Auction Aggregators have quietly and successfully become a key element in the digital auction landscape over the preceding 5 years. This article takes a look at how this has happened and what it might mean for auctioneers in the near future. If it provokes you to want to talk further, please do not hesitate to get in touch so we can continue the debate on and offline.
Quality auctioneers have traditionally been ‘market makers’ acting as intermediaries in a double sided market, offering a discrete service for buyers and sellers. The value that they add, in terms of their expertise on the value of items and their provenance, is indisputable. Success is achieved by a balance of trust and appeal with vendors and the successful management of demand and price discretion when dealing with buyers.
Traditionally we’ve been used to the charisma of the auctioneer on the rostrum, working their room to get the best price outcome for vendors. Their art is in creating creating desire amongst buyers so that they feel they are ‘winning’. There is always going to be an element of tension for the traditional auctioneer who needs to maximise his/her margins across an entire sale, and sometimes where there are multiple similar items it can be a challenge to satisfy vendors that have set reserve prices without discretion due to the limited audience in the room. This is where the auctioneers ‘experience’ and ability to advise vendors will always win out. (Online automated channels can’t do this as effectively)
The past five years have seen a paradigm shift in the auction industry, with exponential growth in online technology in the auction market space. Professional auctioneers that embraced the internet, and invested in their own platforms as ‘early adopters’ learnt that it was an expensive exercise and happily engaged with the new auction aggregators when they launched, as they would charge nominal fees for marketing and conducting live internet viewing and online bidding for them. The level of friction in generating new buyers, managing bidding and growing the buyer channel was significantly reduced by the new marketing channel.
By nominal, the fees are typically managed by way of a listing fee (the marketing element, often dependent on overall volume spend) and a hammer fee on top of buyers commission, generally c3%. Over time the new channels drove traffic and new buyers, and the quality auctioneers that joined gave the auction aggregators much needed industry reputation and quality products to market. (This seemed like a natural win-win at the time because it was prohibitively expensive to try and do it individually.)
Auction aggregators started to become a force in the late 2000’s through the use of live webcast technology, allowing auctioneers to ‘broadcast’ their auctions from the room out into the world of the internet. Initial adoption was slow, but as the top platforms realised, if they could get the larger provincial auctioneers onto the platform it would grow. By 2012 the main players were established with powerful networks and sound technology. They consolidated their position further by creating online portals and bringing all of the auctions together into a single platform for the user. (Think of ‘Right Move’ for auctioneers)! They then developed back office systems with ‘hard lock-ins’ to their portal technology and developed content generation strategies to reinforce their position in search.
The online bidding auction aggregators ‘enabled’ auctioneers to load their content directly onto the aggregator platform, therefore ‘generating’ content and building up a content rich catalogue of auction content over time. Whilst a number of auctioneers do not allow hammer prices to show, the aggregators still hold all of this data and can use it internally. A number of aggregators offer paid services to auctioneers, vendors and buyers to search their hammer content which they can monetise further.
As this channel has matured into a multi-million pound industry in its own right, it has now become normal for buyers who use the aggregator channels to accept that they will have a c3% uplift on the standard commission fees payable to the auctioneer. Equally, over time and as the channel has delivered more business to the auctioneer, in nearly all cases the auctioneer passes these costs onto the buyer and collects monies on behalf of the aggregator. The 3% ‘surcharge’ is not probably not seen as barrier to entry by users of the aggregated channel as they do not have a direct dealing with the auction house. (However, our recent learning has shown that established buyers have recently begun to book more phone lines to avoid the surcharge, and some aggregator channels are publicly stating that they will increase their surcharges by around 65%. They need to be careful that they don’t damage the structural advantage that they have built)
The popularity of auction market aggregators has increased significantly in the last 2 years, with nearly all auctioneers using one platform or another. However, for the larger auctioneers, their aggregated spend on these platforms has been increasing. Sometimes to the point where it reaches six figures annually. With the reduction in technology costs and the multitude of software providers looking to offer ‘live bidding’ the marketplace for this percentage of revenue share model is beginning to show the early stages of competition, something the larger players are seeing as a threat. To that end some auctioneers and smaller competitors are stating that the beginning of protectionism is being practiced by the established players to try and stop them competing. (One of the smaller live bidding players has recently launched an anti-competitive claim with the competition and markets authority that may cause the landscape to change in the medium term. Judgement on whether to proceed will be made in May 2017 – you can read more here.)
