Considering Covid, sheltering in place, social distancing and a steady diet of heavy snow, the attraction of distraction cannot be underestimated. And the explosive growth of online activities clearly leads the pack in the distraction derby. However, when it comes to winning the “selling winter coats in Miami when the temperature plunges” sweepstakes, nobody has been better positioned to benefit from social isolation than Bring-a-Trailer.com.
For an insider’s look at the Covid fueled Bring a Trailer online marketplace phenomenon, we reached out to Matt Maisano, classic car broker and owner of Motorcar Manor a premium vehicle storage facility in Ramsey, NJ.
Carried away by Bring a Trailer
For car enthusiasts what began quite humbly over a decade ago has become an obligatory hour lost each day to ogling an eclectic and glorious array of exceptional vehicles from around the world being auctioned in real time. Matt Maisano, with a shrug, concedes, “It’s highly addictive for sure, but it’s a great tool for understanding the market, far better than Autotrader or eBay and if you’re looking to kill an hour of Covid boredom. BaT is for you.”
True to its name, Bring a Trailer began in 2007 as pretty much a car enthusiast website for selling incomplete project cars and race cars incapable of being driven home. Then, in 2014, based on the evolving culture and expanding community of Bring a Trailer, co-founders Randy Nonnenberg and Gentry Underwood took what would be a tentative and ultimately profoundly disruptive step impacting the business of collectible automobile auctions. They launched BaT Auctions.
Nonnenberg grew up as a kind of millennial version of older car guys like many of us. The type who in days past would be at the newsstand waiting for delivery of the WantAd Press. How about that for a blast from the past? Or the type who would follow the NY Times delivery truck to its next stop on a late Saturday night to get first crack at the automotive classified section in the Sunday Times. Yes, I did that.
Born out of Nonnenberg’s passion for all things automotive, Bring a Trailer came to life and evolved into what, in the time of Covid, ranks as the dominant classic and special interest vehicle auction venue.
Bring a Trailer’s very first auction on July 23, 2014 offered three cars, a 1970 “Boss” Mustang, Nonnenberg’s own 1991 BMW M3 and a 1964 Alfa Romeo coupe. Today BaT has over 300 cars auctioning at any one time. The total number of listings per month exceeds 1400 with a sale rate of approximately 80%. Vehicles sold on BaT include vehicles ranging across the full spectrum from category 5 “full restoration needed” to absolutely top tier classics. Six-figure sales are common place with seven-figure sales of a 1957 M-B Gullwing and a 2007 Saleen S7 LM on record. Among the cars Matt has sold on BaT, a 1972 Ferrari Daytona went for mid six-figures.
BaT’s community comprises a vast population of informed and engaged members. While the number constantly spirals up, BaT’s knowledgeable community exceeds 450,000 users and over 200,000 registered bidders. Matt when asked as to who the bidders are blurts back, “With Covid everybody has become a bidder on Bring a Trailer.” Since Covid came to town the concept of the typical BaT bidder has gone out the window. Matt says, “I’ll have guys – who’ve been dedicated sideline watchers of BaT but who have never purchased anything. Next thing, you know within three months time they’ve purchased two cars from BaT.” Matt confirms that he knows guys during this pandemic who have gone nuts buying cars on BaT.
At this point BaT enjoys a backlog of over 5,000 cars waiting patiently for their turn to cross the BaT online auction block.
Bring a Trailer’s success has not gone unnoticed by big business. Just recently Nonnenberg and his partners sold BaT making it part of the Hearst multinational mass media empire. Nonnenberg will continue to manage it.
A visual and content rich feast for the car enthusiast, each vehicle being auctioned features high quality photography, driving videos and succinct and detailed descriptive copy. Matt says, “BaT really upped the game for photo quality from the craigslist days of ‘here’s a wheel’ and ‘here’s a bumper’ to BaT’s current comprehensive photo profile of easily 100 or more pictures.
