We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Vincent Olivares to gain insights into conducting online estate sales and online auctions.
Vincent began his career in estate sales in 2012. He currently co-owns and manages Not Your Mother’s Estate Sale, an online estate liquidator in Cleveland, Ohio. His team also operates Rust Belt Revival, an online auction marketplace that serves buyers and sellers across Northeast Ohio. Vincent trains, guides, and supports others in being successful in online liquidations. Prior to estate sales, Vincent spent the first 20 years of his career working in not-for-profit zoos and museums with a focus on Education, Biology and Conservation.
We hope that his tips and insights might inspire or help your company on its path to listing estate sales online.
Below is a transcript of that interview between Vincent and Tim. It has been edited from the original video for clarity.
Tim: How do you handle local pickup? Do you have any tips on how to make that easier? How do you make sure that it's the right person coming to pick up the item that they got from you?
Vincent: Local pickup is a little tricky. I think of it like controlled chaos. We do an online sale, and then we do a one-day pickup. We've done a few things to make it easier for us. One of the things we've done is we've extended our pickups. They used to be three-hour windows, and now they're four or five hours depending on how big the sale is.
When we can get in the house a little early, we'll go in and start packing things up and bagging things up. I find that the bidders love it because they can come in and it's almost like getting your Uber food delivered, they drop it off (the payment), and we hand it (the items) off to you, and you're done.
We've been doing that quite a bit, and that's kind of becoming one of the services that we give to customers when they buy at specific sales from our Not Your Mother's Estate Sales, which are the higher-end sales. We bag it up, and I brand every bag with our logo. It's just another good way to brand what we're doing. People seem to really like it.
We obviously have contactless pickup. We let a lot fewer people in the houses than we used to. We used to let a lot of people in at once, but now everybody has to wear a mask. We have sanitizer everywhere; we’re cleaning surfaces. It gives us a little bit more peace of mind knowing that all those folks are not going to be in the houses.
So, pickups can be a little tricky. Anybody that buys small items, we just bring them out and place them on a table, they check them, and take them away and pay. Anybody that bought large items is required to come in and disassemble, move and load them. Similar to a traditional estate sale.
When we're done at four o'clock or three o'clock, we're done. We do a little bit of transferring to our warehouse, where we'll hold things for people for ten days. We also do shipping, so that stuff gets transferred over. That's kind of how we handle pickups.
We always have a cashier. Some people prefer to pay in advance through our website, which is nice. If they show up with their invoices paid when we start in the morning, they will kind of get preferential treatment. If your invoice is paid, your bag of stuff is ready to go. People love that. It's another incentive for them to pay ahead.
I do have a lot of people that like to pay cash, and that's fine. Most people bring us exact change, and they pay for their items. We give them small things, and they're good to go.
The tricky things about pickup are, making sure everybody gets there, that's always tricky. As you know, a winning bidder might have an emergency or might have forgotten they bid on something. And then making sure everybody knows they have to load their own merchandise and move their own stuff. We work with a small staff so that we can push that money forward to the people that work for us. So, having extra people there or having a super-extended pickup is just going to kind of eat into our profits. We do a lot in the four or five hours that we're doing a pickup.
Tim: Making sure they know that they have to load their own items and things like that. Are those things that you put in the terms of the sale, or is it on every item?
Vincent: We put it on the terms of the sale. We've been talking about putting something on every item if they've got something that's large. “Know that this item requires moving.”
Unfortunately, we're not big readers anymore as people, so we put a lot of information on the sales and on our invoices, but most people don't look at them. We're always trying to think of new ways to make sure people know that they're going to have to load their stuff. They're going to have to pick up their stuff, and sometimes depending on the situation, they have to wrap their own glass or pack their own stuff. It can be tricky to get all that information out there. The best way to get it out there I find is to just talk to the people when they come up the first time. “Hey, just remember, you have to be ready to load and pick up these items,” and I'm a nice guy. I help people. I helped a guy bring a treadmill from a basement the other day. I wasn't happy about it. It gave me the opportunity to say, “Hey, listen. You got to remember to bring your help.”
He actually sent me a text and said, “Hey, I apologize. I'll make sure...”
