Strike Up the Band

by David G. Propson

In this country a business is free to do or sell whatever it wants ­ and if you do it over the Internet, you might even find investors. One industry that has been changed forever is the collectible and antiques market, which had traditionally been fragmented and widely dispersed. Online behemoth eBay was built on the backs of just these sorts of sellers. By going on line, they were able to reach out to many more potential buyers and increase the chances they would find one who wanted exactly what they had to offer.

Hank Cartwright, one of’s founders, has always been an entrepreneur and a collector. He traveled the country picking up collectibles where he could, and eventually built an entire 1950s-themed addition onto his house, including Wurlitzer jukeboxes, a love seat made out of the fender of a Chevy Bel-Air, and a fully working diner. Americabilia’s director of marketing, Richard Hooten, is in charge of selling customers on that same sense of nostalgia.

What is it about the Internet that makes it so conducive to selling collectibles?
“The appeal for collectibles transcends demographics and income brackets, and that makes it fun for us to market. Hank had to look everywhere for this stuff. And he realized there was no place to go for all sorts of American-themed collectibles. We began by auctioning stuff over eBay, and we were so successful with that we decided to set up our own site. “

Has that helped increase business?
“We launched our Web site on July 24 with our first 1,000 products. In August we bought Unique Images, another Las Vegas company which specializes in autographed Hollywood celebrity, music legend, and sports memorabilia. By Christmas, we were showcasing more than 2,000 items on the Web site. We have a huge number of sources and distributors, and we’re marketing and reaching countries such as the United Kingdom, most of Western Europe, Australia, and Japan. The Japanese are huge Star Wars fans. They’ll buy three or four Darth Vader phones at a time.”

With so much branded merchandise at the site, how are you building your own brand?
“A lot of the things that we offer are gifts that we’re able to buy in quantity. Every big brand name out there has products that are licenses ­ Coke, for instance, has thousands. We also show rarer items. Recently, we acquired the Santa Claus suit worn by Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street. Around October we’ll start a push saying that we’ve selected a major auction house to auction the suit. We’ll give the proceeds to a charity for children and try to get Macy’s to exhibit it in their windows. These things create brand awareness and put our name in the public eye. At the same time, it helps us give back something.”

What’s the biggest challenge for your business?
“Personal attention is my number one concern. The Internet has been an incredible merchandising tool, but it’s made shopping impersonal, to say the least. We try to respond personally to each customer, usually within 24 hours, and sometimes within minutes. They really want to know there’s someone on the other side of the browser. Right now, I participate a lot in that myself. We give them their tracking information, and occasionally we’ll check up to make sure it got there okay. It’s amazing how much people appreciate that.”

What’s the future hold for the nostalgia business?
“We set up the business particularly to appeal to the Baby Boomers and Generation X. These are the kinds of products that people think of when they think of a happy time in the past. The Star Wars people live it: They’re the ones who lined up and saw the movie 40 times. We have one customer in Kansas City who buys miniature shoes at the rate of one or two a week. Any company can get that first buy, but to keep them coming back is difficult.”

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.

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