Oh, just give it away!
Oh, just give it away!

A few years ago I wrote a series of articles about selling your work in stores and galleries. I covered all the ins and outs of consigning and wholesaling, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

There’s one thing I didn’t cover, and that is returns–when the store wants to return certain items of your work.

The way returns are handled is what separates consignment from wholesale. In consignment, your work is placed in the store and you don’t get paid until it sells. In return for waiting, you usually get more than 50% of your retail price than you would by selling to the store outright (wholesale). The traditional split is 60% (artist) and 40% (store). When things got rough in the economy while back, this sometimes dropped to 50/50.

In consignment, if unsold work is returned to you, you aren’t out any money. You may be out time of course (waiting to see if the work sold) and you may be out the opportunity to have placed the items somewhere else where they might have sold quicker/better. But you don’t “owe” the store anything. You just get your stuff back.

Wholesale works differently. You sell your work outright to the store. You are paid upfront for your work–usually 50% of your retail price. (if you’ve figured your costs and pricing correctly, there is still profit there for you.) In essence, the store (usually) gets a slightly better price from you, in exchange for buying on the spot.

But store buyers are not infallible. Sometimes they pick stuff they love, but it just doesn’t sell. Sometimes the “sure sale” thing doesn’t work. They’re stuck with inventory that doesn’t move. Your work is money sitting on their shelves, taking up space where other more sale-able items could be.

At this point, your buyer now has several options:

1) Put the item on sale. Mark it down and move it out!

2) Donate the item to a charitable auction/fundraiser/non-profit and take a tax write-off. (I’m not sure if they can claim what they paid for it, or what they could have sold it for. Either way, it’s more than you the artist would get. If YOU were to donate the exact same item, you actually can only write off the actual cost of materials.)

3) Give to someone as a present. (“Look what I got you!”)

4) Try to return it to you.

We all have different ways of handling wholesale returns. Some artists won’t, period. Others take returns happily–it’s product that can be resold somewhere else.

And some of us who are way too nice, had to learn the hard way. Accepting returns can be a bottomless pit if you’re not careful.

It starts small. In my experience, the store owner/manager opens the dialogue during a follow-up sales call. They pick an assortment of new items. You are happily writing up the sales tally. Another great sale! Things are great! Until….

They ask if they can return a few things that just didn’t sell.

There are problems with accepting returns you need to consider:

1) It usually starts small, but gets bigger and more complicated quickly.

They say, “I have a couple items that just aren’t selling. Can I exchange them for different ones?” You say sure, no problem. Happy to oblige!

Soon there are way more than “a few things”. In fact, they are now returning a lot of stuff. Maybe even more items than they’re actually buying.

2) It leaves you in a position where YOU owe the STORE money.

I had one client who returned so much inventory at each reorder, I could barely keep up with what was going out and what was coming back in. At the end of a year’s worth of transactions involving thousands of dollars, I realized I’d only made a profit of less than $500. And that didn’t include the shipping costs. I was so excited by the big sales, I’d neglected to factor in the big returns.

3) The returns are no longer in the same condition. Sometimes the returned items are shopworn. Or they don’t go with your newer product lines. Or they’re now hopelessly off-trend or dated. Silver tarnishes, items come back in bags and packaging that aren’t yours, that particular style doesn’t sell anymore.

4) Once you start, it’s really hard to close that door. (See #2 below.) (I know, I have a lot of lists in this post!)

It can feel like you and your work is being disrespected. Sometimes, this IS the case. A few of my first clients tried to make me feel like the returns were substandard in some way, that it was my fault they hadn’t sold. I refrained from mentioning that they had hand-picked each item. And that displaying them on a shelf 6″ above the floor or in a basket under a table was probably not conducive to selling them.

Sometimes it’s a person who doesn’t have a lot of retail experience. They simply buy stuff they like, with no consideration or knowledge of their clientele, the right audience for the work, or the right price points for their store. This was the case for the buyer in #2. When I described the situation to a friend in the business, she exclaimed, “That’s just a personal shopper with a store budget!” In fact, the only reason I’m not more embarrassed about admitting how out-of-hand this got, is how it ended. (See #9 below.)

But some buyers are simply in a bind. They have money tied up on inventory that isn’t moving. Every time they look at it, they see a little pile of money that could be put to better use.

Understandable, to a degree. On the other hand, most “regular” stores buy inventory from much larger businesses who do NOT accept returns. That’s why some ready-made frames at frame shops are on sale. Why summer clothing gets marked down in August. Why specialty food items have a ‘sell by’ date. They can’t return stock three months later to these suppliers. So why do they ask us?

They ask us because there’s a chance we might. So it couldn’t hurt to ask, right?

Yes and no. I want to be a good vendor. I want to be professional. I like having a genuine relationships with my buyers. I want to work with them. I want to know what sells for them, what they’re customers are looking for, and what their needs are. That’s win-win for both of us.

Unfortunately, this attitude also makes me “too nice” sometimes. I had to learn to say no. And it’s important to know that you can say no, whenever you like.

And you can make exceptions. You don’t have to say no to every buyer. You can make exceptions to those who don’t abuse the privilege.

If you decide to take returns, have a policy, and a plan.

1) You can put a time-limit on returns. (“No returns after 30 days.” Or even 10 days, if you think you’re dealing with buyer’s remorse.)

2) You can accept returns for exchange only. (Actually, this should be written in stone! Who wants to write a check to the store?!)

3) You can put a limit on the amount or the number of items returned.

4) You can limit the number of times you accept returns. Maybe just once a year. Or maybe even just once, period.

5) You can charge a restocking fee. This will help cover your time for returning the item to inventory, the time for doing the necessary cleaning/repairs/repackaging, and the time spent to sell it again. It’s also a general “nuisance fee” if the buyer gives you grief about your “inferior word” or your “unprofessionalism”.

6) You can refuse to accept any shopworn or damaged items, period.

7) For stores you deal with at a distance, you can request they get pre-authorized for any returns. They have to check with you before they just send stuff back.

8) Any or all of the above.

So you can actually say you only accept returns in a calendar year, maximum 10 items and/or totaling less than $200, with a 20% restocking fee, and no exchanges on damaged or shopworn merchandise.

9) You can always change your mind. It’s your business. You get to decide.

In fact, I did just that. After I tallied up my sales and returns for this buyer, I changed my policy. Soon after that, I received a lot of inventory–unauthorized–in the mail. I wrote them and told her of my policy change. I gave them two options: I could mail the returns back to them. Or, if I didn’t hear back from them with 30 days, I was donating all the items to charity. I never even heard back, which means their accounting/accountability was even worse than mine.

10) You can have different policies for different buyers. Just make sure your strictest policy is your stated default. If you have someone who never abuses the privilege, you can state your regular return policy and then make exceptions for them. This is a lot easier than trying to rein in someone you’ve been lenient with.

What you DON’T want is a revolving door of sales and returns that wastes your time, your energy, and your patience.

Is there an upside to accepting returns? Yes!

1) It encourages the buyer to try new items they’re not sure about. Although it might make more sense to CONSIGN items like this. More paperwork, but at least money isn’t going back and forth.

2) When the privilege isn’t abused, it’s a good way to build rapport with a buyer. They know that you understand how hard retail is, and that you’re willing to work with them. Nice rapport!

3) The product really isn’t up to snuff. Sometimes there’s something about your item that needs work–a difficult clasp, an awkward length, a lack-luster presentation. Use it as an opportunity to improve your product.

4) Sometimes you get stuff back you can resell for MORE–because you’re prices have gone up!

A final word: The worst thing about returns is, the negative energy. The bad, sad place it puts you in (if you let it.) It feels like the store–and the world–is rejecting what you make. Especially if the buyer is a jerk and uses that against you. (It happens.)

Don’t go there. Don’t waste your good creative energy.

I still stumble. But I’m constantly learning.

Know your tolerance level. Be prepared. And if necessary, simply move on. Not every opportunity is a good one.

And say good-bye to the bad returns!


Deciding if you should do a wholesale show.

When people ask if they should do this big-name show or that new wholesale show, I think of that old song by musician David Bromberg….

“A man should never gamble
more than he can stand to lose….”

(From his song, “Diamond Lil” on the Demons in Disguise album.)

