In the cutthroat world of estate sales, whoever gets in the door first nearly always snags the best stuff.
But until recently, even the canniest dealers and sport shoppers usually had no clue what awaited them unless the sale organizer had listed the loot in a detailed (translate: expensive) newspaper ad.
The Internet -- which already is radically changing antiques shopping and flea marketing through sites ranging from exclusive Sotheby's to egalitarian eBay -- has begun providing invaluable early looks at what's hot in upcoming estate sales.
Consider this recent classified ad that ran the day before the opening of a Thursday-through-Sunday sell-a-thon in the Washington area: ''Rowhouse filled w/ interesting & diverse collections!''
Despite that exclamation point, the bland prose didn't give prospective buyers much incentive or info. But then came the magic phrase, ''Preview Web site www.grt-expectations.com.''
''Estate sales are always hit or miss. If you can see a photograph of three or four things you want, it makes it a lot easier to get up at the crack of dawn,'' said Barbara Lautman, an owner of the Chevy Chase, Md., antiques shop Finials.
''Everybody loves it, especially the customers,'' said Anna Derry, who started the estate-sale firm Great Expectations in 1980 and unveiled the Web site late last year.
Her first e-preview in November got 200 hits, and interest has climbed steadily. The recent event generated 500 hits, Derry said.
So far, reaction has been positive.
''We got such good compliments ... ,'' she said. ''One computer man who has been coming to the sales for five years saw the list but didn't know there were pictures. But he was elated about it. He gave us a couple of ideas. He thinks even though the directions to the house were clear by text, there also ought to be a map.''
Not everyone embraces this new online world. ''The older buyers who don't have computers feel kind of left out,'' said Derry, who suggested that their children or grandchildren with computers could call up the site for them, or that they log on at their local public library.
Derry is not the Washington area's only estate-sale cyber-pioneer.
Carol Oshinsky, who has been running residence-emptying events for 17 years, started posting detailed merchandise lists (but no photos) last summer on www.caroloshinsky.com.
She decided to skip illustrations because ''sometimes, you don't know until the last minute what you will have. I did one sale where the wife wanted to sell everything and the husband didn't want to sell anything, and he kept removing things until shortly before we opened the doors,'' said Oshinsky.
But she does provide a special interactive service. Her Web master (and son) Robert Oshinsky e-mails advance notices to her regulars a week or two before the sales ''as soon as my mother knows what's going on. They go out on listbot.com through Microsoft.''
Finials owner Lautman has been on Oshinsky's list for months. ''I just love the marriage of antiques and new technology. On Thursday and Fridays, I am often up at 4 a.m. getting ready to head out. It's so much better to know what I'm going to see.''
Despite the commercial potential of using the Internet to goose business, Derry does not see herself presiding over virtual estate sales.
Perusing an often-dark and blurry photo on a screen is no substitute for scrutinizing an object, which could be nicked, scratched, chipped, moth-eaten or faded.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.