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Antique Networking, whose Website can be found at www.antiqnet.co.uk, are a case in point.

“Since we did away with enrolment fees last November member numbers have, not surprisingly, increased significantly,” says managing director Chris Day. “We’re still selling tens of thousands of dollars worth of goods through our site every month and we’re only in second gear.”

While keen to promote his own business, Mr Day also keeps a close eye on where the Web market as a whole is going and is firmly of the opinion that it is better to be a “tortoise” than a “hare” at the moment.

“It is vitally important that we all keep our perspective, develop at a realistic pace and make sure our foundations are secure – otherwise the Web-based market will never mature into the essential medium that it promises to become... What’s the rush? We’re in this for the long term, so let’s take it a step at a time.”

He also thinks that many businesses have made the mistake of concentrating all their efforts either at the top end of the market or the bottom, when the middle market, which promises so much, has yet to be cornered.

“We’re here to help every dealer who shows an interest. We may not attract the high value items but we’re certainly not operating in the eBay market either. We’ll become more focused as time goes on and the market needs to be sectored.”

Part of the ongoing problem, says Mr Day, is that although about 40 per cent of dealers use the Web, only about five per cent are making productive use out of it.

They need to develop their skills, keep working at it to take advantage of the Web’s potential, he adds, but they must not expect any “magic fixes”.

“There are plenty of examples of dealers who are benefiting from their personal investment in doing so, but far too many others who haven’t made the leap from hopeful enthusiasm to constructive realisation. But it’s changing,” he says.

It’s not a surprise that Chris Day believes that there is a promising future for online dealer portals like his, but he also notes that partnerships and links with other sites will prove key to attracting and keeping business.

“Those dealers who understand the mechanics of the Web know that this is by far the most cost effective and efficient way of reaching the established online buying market (predominantly American at present), and use their own sites purely as an online brochure. Those dealers who only use their own sites are missing the trick.”

Dealer as buyer

He shares my opinion – well illustrated in Antiques Trade Gazette No 1474 – that if the dealer himself doesn’t use the technology both ways (to buy as well as sell) then he is dependent on the consumer using the Web to a much higher degree than is currently the case and therefore “the dealer himself is part of the problem when complaints are made about people not buying on the Web”.

While trying to adapt dealer behaviour, Antique Networking are also spending time cultivating online partnerships.

“Such relationships will eventually help the market to consolidate as the key players revisit how the Internet fits into their business philosophy, because at the moment many have still not cast their minds forward to see where we are heading,” he says. “Today’s marketplace is changing and everyone needs to manage that change to ensure they don’t lose out to the few who already have their finger on the pulse.”

Looking to the future, he sees the picture as mixed.

“There is a place in the market for quite a number of different services, serving different niches within the market and one or two in each sector should manage to survive. The wider picture suggests that only a handful can make the step up to really dominate the market.”

Looking back on last year, Chris Day argues that no one in the online market could accurately predict the pure apathy of the consumer (both trade and domestic) – the very people who stand to benefit most, but without whom there simply is no market.

“The money spent by most online providers has been used to raise awareness of the marketplace itself, rather than the individual services within it. This is unsustainable and everyone has had to retrench to some degree and we are no exception.”

As to the future: “If being quiet keeps us all in the market for the long term then quiet is the way it will be, but the dealer will be hearing more from those who really do have something to offer – I include Antiqnet in this group of course.”

It’s interesting that as many of the leading art and antiques Web businesses are refocusing their business strategies away from
the technology and onto the marketplace, Chris Day argues that they also need to use their powers of persuasion to educate the trade and domestic consumers to help create and expand that market. This year should begin to show just how successful they will be.