116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
MY BIZ: ‘No blueprint’ for auction business
By Katie Mills Giorgio, - correspondent
May. 23, 2023 5:00 am
Sharpless Auctions moved its sales online during pandemic — and stayed
IOWA CITY — Some business owners found that the shifts they had to do during the pandemic ended up transforming their businesses.
Mark Sharpless, owner of Sharpless Auctions in Iowa City, is one of those.
Before the pandemic, the auction house — overlooking Interstate 80 just east of Iowa City — held in-person auctions of pre-owned and estate goods every Wednesday evening since opening in 1988.
These days, however, all the Sharpless auctions are held online.
“When the pandemic started, we couldn’t have those live auctions because we couldn’t gather people together,” Sharpless said. “So we went online. I’d say it’s a pandemic success story really.
“At first we were pushed into this, and we weren’t sure how the transition was going to go.
“We do have people ask us ‘when are you going to go back to your live auctions again?’ ” he said. “But the way things are progressing, I don't think that is going to happen.”
How auctions work
All bids and payments at Sharpless Auctions are now handled virtually.
Two online Friday auctions are held with pick-ups scheduled Saturday. Two Sunday auctions have pick-ups on Monday.
The auction items come in on consignment or are goods purchased by Sharpless, making the auctions a mix of new and used items.
The online platform the company uses, Sharpless said, has made it go quite smoothly.
“People get online and look and see they can maybe get a deal and then they get hooked,” he said.
“Previously, you had to come here on a Wednesday evening and stand and wait for two hours to bid on something,” he said. “Some people just wouldn’t come.
“So now you can bid from anywhere on your phone and you come and pick it up that allows some flexibility in your day. It has freed up customers and our own time. This is a whole different way to run the auction business.”
While the auctions themselves take place online, Sharpless is open during the week if bidders want to stop and look at the items being offered in the auctions that week.
Sharpless said he also does specialty auctions, including some estates, RVs, vehicles and lawn and garden equipment.
“We sold five campers (one recent) Friday,” he said. “They were all bought for fair market value, and the winning bidders all picked them up in the time they were allotted, and we’ve got happy customers.
“At this time of year, we’re doing truckloads of nursery stock, including trees and shrubs.”
Then and now
Sharpless, 57, said he does miss some of the interactions he had with customers during the live auctions.
“But I enjoy the freedom of this more,” he said. “There’s a give and take with anything, but this is just a lot smoother way of running auctions.”
It’s easier for customers, too.
“People can bid from anywhere, and this isn’t restricting their time either,” Sharpless said.
In any given week, about 70 percent of the bidders are returning customers.
“Our footprint has grown a lot bigger with online versus in-person auctions,” he said.
The age demographic has shifted, too.
Most of those who came to the live auctions tended to be the over-50 crowd. With online bidding, the business is seeing more young bidders, which is a welcome shift as well, Sharpless said.
The auction business, he added, stays pretty consistent throughout the year, with things picking up slightly in the spring.
A team of 20 to 25 people are required to turn over the auction inventory every week.
“It’s a very unique business. There’s no blueprint to it,” Sharpless said. “We are learning as we go and sometimes we don’t know what we might be auctioning next.
“And sometimes,” he added with a laugh, “I do wonder myself where it all goes.”
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Owner: Mark Sharpless
Address: 5049 Herbert Hoover Highway NE, Iowa City
Phone: (319) 351-8888