This question came up again in a forum I frequent, and this is my response:

I haven’t done the ACRE show in a few years–I did their first show in Las Vegas, and stopped doing wholesale shows soon after, after about seven years of doing shows like BMAC (wholesale), ACC Baltimore (wholesale/retail) & ACRE Las Vegas (wholesale).

Here are some points to consider:

1) Wholesale shows are EXPENSIVE. And even a good wholesale show is with an established reputation and good management, is not a sure thing. Used to be, but not any more.

2) First year shows are notoriously dicey. An artist friend with 30 years in the biz recently told me, “Never do a first year show or a show you can’t drive to.” I’ve learned the hard way this is excellent advice on both counts.

Wholesale buyers are still being cautious, and buyers at first year shows are the most cautious. Adding travel costs and shipping costs (for your booth) on top of that and you can easily spend $5,000 on a show with no guarantee you’ll get the orders to even recoup your investment (let alone enough to make a profit.) I don’t know where you live, but that’s something to consider.

3) Who are your customers? Who do you hope to find there? Years ago a good wholesale show would draw from stores and galleries across the country. Now, more buyers tend to stick close to home. So there MIGHT be buyers from all over, but it’s MORE LIKELY the buyers will be local. So…are stores in Orlando and Florida your target audience?

4) Have you done any shows at all? Even smaller, local ones, just to tweak your booth, display, selling skills, support materials?

I’m all for people going for their dreams and dreaming big. But you say you’ve only been in business a few months, and you’re still in the process of “building a website, creating a collection”, etc. Doing a wholesale show is a huge outlay in money, time, energy.

Are you–and your business–ready??

You might be one of those people we read about who takes that leap and flies. But doing a wholesale show is a HUGE leap, one that’s daunting even for people who already have some experience doing small shows, doing wholesale, etc.

Almost all shows across the country, retail and wholesale, have taken a hit in attendance and sales. And $3,000 is a lot of money. So…..

5) Can you afford to gamble $3,000–and lose?

My advice: I think the smarter bet is to take advantage of the Visiting Artist/ABI program. I was actually a guest faculty member for ABI, and it’s a good deal.

The critique will be helpful (though remember, even expert advice is still just one person’s opinion). They can advise you on all kinds of wholesale matters: Are you sure you’re making an adequate profit on your product? Do you have reliable sources for supplies? (If one critical supplier drops out, can you still make your product?) Are you solid on your production schedule and shipping procedures? Are you familiar with industry standards re: billing, payment, terms, etc.? Do you know how to qualify your buyers?

And you will get a chance to actually visit the show.FWIW, I think the most educational thing any craftsperson can do (who wants to do a wholesale show) is to VISIT THE SHOW FIRST. You’ll get to see what the deal is, you’ll be able to see how many buyers show up, and you’ll get to talk to exhibitors (if they are not busy and if they are willing, of course).

I wrote a entire series on how to wholesale on my old blog, but this new series I did on how to “half wholesale”–get started building your wholesale biz before doing a major show, may be more helpful to you. You can see links to both series here.

And all this information was before selling on the Internet became a “big deal”! Add in all you know now about websites and selling in your own online store, and you’ll be off to a good start

How to Half Wholesale: #10 Work with Ads

Ninth in a series on how to grow your wholesale accounts in a less majorly way….

If you have deep pockets and lots of patience, you can use advertising to grow your wholesale business.

The problem with most advertising is: 1) It’s expensive; 2) You usually have to do a lot of it, consistently, to get results; 3) Most artists advertise in the wrong places; and 4) It can be hard to tell if it’s actually doing you any good or not. Oh, and 5) Most people don’t read ads….or don’t remember them if they do.

Having said all those disclaimers, I have heard of advertising campaigns that broke all the rules and were outrageously successful.

My favorite is a jewelry artist who was persuaded by her PR consultant to drop a big bundle of cash on one big, splashy, full-page ad in a leading trade magazine just before the three biggest wholesale shows of the season. It was a colorful, trendy, incredibly beautiful shot of her jewelry–and it worked. The assumption from stores was, she must already be successful to be able to afford that kind of advertising. She wrote great orders at all her shows.

But of course, for those of you who think this might work for you, be forewarned that 1) she spent a lot of money on that ad. A lot of money…..; 2) she was able to “follow up” immediately because she also spent the big bucks to be at the shows where the buyers were; and 3) she had very low price points to begin with. (Her wholesale prices averaged under $15 wholesale.)

If you go the paid advertising route, the deal is you must be prepared to do it regularly, in well-targeted venues, and be able to track the responses each ad generates (perhaps by coding the contact info in the ad, or keeping track of the reader response cards from the magazine.

Standard wisdom was, bigger is better. Go with the biggest ad space you can afford. And great images are a must.

But nothing is written in stone anymore. Some research shows that using ordinary classifieds in those same magazines can produce good results, too.

And of course, the internet is changing everything. It looks like advertising on the web is finally effective. Though which, where and why is still not known….

In short, advertising to me has always seemed like a giant crap shoot. Some people win big, others get nowhere, and it can be almost impossible to tell who will get what. And now it’s an even bigger crap shoot.

I’ve used some advertising in the past, usually for very specific events–advertising my new work in a trade publication, show guide or buyers guide that will be distributed at the show I’m doing, for example. I do it periodically for name recognition (and after this year, to let people know I’m still alive and kicking!)

My best advice on advertising is, if you’re going to do it, try doing it where no one else is doing it.

Target those unusual venues and publications that isn’t obvious to every other artist and craftsperson out there. Do your homework! If it’s a magazines, get the demographics for their audience. If you make cat jewelry, maybe you could target a magazine that targets pet boutiques rather than the usual craft store or gift shop crowd. Instead of a buyer think, “Oh, yet another cat jewelry artist”, they might think, “Oh wow, more cat jewelry! Gotta get me some….”

I still believe that new product releases and press releases will get you more mileage on a limited budget. However, this approach do take more time and thought and preparation.

But as Greg Brown says, “Time ain’t money when all you got is time”, so if your overall budget is limited, do not break the bank to splurge on a last-gasp advertising campaign.

How to Half Wholesale: #9 Work with Reps

Eighth in a series of how to grow your wholesale business in a small way….

What is a rep?

I believe it’s short for “sales representative”. It’s a person who carries either actual samples or very good print images of artwork/craft items/jewelry etc. to stores. They “represent” the artists. If the stores like the work (and they trust the rep), they place a wholesale order. The rep delivers the orders to the artist, the artist makes the work and collects the money. A new wholesale account is created.

How much will they sell?
They will follow your wholesale terms, unless you have both agreed to exceptions–say, small sample orders.

How do I get paid?
Reps only carry and show your work, and collect the orders. They turn them over to you, and the rest is just like a normal wholesale transaction. You make and deliver the work, the store pays you according to your terms, and you put the money in the bank.

How do reps get paid?

Typically, reps get paid an amount equal to 15%-25% of the wholesale order. My understanding is that 20% is the norm for our industry. That might seem like a lot, but actually, that’s the amount artists and craftspeople are expected to budget for marketing and promotion anyway. Using a rep is simply another way of marketing your work. If you’ve accounted for this expense in your wholesale pricing, you should be okay.

Every order??
Well, that’s a good question. The answer is, it depends….

And here we get to the issue about whether using a rep is a good thing or a bad thing:

It depends.

Reps are just people. People who sell your work for you. Consequently, some are great, some aren’t.

Some work hard to sell your work, others want a lot of artists (because it makes them look like they got a lotta stuff) but only push their sure sellers. Some are careful to pitch your work to appropriate stores, others will sell to every two-bit operation that is willing to pay your minimum. Some are hard-working and honest. Others are fast-talking, sleazy and sloppy.

Over time, a rep will develop their routine to what works best for them. You must understand how your rep works before you sign on with them, to keep misunderstandings to a minimum. Use a contract, and read it carefully!

Some will repeat their “tour” regularly, writing new orders and reorders for you constantly. And in this situation, since they are actually doing all the selling for you, they expect that percentage from every order.

Other reps simply introduce your work to the store. Reorders and follow-up are up to you. They expect a percentage on that first order (the one they got for you) but they don’t expect a percentage after that initial order.

