Editor’s note: In celebration of eBay’s 25th anniversary, we’re spotlighting a seller every week from our global community in our Mini Stories column through 2020.
As suits both their personalities and profession, eBay sellers Katrina and Jeffrey Hess began their relationship through an online chat room for jewelers and a memorable debate on appraising gems. “We met arguing valuation theory,” Katrina says, with a laugh. That debate forged a friendship over jewelry that eventually led to marriage, now more than 20 years strong.
Since 1997, the Florida couple has grown their brick-and-mortar Hess Fine Arts store and their three other locations of their Old Northeast Jewelers on the eBay marketplace, transforming their businesses into a multi-million dollar, omni-channel venture in selling antiques, jewelry, watches, paintings and more. Both long have had a passion for luxury goods, fine arts and antiques. Katrina is a well-known gemologist, while Jeffrey has contributed to over 25 books and price guides on antiques and watches, including his book, “The Best of Time: Rolex Wristwatches: An Unauthorized History.” “My life is pretty much defined by my love of historical items,” Jeffrey said. As for Katrina: “Once you see a gemstone under a microscope, you might as well give it up — you’re going to become a gemologist,” she said.
Over the years, the Hess couple has made countless connections through the marketplace; their roster of eBay buyers have included a former U.S. secretary of state and one of the world’s top five highest-paid authors, who also happens to be one of Katrina’s favorite writers. They’ve sent shipments to numerous destinations around the globe, from Sweden to Saudi Arabia to Singapore. “We’ve been selling so long, we’ve sold engagement rings to people whose kids buy engagement rings from us,” Jeffrey said. “eBay has connected us with a lot of people in a lot of places, and our business and our life is richer for it.”
Jeffrey and Katrina Hess have grown their brick-and-mortar business, Hess Fine Arts, on the eBay marketplace for over 20 years, turning it into a multi-million dollar enterprise.
Jeffrey said he first came across the eBay marketplace in 1996 after seeing one of their employees browsing the ecommerce website while at the office. “I thought, ‘Oh my god — eBay is stunning. This is amazing, this is something that will help us.’” Selling on a global marketplace like eBay, he thought, would help them tap into a larger customer base and help them save money on traveling to antique and decorative arts shows. “I immediately recognized the power of eBay,” he said.
Hess Fine Arts’ eBay store took off quickly, thanks to a competitive strategy: auctions that started at $1 with no reserve price, in order to encourage bidding. In 1999, Katrina further revamped their store’s strategy, retaining the emphasis on auctions while focusing on quality photos and descriptions. “What I applied to our eBay listings was a systemic methodology of describing and photographing items,” she said.
The Hess couple found that customers valued the strong level of detailed descriptions around the quality and condition of the antiques and decorative art they sold. Because so much in antiques and decorative arts sales can hinge on quality and condition, Katrina said the listings’ transparency translated to customer loyalty. “We had a structure that gave our clientele a level of comfort, which really made us have a long, good following — we have customers that go back to ’99.”
Consistency is part of their “secret sauce” in fostering trust among their customers, from item specifics to descriptions, Katrina said. And for some of those longtime customers, they have taken their trust in Hess Fine Arts to the next level. “We’ve had some totally profound moments,” Karina said, recounting the time that a customer of 19 years called and asked for her legal name.
She had spoken with him on the phone, but they had never met in person. “He said, ‘I’m going in for some tests and it’s not looking good. I want your name in my will so that if the worst happens, my wife knows to get all the watches and jewelry and high-value paintings to you, because you will sell it and take care of her. You’ll know how to handle it, and you’ll be honest.’” Relationships like these are not uncommon for Hess Fine Arts, considering their longevity on eBay. “I can’t think of any other venue that could offer that level of connection,” she said.
eBay sellers Jeffrey and Katrina Hess.
Running Hess Fine Arts together has also deepened Jeffrey and Katrina’s connection. “Most people get married for better or for worse, but not for lunch,” Katrina jokes. “We’re together 23 hours a day. While we are going on 22 years, in an average marriage that’d probably be about 50.” Their personalities complement one another; Jeffrey is the big thinker, while Katrina considers implementation, strategy and efficiencies. “He’s the genius, I’m the boots on the ground,” she says.
Katrina and Jeffrey also have a team of 12 employees, who assist with the daily shipments of 50-150 packages and daily influx of 400-600 customer emails. “It’s because [eBay] is so dynamic, 24 hours a day,” Katrina says, that Hess Fine Arts employees must possess a diverse range of knowledge about retail, wholesale, gemology, watches, antiques, ecommerce and beyond. Their employees include former museum associates and art students, and former managers from some of the country’s largest jewelry and gold buying companies.
The Hess couple says the eBay marketplace has helped expand their store’s customer base and revenue opportunities.
Today, Hess Fine Arts averages around $6-7 million in annual eBay sales, the couple said. They say they have sold oil paintings for as much as $35,000, watches for as much as $65,000 — even a couple of Rolls Royces on eBay Motors. Their online business on eBay dovetails seamlessly with their brick-and-mortar presence in Florida, which includes their art gallery and multiple jewelry stores and boutiques elsewhere in the state. “A lot of people who come into our retail stores are people who first heard about us on online venues like eBay,” Jeffrey said.
What does the future hold for Jeffrey and Katrina? They point toward a finance and decorative arts course they taught at a local college as the kind of experience they’d like to replicate. Katrina has been working on a book about online selling, and Jeffrey also wants to write more books. “Our ultimate dream would have something to do with either teaching or writing, something about either what we sell on eBay or how we sell on eBay, or about eBay itself,” Jeffrey said. “eBay has been a very, very big part of our life.”
“eBay’s success is our success,” Katrina added. “We’ve been good, faithful partners for over 20 years. And we’re looking forward to 20 more.”
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