Tim: So Basically setting those expectations before you even get started?
Vincent: And sometimes you have to do it on an individual basis. That's just how it is.
Tim: You did touch on the fact that you do offer shipping. Do you have any suggestions on how to make that process easier? Do you have anything that you found that has helped? Do you have a specific department that just handles shipping?
Vincent: We actually offer drop shipping to all of our sellers if they are interested in using it. Our seller can bring items here with a paid invoice, and we'll handle the shipping.
Shipping is a pain, and it's tricky. We generally try to ship things that can fit in a normal-sized box that you can buy at a hardware store or a shipping supply company. The most efficient things to ship are things that are under 15 inches long, wide and deep.
Art can be really expensive to ship. Somethings are going to be really expensive to ship. Knowing what things we can handle and what we can't is a big thing. There's always somebody that buys something large and wants it shipped, and sometimes we'll go out of our way to get it over to FedEx or UPS. It can be really cost-prohibitive.
We ship generally through USPS. We use a third-party shipping software that works with USPS, and cross our fingers that USPS is going to stick around because that's the most efficient way to ship and the least expensive way to ship.
It can be daunting. We have a part-time person that focuses on shipping and spends two full days a week just shipping things out.
We also have the luxury of having our bidders’ credit card information on file. It makes the process a little bit more simple. We pack the box, and we charge for shipping and handling. We just bill their credit card, and then the next day, USPS picks it up. For people that don't want to handle shipping on their own, because it can be a big thing if you're doing an estate sale and then you're transferring all the shipping to your building and then trying to pack it and get it out, we've had some decent luck with local shippers. For a while, we had a business relationship with one of our local UPS stores, and we just would drop off things there, and they would handle shipping. The reality is nobody does it the way that you want it done. In the end, there were a lot of things that they weren't collecting on; they weren't getting out, or things were getting broken. There are small local shippers that you can reach out to and create a relationship with and just let them handle the shipping. If it's not something that you want to take that time and energy to do, or you don't have the staff to do it, send it out to somebody else. There's a lot of small companies that would help you with it. We do that with larger things too. We send the larger things out.
Tim: So was shipping something that you started out doing off the bat, or did you just have it at local pickup?
Vincent: Yep. I used to do all of the shipping in my second-floor dining room, and it was pretty crazy. I had stuff in there all the time, and then when we finally got an office, we dedicated an area to just shipping. So luckily we have a room where we do all of our shipping.
The main thing is you want to make sure that when you're doing shipping, you're not losing money on it. We hired, and we have somebody that does our shipping. I'm not trying to make money off of it. I just want to make sure that all of our costs for all of our products that we have to buy, and that person's time is paid for. A lot of us sell on eBay and Etsy, and we don't always consider all the time we spend packing and shipping and going into the store to buy supplies.
Time is money. We just have to make sure we're covering those costs.
Tim: We've covered pickup and shipping. Let’s talk about items. The way a traditional estate sale works are, “Hey, here's all the contents of the house, make it disappear.” Is that sort of what you run into with online? Are you taking it all in at once or not?
Vincent: Same situation. Everything stays at the house, and we photograph and catalog anything we know we can sell. That includes obviously the art and the furniture and the vehicles, but it also means garage stuff, things in the shed, and things in the basement.
We curate our sales the same way you would walk into an estate sale and see all the pretty things right in the front. We put all of the furniture and the nice collectibles and the art and the jewelry towards the front of the sale (on an online listing). Then when you get to page 10 or 11, you're going to find all that stuff. All the junk. When I say junk, some of it can be worth quite a bit. We will go in the kitchen cabinets and pull out the cast iron pans and sell those individually, but then you might sell a whole lot of coffee cups or dinner wear or whatever. We try to clean out as much as we can in the sales so that our homeowners don't have to deal with that stuff when we're done.
We actually don't do cleanouts. A lot of companies do, but we don't because we just don't think it's a good use of our time. And we sell so much in the house that there's so little left when it's over. Sure there are times when you're in a hoarder situation, and there's just so much stuff in there. I'll work with clients to organize a cleanout. When we're done, we leave, and the client decides how to handle the rest. Whether they donate or they trash or however they choose to handle it. Mostly the furniture is gone. All the big things are gone, and you're left with a couple of little things that you probably would have donated or trashed in the first place.