Some insist on actual samples, others are happy with a good catalog or line sheet. Some want you to give them the samples. Others accept them “on consignment”, and your items will be returned to you after their tour of duty. (Obviously, it’s easy to give someone inexpensive samples like cards or bookmarks, but you probably don’t want to give away precious metal and stone jewelry….)

Reps may expect you to develop new lines and new designs regularly, because it’s introducing these new items that keeps their inventory fresh and appealing.

In short, if you work with a rep, it’s important to know upfront what is expected of you, and what you can expect from them. Contracts are simply a written record of those expectations, with both parties in agreement.

How do you find a rep?
It’s actually not too hard to find a rep. The trick is to find a good rep. One who is a good fit for your work, your work ethic, your goals, your dreams. But when you find one, it can be a marriage made in heaven.

Here are some suggestions for finding a rep:

Ask other artists. When you find an artist with work that’s compatible with yours who’s already wholesaling, simply ask them if they use a rep. And if so, would they mind sharing the name.

Ask a store. If you are already wholesaling to a store, ask them if they ever buy from a rep. If so, ask them for the names of the ones who might work well for you. (Assure them you don’t intend to saturate the area with your work, or sell to their competition.) This is also a way to vet and pitch yourself to the rep: “I’m already selling to one of your accounts, and my work does well there….”

Ask a working rep.
Some reps actually do wholesale shows, representing a variety of artists. If you think your work might fit, talk to them. (Caveat: Show etiquette applies here. These people are working, and their first priority is to sell their current clients’ work. Wait until they are not busy with actual customers, and be ready to simply leave a card or catalog and contact them after the show.

Go where they gather.
Pam Corwin of Paper Scissors Rock has long recommended the Great Rep website as a great source for reps. You’ll find reps looking for specific lines (maybe your work is a good fit?), and craftspeople looking for reps. It’s a directory, so it’s up to you to screen your potential candidates.

Ask everyone!
Spread the word you’re looking for a rep. You might find out the brother of a friend of the sister of your neighbor in yoga class is a rep. Yes, you know it happens!

My caveat up front: I’ve only worked with a rep once, without much success. But many other craftspeople have, and it’s a real option for expanding your wholesale territory without leaving home.

A fellow artist who owned a small framing gallery took to the roads of New England with samples of local artists’ work. She planned to visit various stores and galleries along the way, showing them the samples and hopefully writing orders. She liked my jewelry and took samples with her. Nothing came of it, but the idea was intriguing.

A few years ago, I had a chance to work with a really great rep. He came highly recommended by other artists, and when I called him, he was interested in my work. The reason was, it fit in well with a few other lines he carried–Southwestern/tribal/world art–and he had stores in mind that did well with that look.

The only reason I hesitated was that his territory was New England, and I felt I had enough accounts in this region. In hindsight, maybe I should have tried working with him, and maybe I’ll open that door again someday.

How to Half Wholesale: #8 The Catalog Dilemma

The biggest problem when contacting store owners outside your region is how to let them know exactly what they can buy from you. Their first question is often, “Do you have a catalog?”

Buyers love catalogs. They love to look through them and see all the lovely photos of your work. They can actually see what they’re buying. All your information–your contact info, your terms, maybe even your story–are all in one place.

When I first started to wholesale my work, I dreamed of the day I could offer buyers a print catalog.

It definitely did seem like a “dream”, though. Catalogs are expensive to print and mail. You could end up sending dozens of catalogs for every order you generate, which might be okay for folks like L.L. Bean or Sundance Catalog, but not for one-person small producers like you and me. Paper catalogs also go out of date quickly as you add new designs and drop old ones.

Then I discovered sell sell sheets. What is a sell sheet, you ask? It’s simply a one-page sheet of paper, printed in full color, that highlights a new product or new product line. Artists and craftspeople can create a four-color display with quite a few samples of their work for a relatively low price.

The person who introduced me to this concept was a honey producer. She’d set up an attractive display of her honey products, with teddy bears and bee skeps. One bad bear had dipped a spoon into a honey jar. It was adorable!

The first time I found reasonable printing for a four-color sell sheet, I thought I’d died and gone to catalog heaven. Megacolor was one of the first of the big, cheap printing companies out there, and I still like using them for sell sheets and postcards. My contact guy there, John Maasik, has been “berry, berry good to me” and he enjoys working with artists:
888-339-2001 email:

I used sell sheets for years, creating a new one every two years or so as I added new jewelry designs. I would staple all the “editions” together to create a catalog. When one sheet got too out of date, I’d simply drop it from the mix.

If you decide to go this route, only print your name and company name and contact info on the sheet itself. You can either print product information and pricing on the back with your own printer, or print out price sheets as you need them. Otherwise, every time you change a price or term, your sheets will be out of date.

Eventually, though, even the sell sheets seemed like overkill. I still couldn’t get my very newest designs out to buyers, and spending a couple bucks to mail a packet of materials to a prospect was expensive and cumbersome.

Now we have the internet, and lots of ways to post our work. But how do we create an online catalog?

One solution is to join online services set up to do just that. began as a way for artists to create not just a web presence, but an actual online catalog. The site has a hard-working support team who offer many other artist services, such as co-op advertising and now its own wholesale show, the American Craft Retailers Expo (ACRE).

This venue was the first time I’d ever used an online catalog, and I love it. The upside is that it’s easy for me to upload and maintain my own data and images. Everything I need is built into the site: search features (by product, price points, media, etc.), ordering capability, information about the store and buyer, etc.

The downside for me is, I don’t think my work fits in with most of the other work on the site, aesthetically and price-wise.

And with so many other artists, it can be hard to make your work stand out.

I’ve been a member twice, and though it has not been a roaring success for me, I did get some good accounts there over the years, and it cost a heckuva lot less than a standard wholesale show. Some people do quite well there, and it’s worth checking out.

Another possibility is to use the new online marketplace Etsy.

Many people express extreme doubts over using venues like Ebay and Etsy to showcase and sell your artwork. Most of the work is not highly original or “arty”, and it can be almost impossible to stand out to shoppers.

Now, here’s the creative part, suggested to me by an artist who reads my blog and has agreed to share the tip:

Don’t even bother using these venues to sell to casual shoppers.

Use these venues to host your “catalog” for your customers.

CORRECTION: I originally thought it was possible to create a password-protected site on Etsy, so only store owners approved by you can access it. Here you could provide wholesale pricing and terms, and even process orders. However, several alert readers have contradicted that. So for now, consider Trunkt (see below) as the “wholesale version” of Etsy.

And there may not be hoards of wholesale buyers thronging you when you try this. But–and I can’t emphasize this enough–the idea of using these online venues as a catalog is hugely intriguing to me. It’s something I could do myself (as opposed to putting updates on my “honey do” list for my husband). (Please don’t suggest I learn how to build and manage my own website. Please? Have mercy….)

I haven’t even begun to explore this concept yet, but I’m excited by the thought. It would be a lot cheaper than (though you wouldn’t get the added benefits from WSC, of course.) However, again, if you just need a few new wholesale accounts, or are targeting a niche market, you may not need those services anyway.

There are other new wholesale sites out there like Trunkt and These all look interesting and trendy to me, and it’s hard to tell which ones will come out on top and which ones will work for any given artist.

But I love the prospect of simply being able to have a product catalog online, easily available to interested store buyers, something I can easily update and modify as needed.

And I don’t mind “standing alone” with my work and my products, as long as I am working with stores that really want something different and something beautiful.

And I think it’s wonderful that we now have so many different options open to us.

Your turn to share! What ideas are you exploring to get past a paper catalog?

How to Half Wholesale: #7 Network With Others

Networking was the buzz word in the 80’s and maybe you hate the word as much as I do. But it works, so just do it.

By networking, I don’t mean badgering everyone you meet at parties, the grocery store and your exercise classes to buy your work or give you ideas for stores. (That was the bad 80’s networking thing.) That gets hugely annoying fast.

I mean taking advantage of the natural rapport and eagerness-to-help you get from people who already like your work and want you to succeed.

Who can you network with?

Well, one resource we often overlook is our own customers.

They already really love what you do. Hopefully, you have a good relationship with them, and they probably want you to succeed (so they can say they “knew you when.”)

Even if you’ve only done a few small shows, you might easily have several dozen good customers. (Do a few major shows, and you probably have a few hundred, or even a couple thousand customers…. It adds up over the years!) Have you ever asked them if they’ve come across a store where your work would be a good fit? It could be in their home town, or a store they’ve visited in their travels.

