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Thursday, 23 January 2014

The game-changer for antiques shops

 - Barbara Rosin, co-owner of Douglas Rosin Decorative Arts & Antiques - John R. Boehm
Barbara Rosin, co-owner of Douglas Rosin Decorative Arts & Antiques
John R. Boehm

Antiques are traditionally not a volume business. But Thomas Jolly, owner of River North's Thomas Jolly Antiques, has sold 60 or so Black Forest antler mounts in the past three months, a number unreachable from Chicago foot traffic alone.

Mr. Jolly sells the antlers, which range from $495 to $2,800 a pop, and other wares, mostly 17th- to 19th-century European antiques, through a website called His customer base has grown from Chicago and the occasional tourist to Europe, Canada and Abu Dhabi.
“Now I have worldwide exposure,” he says. “It's really changed the dynamic of my business.”
New York-based 1stdibs brings together international dealers in antiques and vintage furniture, fine art, jewelry, vintage couture and even high-end real estate—essentially a curated, visual marketplace of luxury goods. Resources that only were accessible through private Rolodexes are available to anyone who wants to log on.
“They've taken a fragmented business of upscale luxury retail and brought it together,” says Doug Van Tress of River North's Golden Triangle, which sells about one piece a week on 1stdibs, including, recently, a gold 18th-century Thai temple cabinet to a business executive in Dubai.
The website is a private club of sorts and vets dealers before allowing them access. To qualify, a seller must show a pattern of consistent good taste and high-quality merchandise. Customers trust dealers that 1stdibs has anointed as a member, and that stamp of approval goes so far that dealers can sell a $10,000 table sight unseen to a client who may live halfway around the world.
1stdibs accounts for 65 percent of Thomas Jolly's sales.
1stdibs accounts for 65 percent of Thomas Jolly's sales. "It's really changed the dynamic of my business," he says.
John R. Boehm

Though other businesses have used websites to bring like-minded businesses or individuals together (Etsy for the artistic community, for instance), it's much more common for such sites to focus on money-saving deals, as is the case with OneKingsLane or Zappos. 1stdibs is unique in the luxury marketplace for its emphasis on rare goods and its lack of emphasis on bargains.
When 1stdibs, which started in Paris in 2001, expanded to Chicago, it signed Mr. Jolly, Douglas Rosin Decorative Arts & Antiques and another dealer, Antiques on Old Plank Road. Now there are 1,700 dealers on the site, 40 based in the Chicago area. The vetting process includes a visit by either founder Michael Bruno or a member of his team.
1stdibs charges a monthly subscription fee starting at $500, which includes 15 postings.
Paradoxically, being part of such an elite club has democratized the luxury business, at least from a dealer standpoint. A small shop with exquisite merchandise can compete against large operations. The common denominator is good taste, not overhead budget.
“That's the power of 1stdibs,” Mr. Van Tress says. “They help the little guy compete on equal footing .” provides an online storefront so even mom-and-pops with limited resources can have a professional e-commerce site. But more important is the wider customer base, exponentially increasing traffic for antiques dealers. It “attracts serious, qualified buyers,” says Neil Goltz, vice president of Chicago-based furniture store Jayson Home.
Inclusion on the site can make or break an antiques dealer these days. “We wouldn't be in business if we were not on 1stdibs,” says Barbara Rosin, co-owner of Douglas Rosin Decorative Arts & Antiques in River North.
Robert Zizzo, owner of Modlife - John R. Boehm
Robert Zizzo, owner of Modlife
John R. Boehm

The site accounted for 45 percent of Ms. Rosin's business last year. She has sold pieces to nearly every continent; dealers report a heavy client concentration on the East and West coasts.
Robert Zizzo, owner of Modlife on the North Side, says prices for 20th-century modern furniture are higher on the coasts, particularly in California, where there is a lot of midcentury architecture. Sometimes he has pieces in his Chicago showroom priced thousands of dollars cheaper than comparable pieces in Palm Springs.
“That could lead to a significant savings even after the cost of shipping has been added,” Mr. Zizzo says.
Online success and the changing nature of the business have some antiques dealers wondering whether to keep a brick-and-mortar store at all. 1stdibs used to require that all of its dealers maintain a storefront, and most still do, says Stacy McLaughlin, director of communications, but the company no longer is making that a sticking point.
Ms. Rosin says that, for now, a store still makes sense. “My expense of doing business on 1stdibs would be the same for me in a warehouse building or if I was in my shop, so why not be here?” she says.
Mr. Jolly says 1stdibs accounts for 65 percent of his business. He has a second store and warehouse space in Buchanan, Mich., and has considered leaving the city. “For now I think it's important to have a presence in Chicago, but it's something to consider down the road,” he says.
Mr. Van Tress, who has an elaborately decorated, block-long store, still prefers the traditional retail experience.
“I'm kind of old school,” he says. “My heart is really in meeting people in the store. The old model is expensive in some ways, but it's still great. That being said, I'm adapting to the new reality, and so far, so good.”


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