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elegant shelf of vintage barware including green plant Courtesy of Everything but the House

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Can You Recreate the Estate Sale Treasure Hunt Online?

What’s gained and what’s lost when Everything but the House takes estate sales digital.

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This is the way it usually goes: You show up at a house. Maybe the owner died recently, and the family’s selling off the contents — that’s common. But it’s also possible the owner is just downsizing, or moving, or getting divorced.

If you’re serious, you get there early, to wait with the other serious people. The first person to get there might give you an informal number on a paper slip, which you’ll later exchange for a formal number, a system devised to ensure first-come, first-serve fairness. Some estate sales — tag sales — have fixed price tags; others are structured as auctions. Generally, the scene is friendly, although it could be cutthroat, depending on where you are and what’s at stake. A Wall Street Journal dispatch from a sale in the Hamptons recounts security guards to control the upscale masses. (Like so many things in the Hamptons, this is not typical.) It’s a diverse crowd: casual shoppers; side-hustlers, looking for underappreciated items to sell on eBay; maybe some art and antique dealers, depending on the sale. Everyone is looking for treasure, whatever that means to them (one man’s trash, etc.). Because to get into estate sales — really into them, not just buy-a-desk into them — you’ve got to get off on the thrill of the hunt.

Estate sales are big business, and growing, thanks in large part to aging boomers who are downsizing en masse. In May, a New York Times article reported there more were than 12,000 estate sale companies operating across the country, the vast majority of them mom-and-pop businesses. Everything but the House, a site that, according to its tagline, “brings the thrill of estate sale shopping online,” gets all that. They just think they can do it better.

Courtesy of Everything but the House

The Cincinnati-based company is aiming to give buyers the full treasure-hunting experience, but without the lines, and the waiting, and the 90 degree heat. There is no dust and no discomfort at an EBTH estate sale, because the actual EBTH estate sales take place online. The company’s strategy: Put the entire contents of a sale up for auction on the internet, and then — the twist — start bidding for every single item at $1. Bidding starts at $1 if it is a set of “Assorted Space Themed Prints” (currently on sale from an estate in Texas), or a World Series ring (it ultimately sold for $89,000), or a horse from a farm in Kentucky.

Unlike other digital auctions — the uniformly high-end Heritage Auctions in Dallas, for example, — EBTH will sell pretty much anything from an extremely valuable Picasso drawing to a gently used refrigerator. Also unlike most of their competitors, they make no gesture toward predetermining value — they write expert descriptions, accurate condition reports, and take crisp, clear photos of each item from every possible angle. Then, they hand it over to the market. As of this writing, the people have decided the space prints are worth $14, a “decorative bowl full of globes” is worth $200, and a “Vintage Budweiser Clydesdale Bar Clock and Light” is going for $465 and counting.

The estate sale industry is by nature a hands-on business, says Jacquie Denny, an industry veteran who co-founded the company with fellow estate sale enthusiast Brian Graves in 2008. One way or another, she explains, companies are going to physical locations and sorting through other people’s physical stuff, both because estate sales are often emotionally fraught, and because those decorative globes don’t sort themselves. “That’s why this industry has stayed in a very stalled mode,” Denny says. Even EBTH — a digital pioneer — thinks of itself as a fundamentally brick-and-mortar business. The company prides itself on its “concierge-style” service, walking clients through the every step of the process, from the initial consultation right up through the final check. And that level of service requires a local staff. Someone needs to be there, figuring out what’s worth selling and what ought to be donated, taking the product photos, managing the shipping. Right now, the company is set up in 27 cities and counting. (Louisville and Cincinnati are big ones, Denny says, though interest from both coasts is “increasing exponentially.”)

Courtesy of Everything but the House

The difference between EBTH and most of its real-world competitors is that it can and does sell to buyers anywhere. Once sales are online, they’re freed from the limitations of the local market. “If I’m a family, and you’re telling me you’re going to put it in the yard for 200 people to bid on, or I’m going to put it up to the world for seven days to bid on, it’s kind of a no-brainer to me,” says Denny. So what if no one in Ohio wants your collection of cake decorations? Someone in New Hampshire could be living for that stuff. (“Assortment of Cake Decorations,” from a sale in Blue Ash, Ohio, is currently listed at $22 with 12 bids, and reader, I cannot lie: I am tempted. That is the hypnotic power of this site.)