Most people are simply happy to help, but if you’d like, you can offer an incentive. If they suggest a store, or introduce your work to a buyer, and you end up with an account, you could offer to send them a little something. This could be a piece of your work, or a discount coupon if your work is too pricey to just give away.

This next suggestion takes a little courage, but what the heck. Try asking your non-customers for referrals.

Sometimes retail shoppers may love your work, but for whatever reason, they cannot/will not actually buy it. Perhaps it’s out of their price range, or they can’t wear metal jewelry anymore (mid-life allergies, dammit) or your work isn’t really their style. They may still be so enthusiastic about your work that they’ll share a store or venue that might work for you.

If you’ve done or are doing a wholesale show, you will have people who are highly interested in your work, but don’t feel your work is a good fit for their store. If you’ve established a rapport, and they seem genuinely disappointed the match won’t work, ask them if there’s another store in their area that would be a good fit. You’ll be surprised how many buyers will help you out here. I’ve even had these buyers take my materials back home with them to show the other store owner. (I think it speaks highly of our industry that we’re all so willing to help each other like this…)

Another good resource is other artists who wholesale. You can do something as generic as ask on a forum you frequent if people have suggestions for you. (This is an excellent way of getting referrals across the country, too.) Or you can offer to swap good store contacts–one of your good customers for one of theirs. This works best if your work and theirs has a similar aesthetic or audience, but is not directly competitive. (Although some artists are so generous, they’ll even help others who might seem to make similar stuff.)

You can even get suggestions from artists you don’t know and have never met. When you’re surfing the net and come across an artist whose work seems compatible with yours, check to see if they sell to stores and galleries. Then check out those stores and galleries and see if they might be candidates for your work, too.

Big caveat here: Just lifting someone else’s store list is a little rude and lazy in my book. They went through all the work of finding those customers, and they offer the listings to help their retail customers. Here are ways to keep this practice balanced and fair:

1) Do the work, and just use the list to do your own store research. Go to each store’s website, and see if they actually are a good candidate to approach. Check out their other artists and price ranges to ensure it really is a good fit.

2) Find a way to give back to the artist. Buy a piece of their work! If that’s too expensive, recommend their work to a store, or send them the info for a potential new venue.

3) Post your own store list, so other artists can do the same. What goes ’round, comes ’round.

Last, if you blog, ask your readers for good leads. It can be a way for them to “give back” for all the good stuff you share with them.

Okay, now let’s brainstorm: Who else could you ask for good store leads?

How to Halfway Wholesale: #6 Tell Them Why You Love Them

A reader responded to a post yesterday, saying,

I am at a complete loss as to WHAT to include in a letter or email to a store/website that I would like to carry my stuff. I am afraid of sounding unprofessional “hi, please buy my stuff” or too formal “dear sir/madam please find enclosed…..”

I am sure I’m not the only one who has got their list of stores in other states/countries but are stymied by the proper business letter writing.

Do you have any examples or can you tell us what we should and shouldn’t include when approaching a business through emails or letters?

Great topic, Barbe! Today we’ll talk about how to say “Hi, please buy my stuff” in a nice way.

Here’s the most important thing to remember: Store owners want to buy stuff.

Their business depends on finding really great stuff that’s appropriately priced for their market.

They know they need to keep their inventory fresh–which means buying new stuff.

They want stuff that goes with all the other stuff in their store.

And they would really love it if the person who makes that stuff (you!) also happens to be pleasant, reliable, easy to work with, and interesting. In short, an artist who is also professional.

A buyer who is also savvy knows that new artists have to start somewhere–we don’t spring newly-formed and highly professional from some Zeus-like person’s forehead. They know we start out taking our new work cautiously from store to store, looking for someone who will think it’s great and who’s willing to take a chance on selling it.

The point isn’t to write a perfectly worded introductory business letter.

The point is to let the buyer see a representative sample of the work, and to address their needs, without sucking up too much of their time or jamming their email server with huge digital files and attachments.

And to show yourself and your work in the best possible light.

I’m going crazy trying to put these tips in order, so I’m giving up. In no particular order, then….

1) Just do it!

Don’t agonize about how to do it perfectly. Or which way to do it. I don’t think there’s any hard and fast rule anymore whether to phone, or send snail mail or email.

A quick phone call is a great way to simply find out how they would prefer to be contacted. Ask for the owner or main buyer. Keep it short! Tell them you only need a few minutes of their time. You are an artist who makes widgets. You are familiar with their store, and think they might be interested in your widgets. Ask if they’d like to be provided information by email or by mail.

You could ask if they are looking for new artists, because it’s nice when they say “yes”. And usually, stores will say “yes”. (They may not be buying, but like a married woman, they never stop looking.)

But if they say “no”, then you’re stymied.

If that initial phone call is too overwhelming–if, like me, your heart races frantically at the thought of talking to a perfect stranger on the phone–skip it and simply either send a brief email or note.

Individual buyers may have strong preferences, but I find people often say one thing and do another. Store owners are no exception. They might say they want information by snail mail, but then they don’t open their mail for weeks. (Yes, this has happened!)

Email is a safer bet than it used to be. Many people now are email and computer savvy. If the store has a website, it probably also does some business (ordering, providing information, responding to questions, etc.) by email, too. Email is fast and easier to follow up with, too.

On the other hand, snail mail gives them something concrete (like a postcard or photo) they can carry around and show other people.

So just do what you feel like doing, because then you’ll do it, rather than saying, “Oh, I should write, but I don’t have stamps….” or “I should email, but I don’t know how to link to embed an email image.”

P.S. If they do have a website, it’s often a great resource to find out the actual name of the person you should contact.

2) Just tell them what you want.

Tell them you’re an artist who makes work that might be a good fit with their store.

3) Then tell them why you think your work might be a good fit.

This is important. They want to know why you picked their store to approach.

Here’s where you will separate yourself from the thousands of other artists who simply mailed postcards off to Niche magazine’s Top 100 Retailers….

You have done your homework, and you really think your work will meet their needs.

Tell them why you love them, and why they might love you, too.

Again, keep it short. But briefly explain why you picked them.

Are you looking for representation in a certain geographic area, and you’d like them to have first dibs at your work?

How did you hear about them? Did you read a great article about them in a magazine, saw the photos, and realized your lines are compatible with theirs? (They’ll be delighted you saw the article.) Maybe they even mentioned in the article that they are always looking for artists who make widgets, and you are a widget artist.

Did you visit the store? Maybe you were vacationing in the area, went to their gallery, fell in love with it, and noticed that, though they carried widgets, they didn’t have any widget-related items like the ones you make, and you thought they might be interested….?

Are you familiar with their store at all? Did you at least look up their website and look at the work they currently carry? Does your work fit with their style and aesthetic and price range? You noticed they carry the work of two or three artists whose work is often displayed and sold alongside your work, so they might be interested…?

Get the idea?

3) Whether you contact them by phone, email or letter, show them what you got.

By mail or email, provide an image of your work so they know if it’s something they’d even be interested in. This should be a good, professional image of your work–not a badly lit, blurred image of your work set on a wrinkled piece of fabric.

To be safe, don’t send the image in the email unless you know they are willing to accept such an image. Send a link to the image you’ve uploaded on a web page.

If you can’t do that, make sure the image is a low-res image that won’t jam up most email boxes. (I used to use a very old, but very virus-proof email program. Every time someone sent me a big photo, it crashed my program. I did not like those people very much.)

And the best tip of all….

4) Follow up!

Indicate in your communications that you’ll call in a week or so to see if they got the materials, or if they have any questions. Remember, store owners are just people with stores. They’re just like us! They get busy, they forget, they misplace the letter. Call and remind them who you are and what you do. If they like what you do, they’ll be happy you called.

And what if they aren’t?

All is not lost. But you have to play your cards just right.

Do not take rejection personally! You did your assigned reading, right? You did read Why Didn’t They Buy My Work?!

Because even if this store does not want to buy your work, the questions you ask next could lead you straight to the next store that does want to buy your work.

Do not allow a trace of disappointment or anger to color your attitude. Stay focused, upbeat and positive. Listen to the reasons they give. The reasons will help you decide what to do next.