The major players in the UK at the time of writing are thesaleroom.com, and in the US Live Auctioneers and Invaluable. There are many other providers in the space looking to take some market share, but it is difficult to compete in this space with the larger players as they have developed significant structural advantage through the reach of their networks, and the bargaining power with auctioneers is in their hands at the time of writing.
Competition is good for the consumer (buyer and seller in the case of auctioneers) but with the level of structural advantage and network power demonstrated by the major players it will only be driven positively if auctioneers collectively use their bargaining power to drive better deals for themselves. At the moment this seems to be offset by an industry that has high levels of internal rivalry, therefore finds it hard to create the ‘collective’ bargaining power to drive change.
These conditions make it relatively easy for the aggregator to divide and rule. For users, they begin to view the aggregator as the brand they trust, not the auctioneer, who has got the consignment, researched , catalogued, described and priced the items. Similar to the changes seen in financial services, property and travel, (Confused.com, Zoopla, Trivago) and retail (Amazon, Groupon) the customer starts to see these as the brand to trust and the aggregator secures all of the valuable data and transactional history for these users, not the auctioneer.
This in turn puts less pressure on the aggregators to drive product differentiation and passes bargaining power to them. The barrier to entry for the aggregator channels is low for both auctioneers and consumers, and the barrier to exit is high for auctioneers. This is partially underlined by the aggregators strategy to ‘keep’ consumers (users) in their digital ecosystem as much as possible. The outcome could be similar to that seen in online retail with the likes of Amazon, applying increased fees to the supplier over time, and fees to the consumer being capped or abolished – solidifying the user traffic to the aggregator channel and potentially beginning the process of anonymising the auctioneer. (It is worth noting that the UK’s leading aggregator has recently gone on record to state that only 10% of auctions are performed online at the time of writing, so ongoing growth is seen as a known)
The main advantage of the aggregators for quality auctioneers has been the brand recognition, broader marketing touch points, and audience of new buyers that they bring to the auctioneers. Other than the listing fees, historically this could be seen as a cost neutral marketing initiative from a brand halo perspective, and an easy way to begin new marketing relationships with buyers from the aggregator platform. For smaller auctioneers it’s an even bigger draw, and we have seen a lot of new entrants to the market empowered and enabled by the online bidding aggregators. Its clear that to date the channel has had positive outcomes for the growth of the auction industry and the access/understanding of the market and lowered barrier to entry for the consumer.
Auctioneers have historically seen the aggregator channels as advantageous in attracting vendors by offering them the increased share of buyer attention they provide; but as platform usage has normalised in the industry it is no longer such a selling point, with vendors often expecting their items to be listed on multiple aggregator platforms as standard.
Enter other players in this channel, such as Barneby’s who have raised in the region of $12MM in venture capital since 2015. They aggregate the auctioneers own content and push prospective buyers into the auctioneers own web site. Strategically this is an interesting concept for the auctioneer who has their own web technology. If the content aggregator can create enough awareness, and push enough traffic to the auctioneers web site; and that web site can provide a meaningful experience tailored to that users wants and needs, and if the user user experience is engaging – it stands to reason that the user is likely to either sign up for Auction Alerts, create an account, place commission bids, interact with a timed sale, or a white labelled live bidding platform. The revenue model for the content aggregator is cost per click, or cost per thousand impressions. This concept is simple, to understand, but often viewed with suspicion by auctioneers that have had bad experiences with pay per click services such as Google Adwords in the past.
Barneby’s success is based on driving volume of traffic to web sites much as ecommerce affiliates have done for many years. The difference is they are channel focussed and have created an auction portal that reflects lifestyle values to prospective internet users. Their aggregated content is achieved via content scraping and amalgamation within their own web infrastructure, providing time ordered, categorised listings that link directly to the auctioneers lots on their web site. The vast range and choice appeals to the internet users desire to ‘find it fast’ and across multiple catalogues in a single view. They are now breaking into other ways of managed promoted search/referral with traditional media partners and their revenue paths are maturing as they adopt a media buying agency model on top of the content marketing strategy.