Tim: So you do sell individual big items, and towards the end, you'll do the lots of tools or, whatever? So, it's just like a traditional estate sale the way it’s set up?
Vincent: Yes, that’s right.
Tim: As far as the buyers go. When you have a lot of people coming in to bid on a sale and get items, you're going to have a ton of questions come in. How do you manage the communication with the buyers? Are you using an email template? Are they individually created?
Vincent: Built into our website is an email program so we can send messages back and forth, but that's honestly one of the toughest things that I deal with with all of our sellers and here even internally. We have about six people here.
We're inundated with calls and emails all day long, and responding to customers is sometimes something that we find challenging. We email. I use text messaging a lot, and I like it. I can do it from my computer, and a lot of people are doing it now. To me (texting), it's just easier to communicate. I don't have to be answering the phone right away. I can give it a minute if I'm working on something else, and that works really well.
We mainly just communicate through the web site and just send messages back and forth.
Every person that runs a sale has their name and phone number listed on each sale. So they are responsible for handling questions based on that sale. Of course, it doesn't always get to the right person, but, generally, all that info is there.
Tim: As far as payment, you kind of touched earlier that you do take payments through the website and you take cash, is there a link that they get sent to them once the auction is completed?
Vincent: Yeah, when the sale is over, we generate invoices. We have to tweak them a little bit because every pickup date and pick up location changes. We send out invoices with a link to pay, and one of the nice things in our system is it's like on Amazon where you (the customer) can pick which card you want to pay with and save it in your profile and click it to pay.
That's the most efficient way for people to pay. We've been kind of trying to train our bidders that if they're going to pay with a credit card, to go ahead and pay online. It saves them time during the pickup. It saves us time, and we don't have to do that paperwork or go mark their invoice paid because it's automatically done for us.
And then some people like to show up and pay with cash. We actually charge a credit card fee. And so if you show up and pay with cash, it can be beneficial if you're buying a lot of things and spending a lot of money.
Tim: Estate Sales Online are almost becoming a new way of life (with the recent stay at home orders). If you're wanting to continue to do sales online during this time, what do you do to set your client's expectations as far as the results that they're going to see?
Vincent: Mostly, we just talk with them and try to set realistic expectations.
I am very upfront with clients about what I expect, what they can expect, their needs. I spend a lot of time with clients just doing extra little things that help them to figure out where it's going to be donated or who's going to come and take the trash away. I always try to explain to the clients that they have to look at the whole number and not look at individual items. When you're on an online auction-style sale, it's easy to look at all those numbers and get stressed out because “Oh my hutch is only at $75, and I paid $2000 for it 20 years ago.” I spend a lot of time trying to get them to focus on paying attention the last day. Most people bid the last day, the last minute as the sale is ending. I put a lot of attention into kind of focusing them on the last day. If they're going to focus on something and stress out about it, let's look at that (the last day). That's the important thing.
I also give them updates. I give them numbers usually a few days after the sales starts and then right before the sale begins ending, and then right after. So at seven o'clock on a Thursday, that sale may be at $4,000 or $5,000 and then at 10:30, it doesn't even matter what time it ends, I'll text them at eleven o'clock, and I'll say,” Hey, your sale went to $12,000.” Whether they get it that night or the next morning, they're generally thrilled.
Tim: People have a lot of questions about if this (holding online estate sales) is going to change the way they have to contract someone? Are there different things that you've noticed in your online sales you have had to tweak the contract for a little bit, or is it pretty generally the same as a traditional sale?
Vincent One of the main things that I changed, not much, but is now we have a little bit more strength behind the fact that we really don't want the homeowners to be there during the pickup, and sometimes we don't want them to be there during the time we're working.