If the reasons are valid, accept them and address them if they are reasonable. Maybe the prices are too high for their store. You can suggest they might be interested in your lower-priced lines. Or your work is colorful and they only do neutrals–you can mention you have 20 other colors available, six of which are neutrals.

But do not argue or debate. You will lose. Even if the reasons seem silly to you.

People may reject your work for many reasons, and they may never actually tell you the real reason. Heck, maybe they have a nephew who makes the exact same work, though not as nice as yours, and they can’t possibly carry yours or their sister will kill them.

You can always ask them to suggest another store in the area that might be a better fit. You’d be surprised how many store owners will be happy to do this for you, especially if they really do like your work but really don’t think it’s a good fit for their store.

You can also ask them if you can send them images of new work from time to time. Most of them will say yes, unless it’s just too far off-course from what they carry. (But it shouldn’t be, because you did your homework when you looked them up, right?) They may be interested in how your work grows and changes over the years, and if it does, they want to be there.

To summarize, here is a sample note I might send to a store I’ve been to:

Dear Ms. Blanc,
I visited your gallery while on vacation last month. I was enchanted with the beautiful work I found there! I took a brochure and also visited your website.

I make jewelry inspired by ancient cultures with my handmade artifacts that look like bone and ivory. I’ve enclosed a photo of one of my pieces, an Ancient Horse necklace. I made the horse and all the “ivory” beads on the necklace. The other beads are turquoise, coral and freshwater pearls. All findings are sterling silver.

I thought these might be a good fit for your gallery because, like other items you carry, they have a folk art/tribal art quality, yet are handmade by me. My prices are also compatible; my necklaces range from $48 to $750 wholesale. The piece in the photo wholesales for $125.

My work is now in a dozen galleries across the country. I’d love to find a store in Michigan to carry my work, and my first choice would be your gallery.

May I call in a week or so to see if you would like more information?

Thank you,
Luann Udell

Here’s an email I sent to a store I found online:

Dear Ms. Roux,
I found the XYZ museum store while researching potential new venues for my handmade jewelry. I was delighted to learn that you are now carrying jewelry with a Southwestern aesthetic.

My work features my own handmade artifacts that look like real fossil ivory and soapstone. These are accented with antique trade beads (such as those traded throughout the American West) and semi-precious stones such as turquoise, coral, pearls and lava. You can see an image of an Ancient Horse necklace here: (provide link) This piece wholesales for $68. Other items (earrings, bracelets, pins) range from $24 to $350 wholesale.

I’ve found my work does well in stores with high tourist traffic, as it is distinctive and unusual.

I couldn’t tell from the website if your store carries ONLY work by Native American artists, or if you carry a mix of artists. My work is compatible with such tribal art, but I am not a Native American.

Would you be interested in more information about my work? If so, I’ll be calling within two weeks to answer any questions you might have.

Thank you,
Luann Udell

Okay, these aren’t perfect, but they should give you an idea of how to let a store owner know who you are, what you want from them, why you think they’d be interested, and how they can find out more.

P.S. I just reread these sample letters, and I see something glaring I left out. Did you catch it?

I didn’t tell them upfront what I wanted! Somewhere close to the introduction, I could have said, “I’m a jewelry designer, and thought you might be interested in my work”….and gone on from there.

See? Even the know-it-all doesn’t really know it all…!!

How to Halfway Wholesale: #5 Do More Reading!

This is one of the most fun tips you’ll ever get about how to build your wholesale business:

Read more magazines.

Stores and galleries pay big advertising bucks to attract customers. They advertise in local newspapers, regional and national magazines, and on the internet.

They jump at the chance for good publicity–being interviewed for articles, participating in fund raisers, joining in art walks. Sometimes they piggyback with other local businesses, like bed-and-breakfast establishments, to entice tourists and visitors. They ask to be listed on their artists’ websites, so the artists’ collectors know where to find their work.

You, the artist, can benefit from that. You are going to look for ads, articles, store listings and store reviews for venues that might be a good fit for your work.

Most of us get the first, most obvious places: general craft trade magazines. Magazines like AmericanStyle Magazine, American Craft Magazine, Niche Magazine, etc. deal with American craft in general. (The Crafts Report targets artists and craft retailers; Niche targets retailers; American Craft and American Style target collectors.) You will find tons of stores advertising in all of these magazines.

My very first wholesale mailing were stores culled from reviews in The Crafts Report, a monthly magazine for the crafts professional now available only by subscription. (When I first started reading it, you could find it in bookstores and craft supply stores.) They would review a few galleries in each issue, with information on their store location; clientele (tourist, retirees, college town, etc.); popular price points; focus (home wares, jewelry, wood); what they were looking for (bridal jewelry, bird baths) and whether they did wholesale, consignment or both.

I’d carefully read each entry and decide if the store looked like a potential customer, and add them to my mailing list.

What’s exciting is when you take this idea a few steps out, fine-tuning it to your craft and your aesthetic.

These trade magazines focus mostly on American contemporary craft. If your artwork is American country, then find the trade publications that cater to that aesthetic. Early American Life is a great magazine for upscale traditional American Crafts. I’m sure there are many, many more.

What about your medium? Every media has its own trade publication. And many stores that specialize in that media will advertise in those magazines. Sometimes the magazines feature artist interviews. If they mention the stores that carry their work (and your work is compatible but distinctive), check out the stores.

Now take it even further. What is your product? If you create items made from beach stones, have you check out magazines such as Coastal Living Magazine? (Yes, there is such a magazine!) If you make pet stuff, have you checked out the zillions of pet magazines out there, for every animal from the usual cats-and-dogs to birds, snakes and geckos? People love their pets!

If your accessories or jewelry is trendy or hip, have you checked out the advertisers and store reviews in Lucky Magazine? (I love this magazine. It is unabashedly devoted to….shopping!)

If your work fits a special interest group–runners, opera lovers, book collectors–there is a special interest magazine for you. Perhaps several!

What area of the country might be a good fit for your work? Try travel magazines that feature that region. Many will do in-depth articles on places of interest and things to see and do–including….shopping!

And then there’s lifestyle. This is one almost everyone overlooks. These can range from the general (I’m not going to link everything, it’s taking too long!!) like Better Homes and Gardens, House Beautiful, Women’s Day, Country Home, Country Living, Martha Stewart Living, etc. All of these either carry lots of like-minded store advertising, or feature great store reviews. Mary Englebreit’s Home Companion Magazine often features dozens of stores in a certain city or state, and artist interviews.

We also tend to think only of the magazines we see on our local magazine racks. But there’s a whole nother world of lifestyle magazines out there. In my area, there’s the obvious and venerable Yankee Magazine/. But there are also smaller publications like the brand new Monadnock Living Magazine. All will feature store ads and reviews that reflect the aesthetic and values of the magazine.

I traveled out west to a show last year, and had a one hour layover in a Utah airport. At the news stand were over a dozen regional and local lifestyle magazines I’d never heard of. I snagged as many copies as I could, and made note of the titles of others for future research.

To get the best results, take the time to check out each store as much as possible. Almost all stores now have some kind of web presence. See if you feel the store, location, aesthetic and mix of artists would be a good fit for your work. The store owners will also be glad you did–it shows you aren’t just throwing yourself at every store, but carefully choosing which ones might really be interested. They will be flattered you took the time not to waste their time.

Last, how do you find these magazines?

Check out big bookstores. They often carry magazines you won’t find at your local supermarket.

Check out your local library. If you have colleges and universities nearby, check out their libraries. They often carry large and eclectic collections of magazines.

Go on-line. Most magazines now have an internet presence. You may be able to snag a free sample copy. Or go in with like-minded friends on a few subscriptions. You might even go in with them on a group mailing to targeted stores.

Check out local news stands when you travel, especially at airports. They’re a gold mine for local/regional lifestyle magazines.

Share with friends. Ask around–you may be surprised at the variety of publications your friends subscribe to.

This is a stretch, but….. In one community we used to live in, the public library hosted a free magazine exchange. You brought your old magazines to them, they stored them and set them out in a “free” rack. You browsed this stash of free magazines and took whatever ones interested you. That was how I first found out about formerly esoteric magazines on geology and jewelry that I’d never heard of before. Maybe your local library, or craft guild, or school would consider a similar project.

Of course, all these great magazine ideas are also good candidates for a press release or new product release. But that’s a whole nother series of articles!

