New online business model allows live auction thrill in a virtual house

By Antoinette Rahn

Tophatter may be a relative “new kid on the auction block,” but it is breaking the mold by providing buyers and sellers with a delightful, innovative and interactive auction experience in a virtual setting – complete with avatar.

Established in January 2012, Tophatter affords anyone who wants to list items for sale the ability to do so. Whether you’re an individual, professional antiques dealer, distributor or artist, you can sell, bid and buy.

Tophatter is using the popularity of social media to draw bidders to its live virtual auction house, where anyone can participate in bidding, buying and selling. (Graphic courtesy Tophatter)

As Tophatter closes in on its one-year anniversary in January, Antique Trader went behind the virtual gavel of this exciting live marketplace to learn a bit more from its co-founder Andrew Blachman about how it all began and where it’s headed.

Antique Trader: What goals did you have in mind when you began developing Tophatter?

Tophatter: We wanted to create a platform that would make online shopping an exciting, interactive experience. With live auctions every day, we invite sellers to showcase their wares from around the world to a community of thousands of buyers, and answer questions via chat as the clock ticks down. With items ranging from antiques and handmade crafts, to jewelry, home décor and much more, there’s no limit to what savvy shoppers can discover. In fact, since our launch, we’ve fostered a large community of buyers and sellers whose friendships extend far beyond the auction rooms. Tophatter is not just a place to shop; it’s a platform to hang out, chat and win. Breaking the mold on the traditional online shopping experience, we’re proud to call Tophatter the web’s most entertaining live auction house.

AT: What specific audience are you targeting with Tophatter’s interactive avatar platform?

TH: Since Tophatter features a wide range of unique products, we attract a diverse group of buyers and sellers. Users can select personalized avatars as they navigate through the site, which is set against the backdrop of our head auctioneer, Sir Wendell Wattington’s grandiose estate. Emphasizing these features is important for bringing our auctions to life. In our community-rich environment, we find many of our users are drawn to the site for its interactive avatar platform.

AT: What safeguards are in place to prevent shill bidding, misrepresentation of products, non-paying bidders, etc.?

TH: We have a strict policy against shill bidding in our auction rooms. If we detect shill bidding, we may suspend a user’s buying and selling privileges or cancel his or her account altogether. We also encourage anyone who suspects this is happening to report it to us. Tophatter may remove a lot from auction if the listing is inaccurate or misleading. In the case of non-paying bidders, if a seller hasn’t received a response after three days, we encourage that person to cancel the purchase and offer the item to the second highest bidder.

AT: Which sellers are going to benefit from using Tophatter? Which will benefit the most? Which will benefit the least?

TH: At Tophatter, sellers reach a network of peers and a community of thousands of buyers, opening up endless opportunities for exposure to potential sales. Many of our sellers have shops set up online, and we’re keen on helping them promote their businesses to Tophatter buyers. The most successful sellers create personal profiles on Tophatter, and give buyers access to other items and contact information for future sales. That way, buying and selling can extend beyond the bang of the gavel.

Things to Know:

  • Website:
  • It’s free to join and every member is asked to create an avatar – creativity is encouraged
  • There are no reserves for items listed for sale
  • There’s a Tophatter app at the Apple store

AT: We see you offer a standard and a featured auction option. What is the difference between the two?

TH: Featured auctions are organized by Tophatter in a variety of different categories and featured on the home page. These auctions are advertised on other sites, making them some of the most visible – and popular – auctions. Standard auctions are similar in that they’re featured on Tophatter’s homepage, except these auctions aren’t advertised externally.

AT: What are the minimum number of lots and bidders needed to kick off an auction?

TH: We always strive to make Tophatter’s auctions as dynamic and interactive as possible. Although there isn’t a strict minimum number, we have found that an auction is most successful with at least 25 items. Fees associated with selling on Tophatter include a commission on any winning bid (ranging from 5 to 13 percent); and a scheduling fee (ranging from free to $5) for featured auctions only.

AT: What are the value ranges for average lots?

TH: The average lot sells for $10 to $100, with items as far ranging as high-tech tablets to handcrafted jewelry.

AT: Another feature you offer, and one that appears to be very popular, are your community auctions. How is this different from standard or feature auction, and what benefits does hosting a community auction offer?

TH: Any seller can host a community auction as long as he or she has 10 or more RSVPs. Community auctions are beneficial to sellers who want to tailor the theme and content of their auction. Sellers typically promote community auctions through email, social media and their blog or e-commerce store. Tophatter simplifies this process by providing sellers with email templates and social sharing integrations to make promoting community auctions a snap. Auction organizers also have the opportunity to pay to advertise their auction on and in Tophatter’s featured auction rooms.

AT: Share some of your surprise auction highlights.

TH: We’ve been surprised by some of the rare items people have listed for auction on Tophatter. For example, a seller once auctioned off a first edition “Jane Eyre” book that sold to a very high bidder. There’s no limit to what you might discover on Tophatter, and this is an aspect of the platform that’s most exciting to our users. Additionally, we’re often surprised by the way Tophatter connects people. Recently, a soldier in Afghanistan popped into an auction he knew his wife was attending to tell her he loved her.

This article originally appeared in Antique Trader magazine

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AT:  As with many businesses these days, we’re seeing some auction houses introduce mobile apps to offer their customers more convenience. Is there a Tophatter mobile app in the works?

TH: The Tophatter community has another convenient platform in which to access auctions on the go. A few months ago, we released the Tophatter iPhone app, which is currently available in the App Store and can also be used on the iPad. We are also working to enable the Tophatter app to support any mobile device.

AT: What do you see on the horizon for Tophatter?

TH: Tophatter is continuously expanding. Based on the popular feedback we’ve received from our audience, we plan to increase the number of auctions and categories Tophatter currently offers. We’re also working to enable the Tophatter app to support any mobile device.

Tophatter’s Three Keys to Good Business:

    1. Listen to your members. We have multiple forums for sellers to discuss what works, and many of our changes come straight from them.
    2. It’s important to grow categories strategically. It’s not enough to say we have items up for auction and expect them to do well.
    3. Attendance is everything, and that’s what drives competition. To get that competition kicked off, it’s important to get at least 100-150 people in the room or else nothing will sell.