Entrepreneurs are using ecommerce sites in innovative ways. One of these entrepreneurs is Matt Schenck, who, out of personal frustration, decided there had to be a better way for consumers to purchase original art. That idea is now ArtQuiver, a groundbreaking site that offers original works of art directly to buyers. Schenck joined us to discuss the website and the first year of ArtQuiver.
PeC: How did you come to launch ArtQuiver.com?
Matt Schenck: “I’m not an artist by trade and I don’t have a fine arts background. I came at it from a consumer mindset as a somewhat frustrated consumer. I was trying to find inspiring, original, one-of-a-kind works of art for my home, and I was just trying to navigate the fine art world. And I think many people resonate with the story of feeling it’s a little bit intimidating, or at least a little bit hard to navigate.
“There’s not price transparency [in art sales] as we expect in the online world, and selection can be limited. So, I thought there must be a way to do better with an online marketplace. And, as I got into it, that resonated not only with consumers, but also with artists who are looking for representation and interested in reaching a wider audience online.
“So, the site went live in April 2009, and I would say there was a six-month period leading up to that where we were building and planning and getting ready to launch.”
PeC: Why sell art online, and not via the traditional physical gallery model?
Schenck: “I’m not approaching it as an art gallery owner that just happens to have an online presence. I’m a consumer, an entrepreneur, who thinks that there are problems to solve with the existing model with the physical gallery world. Online commerce represents a great opportunity both for artists and for consumers with choice and convenience. There was no question of me opening a physical gallery. It was always going to be an online concept.”
PeC: Do you warehouse the art?
Schenck: “No. All of the artists retain physical possession of their artwork. (There are currently about 80 or so who we represent and whose work is showcased on the website.) So, there is no inventory involved. It’s on a consignment basis.”
PeC: Is the artist responsible for shipping?
Schenck: “Yes, but we facilitate shipping, and it’s on our account. We have specially-designed boxes that we supply to the artist when a transaction happens. There are some instructions and some marketing material that goes along with the artwork, but essentially we get an empty box and a shipping label to the artist, and they get it to the end customer.”
PeC: How do you locate and select artists to represent?
Schenck: “In the beginning, when we were just getting off the ground, it was a little difficult. We found artists online who had certain representations and who we thought would have a good caliber of work for the site. But, now things have changed. We’ve done a little bit of advertising and promotion, and so we get applications everyday. We’re at a point now where, unfortunately, we have to turn down the majority of applications because we just can’t handle the load of interest from the artist’s side.
“We’re not eBay and we don’t want to give that impression. We really want to be careful with how we accept artwork on the site and how we portray it and showcase it. There is a bit of a bar that we want artists to be over as far as the caliber of their work.
“We also want to have supply that’s not unlimited and is warranted by the demand of the consumers. As we grow the business, we expect to scale the ability to add artwork and scale the volume on the site. But, right now, we like the intimate feel that is like an online representation of a real, physical gallery.”
PeC: So, how does ArtQuiver make money?
Schenck: “It’s a very straightforward relationship like a gallery relationship. Only in the case of a sale do we make money, which is a revenue share with the artist. And, in our case, it’s a little bit of a more generous revenue sharing relationship than a traditional gallery. The artists like that.
“After we pay artists, and for the shipping and the boxes, and pay our staff and our technical staff, whatever is left is how we make our money.”
PeC: Who is your shipping carrier?
Schenck: “We just have an account with UPS at this time.”
PeC: Can you explain how the site’s guarantee works?
Schenck: “The lifetime return guarantee is one of the innovative things that we offer. If someone is unhappy, or they just changed their mind, or their circumstances change and they want to return the artwork–for whatever reason–it’s fine. Unlike most ecommerce operations, this is an asset in that, when art is returned, it may very well be worth more than what we sold it for in the first place. We’re very happy to take it back and simply add it back to the inventory of the gallery.”
PeC: Have you had any returns so far?
Schenck: “We’re happy to say that the rate of returns is very, very low. Typically, buyers are very happy. Their expectations are surpassed when they see it live, and that makes us comfortable in offering that return policy, as well.”
PeC: How do you market the site?
Schenck: “There is online advertising that we do through pay-per-click, but it’s not particularly productive for us. Print advertising is doing better. We are running full-page ads in Home Design, Home Décor, and Elle Décor, and also in Dwell magazine coming up in May. This appears to be resonating.
“It’s fun to talk about our catalog because I think it’s a little counter-intuitive. Here we are, this exclusively online operation, and yet we have a print catalog. We just find that from a marketing perspective, art is not a spontaneous decision; it’s helpful to have something physical, something tangible that you have. The catalog is somewhere between a beautiful coffee table book and a mail order catalog. We find that customers use that as inspiration, and then they’re going to the website to actually transact.”
PeC: What ecommerce software does your web store use?
Schenck: Well, I’m not a techie, but we have a superstar techie on the team. He’s a partner in the business, and, other than the email marketing operation where we have some off-the-shelf things that we use, everything is built by him. The website is a custom shopping cart, built mostly in Ruby on Rails.”
PeC: What email provider do you use?
Schenck: “We use MailChimp. We like the interface and we like working with them. We’re looking at other solutions as we grow the size of our database. We think that there are some more cost-effective things that we may turn to in the future; but as far as getting us off the ground, MailChimp has been a good service for us.”
PeC: Anything else on your mind for our readers?
Schenck: “I think it’s interesting how, in the world of ecommerce, you can tend to have a sort of hands-off or arms-length sort of approach, and there are a lot of customers out there that enjoy the anonymity of that relationship. But, dealing with something subjective (such as original, one-of-a-kind fine art that has an emotional connection to people), I’m amazed by the nature of the personal relationship that gets developed with the customer. It’s something to always keep in mind, that the customer relationship is so important, and establishing a rapport.
“It doesn’t matter if your product is a commodity that’s not like art. Maintaining that relationship as it applies to your particular business is paramount. It’s important to keep that in mind as we conduct our business and as we grow in scale. I think that that’s applicable to all entrepreneurs in the ecommerce business.”