So get out there and get some cool magazines. The next time you take a coffee break, pull them out–and start your market research. Hey, you’re not goofing off–you’re working!!

How to Halfway Wholesale: #4 Expanding Your Circle

The whole point of doing a major wholesale show is to put your work in front of many, many targeted store buyers.

But maybe you just don’t need a lot of stores carrying your work right now. Maybe it’s just you in your business, and you can only make so much stuff a year. Maybe you already have a part-time or full time job, and don’t need your craft biz to go full time.

If a wholesale show is overkill for you, if you only need a few good accounts, then build your wholesale business the slow way–one store at a time.

Of course, the simplest way to find stores to carry your work is to look around you. What stores in your hometown might be interested in carrying your work? If you did your required reading at the beginning of this series, then you’ve learned how to approach local stores and how to talk about your work.

And you’ve learned that the biggest mistake artists make is that they quickly saturate their local markets.

The next question is, how do I expand past my local market?

You can start by figuring out what is a comfortable driving distance for you. Say you can handle a three hour drive in one direction–perhaps 150 miles. Pull out a map, figure out how far 150 miles from your location is, and draw a circle with your home at the center. Voila! There’s your next sales territory to explore. (We’re really lucky here in New England. Three to four hours of drive time will generally get you to at least five other states.)

You can now use the internet (and all its incredible search functions) to locate and research potential stores within driving distance of your studio.

Or you can simply pick a town and spend a few hours poking around the stores there, deciding which one(s) would be the best fit. This is where our God-given love of shopping becomes….market research!

You can call ahead for an appointment to introduce your work. Or you can use that cold-calling technique I described in Work Your Retail Shows.

Again, don’t saturate any one town or area. Remember, we’re not looking for fifty stores to carry our work. We’re looking for a handful of really good matches.

As you travel during the year–on vacation, family visits, business trips with your spouse–decide you will use that opportunity to scope out yet another store. Maybe these trips are just to the next state over, maybe they are across the country. Prepare for each one by researching a handful of new candidates for your work.

The next few articles will explore how to actually find stores that might be a good fit, especially if your potential market is hundreds, even thousands of miles away. The internet is our friend here. We will use it to find potential stores, explore niche markets and vet our candidates–before we even set foot through the door.

How to Halfway Wholesale: #3 Work Your Retail Shows

Third in a series on how to build your wholesale business at a more leisurely pace.

This tip is an easy one to overlook. But if you’re already doing retail shows, you can use them to build your wholesale business, too.

This works best if you’re doing one of the larger, more visible, higher quality shows. But you can actually tweak this with small shows, too.

To do this, you need to a) let stores know you are willing to wholesale and b) be prepared.

How do you let stores know you’re willing to wholesale?

Send a postcard with an image of your work to stores that are within reasonable driving distance of the show. You can target general gift or craft stores, or look for niche market stores that might be interested in your work.

If you’re just starting out and don’t have postcards yet, have a good photo taken and make reprints. Tuck it in a nice note, along with your business card, and invite the store owner or manager to the show. Some artists even include a free ticket to the show for a potentially great gallery they want to target. A personal invitation is cool!

Let them know you’re looking for store representation in their area, and they are your top choice. Offer to make time after show hours, or even after the show, to come by for a store visit to show them your work.

You can do this even if you are doing a small local craft show. As you grow and go farther afield for shows, do a little research for potential markets in those areas.

Now, weekends might be a bad time for a store owner to visit a show, and most shows are held on weekends. But if it’s nearby and they interested, they could still slip out for a peek, or send someone else. Or, if the work interests them, they can take up your offer for come by the store on your way back home. You’re already there for the show–why not piggy back on that and make it tour of potential stores in the area, too?

You might worry that store buyers don’t want vendors who do shows in their area. It’s true that some will complain about that, and won’t take you up on your offer. But many understand we may need to do shows, too, or that we are just starting out in wholesale. Many also see that particular show as a once-a-year venue, while they can carry your work year-round. I love stores that see this as a working relationship–I can refer customers to the local store if they don’t see what they want at the show, or for year-round sales. The store can build on the presence of the actual artist being in the area for a weekend. (“Meet the artist!”) It should be win-win, and people who think like this are my kind of people.

If you had a good show, you can use this to vet your work. “This line was very popular at the show–they sold like hotcakes!” (Why are pancakes used as a metaphor for successful selling, I don’t know.) “I believe your customers will like them, too.”

Even if the store doesn’t come to the show, or respond to your offer of contacting them after the show, visit as many of the stores as you can. This is good because you can see if the store is really a good fit for your work or not. If not, whew! You dodged a bullet.

If you think the store is a good fit for your work, ask for the owner/buyer/manager. Introduce yourself, and explain why you’re there. “I’m doing a show in the area and wanted to visit your store while I was in town.”

Be sure to tell them why you thought their store would be interested. (“I was in the area a few months ago, and visited your store. I see you specialize in whimsical gifts for animal lovers, and thought you might be interested in my cat mugs.” Or: “I researched stores in this area I thought might be a good fit for my work, and your store looked like a good fit. You have a beautiful website! I especially liked your on-line bridal registry feature, and thought my line of personalized wedding photo albums might be of interest…”)

Offer to leave some materials about your work–a business card, an image of your work (postcard, photo, catalog if you have one, etc.)


Make it crystal clear you are only hoping to leave some materials for them to look at, at their convenience.

Dropping in on a store unannounced and uninvited, expecting them to drop everything and look at your work, and pushing for a sale when they aren’t interested, is the most unprofessional thing you can do. You might as well wear a sign on your head that says, “I AM UNPROFESSIONAL AND CLUELESS ABOUT WHOLESALING.”


If….IF…IF AND ONLY IF….they show strong interest and excitement about your work…. If they want to know more, lots more…. If they call other people over to look… If they ask if you have any actual samples on hand….

You can then casually mention that you’re on your way home from a show, you just happen to have some samples of your work in the car, and if they’d like to see them…..

You can see this tip takes sensitivity, delicacy, boldness and confidence. And not a little courage. If you think it’s hard to do a store visit, it’s even harder to “cold call”.

You have to be able to just leave your materials and walk away if they don’t take the bait. If you try to force the issue at all (“Wouldn’t you like to see the work itself??”) you lose. Big time.

But when it works, it’s fast and powerful. Sometimes the store will buy your work right there on the spot. (That’s so much nicer than hauling it all back home!)

I know an artist who successfully used this technique to build a thriving wholesale business. He never did wholesale shows, yet he had many, many more wholesale accounts than I did.

Of course, if you’re trying to do this after a show, it means keeping your inventory somewhat accessible. Packing up takes more attention than just throwing everything into the truck and squashing the door closed!

But if you gain a great new account, it’s worth it.

If you can’t do a store visit, you can still send the invitational postcards. You can always follow up after the show with a phone call or email. It’s not over until they actually say they’re not interested (and sometimes not even then.)

If that’s still too much on your plate, then try a discreet sign in your booth that indicates wholesale inquiries are welcome. To discourage bargain-hunting retail customers from simply trying to get a deal, you can add something like “with proper tax identification and resale number.” (Or whatever you require as proof for a bona fide reseller.)

And of course, if someone says, “Do you sell to stores? I have a small gallery nearby and I think we’d do well with your work…”, your answer is “YES!” Know that stores sometimes hesitate to ask outright, because some craftspeople are so hostile to the idea of wholesaling (“Stores want to buy it at half-price!”), they respond badly. So if store owners are unsure, they may not even ask. A sign tells them it’s okay to ask.

Ask your qualifying questions as you have time, or offer to follow up after the show.

So now that you’re encouraging that wholesale inquiry, be prepared.

Always keep a few extra business cards, postcards, catalog or line sheet/price sheet on hand. I’d say the minimum would be a postcard with a great picture of your work, with a note on the back saying something like “handmade jewelry boxes made from deadfall trees on our land, prices from $42 to $240 wholesale, minimum order $250 or six items.”

If you want to get fancy, get some of those ten-cent presentation folders from an office supply store, put in a business card, postcard, catalog, a short FAQ sheet explaining your process, your product lines, prices, terms, etc. and maybe a reprint of an article about your work, and anything else you would give a hot prospect at a regular wholesale show. (You did read the blogs I assigned as homework on wholesale, right? They’re listed at the end of this entry.)

