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Shirk's Auction Gallery Submitted photo

Longtime auction-goers are accustomed to the fast-paced rhythm of an auctioneer calling bids before his or her gavel slams down with a shout of “Sold!”

That scenario came to an end temporarily in Pennsylvania and many other states in mid-March, when the highly infectious COVID-19 pandemic hit and large gatherings were prohibited. To slow the spread of the disease in Pennsylvania, Gov. Wolf banned gatherings of over 10 people and later put a stay-at-home order in place. What followed has inadvertently helped usher in a new era for some auctioneers and their bidders.

It seems unnatural to hear the sounds of silence at an auction house these days, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t auctions taking place there. It may just mean that they’re being conducted in a different way.

Online sales have been around for years, starting with websites like eBay and Craigslist that allowed sellers to post their own items for sale to online bidders. An increasing number of professional auctioneers have also been moving their sales to the internet in recent years.

Roy Shirk of Annville, Pennsylvania, has been an auctioneer for over 25 years and became the owner of Shirk’s Auction Gallery about eight years ago. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, he had been holding weekly live auctions at the gallery, attracting 200-225 bidders and spectators on Tuesdays.

Those auctions involved the use of three auctioneers and typically sold antiques, household goods and the occasional vehicle. He also hosted specialized auctions at the gallery, such as those for guns, several times a year. Otherwise, the 30 or so real estate sales held at the premises being auctioned made up a significant part of Shirk’s business.

Shirk admits that he had been considering giving online auctions a try for quite a while.

“We talked about it for years,” he said. But Shirk’s existing sale schedule was just too busy to allow further investigation.

That all changed when the state-imposed pandemic restrictions gave Shirk’s plenty of time to explore options other than the live auctions they could no longer hold.

The process of incorporating online auctions into Shirk’s Auction Gallery menu of services proved to be easier than anticipated. Their research led them to HiBid, an integrated web service and bidding platform that is part of Auction Flex, an auction software provider. Shirk leases the software and credits an online tutorial with helping his company get up and running.

Shirk’s Auction Gallery went live with its first online auction on April 9 and is now doing two sales per week, mainly of the items that would normally have been auctioned at their gallery.

Although there’s a certain amount of trial and error involved, such as knowing how many lots to combine into a single auction, Shirk said, “Stuff is selling really well.”

“We just shipped a sign to Alaska,” he said as he mentioned sales to other buyers as far away as Texas and California.

Shirk’s Auction Gallery has also found another online resource helpful to his business. “AuctionZip has been huge for us,” he said about the website that allows customers to search auctions online free; the costs are paid by the subscribing auction.

According to him, Shirk’s Auction Gallery has typically been in the top three to five slots among the 10 most-viewed auctions in Pennsylvania listed on AuctionZip. Typically, Shirk receives 8,000 to 10,000 hits over a two-week period for general merchandise, with somewhat less response for real estate auctions.

“Our presence has really grown in the past few years,” Shirk said.

Shirk’s Auction Gallery, housed in a spacious 10,000-square foot building along Route 934 in North Annville Township, houses not only a sales room and warehousing, but also a reception area and refreshment stand.

Since his clientele includes older folks, who enjoyed the weekly on-site auctions as a place to meet their friends and get a bite to eat, Shirk wasn’t sure what to expect when the pandemic forced his business to go to an online format.

In retrospect, he believes that the unique circumstances made the transition to online auctions smoother.

“People have been really good. We didn’t get much kickback,” Shirk said. However, he also acknowledged that the switch has been challenging for some older patrons, who either don’t have a computer or smartphone, or don’t know how to use these technologies. For patrons needing instructions, Shirk encourages them to call his auction gallery, so he or other staff can walk them through the online bidding set-up and process.

Fortunately, online bidding is simple, he said. For those who don’t know, this is the process. A prospective bidder logs on to www.shirksauctions.com. Then, clicking an on-screen button will lead to the online auction where a log-in is required. Online bidders like this process because each of Shirk’s online auctions is open for seven to 10 days.

Not only can bidders view three to five photos per item and submit bids from the comfort of their homes, but there is no need to sit through an entire live auction in order to bid on specific items.

Online bidders can either submit one maximum bid or opt to follow the auction and submit multiple bids in response to the offers being made by other bidders. Shirk points out that, at the start of an online auction, the price increments generally increase slowly.

Unlike eBay auctions online, where a bidder can click in at the last moment to become the successful buyer, the Auction Flex software features a “slow close.” If any bids are submitted in the last two minutes of the auction, the close of bidding is automatically extended by three minutes. Shirk said this feature also works to the advantage of the seller.

Once the bidding is final, the successful online bidder is notified, pays by credit card and makes arrangement either to pick up the item at Shirk’s establishment or have it shipped by Shirk. Those customers picking up items bring along the invoice that was emailed to them; social distancing is observed during pickup from Shirk’s Auction Gallery’s warehouse.

Shirk believes that online bidding is proving advantageous to his business in several ways. First, it has opened his marketplace to a whole new clientele, from the entire country and beyond.

There is also less labor involved than for a live auction, which requires a clerk, multiple auctioneers and runners, as well as staffing for the snack bar and office. The fee schedule for merchandise sold online is the same as for Shirk’s live auctions.

As for online auction disadvantages, Shirk cites the difficulty in selling box lots of assorted items. He also finds that bidders prefer to see and touch items before they purchase them.

While his online auctions now use display photos, when coronavirus restrictions are lifted, Shirk plans to hold preview times when bidders can visit the auction gallery to see the merchandise in person.

A personal disadvantage of online auctions for Shirk is that he misses calling bids and working with the crowd.

“I’m anxious to do it again,” he said.

In the meantime, he continues doing print advertisements to keep his auction gallery’s name in the public eye and refer customers to a full listing of items at the Shirk Auction Gallery’s website.

Shirk’s Auction Gallery may be reached at info@shirksauctions.com or 717-685-4226.

Sue Bowman is a freelance writer in southeastern Pennsylvania.