Bruce Hershenson recently hit a milestone: He posted his 1 millionth auction on his website, emovieposter.com. Hershenson sells movie posters, lobby cards and related items exclusively, but that's getting ahead of his story.
It was supposed to be a part-time hobby… I approached Christie's to do a movie poster auction, and it took off
He started collecting—and selling his collectibles—at a young age. As many kids of the '60s, he started with comic books. By 1969, the teenager became a comic book dealer. By the early 1970s, Hershenson was writing books about the comics he loved so much—and collecting a new item: movie posters. Soon his love for movie posters overtook his passion for comics.
"I sold all my comics, but kept my movie posters because I enjoyed them," he says.
Eventually that passion would lead to a very successful selling career.
It was supposed to be a hobby
By the 1980s, Hershenson switched careers completely when he became interested in the financial world. He became an options trader, but after saving some money, he retired in 1989 and started buying and selling movie posters.
"It was supposed to be a part-time hobby," he tells us. "In 1990, I approached Christie's, [an art business and auction house], to do a movie poster auction, and it took off!"
That led to Hershenson doing an annual auction for Christie's, and those did very well. The few items that didn't sell went into his paper sales catalogs. By the late 1990s Hershenson, like so many others, discovered eBay.
"I saw this as a way to get my customers online and thought it would be a better market," he notes. "I first shifted my catalog onto eBay, and it did very well, so then I moved my annual auction there against the advice of skeptics. It went really, really, really well."
Hershenson's entire business was on eBay. Some didn't think that was a good idea, but he ignored the naysayers then, and when he moved his business off the auction site to his own website in 2007.
Building a community
Hershenson had been maintaining a website since 1998. It didn't cost much, so in the beginning he used it to attract customers to his catalog business, he says. Today, the site has taken off. In the last two years, his business has done just more than $5 million in sales. So much for the naysayers!
I see so many sellers who have no employees. I say if you get someone who is good, you're going to dramatically increase your business
But before he sold his posters on his website, he used the site to showcase his expertise as a collector. He also gave his customer base, which was devoted to its own collections, a place to gather online.
"I decided we'd have a weekly collectors' club," he tells us. "The club gave me a chance to be among my customers."
Hershenson sent weekly emails out, including articles he wrote on collecting. Today he has 9,000 members in his club and an archive of every article he's written. He estimates that only a few hundred members actually read every email, but those emails keep him present among his customers.
When Hershenson moved his auction business onto his own website, he started offering a weekly Tuesday night auction, where he did about 999 auctions a week. His next step was to add a Thursday night auction, and now he also offers one on Sunday nights.
"It works out to about 2,500 auctions a week," he tells us. Of course, Hershenson isn't processing 2,500 auctions, orders and shipments alone. Over the years, he's added employees and now staffs a team of 33.
Employees handle photography, processing the posters and shipping them, writing the content for the auctions, and handling all the technical stuff for the site. He's also bought an entire city block of about 40,000 square feet, where his staff processes about 10,000 to 12,000 auctions each month.
Hershenson credits his staff with helping him grow his business to these levels.
"I see so many sellers who have no employees," he continues. "I say if you get someone who is good, you're going to dramatically increase your business." By handpicking his staff, he's gained the talent he needed to create customized software to run his business.
"Everything on our website was created in house," he says.
If you build it, they will come
Because Hershenson is a passionate collector, he knows what his customers need to effectively find treasures in his inventory.
"I wanted the list of categories that runs down the left side of the page," he explains. "It makes it so much easier to zero in on exactly what you want."
He and his staff have also customized the site so users can create "want lists." He notes that once customers establish their want lists, they'll automatically receive a notification when an item on their list becomes available.
I get some great things, but then I let them go. Knowing I've owned it once is satisfaction enough
"That was another real good innovation," he says.
We asked Bruce if it was difficult to sell the items he collects. Over the years, we've seen some sellers struggle to balance their desires with their customers.'
His answer: "I get some great things, but then I let them go," he says. "Knowing I've owned it once is satisfaction enough. I would think selling collectibles would be hard if you didn't care about them."
Not your usual 9 to 5
Throughout his long career, Hershenson has been a stock options trader, an e-commerce merchant and a professional poker player. Although these may seem like unrelated steps along a career path, he doesn't see it that way.
"I've always done something that's not a conventional business," he explains. "I was a salaried employee for seven weeks of my 62-year life!" All of his career moves have involved an element of gambling, and auctions certainly fit that bill.
"It's not that I know what's going to go well at auction," Hershenson adds. "But I'm willing to assess it and take a chance. I have more winners than losers. Sometimes I buy a collection that does very well and some of them don't."
One thing he never gambles on is his serving his customers. Over the years he's developed some very specific and personal approaches to customer service. Our next installment will take a look at that and more.