So with the content aggregators, in theory the auctioneer collects more data from across the spectrum, (assuming their web technology is competent) and if you recall our recent blog post on data you will see how important this is. The content aggregators ultimately have to prove their value by developing complex analytical reporting, in the way that ecommerce affiliates did, to prove the click to value of the referred traffic. This is an interesting problem to solve when looking at the quality of auction web sites in the market, and their ability to even create customer accounts or accept commission bids, let alone track them. The overriding barrier for Barneby’s is in getting access to the post click data to demonstrate the true value of their channel.
But, its worth noting that online bidding aggregators coax auctioneers into their closed online platforms then the door will be closed to them in terms of referred traffic in the main.
So, looking at the content aggregators that drive traffic to the auctioneers web site, I can hear auctioneers protesting that the online bidding aggregators do the same. Lets take a look…
Where does the referred traffic to the auctioneers web site really come from? I took a sample slice of data across 80K ‘referred’ user visits to one of our clients over a 4 week period to see where their traffic came from. I stripped out any direct and Google search traffic to see genuine third party referred sources which left c32K sessions and this is what I found;
- Auction alert marketing – email (20,459 sessions, 0.3% registration*)
- Google paid search (4,283 sessions, 2.08% registration)
- Facebook unpaid activity (2,756 sessions, 0.36% registration**)
- Content aggregator (2,333 sessions, 0.64% registration)
- Facebook paid search (468 sessions, 0% registration)
(*) To be expected as the email alerts are generally considered to be a retention marketing activity and represent the highest generator of commission bidding revenue on the Auction Marketer platform
(**) This fits in which findings across other commerce disciplines that social can be difficult to monetise.
Page averages across all channels with the exception of Google paid search (45% lower overall page views, but CPC traffic is always directed to specific landing pages) was similar.
It is worth noting that the Google organic traffic which is attributed to the clients Auction Marketer web platform is by far and away the largest, (and least expensive convertor) generating 44K sessions with a 4.9 page average and 1.23% conversion to registration. Read more about the importance of brand independence for auctioneers here.
However, when we looked at the content aggregator referred traffic and filtered it against users that performed a further search* ‘within’ the auctioneers web site, the registration rate leapt to 5.13% and page views increased to 6.68 pages per session. It is a key learning that the experience delivered to the user via a referral from content aggregators needs to be more tailored to drive monetisation of the channel. Just linking to lot detail is not necessarily the experience that delivers greatest value to the auctioneer.
*Worth noting that all referred traffic that performed a further search resulted in better registration and bid through rates.
The top live bidding aggregator referrals came in at position 106, with a mere 3 referrals and no registrations. This shows that the strategy of the live bidding aggregators is to funnel traffic away from the auctioneers web site where possible in order to own the user journey and gather as much user data as possible. Understandable for them, but how does it work to help the auctioneer in the long run?
We know that live bidding aggregators provide lots of faces, but they are usually anonymous – until they win. Only at that point can the auctioneer ‘legally’ communicate with them.
In some cases, all registered bidders on the live bidding aggregator platforms are provided to the auctioneer pre-sale, but due to the PECR regulations concerning data governance the rules are strict and a fine of up to £500,000 can be levied per breach.
The crux of it is below;
The rules on electronic mail marketing are in regulation 22. In short, you must not send electronic mail marketing to individuals, unless:
- they have specifically consented to electronic mail from you; or
- they are an existing customer who bought (or negotiated to buy) a similar product or service from you in the past, and you gave them a simple way to opt out both when you first collected their details and in every message you have sent.
Point two allows the auctioneer to ‘invite’ any user to register for further marketing with them as part of their transaction initiated by the aggregator as part of the transaction process*.
The content aggregators forgo this by driving traffic to the auctioneer, and it is up to the auctioneer to ‘persuade’ the referred user to sign up to their marketing communications. However, both the online bidding and content aggregators do offer email alerts to users and access to these lists is available to auctioneers on a managed basis by paying the aggregator on a ‘per-mailing’ basis. After all, data is the key to monetisation for all of the aggregator channels.
(*There is some opinion amongst auctioneers that the registered bidders provided by aggregators could also be contacted in a similar manner as they registered to bid in a sale ‘conducted’ by the auctioneer and ‘facilitated’ by the aggregator, but the position in law is ‘grey’, and carries potential risk due to the fact that the aggregator does not ask for opt-in to the auctioneer at the time of registration; only to the bidding channel. Any auctioneer following this model should be careful to ensure that they store the contact source and contact history in their databases should a challenge arise.)
