BY LAUREN INDVIK
Christie's, a 250-year-old auction house with showrooms spanning from New York to Shanghai, is expanding it's online catalog to reach new — namely, younger — customers more akin to making purchases from their laptop computers than in a formal auction house.
This year, Christie's is dramatically increasing the number and breadth of online-only auctions from seven to about 40, bringing accessibly priced objects and works of art to engage with what a spokesperson calls "early adopters." These auctions are separate from Christie's LIVE, which allows consumers to tune in to and bid on real-time auctions around the world. The online-only auctions, which began about a year-and-a-half ago, function more like eBay, allowing shoppers to browse and submit bids on items in a two-week timeframe.
Last month, Christie's held an online-only auction for 41 images by American photographer Diane Arbus. Her pieces have fetched more than half a million dollars in previous auctions, but Christie's offered a more affordable selection, ranging from $4,000 to $9,000. (In the end, the most expensive went for $32,000; the least, $6,500.) Currently, Christie's is hosting online-only auctions for vintage accessories, as well as prints and photographs from Andy Warhol.Wine is another popular category.
Overseeing the growth in online sales is former Gilt Groupe executive John Auerbach, who joined Christie's in November as international managing director of e-commerce. Auerbach previously, oversaw Gilt's full-priced men's retail site Park & Bond, which was folded into Gilt Man in September.
Auerbach says the online auctions, though still in their infancy, have delivered thus far on their promises. An online-only sale attracts bidders from 35 countries on average, 70% of whom are new to Christie's. Auerbach declined to name specifics but said that a "material percentage" are younger buyers.
"A lot of wealth in the last decade was created by people in 30s and 40s, and online sales give those people a moment to step out of their working day to get involved in collecting and interacting with Christie's in a way they couldn't before," Auerbach says. "We're creating a channel for people to buy that's native to them."
Auerbach says the company looks to a number of factors when deciding what to sell only online versus in a showroom. The first hurdle, he says, is to make sure that whatever Christie's is offering is unique and exclusive to Christie's. "Beyond that, it's about matching Christie's specific areas of expertise and customer niches, finding the right offering for specific groups of customers."
Auerbach says that luxury goods do particularly well online, as do multiples, prints and photographs. "There's no category that doesn't make sense online, but you might see a more accessible starting price point in online sales than in offline sales," he says. "But it's the same cataloguing and authentication process, finding the best of the best, things we all think are unique and special and exciting."
Room for Improvement
As part of its investment in online channels, Christie's is not only increasing the number of online-only auctions, but working to make the experience "as tactile as possible," Auerbach says. That includes more images, better zoom capabilities, 360-degree rotating images and video, as we'll as input from specialists on a particular lot. "We want online bidders to have enough information to go on when making their decision ," says Auerbach.
According to eMarketer's estimates, 15% of U.S. online purchases will take place on mobile devices this year, but Christie's has yet to fully optimize for smartphones and tablets beyond a mobile-optimized web site and SMS alert system. Auerbach says that mobile is a "large focus" and that Christie's is already seeing some traffic and bidding from those devices on its mobile web site. Online-only sales are not currently available in Christie's iOS app, but will be soon, he says.
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