EDGING INTO CYBER AUCTIONS
Byline: David Grant Caplan
NEW YORK — Online auctions have revolutionized the way average collectors pursue their passion — and even attracted people who’d never before placed a bid on anything.
They’ve even started to have an effect on the vintage jeans business — though merchants remain divided on whether or not online sellers have anything worthwhile to offer.
While they’re not abandoning their traditional channels of sourcing, many retailers said they occasionally place bids on denim items at Web sites such as eBay, Yahoo Auctions and Excite Auctions.
Some retailers said they are hesitant to place online bids, since they find it difficult to verify the quality and authenticity of the merchandise — concerns online auction officials said are legitimate, but that are addressed by a number of safeguards.
“In the beginning, like three or four years ago, I would buy stuff. But I got burnt and it was such a turnoff,” said Cameron Silver, owner of the Los Angeles vintage store Decades Inc. “I really think it is a buyer-beware situation.”
Silver, who opened Decades in 1997, said he stopped placing bids on items about a year ago. He also said he has never tried to sell anything on an online auction.
Some of Decades’ customers have purchased vintage duds from online auctions and were disappointed when the merchandise arrived, Silver said.
“I would say the majority of our customers who have eBay-surfed have been burnt and quite often they have overpaid,” he said. “I have become a service for them to unload, when what they bought didn’t fit them or they overpaid.”
Quality issues aside, Silver said the mere fact that one of his customers could snap up the same pair of jeans that he could, would mean his store was not fulfilling its role as an exclusive vintage clothier.
“I don’t want merchandise that is accessible — people come to Decades for exclusivity,” he said. “I don’t want someone to come into Decades and go, ‘I saw that on eBay and you got it for $220!’ “
Elsewhere on the West Coast, the owner of a vintage jeans store who asked to remain anonymous, said he has bought more than 20 denim items — most of which are overalls from the Fifties and Sixties ranging in price from $20 to $100 — over the last two years from the auction sections on Yahoo and Amazon.com. He said he has never posted anything on an online auction.
The retailer said he wants to keep a lid on how he acquires some of his store’s merchandise, even if only a small portion is sourced from online auctions.
“I don’t really advertise or promote it,” he said. “I don’t even use my normal e-mail address when I’m buying online because I really don’t want my competitors and customers to know how I am acquiring stock.”
The West Coast jeans dealer said quite often he will find a pair of jeans worthy of his discerning clientele.
“Especially on Yahoo, you get opportunities where people list a pair of jeans and to them, it’s just a pair of jeans,” he said. “But to me, because of the way it has been photographed, I can tell that it’s more than that.”
Although this retailer continues to log on to auctions, he agreed with Decades owner Silver that online auctions are a “buyer-beware” situation.
“The merchandise is so often misrepresented and misdescribed,” he said. “The people you buy from are pretty much at the lowest rung of salesmanship. They have a much lower threshold of ethics.”
It is the questionable sales tactics of some sellers and sketchy item descriptions that alienate many vintage jeans retailers.
“I would rather have a customer come in and try it on, because on eBay there are a lot of problems,” said Jack Markus, owner of Cheap Jack’s, a three-story vintage store near Union Square in Manhattan.
Markus said it is difficult to ascertain the quality of merchandise from written descriptions and photos alone.
“You’re taking somebody’s word for it+you don’t know how that garment was tempered — sometimes people take it in, they let it out, they put in new zippers, they put new snaps,” he said. “Anytime you adjust it, it is not original anymore and the value is lost.”
Officials at online auction sites said there are several safeguards in place to protect bidders from being swindled.
“We always recommend that any bidder who is using eBay check out the seller first and make sure their past history on eBay indicates that the person is reputable, knows what they are selling and has some sort of return policy,” said an eBay spokesman.
Over at Yahoo, a spokeswoman said a buyer protection program is in place to alleviate bidders’ concerns.
“If something does come and it’s materially different from what you expected, we do have a buyer protection program,” she said. “You issue a claim and we reimburse you up to $250.”
Another skeptic of online auctions, Gary Schefren, owner of New York’s Antique Boutique, echoed Markus: “I don’t know if I can trust the authenticity of it.”
Vintage jeans dealer Cece Scriver, co-owner of Toronto’s vintage shop Courage My Love, does not sell or buy items online either. She does, however, periodically check the used-denim offerings on Web sites such as eBay and Amazon to get an idea of what the current market asking prices for vintage jeans are.
Scriver also questions the authenticity of many of the items listed, saying: “I know a lot of people that sell up here and I see the stuff they are selling and then I see a picture online and I’m like, ‘That is not what it looks like!”‘
Unlike many of his counterparts, Chris TenEyck, the owner of New York’s Filthmart didn’t criticize online auctions.
TenEyck, who described himself as “a fan of those auction sites,” said he has bought more than 100 items and sold between 60 and 70 items on eBay over the last two years.
He said he typically bids on vintage Levi’s jeans, denim jackets and three-quarter-length railroad jackets.
He said that the jeans he puts up for auction are high end and sell for at least $150. He said higher-priced items do not sell well at his three-year-old 4,500-square-foot East Village store, so expanding his customer base to the entire world makes sense.
“We only do it with high-end stuff because where our store is, a lot of people don’t look for that stuff,” he said.
TenEyck added that eBay increases his customer base, thereby decreasing the amount of time it takes him to move merchandise.
“We don’t have to worry about it sitting on the rack for six or seven months,” he said. “It’s a quicker way.”
TenEyck said that he sold a pair of vintage Levi’s Double X jeans for $1,600 last spring on eBay to a jeans wholesaler in California who was planning on selling the jeans to a Japanese merchant.
Double X jeans are Levi’s 501s that are prized by some collectors who mistakenly believe that the jeans date back to the Fifties. In fact, Levi’s used the double-X mark until the early Eighties.
TenEyck estimated that 70 percent of bids on eBay for jeans are made by people living in denim-crazed Japan. He said that he believed the rest of his customers were split evenly among wholesalers selling overseas, U.S. retailers and consumers.
Unlike his vintage clothier colleagues, TenEyck is not overly concerned with sellers misrepresenting merchandise.
“I don’t think it’s that much of an issue,” he said. “The thing that you need to do when buying, is read the description. If you have a question about anything, e-mail the person before you put in a bid.”
Other vintage retailers who log on to cyber auctions agreed with TenEyck’s words of wisdom.
“We always tell people to e-mail the people [sellers] and ask as many questions as possible and make sure you get them to measure the garment, since there is huge shrinkage in jeans,” said Katy Rodriguez, co-owner of Resurrection, a vintage-clothing store chain with outlets in New York and Los Angeles.
Rodriguez said her three stores stock “a fair amount” of merchandise culled from online auctions.
“We’re always checking out the Internet,” she said. “You can’t be in this business at this point without that being a source of clothing.”
She added that online auction sites are particularly useful for locating rare denim items.
“If you wanted to go online and look at more specialty things like Double X, eBay is a great place for that sort of thing,” she said.
Not surprisingly, executives at many online auctions agreed with Rodriguez that such Web sites are ideal for locating rare items. They also said that online auctions are well suited for smaller retailers who lack an elaborate online presence.
“It is very easy for them to post their merchandise online through the auction site,” said Andrew Rebeck, Excite’s senior director of product management for commerce. “They can post that single item up there very easily and there’s a lot of tools and services on our auction site to help them do that.”