The Faceless Salesman

How can personal contact thrive in the online marketplace?

“More people are buying online. I know that from my own website. But in our world people still want to make personal contact” — Antiques & The Arts Weekly

Dealers and specialists are attracted to the personal nature of transactions in the industry. Beyond their passion for their niche, most dedicated tradesmen find the art of the sale to be part of what makes them unique. However, it’s very difficult to translate this age-old technique into the digital era: most online platforms embrace a listing service that allows you to post items into a searchable database, largely eliminating the opportunity to guide prospective buyers in the process.

Is this a problem with how people sell? The guiding argument for most third-party sales platforms is to let someone else do the selling. That selling process, however, is not based on contacts or charm, but exposure and optimization. It assumes a generic consumer relationship in which someone enters the marketplace with a specific demand, and whomever’s first in line, or best in show, stands to make a sale.

But that’s not how it works. So much of the reason that a mere fraction of the industry has yet to break out of the analog world and digitize their business has to do with a reluctance to embrace the digital sales method.

It’s incredibly hard to wash away decades of personal sales experience and embrace the internet. The psychology of dealers dictates that their ultimate success, and the degree of their profit, largely stem from these intangible factors. Lists of clients, international reputations, and long business histories indicate that they’re on to something, too.

In short, it’s the hands-off method that rattles most art dealers most of all. If experience says the sales process affects the ultimate price realized, then how could posting one’s best objects online and leaving them there for the uninitiated consumer to browse through be best for the business?

This is why so many aggregate marketplaces for arts and antiques seem caught between worlds for their constituents: neither a listing service nor a fully automated marketplace, most dealers end up paying for a high level of service while still needing to play the sales game. Some of the top dealers benefit from the process, but many are either disenfranchised by it, or see the cost of doing business erode the potential profits therein. Furthermore, the unchallenged assumption that the typical art or antique buyer wants to trade intimacy for immediacy seems a better fit for the tools of the internet rather than the traditions of the trade.

It seems time for a paradigm shift — either the old method of personal dealing will lose out to the connected, mass marketplaces of the world, or selling online will need to change towards a personalized and interactive method. The tools to bridge people together already exist: chances are you’re reading this on your cell phone, which has already revolutionized the way we communicate with each other. All that’s left to decide on is which method best fits our industry, and find our way forward without forgetting the essence of how we trade.