Denny credits Graves with the whole bidding-starts-at-one-dollar thing. “I couldn’t imagine my patrons with arts and antiques and diamond jewelry would want to start their stuff at a dollar,” she says. It is somewhat unsettling to start a diamond ring at the same price as a rake. “But pretty soon, he made me realize that with a large enough bidder base and a long enough period of time, it didn’t really matter what you started it at.”

“I think it’s a psychological thing,” Denny says. When everything starts at a dollar, bidding feels “achievable.” And once people start bidding, they get invested in the process and keep bidding, as the price creeps up in gentle increments, two or five or ten dollars at a time.

Somewhat counterintuitively, this does not lead to particularly good deals. EBTH works as well as it does largely because people end up paying more than they might if they encountered the item at a traditional sale. “The lower barrier to entry has more people jumping in the [bidding] pool, which creates more momentum on the item, which creates more ownership on the part of all the bidders who are at the table.” It also changes who’s buying, and what.

Erin Curd and Sarah Fabian, thirtysomething friends in Michigan, run the blog Dig This Treasure, which is dedicated to chronicling their (IRL) estate sale finds. They are younger than the most of their compatriots, and more female: According to them, the crowd skews significantly older and notably male. As they explain it, they’re shopping for themselves — their houses are decorated with estate sale successes — but they’re also on the lookout for stuff to resell on eBay, which makes them what the industry calls pickers — people who sift through sales for overlooked treasures, pieces that they can buy low and sell high online or at flea markets. Both consider themselves hobbyists — Curd is an editor, Fabian is an academic librarian — but the money is not insignificant. At her peak, Curd estimates, she was bringing in $800 to $1,000 a month, not counting expenses. (Fabian’s more conservative guess is closer to $500.)

Courtesy of Everything but the House

“The good thing about going to an estate sale in person is that you can find a deal... we’ve bought stuff for $5 and sold it for $500.” Once, Fabian found a Beatles film in a box of cards; she bought the box for $10 and ultimately sold the film for $400. Pickers depend on hidden treasures like that — stuff that’s value has either been overlooked or undiscovered. But that kind of misstep doesn’t really happen online.

If you want to make extra cash, there are almost certainly more efficient ways to do it. For Curd and Fabian, who both grew up going to garage sales with their dads (garage sales are a gateway drug), the money is a substantial motivator, but it’s not really the point. “The unknown is the most fun part,” says Curd. “There might be something crazy, like unearthed treasures.” It is also an anthropological exercise. “I hear from friends of mine, ‘I can’t believe you can go rummage through someone’s house — that’s so personal.’ But to me, it’s fascinating to see how other people lived,” she says. “And because so often someone has passed away, it’s interesting to see what you leave behind. What are these objects that represent who you were and what you liked?” Estate sales are the best place to buy a used Herman Miller chair while simultaneously coming to terms with your own mortality.

Alienating the picker market doesn’t bother Denny; EBTH isn’t for them, anyway. “The online consumer is an end-buyer,” she says. EBTH customers like the idea of estate sales, but they don’t want to dedicate their whole weekend to the hunt. They aren’t looking for a vintage lamp they can resell on eBay; they’re looking for a vintage lamp that’ll look cool in their living room. “The people coming to our site,” Denny says, “are people who just love really unique items to decorate with, and they don’t mind paying. If an item retails for $100, they don’t mind paying $60 — it’s still a win to them.” (It is also a win to EBTH, which will take the standard industry cut — roughly 35 percent, depending on the item.) “It’s a totally different thing,” agrees Matt Ellison, who handles marketing for EstateSales.net, a national advertising platform for estate sales and auctions around the country. As he sees it, online estate sales won’t ever replace the real life ones. “They’re just going to be in addition to them.”

Courtesy of Everything but the House

The trickier question is how to translate the excitement of treasure hunting into an easy-to-use online experience. It is an inherently contradictory mission: Treasure hunts, by their very nature, are not known for their intuitive U/X.

And on the surface, bidding at EBTH does feel a lot like shopping any other contemporary website. It’s streamlined, familiar, and eminently searchable: If you’re browsing, you can scroll through individual sales in their entirety. But you can also search by category, or good old-fashioned search term. You can search by region, date, or popularity. The site itself curates themed sales, too: You might browse “Divine Inspiration” (religious artifacts), “Time’s Up” (clocks), or “Holiday Décor” (exactly what it sounds like).