A lot of traditional estate sale companies ask the client to not be there. Well, now, with COVID, we have a valid argument for them not to be there during pickup. We generally don't mind if the homeowner's there when we're doing photos, but pickup day can be stressful, it can be a little chaotic. They're watching all their mom's furniture go, and their jewelry and they get stressed out. With COVID, I have found a good excuse to say, “Hey, pick up day is not a good idea to be here. You guys go up somewhere else, and we'll handle it and come back at the end, and we'll chat.”
That's really the biggest thing we've changed. We have had a lot more clients that don't want as many people in their house. So we don't let anybody that buys small items really into the house at all except maybe the garage or maybe the front living room to get their stuff.
That's been a really major request lately from our clients; that they don't have people coming in and out of the house. The reality is, it's probably pretty low statistically the chances of passing things around, but you know, we've got to make sure that everybody's happy and everybody's safe.
We have had a huge increase in the amount of people that would like to sell on our site due to COVID, and we've actually seen a pretty big increase in bids. We've seen about a 16% increase in prices because people are just buying things.
Tim: One of the things that some people watching this may not know is we had the pleasure of having you speak at the National Estate Sale Conference this past January. At the conference, your talk was about using technology to tap into new markets, integration, and profitability. For those who didn't get to see that, can you kind of sum up how what you mentioned in your talk kind of ties in with the world we're looking at now as far as online sales?
Vincent: Yeah. I mean, it literally lines up perfectly. We're trying to be around a lot less people. In a traditional estate sale, you may have 40 people in line at seven o'clock in the morning. We may have 50 people that come throughout eight hours to pick things up when the sale ends, and we do the pickup.
We've reduced the amount of people by a lot. We've reduced the amount of time that our staff is in and out of a house. We may be in there for two days taking photos, but the rest happens online. One of the things that we're learning, I think with COVID is, we can do more remotely. We know we have to go in the house to do the photos, but I don't necessarily have to come to an office to do all of my descriptions and load photos.
I like coming to my office, you know, it's like my second home. So I come here all the time. But, instead of having six people in the office, maybe it's one or two. We've learned that we are confident that we can continue doing what we're doing and be safe. Keep our clients safe and keep our employees safe.
We have a warehouse here where we do sales, maybe once a month. Generally, these are houses that sold quickly, and all the items need to be removed. We actually go into the house and photograph it quickly in the house, and then it comes here, and we do the pickup. That way, we don't have to move giant things around our warehouse and try to photograph them here. It's already done, and it looks good. And then we just do the pickup here.
We do the pickup out of our back garage door. Nobody comes into the warehouse except for people that have big, big pieces of furniture. We just reduce the number of people that are involved in general. Then taking online payments is helpful.
We're really lining up perfectly with COVID. We don't know how long this is going to be. It's looking like we're going to be dealing with this for a little while, and so this is a great time to go online. I think that there probably are sales out there that people want to see the stuff, for sure. There are houses that I've been into that I'm like, “man, we've got to do a preview” or “we've got to let people see these things.” There always will be sales like that, but now's a good time to at least play around with a new way to do things. Doing it all online.
Tim: You had mentioned pictures. Obviously, with what you do, pictures are going to be one of the most important things. Do you find that it's different taking pictures for online, estate sales or online auctions versus in-person sales? Really that’s the only way they can see what is there.
Vincent: That’s right. Photos are what takes the longest and the most time. We can photo pretty much a whole house in two days generally. We usually have two photographers and one person that is just kind of organizing and cleaning things up. You don't just walk in and take a pretty picture of the furniture. You really have to take a little bit of time, but we've gotten pretty good at it. We use a big lightbox for small items. I talked about that a little bit in my talk. There's a nice new one that came out that has bright LEDs in it. You can get great photos really easily, and you can bring it with you from house to house. With furniture, we just make sure that we've got a nice clean area, and there's nothing weird on the walls, and that wires and dust is all removed.
We just try to take the best pictures we can: multiple angles of pieces of furniture, maker's marks, any damage or wear, scratches to the veneer or whatever, and then measurements. We put all that information in our description.
We all know what we're looking at. We can say it in our heads when we see a piece of French Provincial furniture, who made it and the style. It's just taking that information and typing it in. It's really pretty simple. Once you get a feel for doing it, if you've listed things on eBay, for example, in mass quantities, it can take some time, but once you get a good system going, you can move quickly.
