GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD #4: And the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down

This article will be a long, but not inclusive look at walls. I am not the expert on booth design Bruce Baker is. I haven’t tried tons of different wall designs. But I’m happy to share my own personal experience with walls.

I have the unfortunate privilege to have created three distinct product lines that all demand different presentation. I need walls for displaying 2-D work; flat surfaces for displaying sculpture; and cases for displaying jewelry. I’ve had to do a lot of scrambling and head-scratching to come up with a good, integrated display to showcase my work, and not have it look like a jumble sale. (Sometimes it still does….!!)

Walls have been the most difficult.

I built my first booth for my in-state 9-day outdoor retail show, the Annual League of New Hampshire Craftsmen’s Fair. It’s not a good show to build a first booth for, because you get lulled into thinking you have to build an actual little “house” for such a long show. (It’s also under huge tents, which offers a lot of protection against the elements, but that’s another theme.)

In fact, many exhibitors show up with huge panel vans and trucks toting huge amounts of lumber and other building materials. You can actually hear power drills and saws whining during the two days of set-up (which is almost as loud as the whining of us craftspeople….), and hammmers pounding into the night.

Bruce Baker says most of us women say to our husbands, “Can you build me a booth?” and the guys swagger a bit and stick their thumbs in their toolbelts and drawl, “Sure, little lady, just leave it to me!” And then they build us these bulky, sturdy, heavy booths that demand a small crew of people to load, set-up, dismantle and cart away. I have actually seen women who divorced and showed up the next year with a completely different, streamlined booth, so I suspect it’s true.

I don’t mean they got divorced because of the booth (although, if you’ve ever eavesdropped while a couple puts a booth up, you can see how that would happen.) I mean that when they divorce, they come up with a different booth because they no longer have a guy with a truck and major power tools to help them put it up anymore.

The simplest, easiest and often cheapest wall solution is pole-and-drape. I bought mine from these people almost ten years ago: Flourish Canopies and Display Products They are nice people and took care of me and my pole-drape-needs for many years. It’s a good product and was competitively priced. I have no idea what’s out there now, but this company is a good place to start your research.

I have seen people make their own with good success, too. It depends on how much time and energy vs. money you have. I thought the drapes were well-made and the material was great. Lots of color choices, too. Much cheaper than I could have bought and sewn myself–and I sew for a living.

I went with a just-barely off-white color that was bright and light. I wish I could have figured out a way to have flat walls, but the drapes are pretty standard. Their material is inherently fire-retardant (VERY important, especially when you start to do juried shows and indoor shows). The poles broke down into shorter lengths, and a handy carrying bag kept it all together.

As I started to do wholesale shows, I could actually pin or attach my own drapes over the show pipe-and-drapes, to set my booth off from the hundreds of other gray drape booths. I could leave my pipe at home and simply ship the drapes (which were compact and lightweight.)

Drawbacks–the poles are HEAVY. This kind of tent is difficult to level on uneven ground. It is not weatherproof–you can ONLY use it under bigger tents or indoors. And it’s basically a square (or rectangle, depending on how many poles you set up). You can only work with straight lines and right angles.

The worst part for me was the walls were SOFT. If you only need a backdrop, that may not be a problem. But when I needed to have a stiff wall, I had to do things like hang reed roll-up curtains on top of the drape, or use those roll-up rice paper shades from Pier 1 Imports or stores in Chinatown. It looked kinda nice, all those layers, but also gave the booth a decidedly oriental look. Which was NOT what my work was about. Also, I now needed to pack more and more of these shades and screens. So my set-up was getting MORE complicated. Harder to level, harder to get straight lines, harder to get everything visually lined up.

I’ve seen booths using ONLY these roll-up shades (rice paper, reed), and they can be highly effective. Be sure to treat them with a fire-retardant spray, though, as they are highly flammable, too.

My next walls were fabric panels I made myself. I used heavyweight synthentic chenille panels. They hung from my poles and I pinned them together along the sides and at the bottom. They were rich but subdued colors, “tobacco colors” as one fiber artist said–gold, sage green, chestnut, brown. The panels hung straight, simulating a flat wall.

