsmanship in a product, and not let the great deals sway her.
“At one point, I had a three-car garage full of items and bought everything just because the deals were too good to pass up,” she explains. “Now I try to restrain myself to the odd, unusual, useful items. The operative words here are ‘try’ and ‘restrain.’”
Previewing items before the sale and really examining them has helped, though the seller admits that, even then, she sometimes can’t help but place the highest bid.“The streets online are not paved in gold. The days of ‘list, sit and sold’ are gone. It’s time to promote”
After Hutchison gets the items to stock her store is the tasks of cleaning, photographing and listing products—and then promoting them.
“Today’s market calls for more than the ‘sit and list’ mentality of the ’80s,” she adds. “One must be full time. One must be proactive with tweeting, Facebooking, websites, online search engines, ads, etc.”
This can be the biggest challenge of operating an online business, but staying up to date on trends helps. Speaking in forums with other merchants to see what’s working for them is also important, Hutchison adds.
Interaction is vital, she notes. “Sales depend on it.”
New sellers should take note of the work involved in starting an online venture, and not feel overwhelmed or discouraged by the marketing process. It’s just something that has to be done, Hutchison notes.
“They must realize that the streets online are not paved in gold,” she adds. “As I said, the days of ‘list, sit and sold’ are gone. It’s time to promote.”
This starts with how you present your items, specifically, the photos and descriptions you provide. “It all must look professional, be stated honestly and completely, and the buyer must be treated with respect to persuade them to return again,” Hutchison notes.
Cutting no corners
If merchants note that items are taking longer to sell than they would like, they should revisit listings and edit them. Hutchison does this often, taking new photos, updating descriptions, repricing goods and overall assessing how a product’s being marketed.
Remember what it’s like to be a buyer as you prepare your listings—and don’t wait to ship off packages, she adds. “[As a buyer], I want my item yesterday, and I want it soon, while I am still excited about it.”
She also reminds us that shoppers want products that look like they did in the photos. That means avoiding retouches that will enhance items and not show them in their true nature. “[As a buyer], I want honesty,” she continues. “Describe it to a ‘T.’ Do not omit a flaw,” and offer customers fair prices.
Lastly, she says, merchants should be willing to take returns if there is a disagreement with what the buyer expected and what they got. “Word of mouth is too precious,” she adds.
Visit Barntiques859 on Bonanza.