On the Square Auctions is a new but prominent feature of Belfast’s business scene. It is an auction house with a difference, situated on the corner of Tomb Street and overlooking Custom House Square – hence the name.
The business targets buyers who are not familiar with auctions, who want to equip homes on a budget. The auction house sets out to make things easy for potential buyers, with a comfortable environment that is different from what are often the cold and unwelcoming halls of the traditional auction.
On the Square’s founder is Justin Lowry. “I inherited the building when my father passed away in February of this year,” he explains. “We thought we could do something with this big old building. The only thing I could think of in this climate was to use it for auctions. Everyone is looking for bargains.” Selling and buying surplus items is a very attractive alternative to the pawn shops, that offer poor returns for sellers, he argues.
Justin has no background in auctions, but has business management in his blood. “I grew up around the retail sector and I have run bars and cafes and restaurants in Africa [in Tanzania] and Marbella,” he explains.
In recent years, Justin has spent an increasing amount of time visiting auctions on behalf of his girlfriend, Jill O’Neill, who runs the Refund store in Belfast’s Wellington Place. “So I had seen how it works and how they have grown over the last year or so.”
Auctions that a couple of years ago only attracted a few people will now regularly have 40 or 50 people attending, says Justin. “There are all the tv shows about auctions. I saw a massive increase [in visitor numbers], especially in the city centre.” Consequently Justin could see an opening for him to run his own auction house. “I thought now would be the time,” he continues.
The first auction took place in November and six have now taken place, generating enough income to cover the business’s overheads. “They started well,” says Justin. “Coming up to Christmas, they are a bit quiet.”
Stock for auction is a mixture and varies week by week. “There are household goods, tools, some liquidation stock, bedroom furniture, kitchen furniture, office furniture. We deal with everything from antiques to liquidation stock, with some items from bankruptcies being well known brands. One week the majority is antiques, another week it is mostly new.”
Attendance has been between 20 and 50 people at each auction, with another 20 to 100 following the auction online. On the Square has created a distinctive business model by copying some elements of eBay, while using a physical presence. A live online auction would be too slow, so bidders can indicate in advance their maximum bid, with online bids closing an hour before the auction takes place.
“That has made us different,” says Justin. “People call in during the week, attracted by our very visible front window. There is a lot of interest. People call in on the Friday and then go online and bid.”
As well as the auction house, the building also accommodates a cafe and a French polisher to renovate furniture bought in the auctions. In total the business has created four jobs so far.
But the most exciting plans are based on revising the auction’s business model.
“In the new year we will develop a mixture of the auction with consignment selling,” explains Justin. This evolution is also based on eBay’s approach, which enables sellers to choose between the auction option or a sell-it now alternative. “We will take goods in from people and then sell on a commission basis, with a buy now option. After the fourth week it goes into the auction with no reserve price.”
The new year will also see some big liquidation sales, available for immediate purchase. Items will be available at just 50% of the normal retail price, with the price dropping by 10% a week until sold.
“I have not heard of anyone else doing it like this,” says Justin. The evolution of the business model reflects demands from customers, many of whom are coming into the showroom and seeking to buy items immediately, without waiting for them to go to auction. “It seems to have come about very naturally.”
This new business has made a promising start, but it is not without its challenges, admits Justin. “It is a very stressful and long week for me,” he says. “We are the only auction house that puts everything online. And then the most stressful thing is going up in front at the auction. Then there is heckling, but it’s good fun!”