The effect was like being in a nomad’s tent, with layers of rich, textured fabric. The colors were warm and soothing, yet let my work pop. (I noticed men with color-blindness hated this booth–the colors seemed muddy to them.) Best of all, the look was very different from other trade show booths. You could catch a glimpse of the fabric walls way down an aisle and it just looked interesting and different–a good thing at a big show!

People came in my booth and stayed and stayed–and shopped and shopped. The fiber layers muffled noise and softened the lights, making a haven for weary buyers at wholesale shows and a peaceful, serene environment at retail shows.

Again, I could use my drapes over/with the show pipe-and-drapes. The drapes doubled as cushioning for my artwork during shipping, so it was cheap and easy to pack and ship.

Unfortunately, these panels were fussy and difficult to put up. And though the walls were flat, they were not sturdy. I still had a hard time hanging signs, 2-D work, etc.

Last year I splurged big-time and invested in MD ProPanels, which you can see here:
MD ProPanels and you can see them in situ <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/14881284@N08/1531994565/”here.

I absolutely love them. I will not compare them to Armstrong Panels because I can’t remember why I went with the MD Propanels. You can see the Armstrong version here:

Armstrong display panels

I THINK the Armstrong versions have an interior mesh, while the MD Propanel versions have a slab of styrofoam, and are lighter. I spoke to a lot of artists and went with the MDs, but you may find the Armstrongs will work better for you.

I’ve seen homemade versions of these panels being assembled at shows, and I still shudder to think of it. If you have tons of time, absolutely no money and love doing everything yourself, this may be for you. But the thought of cutting large sections of carpeting, screwing together dozens of little pieces, getting everything aligned, looking for little washers and screws, getting the fabric on straight, etc. etc. and watching those people sweat and swear and weep….well, it’s not for me.

What do I think of my MD Propanels?

I LOVE THEM.

These panels are expensive, but everything is already done–PERFECTLY. The panels arrive in uniform shape, perfectly finished and beautiful. You can order the adjustable legs which make leveling the booth on uneven ground a breeze. It takes a little practice, but the walls go up quickly and are perfectly stable once they are all connected and your stabilizer bars are in place.

I picked a neutral color that totally drops away and lets my work take center stage. The fabric still acts as a noise barrier, creating a quiet environment. It is ridiculously easy to hand signs and 2-D work with either T-pins or Velcro hangers.

You can order units that break down into two segments for easier shipping or carrying. You can order units that will accept shelves. There are many accessories and add-ons that allow you to add features at a later date.

Best of all, you can reconfigure the panels into all kinds of booth layouts. I actually used three panels to create a “tower” in one corner for a corner booth layout. You can also use both sides of the panels, so you can create little “half walls” or partitions. And hinged panels can act as doors to access storage, or to set off a little changing room for wearables.

Are they perfect?

No. You need to know you want shelves and where you want them when you order panels with shelf capability.

I wish the stabilizer bars came in varying heights because I have shows with different height restrictions.

I wish they had more components for hanging and display, because I’m finding my homemade Velcro components melt under summer heat, or freeze during shipping to winter shows.

It can be tricky to get everything square at first on hilly sites, though this is an incredibly stable booth once everything is in place.

And though the KD (knock-down) units are easier to ship, it’s still not SIMPLE or CHEAP to ship, like my drapes were.

One last caveat–as more and more people turn to MD Propanels, it will be hard for your booth to stand out. There are only half a dozen or so color choices, and the best (black) is becoming as common as dirt at shows. (Oooh, bad simile….)

On the other hand, when it came time to decide, I realized I’m not selling my booth.

What I mean is, I’m not in the business of creating the best BOOTH I can make. I’m in the business of creating the best ART I can make. The booth is just a vehicle for displaying and selling my art.

I don’t really want people noticing my booth or my floor or my display anymore. I want everything working quietly, subtly, to encourage them to simply see the ART. And to be comfortable, and enjoy peace and quiet to do that.

I think it’s working. What I’m hearing over and over the last few shows is, “You’ve created an entire world in here!