So what does the future hold for the online auction aggregation market?
Well, there are some interesting forces at work here. The reduced barrier to entry that the aggregator gives to the internet user is a useful tool for both players, but the actual market maker is not currently the aggregator, it is the auctioneer. Without the auctioneer there is no content, no product, no trust, no expertise. The auctioneer though, is a single entity in a big online world, (albeit sometimes with multiple points of presence) and cannot achieve the breadth of reach that the aggregator can, in turn the aggregator cannot reasonably ‘become’ an auctioneer.
But recently we have heard argument that the aggregator (live bidding platform) could become an online auctioneer?
Well firstly, there are some powerful marketing forces to overcome. The market maker who owns the trust and expertise is the auctioneer. The auctioneer bears all of the operational costs of valuing, consigning, cataloguing, traditional marketing, staffing, premises, shipping, the list goes on… When you combine the reach of all of the auctioneers in the UK, their ability to physically touch pretty much every part of the country geographically is huge. But as they traditionally feel that they compete with each other there is no established national network of cooperation due to rivalry. (This in turn represented a lowered barrier to entry for the aggregators, who actually pit the auctioneers against each other in the market and generate revenues in doing so – ironic perhaps?)
An aggregators ability to run auctions at the scale required to disrupt the traditional auction market would require massive investment in staffing and physical space. They would likely need to be London centric, and that raises further barriers through operating costs. That’s not to say that they could not operate from a large warehouse, but it would be a bit like Tesco Auctions, and would probably drive realised prices for vendors down. (Remember the value of the auctioneer is as the trusted intermediary acting for both vendor and buyer.)
Whilst auctioneers have a healthy opinion of the aggregators where listing fees and commission uplifts are realistic, tensions will grow if costs rise without definable value add, or if aggregators attempt to stifle competition through anti-competitive ‘lock ins’. The real bone of contention will come if the aggregators attempt to publicly run curated auctions under their brand, or enter the space occupied by players such as ‘Catawiki’ by creating an online marketplace. At that point they become direct competitors, and Porterian forces once again kick in by opening up the competitive landscape.
For the auction aggregators, any moves in this direction could see rivalry in the auction industry disappear temporarily, driving the threat of substitution in the market. Moves were made recently to attempt this with an industry driven body developing a rival online platform, but the force of industry rivalry, the structural advantage of the main players, the cost of marketing and fear of change is stifling its adoption.
So where does all of this leave the auctioneer?
Well it comes back to the point made in the headline. Auctioneers have traditionally been the market makers in their geographic area, and both types of aggregator (bidding and content) have created positive disruption in the buyer market by successfully moving the concept of a live auction event, or an easy way to search multiple auctions, online. In doing so they have then created brands that attract the public to the auction world through demystification, providing a win-win for both parties.
However, in this world where only growth is good, the only way in the current model for the aggregators to deliver meaningful growth for their investors is to attract more business to their platform. This is difficult for the larger players as they have most of the addressable market already. So new revenue strategies will probably include higher fees for new auctioneers joining the platform and a gradual increase in fees across the board for all. The other alternative is to run curated sales and take higher margin, but this comes with significant risk.
We’ve also seen that the lion’s share of product investment is in the aggregators own front end channels, and not in independent back office systems to empower auctioneers to run their own business. The live bidding platforms are building the auctioneers back office and front office into their overall aggregated technologies and positioning these as more cost effective. The downside to this strategy for auctioneers is the loss of their independent identity through ‘cookie cutter’ white labelling that looks ostensibly the same as the core marketplace and represents technology ‘lock in’ to the aggregator. (Our blog post on Brand Identity for auctioneers covers this in more detail). Combine this with the fact that all customer and vendor data is then aggregated into a multi-tenanted environment covered by reams of legal small print and the propensity for future risk needs to be considered.
New entrants to the aggregator market have to be careful as well. There is a cost to launching technology, certainly to getting it right and supporting it properly. Its unlikely that a new player in say the Fine Art & Furniture market, can actually generate enough real margin in the early stages without significant supportive funding, and that they would need a tidal wave of auctioneers joining their platform willingly. Porterian forces again… The barrier to entry is too high, the level of competition too mature, and the main players have achieved structural advantage that is feeding into the fear of change from the majority of auctioneers.
