Weekly online wool auctions are set to commence this week as the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the need for alternatives to buyers sitting in an auction room.
But, the National Council of Wool Selling Brokers of Australia says it will be a long time before it sees online sales overtaking the volumes sold through open cry auction.
Last week, Australian Wool Innovation held its first limited transactional trial of WoolQ Market, which had been years in the making.
WoolQ is the result of the four-year Wool Selling System Review which commenced in 2014 and called for an online wool exchange portal as one of its recommendations.
Of the 52 lots offered, 13 were transacted during the 40 minute session with seven buyers and three brokers participating.
AuctionsPlus also held its first auction since 2015 with 44 lots selling of the 237 bales listed.
These were offered by four brokers, Elders, Nutrien Ag Solutions, Australian Wool Network and Jemalong Wool.
On Thursday, AuctionsPlus will put up another 110 lots comprising 650 to 700 bales, while WoolQ Market will begin weekly sales on Thursday, April 30.
AWI eastern hemisphere manager John Roberts said the initial focus of WoolQ had been creating grower/woolclasser/buyer and broker profiles to build provenance and encouraging the uptake of electronic specifications to improve traceability.
He said there had been little interest to transact wool online when the physical market was strong, but this had changed quickly with the crash of the Talman system (used by buyers) and COVID-19.
"We could see some scope to trial viable options, particularly a platform that would keep people away from attending auctions," he said.
Mr Roberts believes there is room in the market for competition but sees the strength of WoolQ Market as its good security, along with the system being very configurable.
"Last week we had 10 block lots at three minutes a block but very quickly and with no expense we can ramp that up as the industry gets comfortable with the system," he said.
"Buyers can bid electronically during the auction or pre-load their buying limits prior to the sale."
WoolQ Market will be free for a six month introductory period, after which there will be a fee for both buyers and sellers using the system, which he said would be "competitive".
Mr Roberts said WoolQ would create opportunities for woolgrowers as the market sought greater connection from farm to garment, and while there had been 2500 user registrations in the past two years, he encouraged other growers to sign up.
Since the e-specification sheet was launched, 488 forms have been completed by woolclassers covering 28,501 bales and nearly 2500 user registrations have been made with WoolQ.
"We have a number of brands that want to understand growers' stories and tell their stories as part of their marketing," he said.
"WoolQ will be the start of that data journey."
AuctionsPlus Wool project manager Tom Rookyard says the pandemic has been the catalyst for renewed interest in online wool sales and believes it may continue post COVID-19 as the industry becomes more familiar with the technology.
For several years, he says the company held online sales during the auction recess but these had ceased in 2015 due to lack of interest - although AuctionsPlus had long operated an offer board too.
"Physical auctions were covering everything but then the thought turned to if we get an outbreak how would we transact wool and what would it look like," he said.
Mr Rookyard was pleased with the 61 per cent clearance at last week's sale and half of the passed in lots selling post sale.
"We have been speaking to a couple of brokers who are keen to ramp up volumes in coming weeks," he said.
It is face-to-face, they are familiar with it, its simple and it works.
NCWSBA executive director Chris Wilcox says there is "some scope" for online selling but their members' preference remains buying wool through the open cry auction.
"It is face-to-face, they are familiar with it, its simple and it works," he said.
Mr Wilcox said members were willing to use Zoom video calls to continue physical auctions, in the event of further tightening of restrictions or a buyer at one location testing positive for COVID-19, but broker trials had shown mixed success with online sales.
"One of the buyers in regional NSW had to stop because they couldn't hear all the bids and others reported the screen would freeze," he said.
He said AuctionsPlus Wool and WoolQ appeared to still be "feeling their way".
"In one day selling (last week) we saw 18,000 bales, whereas in two trials there were only 500 to 600 bales so it is a very different scale," he said.
The United Kingdom has been running online wool auctions for the past couple of weeks and South African auctions resumed electronically this week after a five-week recess.
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