And oddly enough, although I always get high booth scores, this is the first year I got an honorable mention for my booth design. It’s odd because the booth structure itself is not “creative”.

But it’s doing it’s job–showcasing my art–beautifully.

GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD #3: Alice’s Tiny Doors

I talked earlier about booths with so much stuff in them, you can’t get in. This common booth layout flaw is similar.

The way(s) into and out of the booth are way too small.

I called this essay “Alice’s Tiny Doors” because it reminds me of one of John Tenniel’s illustration in the book Alice in Wonderland. It’s the one where Alice is trying to get through a door that’s only two feet tall.

I’m guessing this booth layout problem happens when people design their booths on graph paper. You start to lay out these little squares and rectangles, lining everything up just so and squishing in as much display as you can. You plan a three-foot wide entrance, and leave a little three-foot wide path along here. The idea is the booth visitor will come through the little entrance and work there way along the path you’ve created.

In fact, years ago when I was part of a large group booth, the original plan was just that–a long, narrow booth with a U-shaped path consisting of two narrow entrances at the front. The idea was we would have display tables lining every wall. Visitors would come in one leg of the U and walk through, looking at every exhibit.

Everyone was very excited about the layout. Until I said, “How many people do you think can shop in that booth at one time?”

Huh?

I pointed out that the aisles were less than three feet wide. “That’s plenty of room for people to get through!” protested one artist.

Well…maybe. Though that didn’t mean people would WANT to walk through such a narrow aisle. “What happens if another person comes in the other ‘leg’ of the U?” I asked.

“People can scootch by each other”, one guy said. I noticed some of the women beginning to look uncomfortable. Women do not like people scootching by them when they are shopping.

“Okay, so let’s assume people will be willing to scootch. Buyers often shop in pairs. Now we have three people–or four people–trying to squish by each other. How conducive is that to shopping?” People began to nod their heads.

“And we’re supposed to be manning the booth. If two or three of us are in this aisle, that means every single shopper has to squish by every single craftsman working in the booth. How conducive is that to shopping?”

The layout was scrapped.

In this case, we had a beautiful booth location–four back-to-back booths at the end of a double row. We ended up keeping one large back wall (for our banner, wall art, etc.) and made multiple islands of display. Let people come into the booth no matter what aisle they’re in, I suggested. We ended up with almost six points entry.

That meant whenever one special item caught a buyer’s eye, they could immediately and easily pop into the booth and look. Once they were in our space, it felt like a department store. They could see many other intriguing displays, and they could easily move from one to the next.

This was a highly successful booth, because once people came in, they stayed.  And the longer they stayed, the more they bought.

Try not to herd people through cattle chutes in your booth. No scootching! Pablo Underhill used the term “butt brush” in his excellent book Why We Buy

The butt brush is when aisles are too narrow and someone brushes someone else from behind as they attempt to pass buy. The reaction of the brushed person is profound and extreme–they immediately stop shopping. It is an especially powerful reaction in women. So by all means, if you want women to stop shopping and leave your booth, make sure they are getting brushed and bumped from behind as people scootch by.

Guide people subtly with your display layout, and use visual cues to move them through your booth. Arrange your work so that one display leads to the next. Signage, dashes of color in a neutral display, lighting, work angled in interesting ways–all of these are so much more conducive to shopping than narrow paths and rigid layouts.

BOOTHS GONE BAD #2: Let Me In!

There’s a booth mistake that’s sort of related to the “Too Much Stuff” syndrome. But sparsely furnished booths can fall prey to it, too.

I call it the “I can’t come into your booth” syndrome.

People need to have easy access to your booth. They need to be able to walk in and feel like they aren’t going to knock something over or get bonked in the head.

You may think that’s a no-brainer, but it isn’t.

No whapping the customers in the head.

An artist who makes mobiles and wind chimes thought it would be cool to hang them all from the top of her booth. It would have been cool, too. Except that the top of her booth was only seven feet tall, and the mobiles hung down about 2-3 feet into her booth. And about 3-4 feet inside the walls of her tent. The effect was like walking through a fun tunnel at the fair. I was terrified I was going to get a mobile stuck in my hair.