But the company has also found ways to capture the intimacy of traditional estate sales. The product photos are excellent, but by design, they are not uniformly perfect. The site is easy to navigate, but not so easy that you won’t accidentally find yourself lured into an unplanned bidding war over a dead man’s sweaters. By browsing entire sales, you can still peer into another life, even if you can’t actually walk through it. To compensate, the company also features “Seller Stories,” brief and upbeat glimpses into the lives of the people behind the sale, who they are and what they loved. “More than anything, we love the seller stories,” says Denny. “We love that [an item] came from this eclectic 90-year-old woman who traveled the world.” As much you’re buying the object, she says, you’re “buying a piece of a story.”

EBTH is certainly not the only place to buy used and vintage on the internet. “There are a lot of auction companies that have done this,” Ellison says; eBay, he points out, which bears some similarity to EBTH, first launched as AuctionWeb in 1995. But in terms of companies specifically digitizing estate sales, he acknowledges, “there’s not a whole lot.” eBay is an online bidding platform, but it doesn’t particularly specialize in estate sales, and anyway, sellers have to manage every aspect of the process themselves.

birdseye view of tabletop with flowers, bowls, and canisters Courtesy of Everything but the House

There are plenty of companies that do specialize in estates, but the majority of them don’t have a digital component. Caring Transitions, an estate sale company that offers clients a huge range of downsizing and senior services, is closer: It does have an online component and everything does start at a dollar, but it’s clunky and dark, for savvy estate salers and not online shoppers used to the sunny, streamlined experience of browsing Restoration Hardware or J.Crew. There are lots of places that do bits and pieces of what EBTH offers, but as Denny sees it, there is nobody else offering the whole package, hands-on service and e-commerce. From the company’s perspective, it’s alone in the space.

At least for now. The industry has been slow to adapt to the web; most estate sale companies are small shops, and building out a full e-commerce system is complicated. But the industry is changing. “A couple years from now,” Ellison says, the landscape is “going to be totally different.” EstateSales.net, he says, is in the process of building its own online sales platform.

Despite its look (bright, breezy) and its platform (digital), EBTH’s biggest buyers aren’t all that different from the ones lining up outside suburban houses with numbers. The top spenders on the site are still men aged 55-65 buying high-end electronics, art, coins, and jewelry, Denny says. But the site’s aesthetic — and its marketing plan — makes it clear that EBTH is eager to cultivate a younger, web-savvier demographic (and it could be working: Women aged 35-55 make up the largest volume of sales). Design-conscious millennial shoppers have “really, really embraced the site,” Denny says.

Courtesy of Everything but the House

The company has recently kicked off a handful of sponsored media partnerships with a handful of woman-focused lifestyle brands: A series running on PopSugar offers advice on “How to Buy Vintage Online” and “The Home Decor Items You Should Always Buy Vintage.” At Goop, you can learn the presumably Gwyneth-approved “New Rules of Decorating with Vintage.” It’s been leaning into Instagram, too, making arrangements with various influencers (terms vary), from stylist and HGTV Design Star Emily Henderson to Bri Emery, founder of the aptly-named dreamy Los Angeles lifestyle blog designlovefest. Recently, Charlotte Ronson used the site to pare down her possessions in preparation for a move with her minimalist boyfriend (a Seller Story). To celebrate its launch in New York City, the company hosted a dinner with author/blogger/interior designer Heather Clawson of Habitually Chic.

So far, it’s working. These days, the company, which has raised a total of $84.5 million in VC funding, runs more than 200 estate sales a month, and the count keeps climbing. At the end of August, it announced it had surpassed a million bids per month. In September, EBTH launched services in Baltimore, and in October, it made its New York City debut. While its next targets have yet to be determined, the company is aiming to expand internationally “probably within the next three years,” Denny says. Improving shipping efficiency is another top priority for the company: Right now, far-away buyers tend to bid on smaller items for the obvious reason that it’s difficult and expensive to get a monolithic credenza across country. It already has the global market in place: According to the company, it has bidders from 130 countries. All together, the site brings in one million unique visitors a month. And the numbers keep growing. Fortune estimates that in 2014, EBTH brought in just under $5 million in revenue across what was then 14 cities. In 2015, EBTH had expanded to 16 cities, and was reporting a “gross auction revenue” of $30 million, which Fortune estimates is “at least $10 million” in revenue. The company declined to comment as to whether the business is yet profitable.

The cake decoration assortment has sold. I was too late, or too practical. The bowl of globes is gone, too (final price: $282.) As for the Vintage Budweiser Clydesdale Bar Clock and Light? That went for $700. A fair price? The market thinks so.

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