When I first started out in with my little art biz, consignment was the name of the game.
For those of you new to selling your work, consignment is when a store carries your work, but you are not paid until after it sells. Sometimes that means the end of the month after the month it sells. Wholesale, on the other hand, means a store pays upfront for your work–sometimes on the spot, before you ship, or within 10 to 30 days of the invoice date.
Most stores like to play it safe with a budding artist. “Leave a few pieces, we’ll see if it sells”, they explain. No risk to either party.
Actually, the very thought that a store would even let me leave my work with them was a thrill. I took my friends into the store and pointed out my work with pride. Look! My work is on their shelves!”
Flush with my first success, I wanted more. And so, like most craftspeople, I sought out more stores to consign with.
Soon the drawbacks of consignment became apparent. At one point, I had thousands of dollars’ worth of product sitting in a dozen stores, with no money in my pocket.
Sometimes the checks would dribble in, but only many weeks after the items actually sold. Worse, the paperwork was horrific. Some stores would send work back and ask for newer work. Often the returned goods were shopworn, or even damaged.
Since the stores didn’t actually have any money invested in my product, sometimes they didn’t put much energy into selling it. Sometimes I’d find my work on the bottom shelf, six inches off the floor. Not exactly the prime real estate spot in the place….
Consignment didn’t look so hot anymore.
As I got more astute about the business side of things, I demanded—and got—wholesale accounts. I wanted my money upfront, and if the items got damaged or stolen from the store, that was no longer my problem.
I became totally committed to wholesale. I did only one retail show a year. The rest of my business was selling directly to stores, catalog companies and galleries. I would actually sneer at consignment. It was only for those newbie artists who didn’t know any better. I maintained only a very few consignment accounts, mostly non-profits who didn’t or couldn’t buy my work outright. And only with the people who were very easy to deal with, and who kept great records.
After almost a decade, though, something funny happened.
As I became better known and my prices rose, I realized my work—especially my fiber work—was getting too pricey for most of the craft stores I marketed to. I could see that I really should move it on to art galleries. Art galleries who now mostly work on a consignment basis. (Gone are the heady days of the 70’s and 80’s when a gallery would buy the complete body of work of an artist outright.)
Something else happened, too. I got tired of filling orders.
I would make samples for a wholesale show. Customers would make their selections and I’d write up their orders. I would go back in the studio and make up work from the orders.
But lately I found myself dragging my feet. I didn’t WANT to make a dozen more of that design. I didn’t WANT to make sure the last bear sculpture I made was exactly the same size and price as the sample they’d ordered. I didn’t WANT to make the same thing in blue.
The last few years were tough on retailers, too. Cash flow was problematic. Even after an order was bought and paid for, and “not my problem” anymore, there was still griping. And pressure to swap out work that was moving slowly.
My costs of getting new work out in front of buyers rose. Printing and mailing a catalog gets expensive and time-consuming. It takes time to keep a website updated, especially if you’re a one-woman operation. I would spend thousands and thousands of dollars to do one wholesale show–and sit in my empty booth looking at empty aisles, wondering where my buyers were.
“You need to follow up after the show–call your stores and touch base with them!” Excellent advice. But why bother doing the show at all if I still have to work each account one at a time??
I hate to say it. But lately, the thought of working with complete freedom in my studio—making just what I want to make that day, in whatever design strikes my fancy, and whatever color choice excites me—is looking more and more appealing.
I could simply make a batch of whatever—jewelry, wall hangings, sculptures—pack it up, ship it out—and make more stuff.
This is actually one of the strengths of consignment: Because the store doesn’t have to tie up money in their inventory, they can experiment with new artists, new designs, or new (usually higher) price points.
If the stock comes back eventually, it can go into stock for my retail shows and open studio events. Since I’m now making more one-of-a-kind designs, this can be a good thing. I’ll have more selections available to my retail customers, not just more blue fish earrings.
I’ve learned that if it doesn’t sell in one store, another may do better with it.
And the thousands of dollars saved by not doing wholesale shows would buy a lot of beautiful new beads and fabrics…. Maybe even a killer magazine ad or two.
Sure enough, I got a call last month from a new gallery. They’d just discovered my work, and they are very, very excited about it. I looked at their website, and it looks good. Really, really good. A good fit, a good location, a beautiful gallery.
And they only do consignment.
I found myself saying, “That’s GREAT!! I’ll just pick out a good assortment and get it out to you.”
“Whatever you can send!” the owner exclaimed.
Could it be??
Is my future in consignment again???
P.S. For more on consignment, see this article from my Radio Userland blogsite from a series I did on getting started on selling to stores:
GETTING STARTED #13 What is Consignment?
5 thoughts on “CONSIGNMENT REVISITED”
Luann, it makes a lot of sense, seems like a natural step. But I’ll be interested to know if these galleries are better about tracking what they have, paying when sold, etc. Will you ask for references from other artists?
Oh, yes, Mary. As always, artists must do all they can to protect themselves and their work. Consignment is not a simpler or easier alternative to out-and-out wholesaling. But I’m desperate for the mental and spiritual realignment that comes from making and selling the work I WANT to make, as opposed to ONLY making the work others want to sell.
A friend sent me your blog. So appropriate. I’ve just had my first show – at 70 (almost). At the cusp of creating the next step in getting my art “out there.” Am so aware how I feel when creating something new and how different I feel when duplicating what was made previously. No chance to evolve in the process, no discovery, no wonder! For me, will let go of the dream of going big time and choose going for the joy. Thank you so much for sharing your process.
Elsie, congratulations on your first show! You go, grrl!
And thanks for sharing your experience on getting back to one-of-a-kind work.