We take photos with our iPhones, and we use Mac computers. When I sit down on my computer, all my pictures are already there. I then can put them in a folder and tweak them if I need to and then start loading them.
Once you get a system going, it can be pretty quick. You're going to have to make some initial investments to switch over. I'm not talking about thousands of dollars, but you're going to need a good camera. You're going to probably want a decent laptop. You can certainly do a lot of this from your phone or your iPad, but having a laptop is just going to make your move that much quicker and moving quicker is what you want. You want to move quickly enough that you're not spending days and days writing descriptions and loading pictures.
You want to be at least pretty up to date with technology. That's something that I run into with, with sellers that sell with us a lot. They want to do these sales, but we are online. We are in the moment when it comes to technology. We've got to have the best technology available for software and, you've got to have pretty good technology to get it done properly.
Tim: What I'm gathering is, good pictures, good descriptions, getting a good workflow down and just taking a few steps to simplify will make it not as much of a daunting task.
That’s something we do run into even with traditional sales. There's a lot of people that miss the mark with their pictures, and that can be a driving factor, whether someone's going to come to your sale.
Vincent: That's right
Tim: So we're going to get down to the most important question that I'll ask you. For the companies out there that are really concerned with, “I don't have the time to do an online sale,” “There's too much work to go into it.” What suggestions or inspiration can you give somebody that's wanting to list a sale for the first time online.
Vincent: Yeah. Well, you know what? None of us like to change. That's one of the hardest things to do. When you get into your mode, and you know, it's going to take you this many days to tag and price items, and then you're going to be in a house this many days, and you're going to be doing settlements this many days it's hard to get out of that. But, we're in a unique situation, and again, COVID is sort of pushing us forward. If we look at pre-COVID and talking on Zoom, for example, most people who are our mom's age, weren't doing it. And now overnight almost everybody and their grandma is on Zoom.
Tim: Out of necessity
Vincent: Necessity, Yeah. That's a testament to what we're doing right there. We're pushing ourselves ahead two or three years technology-wise and learning how to do this stuff. So now's a great time. It is time-consuming, but in the long run, the reason that we want to change everything, especially in a small business, is to be more efficient and efficient means you're going to make more money, and Hey, that's the goal. The goal is to make money, provide for yourself, your staff, and this is a really viable way to do it. You gotta just step over that hump and make the change, seek out somebody in your area that's doing online sales like this, even if it's auctions, even if it's not an estate sale, there's still a lot of similarities. Give them a call. See if they'll chat with you. We're always here to help—you guys, at EstateSales.NET. Over here at Rust Belt Revival, we're always here to answer questions and help.
That's one of the biggest things that I do. Provide support for everybody that works for us.
So it's a challenge to make those changes, but now is a really good time to do it.
Tim: Well, Vincent, that's all that I have for you. I do want to give you a few minutes to plug your website's, and, just kind of let them know what you've got going on.
Vincent: Yeah, we've got a lot of new sellers that are coming on. We got some local estate sale companies that have started doing sales with us, and we have a lot of auction companies or auctioneers even now that are doing sales with us. So our site's been pretty crazy, really blowing up lately. You can see our site at BidRustBelt.com.
That's where we put all of our sales. It's a marketplace for sellers all over the Northeast Ohio region. We like to focus in this area so I can talk to all these folks and keep in touch with them and see what they're doing so I don't get too far removed from all of the sellers.
Check it out. Feel free to reach out if you have questions, or need just a little bit of a push, or just can't figure something out, or just have to get some things off your chest before you move into online sales.
Shoot me an email or give me a call. I'm firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'm happy to help.
Tim: Great! Well, like I said, you did the talk at the National Estate Sale Conference and, you've been a part of the EstateSales.NET family for many years, and we definitely appreciate everything you've done for us.
Everybody, this has been Vincent Olivarez with Rustbelt Revival and Not your Mother's Estate Sale in Cleveland, Ohio. Give him a call and, you guys stay safe out there.
Vincent: Thank you, guys. Thanks for having me. Thank you very much. Be well, everybody.
Tim: You too. Thanks, buddy.