If you aren’t busy with retail customers, be ready to actually write an order. Sometimes stores want to order with the actual pieces right in front of them. Let them know which items are one-of-a-kind and which ones can be reproduced as shown.

This seems simplistic, but know your wholesale prices, or be able to get that information fast. With the stress of being at a show, it’s not hard to get brain lock when the buyer says, “Okay, this piece you’ve priced at $240–what’s your wholesale price on it?” Keep a cheat sheet behind the counter, or check your wholesale catalog. It’s okay. Store owners know that shows are stressful. (Or they should know!) Many retailers of fine craft are–or were–craftspeople, too.

Try it out. Make your current retail shows a miniature wholesale show experience!

How to Halfway Wholesale: #2 p.s.

In the last essay, I left out an important resource in point #1 (advertising in published materials distributed at the show.)

Well, DUH, most shows have a show guide or program. This is an excellent place for an ad–if and only if your budget allows. Do not go into debt or risk financial instability to pay for big advertising campaigns.

But a good ad in the guide/program targets your primary audience–buyers at the show. So if you can afford an ad of any size, this is the best place to put one.

As for point #8 (FOLLOW UP!), I have no idea where that cool guy smiley face came from. It kept showing up, and I kept taking it out. I guess the universe just wants him there. Well, it is important to follow up. And everyone always tells me I need more graphics in these posts.

And do not panic if I don’t get another post out in this series for a few days. My family is taking my father to the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C. this weekend. So the next essay may be delayed.

My dad served in the Navy in WWII, in a land-based initiative in China called SACO (for the Sino-American Cooperative Organization). He has never boasted or made a fuss about his military service, though I know he is proud of it. We’re looking forward to this opportunity to let him know how proud we are, too.

How to Half Wholesale #2: Wholesale Shows

Most people assume wholesale shows are the only serious “next step” to building your wholesale business.

They can be. As recently as a handful of years ago, a good wholesale show could bootstrap your wholesale business efficiently and quickly.

Times have changed. It’s not impossible to achieve immediate success with such shows. But it’s not a sure thing anymore. And like any other endeavor we’ll talk about over the next few essays, it takes preparation. Lots and lots and lots of preparation.

A few guidelines to evaluating whether a wholesale show is right for you, and then we’ll explore ways to do them without spending $5,000.

Always–always–walk a show first. Visit and see for yourself what’s going on.

See how many buyers are there and what kind of businesses they represent. Are they stores that would target your audience? And note if they are actually placing orders.

Note what vendors are there. Is your work compatible, similar, in the same general ball park? Or is your work wildly dissimilar? (Not necessarily a bad thing, but it takes skill and insight to work that disparity.) Talk to exhibitors to learn their experiences with the show (when they don’t have anyone in their booth, of course.)

Take advantage of any guest visitor services or programs. The BUYERS MARKET OF AMERICAN CRAFT, a show that targets retailers of fine contemporary American handcraft, offers a stellar Visiting Artists Program run by the Arts Business Institute. (I am proud to say I am a former faculty member of ABI.) Programs like these can be an excellent introduction to the art of doing a wholesale show.

Before deciding to do a show, calculate the total cost of doing such a show. Not just the booth fee (easily $1,400 and up), but the cost of shipping your booth and work to the show (and drayage charges to haul it around the show, if that isn’t included); your travel, hotel and food expenses; taxis (if you find a cheaper hotel far from the exhibition hall); electricity and other services for your booth; support materials (catalog or line sheets, displays, banners or posters, etc.); advertising and promotion (if you decide to place an ad in the show program).

If you do the show, PREPARE. Contact potential buyers before the show, and invite them to your booth. Send postcards to current and potential customers, with an image of your newest work and your show info (booth number, show specials, etc.) Conventional wisdom calls for a minimum of two mailings! (If you don’t have a mail list of current or prospective clients, see a future essay in this series on building a mailing list from scratch.)

You can call your best accounts and extend a personal invitation. Some artists even offer to purchase show tickets and distribute them to buyers. It can be money well spent if it gets your target store buyers to the show.

Last, be aware of the differences between a fine craft wholesale show (such as the BMAC or the new AMERICAN CRAFT RETAILERS EXPO and a gift show like THE BOSTON GIFT SHOW. A gift show may indeed be a good fit for your product. But know that you’ll be competing with vendors selling imported and manufactured goods. There may also be a higher risk of your product ideas being stolen or copied easily.

Let’s say you’ve already decided that a wholesale show, or its buying audience, is absolutely the next step for you. What are ways to explore this market and/or get your work in front of attendees without going 100% all the way?

1) Advertise in materials that will be distributed at the show.

For example, industry-related publishers often distribute free samples of their magazines at the show. A great ad can draw attention to your work at a time where buyers are actively thinking about buying. At wholesale fine craft shows, you can often find The Crafts Report, Niche and AmericanStyle magazines, New Age Retailer, Giftwear News, etc. If you can’t afford a regular ad (ranging from $500 and up), groups such as often place large co-op ads in these same magazines at a greatly reduced cost. (pssst! This tip will also appear in an essay on how to have a presence at a wholesale show when you are not an exhibitor!)

2) Try a group or co-op booth.

Large shows like the Boston Gift Show sometimes offer discounted or comped booth space to large craft guilds and associations. (They are, of course, hoping you will love the experience and eventually want to have your own booth!)

If you are–or could be–a member of such a group, you can often participate with the group for not very much money. See my article Boston Gift Show 101. This can be an affordable and highly educational option.

3) Share a booth.

Some shows allow you to share a single booth space, halving your show fees right up front. There are pros and cons, of course, ranging from “Are your two bodies of work compatible or competitive?” to “Are you and your booth mate compatible or competitive?”

4) Travel light.

Select local or regional shows to cut down on travel expenses. It’s a lot cheaper for me to attend the Boston Gift Show, a two-hour drive away, than the ACRE show in Las Vegas, plus I can stay with friends in Boston for free. Of course, this doesn’t work if the ACRE show targets a better audience! Still, it’s something to consider.

If you drive to shows, buddy up with another vendor and cut down on your travel expenses. Share a hotel room. Find alternative ways to eliminate costly restaurant meals. For example, Reading Terminal Market, right across the street from the BMAC show, offers fresh fruits, sandwiches, take-away food that can save you big bucks over fancy dinners out.

5) Keep your booth light.

We all want to have a spectacular booth display. But if money is extremely tight, bring a minimal display to cut down on shipping costs. Tighten your inventory to your best sellers. Rely on large banners over pricey (and heavy) framed posters and wall treatments.

If you have any doubts about wholesale shows, it’s sometimes cheaper to rent basics like lights, carpeting, display cases or tables instead of buying these outright. You’ll also save on shipping costs if you can’t drive to the show.

Yes, a fancy display helps bring people in your booth. Yes, all the extras create a beautiful environment for customers. But your work is what makes them want to buy. If you’re a newbie, use that to your advantage, instead of trying to look like the Big Boys with the fabulous display.

6) Use FREE publicity instead of ads.

Distribute press releases before show (start six months before so your story has time to get picked up by magazines and newspapers). Email potential customers (but send links to your website or images instead of embedding them in the email itself.) Be ready for the media that comes to the show and bring press kits.

7) Be a renegade!

Some artists (like the Baltimore Alternative Show) set up their own mini-shows in nearby hotels while the “big” show goes on in the exhibition hall. You may not get the throngs of buyers, but…a) there aren’t any throngs anywhere anymore anyway, and b) your expenses are so low (no booth fee, just the cost of your hotel room), you don’t need as many buyers.


In every alternative/half measure we discuss, remember that following up on your leads and prospects will double, even triple your success. Make that phone call to the gallery that expressed interest but wasn’t quite ready to buy. Mail that info you promised. Track down every lead, opportunity, connection you made at the show, whether it’s a potential sale, a networking piece, an exhibition opportunity. You never know where your next break will come from.

If you have suggestions for how to drastically reduce the cost of doing a wholesale show, jump in!

Then we’ll take about options besides wholesale shows for growing the wholesale side of your biz.


Before we even start discussing ways to develop/grow/refine the wholesale side of your business at a level acceptable to Y*O*U*, let’s stop and take inventory.

What do you want?

And of course, what do you need?

