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Obit: Store's Demise Blamed on Web Auctions

The owner of a now liquidated estate liquidator blames online auctions for her store's fate. But others think she may have simply priced herself out of existence. A business obit.
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THE BUSINESS: Estate liquidator
OPENED: 1990
CLOSED: March 2000
CAUSES OF DEATH: Internet competition; high prices

Saxophones, silver platters, Salvador Dal lithographs, a slightly-worse-for-wear Egyptian mummy. Sally Wheeler-Valine's store dealt in it all -- and much, much more. At Estate Administrators and Liquidators, based in Sacramento, Calif., Wheeler-Valine handled an eclectic, ever-changing inventory. The business served people seeking to sell the household goods of their deceased relatives. Wheeler-Valine would conduct an on-site sale of the contents of the deceased's home, splitting the proceeds with the family. The unsold items she would haul back to her store for sale on consignment, collecting a commission of 25% to 50% of the selling price.

The business was generally healthy, according to Wheeler-Valine, although it slumped in the mid-1990s. But last year revenues took a disastrous nosedive. "I couldn't figure out what it was," she recalls. "All of a sudden, our sales were way off." Although some local dealers cited her store's high prices, Wheeler-Valine pinned her troubles on a powerful new market force: Internet auctions. They were siphoning off some of her best customers, she explains. Soon she was contemplating the liquidation not of another estate but of her own business.

Wheeler-Valine, who's been an art and antiques aficionado for as long as she can remember, caught the estate-liquidation bug in the mid-1980s. While in law school, she had the chance to broker a van Gogh painting. Soon she was being asked to help unload the property of various estates.

She shelved her plans to become a lawyer, and by 1990 she had a full-time business. Her store drew not only retail customers but also antiques dealers from many nearby small towns, such as Nevada City and Grass Valley. To accommodate the large volume of merchandise she was moving, Wheeler-Valine expanded, eventually moving into a 13,000-square-foot space.

The expansion was a mixed blessing. The cost of keeping a 14-employee staff of salesclerks and back-office help proved to be burdensome, as did the demands of tracking inventory on Wheeler-Valine's outdated computer. In 1995 she filed for Chapter 11 protection from her creditors while she reorganized, and that appeared to put Estate Administrators back on track. Revenues continued to climb, peaking at roughly $865,000 in 1997.

Last spring, however, store traffic declined sharply, and receipts plummeted to a mere $30,000 a month. Finally, two of the company's steadiest customers, two antiques dealers from a small town outside Sacramento, reappeared after a long absence. "I said, 'Where have you been?' " says Wheeler-Valine, recalling a conversation with the dealers. "They told me they could bid on eBay and get things directly."

But interviews with several antiques dealers and experts in the Sacramento area suggest that online auctions haven't cut substantially into the industry's sales there. "Overall, we haven't seen a decline," says Gary Anderson, owner of Antique Plaza mall, although he concedes that local business in collectibles such as World War II memorabilia and specialized glassware may have fallen off. Asked to account for Wheeler-Valine's fate, Jerry Jensen, owner of Ormolu Antiques & Ornament in Carmichael, Calif., notes that her prices were "way off the chart."

Wheeler-Valine insists that it was the Internet, not her prices, that forced her company into Chapter 7 last March. Before Estate Administrators folded, she had tried to get in on the online action herself: she sold a few bowls, figurines, and vases on eBay but was not impressed with the results. Preparing photos and descriptions to post online alongside her offerings and responding to prospective buyers' E-mail took many hours of work. "We ended up paying more in labor," she says, "than we could get out of it."


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