I liken all of this to the tussle we see over at Star Digital, our sister digital agency, in the world of ecommerce, where manufacturers and distributors of product have to be extremely careful not to upset their retailers and cause them to delist their products. The retailers equally have to be extremely careful not to be over reliant on the marketplace providers who have huge reach, as they end up pricing to the bottom. Manufacturers who ditch an established supply chain and go direct to market via the marketplace providers, typically end up losing margin over time as the initial marketplace deals that attracted them are removed as their channel diversity thins. Players such as Amazon have effectively taken control of their market by making the barrier to entry and cost of competing truly prohibitive through their massive structural advantage and power of network. As long as they focus the majority of their energy on their consumer service levels (Customer is always right) they will negate the impact of substitutes and rivals.
In the online ecommerce world where multiple vendors compete to sell the same product the only winners are the major marketplaces who force prices down and take their fees regardless of the end price. Smart ecommerce players are ditching these marketplaces and fixing their minimum online selling prices to push buyers back into their core (profitable) selling channels. But they are then reliant on the level of customer service that their retailers provide, and this is often not to the same perceived level as a marketplace…
Is the auction marketplace different?
Could an aggregator become a market maker and cause the level of disruption that Amazon has caused in the online retail industry?
The ‘Catawiki’ model is one that has seen some successes on the continent. A Dutch concern powering across Europe, its UK market has stuttered due to the currency impact of Brexit, and the quality of product on the channel is not in the same class as that seen at a quality auctioneer However, it sets a precedent, is easy to use, and would naturally cause concern for an established online aggregator, particularly as it has allegedly raised over $95MM in venture since late 2014. The ‘Catawiki’ model is a hybridised platform where individuals, prosumers and traders list items on the technology platform and the site curates these into auctions. Buyer and vendor commissions are attractive, and the shipping and packaging is the responsibility of the vendor, who adds a charge to the final hammer price. Money is collected by ‘Catawiki’ and held in escrow until the buyer receives the goods.
Then there are the dealers, where there seems to be more industry networking, and a general distaste for vendor commission, which might lead to curated auctions independent of the aggregators and the auctioneers? Technology is certainly an enabler. However, the dealers are retailers and not auctioneers, so they are not using the auction platform in the true sense of intermediation, more as an additional channel to retail. They have a much higher interest in the product, as they own it, or are representing a private individual who wants a sensible return. Their commission will be one way, from the buyer and the margins after all costs may not be sustainable. Early forays into this model have not been a resounding success. The cost of marketing acts as a barrier as it needs to be borne by the dealers initially, and as with any auction there is no guarantee of sale.
Its been said that general auctioneers could be in for some stormy waters in the near future, as they could be consumed by the online auction aggregators. I’m not convinced though; as the reward vs effort for the aggregators will not warrant the overhead of cataloguing and photographing so many items. And the ‘Catawiki’ model would be too time intensive for an individual or dealer to list more than a few dozen items. However, generalist auctioneers that only use the online bidding aggregators for their internet auction catalogue listings should be aware that they are not building any online equity for their own brand independently of the aggregator.
Single owner niche collections could be an interesting proposition though. If the aggregators can form relationships with private individuals that have purchased on the aggregator channels over time, it stands to reason that they could attract collections by offering significant reductions in vendor charges. And for me this is the natural danger that auctioneers need to be aware of. There are an increasing number of independent experts in the industry vertical that could be engaged by the aggregators on a consultancy basis to curate sales. ‘Catawiki’ tries to show this with their ‘Auction Experts’ showing on every sale, who apparently advise on reserve and estimates.
Equally, what is to stop the aggregators from leveraging their vast data intelligence on buyers and bidding history to effectively court consignors and sell consignment leads back to the auctioneer to consign, describe, list and sell only on the aggregator channel. Think of it as an extension to the Value my Stuff concept.
Homogenisation of auctioneer brands into large aggregated platforms whilst under investing in their own online brand could lead to the aggregators chipping away at the vendor market. It is currently an area that they have not publicly entered. It might start with single collections, the odd curated collection from multiple private vendors, and if they can realise 20% at hammer for themselves rather than 3% it doesn’t take long to realise that the attractiveness of 3-5% from the established market makers might not be a long term priority.