Moving them against the walls, and up and out of range of people’s heads, would have the same wonderful effect with less customer intimidation.

Please do not electrocute the customers.

I use long goose-neck track lighting lamps overhead. The first time I used them was at a trade show booth, which is eight feet high. No problems.

The second time I used them was in my retail booth, which was seven feet high. They were out of the way of most people. Except for the tall guy who came in and had to keep swerving to avoid getting whapped in the head with my lamps. Oh, and the guy who came in with his little kid on his shoulders. Who promptly reached for the tracks. ai yi yi…..

I bought some risers that lifted the track lighting out of reach of everybody.

Let me in, let me in.

An artist had a tall display shelf right smack in the middle of the booth. “How does it look?” she asked. Great, I said. Except now I can’t see anything along the back wall. And it only leaves two feet on either side to get through–so I won’t even try, because I won’t want to run the risk of bumping anything. Why was it there, anyway?

“I don’t want to scare people out of the booth, so I thought I’d kinda hide behind it while I do some work,” she said.

Nice sentiment, but it doesn’t work. Do not hide from your customers. And put that shelf along the back wall. Until you get that 10×20 booth, of course.

Do not trip your customers.

I hate it when artists display stuff anywhere on or near the floor. Unless it’s a floor mat and supposed to be on the floor.

For one thing, anything sitting on the floor doesn’t look like you treasure it. It looks like you didn’t have a place for it so you set it on the floor. Stuff on the floor says “yard sale!”
For another, people’s feet stick out from their bodies. That is why there is a toe-kick space under your kitchen cabinets–so your feet have a place to go while you stand at the sink doing dishes. When people are standing at your booth wall, looking at your work, they do not think to look down to mind where their feet go.

Bruce Baker says people also hate, hate, hate bending over to look at stuff. This is true, too. I’m now at that age when even if I squat down, I have to think really hard about getting back up.

So don’t put stuff on the floor.

I need my space….

The next time your booth is set up, take a cold, hard look at how Can people come in easily? If they stand outside your booth and look in, that’s a good sign there’s something psychological that’s keeping them out.

If the layout is cramped, or narrow or shallow, or if things look precarious, people will not come in. They don’t want to wreak havoc in your booth!
If you do have “aisles”, make them spacious so people can get by. And wide enough so that if one person is looking at something, others can get passed them.

If you have a displays that jut out, is there enough space for people to navigate around it? Especially without bumping something else??

Watch out for dead-ends in your booth. They can be subtle–a little alcove-type space behind your cases, for example. Believe it or not, people hate being “trapped” in a booth and won’t go into places if they feel they might not be able to get out. If there’s a little corner or space people aren’t checking out, it may mean there’s a little psychological “dead-end” space there. Smooth out an angle or open it up a bit, and see if that makes it more approachable.

How to freak out your customers

Are your displays secure? Sometimes we get so caught up in making our displays easily transportable, we forget that they have to stand up to actual use. If people touch a pair of earrings and the display stand falls over, it will freak them out. If they lean on a jewelry case and it rocks, it will freak them out. If a branch holding Christmas ornaments is sticking out and snags their shirt as they walk by, it freaks them out. Especially if they pull the entire display over. And something breaks. oy.

A furniture maker makes coffee tables, end tables, smaller pieces. These are something that could easily be bumped into and knocked over, or ding a knee on. He came up with a great solution. He created little “floor islands”–small raised floor sections a little bigger than each piece of furniture–sometimes big enough to hold two or three pieces in a setting. They had a twofold effect. They elevated the furniture and gave it more presence. And they gave each piece a little “breathing room”, room for people to walk around and not run into stuff. It felt very elegant yet comfortable being in his booth.

Avoid making your customers feel like the proverbial bull in the china shop, and they will relax and shop. And shop. And shop!

BOOTHS GONE BAD #1: Too Much Stuff

One of the biggest mistakes I see in booth design is the “Loaded Booth” look.

