When COVID 19 lockdowns began across the world, auction houses found themselves better equipped than most businesses for the months ahead. Though in-room auctions ground to a halt, many were already operating online-only sales, whether they were selling antiques, cars, property or everyday items. Switching 100% of their business to the digital arena may not have been easy, but at least some of the necessary systems and expertise were in place.

Meanwhile, millions of people confined to their homes and neighbourhoods were looking for ways to entertain and occupy themselves as well as work remotely. Business held up. Some auction houses found new customers. At London’s Sotheby’s up to 50% of bidders taking part in online sales since 1st March were first-timers. And being away from a PC proved not to be a barrier for high-value goods, with 50% of bids being placed via mobile devices. Meanwhile eBay saw a surge of new sellers as small businesses raced to get their stock online and people tried to replace their high street shopping with online sources.

Customers probably expected a few glitches as auction houses moved entirely online at short notice. But this goodwill won’t last for long. As with all industries, new tech-first players will emerge to rival the traditional businesses that began in the physical auction room. Now, as things get back to our ‘new normal’, it’s those businesses that continue to innovate and put the customer – both bidder and seller, private individuals and trade customers – at the heart of what they do who will be the long-term winners.

Refining and enhancing the user experience

Buyers and sellers want the same as all online customers – fast, efficient and satisfying ways to achieve their goals with fewer clicks and less effort. They want to feel reassured about the safety and security of their transactions. And they want to move seamlessly from laptop to mobile to PC, with an end-to-end digital experience. Good UX design builds trust by engaging with both sides of the human psyche: fulfilling the functional, utilitarian needs of an auction site through logic and order while considering the emotional side of every interaction to create a sense of reward and empowerment.

Because both buyers and sellers need to be registered on most auction sites the onboarding process is key. Registering has to be simple and satisfying, without asking for the unnecessary or intrusive details that cause customers to drop off before they’ve even begun using the site. Allowing customers to skip over some questions, or even better saving them for later on in the journey, creates a better experience early on and a more natural feeling of ‘getting to know you’.

Meanwhile, new technologies can power everything from better valuations and price predictions supported by AI to data analytics that can target potential buyers and chatbots that take the load of customer service staff.

With new customer experiences, test, test test is the rule. UX and CX practitioners will follow best practice but every audience is different and there’s always more to learn in order to optimise experiences and get the best possible results.

Recreating the buzz of in-room auctions

As the threat from COVID dissipates, physical auctions will return – in sectors like property and the motor trade there’s always likely to be an audience who loves the thrill and the theatre of the auction room. But livestreaming is here to stay, providing a channel for those who having made the switch would still rather make their bids remotely as well as opening up new audiences.

High-quality livestreaming can give a good sense of the physical experience, with the auctioneer conducting proceedings and prompting individual bidders just as in real life. It’s another area where a great user experience and reliable performance across a multitude of devices and browsers is key.

But digital auctions can also offer new possibilities, with experiences that you just wouldn’t get in the real world. US digital auction site Bring a Trailer includes comment threads on each car auction. This feature is enjoyed and actively used by its audience of dedicated car enthusiasts, as the seller answers questions and the BaT community discuss their experiences of the model in question.

Finding new ways to disrupt established auction sectors

As in every other sector, traditional auctioneers need to be constantly ahead of the game, thinking up the new business models that will prevent them from being out-manoeuvred by new tech players.

StockX are one of the new breed disrupting an established market. Launched in 2016 ‘the world’s first stock market for things’ is changing the game for people searching for rare trainers, designer handbags and other collectibles, smoothing out the customer experience and dealing with some of the pain points of eBay and other auction sites. A single product page for each item means buyers no longer have to navigate search numerous listings for the same thing. Nor do they have to worry about fakes. Goods have to be physically authenticated by StockX before the business releases funds to sellers and sends on their goods to buyers.

StockX’s founder believes it better reflects the true market value of goods at any given time. Sellers can either set an Ask price, hoping for a matching bidder, or they can sell immediately to the highest current bidder. They don’t even need to create a listing – anyone browsing the site can click to sell and send on their goods to be authenticated. With advantages for both buyers and sellers t’s easy to see why in just a few years StockX has become a billion-dollar company.

The year that kickstarted change

In some ways, 2020 has been good for auction houses. They needed to move fast, accelerating change in a way they could never have anticipated. Now the basics have been dealt with, businesses aiming to lead their sectors in the years to come need to hone their customer experience and continue to innovate for an online future – even if there’s still an excited crowd taking their seats in the physical auction room.

The BIO Agency can support auction businesses by creating trusted online experiences that customers find meaningful because they balance utilitarian and hedonic needs. Drop us a line at makesomething@thebioagency.com if you’d like to talk to us.

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