Going once, going twice, gone! Auctions are moving online and changing a rural tradition
Auctions — a marketplace for knick knacks, farm land and everything in between — are often also gathering events for rural communities. That’s changing as more auctions go online.
Tractors, four-wheelers, a truck, a skid-loader and more are neatly parked in rows outside a northeast Nebraska farmhouse.
The farmer who owns this equipment is retiring and is holding an auction on this chilly spring day to sell to the highest bidder. About 200 people, including Anthony Thoene, crowd into a machinery shed to browse.
Thoene was hoping to get some fishing rods for his grandkids but was outbid.
“Oh, now there’s the guy that got them,” he says with a laugh.
Many people here know each other and catch up over cups of coffee from the lunch stand. They strain to hear each other over the auctioneer’s requests for more bids as they discuss local politics and speculate how much the tractors will go for.
For rural communities, auctions like these are often a social event to see neighbors and friends.
But it’s not just the bundled-up neighbors looking for a deal. Internet bidders are logging on from as far away as Montana to make an offer.
“There’s about 200 people here, but on the internet you’re talking thousands,” Thoene said. He occasionally helps Creamer Auction Company, the local business running this sale, set up their auctions. “So it definitely has improved the sales. But it’s harder to buy!”
Online transactions have become a big part of the auction business. The National Auctioneers Association estimates 70% of the industry’s $3 billion in sales come from the web.
It’s been a growing trend since eBay came onto the scene in 1995, and then the pandemic cemented online sales, says Nancy Cripe, who runs Missouri-based GRS Auctions & Strategic Liquidation.
“Suddenly you couldn't have a live auction,” she said. “You couldn't have people into your place. And so auctioneers had to regroup.
It’s also been good for business. Auctioneers say items go for as much as 50% more online than they do at purely in-person sales.
“I think online is never gonna go away,” Cripe said. “It's a stronger component, it brings in a wider audience. It really brings more return to the sellers.”
And websites do better at attracting younger buyers, who might not be drawn in by an auction’s traditional setting or products.
“Young families used to go to auctions to find household goods to start their own homes,” Cripe said. “Now everybody wants to go to IKEA for that sleek look. Unless it’s mid-century modern, you can’t really give it away.”
Not grandpa’s auction
Roy Montgomery is a third generation auctioneer who’s seen a lot of changes in the business over 40 years. Today, he pretty much only does internet auctions through his company Montgomery Auction & Realty.
“I’ll be honest with ya, I haven’t had a live sale of my own in probably over three years,” Montgomery said. “Grandpa wouldn’t understand at all. He would just stop and shake his head, say ‘I can’t believe how you’re doing that.’”
At Montgomery’s south-central Nebraska shop, shelves hold hundreds of knick-knacks and antiques. He and his team photograph each item and enter a description into an online portal where buyers can bid.
Potential customers registered to bid from as far away as Las Vegas, North Carolina and Washington state for a recent online auction.
“Online auctions are like fishing in the ocean instead of fishing in a private pond. You’re getting money beyond the local base,” Montgomery said. “And some of this stuff, in a live sale you probably couldn’t even get a dollar for it.”
But for many communities, auctions are more than just a business transaction. They’re a chance to check how things sell and see old friends.
Jim Schroeder came to the farm retirement sale in northeast Nebraska from his home about 15 miles away. He said a lot of times, it’s not really about what’s being sold.
“Retirement auctions are social,” he said. “It’s kind of like a retirement party. So a lot of friends will be here to say goodbye and stuff.”
Sometimes those social ties actually push buyers online. Auctions can be emotional — especially when it comes to selling land that’s been in a family for generations — and people may want to avoid in-person competition with their friends.
Schroeder’s nephew recently bought land and told him the highest bidders weren’t in the room.
“Some of the guys don't want to be here, because they don't want to be shown to be bidding against the neighbor,” he said. “They want to be anonymous.”
The ‘electricity’ of a live sale
Yet Jones said a person would be “foolish” not to have an online component with their live auction.
“If you only do live auctions, you have just left out 99% of the United States,” he said.
But Jones maintains there will always be a place for professional auctioneers and in-person events, especially when companies use a hybrid model and stream live auction calling to internet bidders.
Attendance at his schools has remained similar to the levels over the last decade, and he said, there’s strong demand for auctioneers to run charity events and sell real estate and livestock.
“The live auctioneer is still doing well. They’re very magnetic and persuasive, and you can’t get that online,” Jones said. “On the internet there’s no one telling you ‘Oh come on now, just bid one more time.’”
Loren Beachy, president of Bright Star Auctions in Indiana, does a lot of hybrid events. Almost all his company’s auctions have internet bidders, in addition to a live crowd. About half of sales go to off-site buyers, Beachy said.
And as an Amish man who often serves Amish customers, he has even come up with a way to loop in folks who don’t use the internet, by creating a print catalog and mailing it to a list of Amish buyers.
“And then we set up a conference line where they can call in here and just verbally bid,” Beachy said. “Amish online bidding, if you will.”
He knows bidding via phone or computer will never quite capture an auction’s energy.
“There's nothing like the excitement of a good brisk auction,” Beachy said. “I've never been to a rock concert, but I know that there's an element there of electricity and excitement.”
Montgomery said he feels a touch of that atmosphere when he watches his online sales from his south-central Nebraska shop, thanks to a bell that rings whenever somebody bids.
“It’s really fun when you get into one of those going ‘Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!’” he said. “You’ll see somebody get down to two seconds before the time runs out, and then he’ll bid and extend it and the prices are going up. It can be just like a live auction; there’s still that element.”
This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.