We know that “needs” and “wants” are two very different things, but it’s amazing how often we confuse the two in our speech–and in our thinking.

It’s also amazing how often we set goals based on what we think we should want/need/do. Sometimes, we even set goals based on what we think others think we should do. Yes, I know how convoluted that sounds. Still, you know it’s true.

If we can get out of our heads long enough, we see that everyone evaluates success differently. And that “success” means different things to different people.

Let’s talk about one measure of success–how much money you could make with your craft.

“Well, obviously, I need to make money!” you exclaim. Okay, good, that’s a start. Money is often the first “motivator” for making stuff, after all.

How much money? Enough to pay your mortgage and put food on the table? Enough to contribute significantly to the household income?

Maybe you don’t need to pay the mortgage, but you want to help put a child through college. Or maybe you want just enough to pay for the “goodies”–the family vacation, a new sofa, your horse riding habit?

Perhaps all you need, for now, to take your business to the next level–to pay for the next round of advertising or show fees, for that new piece of equipment that will make production so much easier, or for next year’s supplies.

Some people don’t really even need that. They have a day job, and their craft is whatever it is. It doesn’t have to do anything extra for them financially (although it’s nice if it does!)

It’s going to be different for each one of us. What’s the right amount for me may not be the right for you.

And….that’s okay.

Look, there is no contest you win if you make more money than another artist. Some people will make it about that–they think they’re better, or more successful, or smarter, or whatever. But trust me, there is no blue ribbon, no “first prize” to be won when it comes to measuring your success with your art.

Let’s say you do some local fairs, you sell through a small but fancy local gallery, you make enough money to support your business expenses, and make enough profit to pay for a lot of family extras. Are you a successful craftsperson?

To the artist who does 20 shows and year and supports their family with their craft income, you are not successful.

To the artist who has won major awards, been on the cover of fancy magazines, and whose commission work commands thousands of dollars, you are not successful.

To the artist who can only make enough to buy more supplies, you are successful.

To the person who dreams of being an artist, but has never sold a thing, you are wildly successful.

Who’s right?

Yup. Nobody. Everybody Who cares? It’s what it is for you.

There’s room for all of us at the table.

When I started out, I simply wanted to have some money that was mine, to spend with no accountability or excuse.

Sometimes I was able to pay for the “goodies”–to buy my son a kiln, for example, so he could pursue his art. That felt good.

Then I wanted money to take my business to the next level–to enter better shows, to create a beautiful booth, to advertise and promote my art.

Soon I wanted my work to earn enough money that I felt successful. After all, when a customer trades their hard-earned money for your work, that’s a huge compliment! It was proof that when someone said, “It’s beautiful and I love it”, they meant it. Kind of a “show me the money!” thing. The first time someone bought a $5,000 wall hanging from me was a magical, delirious moment in my life.

Things got muddy when I began accepting someone else’s definition of “financially successful artist”–without questioning whether it met my needs or wants.

I thought I would not be seen as a serious business person unless I was capable of earning a living with my work. Disclosure: I don’t have to support my family financially. My husband does what he loves, and it happens to be something that pays better than making little prehistoric horse artifacts.

But I felt I would not be respected by my peers unless I made a full-tilt effort to make sales–specifically, wholesale sales–my focus.

I began to confuse my “wants” (“I want to make enough money to be taken seriously!”) with my needs (“I only need to make enough right now to support my perfect vision of where I want to go with my art.”) (Of course, my “perfect vision” includes making wall hangings that sell for $10,000, so I’m not not about the money….)

I found myself focusing on the work I thought would sell, rather than the work I wanted to make. As times got worse and the wholesale markets slowed down, I became more frantic. I blamed myself, and my work. (I still remember an artist friend who gently reminded me, “You know the recession isn’t just about you, don’t you?”)

This is when I wrote Consignment Revisited.

I also realized that if my situation ever changes–if someday I do need to pay the mortgage–then and ONLY then, will I see if I have to make different decisions about how I run my business.

Learn from my mistakes. Whatever level you’re at, it’s okay. It’s all okay. You must remember that your financial goals are your own. You must believe–truly believe– any measure of success that’s meaningful to you, is okay.

For me, money is a certain measure of my success.

But I also want prestige, and respect for my work. And I want it to be meaningful. I want to know my efforts in the world–be it my fiber work, the jewelry, or the writing–inspires, reassures, empowers others. I want my artwork to help create the change I want to see in the world.

And I want these things more than I want a $10,000 wholesale order for horse tie tacks. (Of course, if that order helps me create the time and gather the materials to create a one-woman show of my work, maybe that’s a good trade.)

It’s okay to work at another job part-time, or even full-time, and simply make art in your spare time. If your other job is killing you, physically or emotionally, then you might want to rethink that, of course. But you can always just try a different job. You don’t have to make your craft full-time or earn your living from it, to be a “real artist”.

It’s okay to stick with small local craft shows, if that serves your wants and needs.

It’s okay to only wholesale to stores in your area or region–especially if your work’s aesthetic is a good fit. (I want to go national because, given a choice, most people pick maple syrup products over ancient horses and bears as part of their quintessential New England memento….)

It’s okay to decide you want to only have a dozen, or even half a dozen wholesale accounts. It’s even okay to sell through only one store, if you are happy with sales and how your work is represented.

It’s okay to only sell at home parties, if you love doing them. Or through appointments at your studio. Or on-line, or on Ebay. If that strategy suits your goals, then no one can tell you you’re doing it wrong.

So take a few minutes, pick up a pencil and make a list of what success really means to you.

Think about your goals, personal, professional, financial, for your art.

If money is an issue, think about how much money you really want or need to make. But promise me you WON’T think about how much money you need to make for other people to take you seriously. Because chasing these “other people’s” good opinion of you is as misleading and destabilizing (for an artist) as only making stuff you think “other people” want to buy. (Okay, I know that’s an awkward sentence. Just read it again slowly.)

Think about whether you want your work to be the next trendy thing (and that’s okay if that’s what you really want) or whether you want your Christmas ornament to be chosen to raise funds for a non-profit you fiercely support. Do you want to be on the cover of Ornament magazine? Or the cover of the Sundance catalog? (Hey, I want both!) Do you want your work carried by hundreds of stores across the country. Or six prestigious galleries? Or a dozen lesser known stores that kick butt selling your work?

Once you know where you want to go, then you can make better decisions on how to get there.

Extra credit reading:
Getting Started in Wholesale Series Intro
Getting Started #1: The Work
Getting Started #2: Doing GOOD Work
Getting Started #3: Do YOUR Work
Getting Started #4: DO Your Work
Getting Started #5: Selling Your Work
Getting Started #6: Upscale Your Work
Getting Started #7: Jump In! The Water’s Fine!
Getting Started #8: How Much Stuff is Enough?
Getting Started #9: Go to The Store!
Getting Started #10: Why Didn’t They Buy My Work??
Getting Started #11: It’s Okay Not to Know What You’re Doing
Getting Started #12: Getting to the Store
Getting Started #13: What Is Consignment?
Getting Started #14: What Is Wholesale?
Getting Started #14 p.s. That High Energy/Low Energy Thing
Getting Started #15: Why Am I Doing This?
Getting Started #16: What Else Do I Need to Bring?
Getting Started #17: Exclusivity
Getting Started #18: Minimum Orders

INTRODUCTION: “How to Half Wholesale” Series

A reader emailed me recently. She’d just paid big money for a professional consultation on how to take her business to the next step.

The advice? Ramp up production to a huge level, and do a major wholesale show.

Unfortunately, that’s not possible for this craftsperson at this point in life. And as someone who tried to do just that, I’m here to tell you that even if you had the time and money to do just that, it still won’t necessarily bring you what you want.

First, wholesale shows are no longer a sure thing to build your business. And second, is that the kind of business model you even want?

I wrote back with some suggestions that the reader said was hugely helpful. And I realized, “Hey, this would make a good series!”

So with her permission, I’ll spend the next few essays discussing ways you can grow the wholesale side of your business, without turning your life over to mass production and without investing thousands and thousands of dollars on the wholesale show circuit. I’ll even suggest ways to do a wholesale show without breaking the bank.

And as always, I realized that in my good advice is the answer to the questions I’ve been asking myself these past few years, too. Help you–help myself. It’s a good trade.

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