There are many variations on this theme. There is the “Something for Everyone” look. There is the “One in Every Color” look. There is the “I Can Make a Million of These (and I Have!)” look.

Unfortunately, the result is the same. It ends up looking like the “Artist with No Focus” look.

Believe me, I know what you’re trying to say: “I’m an artist, I am extremely creative, I have a million ideas, and I don’t want to color inside the lines!”

But the result is chaos and confusion.

There is work covering the entire walls of the booth. There are widgets right up to the top of the booth. There are widgets hanging ten inches off the ground. In fact, the walls are not enough. Sometimes the widgets are actually on the floor, leaning against the walls.

Every surface is covered with widgets and more widgets. “Maybe I can cram another one in here!” thinks the artist during set-up.

If the widgets are displayed in a basket, there aren’t merely a handful, or a even a basketful. The basket will be piled to overflowing. No one can actually look through them, either, without actually dumping the basket out in a pile and looking through them that way. Except the counter the basket is on is full, too.

If there is a print bin, it is jammed so full you can’t thumb through the stash. Or there are so many bins, you know it will take a huge chunk of time to go through them.

If there are little widgets on the wall, evenly spaced so as to maximize the display space, the eye has no resting place, no focal point. You simply stand and gaze around and around, looking, wishing desperately for something to jump out at you.

How do I know?

Because this is how I set up my first booth. And this is what a friend told me afterwards.

She had money. She was a shopaholic. She loved my work.

She wanted to buy something from me. She really wanted to buy something from me. She wanted to buy a lot of things from me.

But she has mild attention defiecit disorder, and was overwhelmed with all the choices. In fact, the “buzz” of my display made her anxious.

She ended up buying NOTHING.

We could blame it on her ADD, but the fact is, almost everyone feels this way when presented with too many choices.

Even those of us who adore the yard sale modality don’t expect to find this with art.

And even if we do, it doesn’t mean we have the time, energy or patience to dig through this at an art fair.

Now pretend you are at a big art fair. Or a huge wholesale show. Or a monstrous trade show. (Think of thousands of booths….)

We want to chose the best one of something. Or be able to quickly sort out what strikes our fancy, and eliminate that which doesn’t.

Too many choices makes it too hard for us to sort.

So limit people’s choices.  As counterintuitive as this sounds, it works.

Don’t make them choose the best of fifty.  Make them choose the best of seven.  Or three.  Or even two.

Don’t make them choose from 28 subjects.  Let them choose from half a dozen.  If they don’t see what they want, they can ask.  And that gives you a chance to talk to them, too.

If you make something in lots of colors, only show a few. Or spread out the color choices among several styles. People will get that you can make it in purple. And if they like it, they’ll ask if you also make it in green. (That’s your cue to whip out your green one.)

Display fewer things, and be ready to restock an empty space quickly. In fact, sometimes that empty space is a good thing. I’ve had customers ask, “What was here??”, pointing to an empty place with a price tag. They’re curious what sold. They want to know what they’re missing. When you pull out another piece, they look at it closely. Maybe they should get one, too!

Signs can be a good way to get a customer’s overloaded brain to rest for a moment. Just keep them neat and simple and easy to read. You can hang your artist statement, or introduce a new series. You can describe a special feature about your widget, or tell a little story about a special piece.

Group your work in some way. This can be by subject, color, style or series. There are pros and cons for each way of organizing, but don’t worry about that right now. Just make some “white space” around your work.

In fact, think of how you feel when you pick up a magazine and browse through the articles.

How do you feel when you see page after page of tiny print, long paragraphs, long run-on sentences with convoluted syntax, no photos or images, and no captions?

Now think of an article with good column width, good margins, a comfortably-sized and easy-to-read font, subtitles, captions, highlights, etc. It’s easier to read, easier to jump in and sample a section, easier to find your place if you get distracted or have to put it down for a moment.

Make your booth easier to read. Make it easier to jump in and sample. Make it easier to navigate.

Don’t worry. You don’t have to prove you’re an artist. They’ll know.

GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD

I’m literally watching paint dry today. I’m finishing up the last of my teeny tiny wall hangings, a special series I’m doing for this year’s annual League of NH Craftsmen’s Fair.

For some reason, booths and booth design is on my mind today. A friend asked me to critique her new booth, which got me thinking about it. I also came across a blog of a new artist who did a major trade show for the first time. A picture of the booth was featured.

It was quickly obvious to me that several things were wrong with both booth layouts. They just didn’t look right. With my friend’s booth, I didn’t want to walk in. It didn’t feel right.

The more I thought about it, these two booth issues–not looking right and not feeling right–are the essence of bad booth design.

So over the next few days, in between my panic attacks and preparations for the Fair, I’ll share insights about what makes a bad booth.

Now, if you want a wonderful treatise on booths and booth design, run don’t walk to Bruce Baker’s website and order his CD on booth design. Actually, I can pretty much guarantee any CD you purchase from Bruce will help you tremendously, whether it’s his booth design CD, his one on selling your artwork, or the one on jury slides. Better yet, get yourself over to one of his seminars at the first opportunity. You will not regret it.
Bruce Baker, Guru of booth design

Another good book to read is Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy

Underhill’s consulting team actually watched people shopping, and discovered what makes them stop shopping.

I’ve learned a lot from Bruce and from Paco. (I’m not really on a first-name basis with Mr. Underhill, just striving for a friendly note here.) I do not intend to channel either of them. I encourage you strongly to invest in their products. Bruce’s CDs are a steal at less than $15 each when you buy all three, and Mr. Underhill’s book is not expensive, either.

My point is that you can start thinking differently about your booth set-up, using what you already know about shopping.

In fact, your first assignment is to go shopping. Yes! Right now! Stop everything and go out and buy something.

Just kidding. I mean the next time you have to go shopping, pay attention to what’s going on.

Hey, where did everybody go?! Get back here!

Pay attention to what compels you to pick something up and think about buying it, and what makes you put it down (besides that whopping price sticker, that is.)

Pay attention to what parts of the store and display you are drawn to, and what drives you away.

Pay attention to how you feel about the salespeople–what they say and do that keeps you shopping, and what makes you want to run out the door.

One thing leaped out at me in the new exhibitor’s comments. The artist said, “Hey, it’s about the work, right? If the work is GREAT, then nobody really cares about your display!”

That’s true….and not true.

It’s true that great work overcomes a lot.

And it’s true we are born to shop.

I think it’s part of our hunter-gatherer heritage. We love to look for the best little tidbits, the juiciest grub, the prettiest pebble, the biggest mammoth. Just substitute “perfectly marbled sirloin steak”, “coolest little pair of earrings” and “sexiest strap-back shoes” and you’ll find we have not come very far from our ancestral roots at all. (“Are you gonna eat that?”)

But I also I think when a buyer has hundreds, if not thousands of artists to choose from, then as they walk the aisles they are automatically looking for reasons to eliminate you from consideration.

They have to. They can’t look at 1,000 different things and choose the best. They have to cull out the things that are obviously not of interest, and only focus on the things that might be.

And somewhere in the middle is a whole bunch of stuff that might be worth considering…maybe…but maybe not….? Anything you do that gets you eliminated in that first few seconds means your wonderful work never made it into the final running.

I do this when I shop. For awhile, I was bored with most jewelry. It all looked alike to me. I’ve only got an hour or so to scout out an entire store. So to save time, I would skip past the entire jewelry section. Hard to believe, but there you are.

If you were a jewelry designer, how would you encourage me to stop?

We all do this as a way to organize the time we have to shop, or to stay in a budget (if only for a few hours!) “I have enough short-sleeved shirts, I’m only looking at dresses today.” Or, “I already have too many dishes, I don’t have room in my cupboards for more.” “I don’t really need any tomatoes today, I don’t care if they’re on sale.”

Our buyers do the same thing. They is us.

Stay tuned as I share some simple, common mistakes people make with their booths. You do it, I do it, we all do it. But we can turn it around.

No bad booth. Just booths that have temporarily lost their way….

CONSIGNMENT REVISITED

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?