At the very least it is likely in the short term that some of the online bidding aggregators will attempt to leverage their structural advantage and network size to increase fees to the auctioneer whilst forcing caps on the charges auctioneers can levy to buyers. Aggressive development of their portals will be key to their revenue ambitions and protectionism could become a factor as they stave off competition from new entrants, and make moves towards curated sales and development of vendor relationships is likely.
Content aggregators will continue to develop their platforms, and once they can prove ROI from end to end they could become the next powerful channel for the auction market. The threat of replication from the established online bidding aggregators is an issue for them, and one that is likely to show its face in the next phase of business.
So, it is feasible that the auction marketplace is on the cusp of seeing Amazon-esque practices about to disrupt the model significantly…
We don’t have a crystal ball, and my observations are based on 11 years working in the online auction space with some of the top provincial auctioneers in the UK and Ireland.
We can see that the auction market will embrace the online aggregators as long as the role they play is as a trusted intermediary with a healthy regard for the auctioneers role in the ultimate transaction. Auctioneers must become less reliant on these providers as their online content providers keeping eyes wide open as to how not having their own independent auction listings may impact their brand and their business. The number of auctioneers that now only use the online bidding aggregators for their auction listings is a real concern.
The market for content aggregators is on the rise, and with the right models, measurement and provable ROI, not just in bidding activity, but in data ownership and the lifetime value this represents to the auctioneer, it makes it a channel to watch with interest. We expect to see some new entrants in this space. However, in order to play in this space auctioneers need their own content online, so only having it in the online bidding aggregator removes this channel from your online marketing mix altogether.
The real winners, as is proved in their web analytics are the auctioneers that embrace the channels above as part of their marketing mix, but focus realistic budget on their own online channels and back office infrastructure. The costs of doing this properly compare extremely favourably with other marketing channels and provide strong initial returns and lifetime values. User data capture and natural search equities gained from this strategy are extremely valuable to the auctioneer who can then cost effectively market directly to their audience and measure the impact of their marketing spend through enhanced web analytics.
Clients using Auction Marketer realise very quickly that commission bidding volumes generated by organic traffic and ‘Auction Alerts’ are significant, and provide confidence to their users and a strong bid book pre-auction. By owning their audience, or a large section of it, auctioneers can then use the online bidding aggregators white label bidding channels for their own users and keep their brand footprint consistent and on their web properties. The content aggregators can be measured properly and the user experience modified for each channel to maximise monetisation.
The future is bright for the auction industry online, but it does need to look at itself as whole. In other areas of ecommerce it has become the norm for users to trust and leave product reviews, and for traders to be listed at online portals where customers rate suppliers. The auction industry should look at how it can emulate this, to demystify the process and build online trust with potential buyers who have never interacted with an auction other than eBay. Some form of ‘Trustmark’ and two way online review process would seem to be an obvious next step for forward thinking auctioneers to grow reputation and market share.
B2C online marketing has been focussed increasingly on customer service, and the players that are seeing the most success put the consumer firmly at the centre of their business model. B2B has been slower to realise this, but we are now seeing B2B clients asking for more customer-centric technology solutions to emulate the experiences that consumers have become used to. The auction industry should be mindful of the need to develop similar strategies online and align themselves to the customers wants and needs.
It’s also with noting that there is a disadvantage with the current online auction aggregators market that can affect the consumer. It is not necessarily a barometer for quality. The reduced barrier to entry for small and unestablished auctioneers, and the model of revenue generation by realising a percentage of every sale made – without post sale satisfaction measurement – is a challenge. Conversely there is also the challenge of buyers using the channel that then go on to default, as they might not have realised there were commission charges to pay. The new ASA ruling on transparency of charges may help this position.
Finally, in the fine art auction market there are rumblings that the online auction aggregators represent a challenge to established professional auction houses, as they have to share reputation across the platform and that this might be diluting their own brands. It would not be surprising to expect that the larger players will want to see some ‘market differentiation’ in the future if they are to continue embracing and funding the lion’s share of the model.
But without doubt, the auction industry is an exciting, thriving industry and one that is really beginning to see the advantages of digital when setting out their sale and marketing strategies. If this article has provoked thought or interest, please join in the conversation online or offline.
A commentary piece by Roger Martin F IDM (Any opinion expressed is the authors)