The E-Commerce of the World’s Most Beautiful Things: 5 Questions With 1stdibs CEO

1stdibs proves that selling a $15,000 designer chair online is actually a viable business.

David Rosenblatt at the opening of the new 1stdibs gallery in New York City.
David Rosenblatt at the opening of the new 1stdibs gallery in New York City. 1stdibs

If the wild successes of Amazon and Alibaba have taught us one thing about selling things on the internet, it’s that e-commerce is all about reaching the masses, taking down the barriers of physical distances and information asymmetry to push price to its lowest and the range of options to its greatest. (Various statistics have shown that the average value of an online order placed in the U.S. is under $100.)

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However, David Rosenblatt, CEO of 1stdibs (pronounced “first dibs”), the luxury online marketplace selling $10,000 designer armchairs and $22,000 antique porcelain vases, isn’t convinced that online shopping is only a game of cheap and cheerful.

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When Rosenblatt, who sold his first startup to Google for $3.2 billion in 2008, took the helm of 1stdibs in 2011, he had very little knowledge about the luxury collectibles business, but he was sure about one thing from his prior experience in online advertising: the inevitable digitalization of all industries—high-end furniture and antiques included.

Since then, Rosenblatt has expanded the 1stdibs’ dealer network and client base from U.S.-only to a global market. Last year, the platform facilitated $250 million worth of sales for brands and artists from 28 countries.

Last month, 1stdibs opened a new brick-and-mortar location in the west Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. The massive gallery space, filled with objects from 50 sellers on 1stdibs, allows shoppers to see products in person while shopping on the 1stdibs website. You can also order things in store to have them shipped to your desired location.

Observer took the opportunity to briefly chat with Rosenblatt about the digital prospect of luxury collectibles, what attracted him to 1stdibs in the first place and how many 1stdibs items he has bought for his own home.

1stdibs brands itself as a marketplace for "the world's most beautiful things."
1stdibs brands itself as a marketplace for “the world’s most beautiful things.” 1stdibs

You said in a 2015 Forbes interview that, when 1stdibs approached you with the CEO opportunity in 2011, it was “love at first sight.” Why was that? What about 1stdibs attracted you to the art and collectibles business?
I believe that every industry will be changed by the internet. But, most of the time, the evolution does not favor the incumbents in an industry. So, what attracted me about 1stdibs was the opportunity to reinvent an industry so that the incumbents would benefit, not be hurt, by that change.

For the luxury collectibles industry, the end result would be a world in which our cultural patrimony is preserved and enhanced, rather than commoditized. That’s what gets me out of bed every morning.

How’s the company different now than when you first took over?
In terms of our business model, in 2012, we were just a bulletin board for U.S. antiques and vintage furniture. Our audience was mostly American designers. Today, we are a global e-commerce site. One third of our sales are made to designers across the globe, and the other two-thirds are to consumers. On the product side, in 2012, we only had antiques and vintage furniture; today, half of our consumer business is jewelry, art and contemporary design.

Our e-commerce has grown 100 percent annually since launch. In 2018, 1stdibs sold $250 million in GMV (gross merchandise volume).

To many people, luxury collectibles seem to be a very niche and secretive business. How is digitalization going to change that, if at all?
It may seem niche, but it’s actually a $400 billion business globally. Christie’s and Sotheby’s alone do over $12 billion combined annually, and they are only a tiny part of the industry.

It’s true that, historically, luxury collectibles have been inaccessible to many buyers. But thanks to the digital revolution, it’s all one click away now. You can shop the world’s best dealers and brands in your pajamas.

Digitalization also allows us to vastly improve the buying experience in three ways: reducing the risk of purchase, educating buyers on the product, and offering cheaper and improved customer support and logistics.

You have an bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies and did a tour of duty in China before starting your career in the U.S. Did that bit of cultural background ever play a role in 1stdibs’ strategy?
There is no question that, in this market—like other luxury markets—one must have a China strategy. Now that we have built out our e-commerce tech and service platform, we are developing a China strategy.

How much of your own home is decorated with pieces from 1stdibs?
About one third of the house. But, that was done before we had the New & Custom category. If it were today, it would be about two-thirds!

A booth inside the 1stdibs gallery in New York City.
A booth inside the 1stdibs gallery in New York City. 1stdibs

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The E-Commerce of the World’s Most Beautiful Things: 5 Questions With 1stdibs CEO