However, it is the “comments” section that stands out as a key measure that enhances the total BaT experience and clearly distinguishes and differentiates its offering from others. Matt says, “Aside from the friendly, ‘I had one and loved it’ comments, real value exists in the pointed and technically astute insights in the comments section.” Matt strongly recommends that anyone in the market for a specific vehicle take the time to monitor the comments offered by knowledgeable people in reference to the same type vehicle. Being an informed bidder can save a great deal of buyer’s remorse. This clearly helped a personal friend considering a BMW Z3. The comments section offered great insights such as lifting the trunk carpet to check the condition of the spot welds anchoring the rear suspension. Broken spot welds would indicate hard driving and necessary repair.
Want to be a registered BaT user? Simply go to the BaT homepage, go to “log on,” click “register and provide your email, a user name (What people will see if you comment or bid) and a password. Done.
Itching to place a bid? First thing, understand the costs involved. Compared to what many see as the usurious 10% buyer premium charged by the in person auction houses such as RM, Bonham’s, Barret-Jackson, Gooding to name a few, BaT maxes its buyer fees at a pretty painless 5 percent up to a maximum of $5,000. Matt says, “To become a bidder the steps are clear cut. Create a login name, register by completing some agreements and provide BaT with your credit card information. Bidder credit card info must be on file. The reason being that when you place a bid, BaT immediately puts a hold on your credit card for 5% of the bid.
Unlike eBay, BaT does not permit sniping. Sniping refers to a common practice on eBay where a bidder waits to the last second to place a hopefully winning bid while leaving no time for another bidder to counter. BaT, however, prevents sniping by adding an additional two minutes to any last second bid. Matt points out that the two minute extension can actually draw a bidder in and overwhelm the bidder’s better judgment. Matt says, “It gives other people time to jump in. Acting on behalf of a client and under the client’s direction, I found myself in an online bidding battle. Someone else REALLY wanted this car. It got to the point where the bidding had gone far beyond reason. Someone would be paying way over its true value. I had to pull my client back and say this is crazy.”
Have a car to sell? Matt says, “Initially you must provide your name, your email address, your vehicle description and pictures. You don’t have to submit all 100 pictures, but definitely give them at least 20 picture so they can get an overall sense of the vehicle.” In a process BaT calls “curation” it subjects your vehicle to careful scrutiny that it meets its standards including repair records, ownership history, accurate mileage and special features. BaT always demands to see acceptable proof of ownership. Listing a car on BaT carries a fee of $99.
While BaT clearly stands as the online auction big dog, it also makes an attractive target. Competitors have begun surfacing intent on carving out their niche. Gaining in popularity, online auction site “Cars and Bids” features its founder, Doug DeMuro, an engaging, knowledgeable and opinionated automotive journalist and You Tuber. Focused on cars of the 1980s,’90s and newer, DeMuro puts a distinctive and personalized stamp on the vehicles auctioned on his website. DeMuro’s popularity grows as does the “Cars and Bids” community.
Additional BaT competitors include pcarmarket.com specializing in Porsches, the mbmarket.com a Mercedes-Benz only website, Hemmings online auction and, coming in March, radforsale.com offering just cars from the 1980s and newer.
Clearly the affinity of Millenials and Gen Xers for all things digital makes online auction sites a natural draw for those demographic groups. Matt says, “Online definitely attracts a younger community compared to in person auctions. I mean granted I recently sold a Ferrari Daytona online to a 75-year old gentleman. But definitely the online community is more youthful. Look Gen Xers and Millennials are just more used to doing things online.”
When asked if older buyers are waiting for the in person auctions to return, Matt responds without hesitation. Matt says, “Oh without a doubt. First of all, it’s a destination. They want an excuse to get out of their homes. As well, the older buyer wants to touch, feel, smell and experience the car they intend to buy. Buying cars online is still a really weird place especially if you are not a digital native. In addition, older buyers are much more concerned about getting screwed on a car. For some reason Gen Xers and Millennials are a little bit more forgiving with an attitude of ‘oh it is what it is.”
Matt also believes that the traditional auction houses, while most have ventured on line with some success, yearn for a return to in person events. Matt says, “Online you lose out on the whole live theater experience. Live is where a bidder can seize the moment. Bidders get caught up in the atmosphere. Your buddies pump you up and cheer you on. Whether it’s peer pressure or booze pressure, chances are enhanced that you’re going to keep buying and that’s what the auction houses want. You don’t get that on line.