THE QUAGMIRE OF CUSTOM ORDERS

I’m struggling to finish my last custom order from my big big retail show in August.

On the surface, it wasn’t a difficult order. The customer, new to my work, fell in love with my aesthetic. She asked me to create a necklace featuring a treasured natural artifact.

We discussed colors, style and price range. I took all her contact info. I promised to have it done within a month, at the most six weeks.

It’s been a heckuva lot longer than that.

I’ve had a difficult fall–a death in the family, new injuries, not a few distractions. Enough to bump things like this custom order a little further down the priority list each week.

Fortunately, I must have sensed the potential for trouble, so I didn’t take my normal deposit for the work. At least I haven’t taken money for work I haven’t done (though I do have her precious artifact in my care.)

And fortunately, I’ve found my creative jones again. I’m slowly envisioning what this piece could look like, and I’m halfway through the design process. I’m hoping that free express shipping, and a healthy discount on the quoted price will help offset the customer’s frustration on my lateness.

But I’m struggling with the why. Why do custom orders so often throw me for a loop? Why do they seem so difficult?

I’ve written about possible pitfalls with custom orders (the Design Diva scenario, for example.)

I know the drill on how to make sure custom orders go smoothly: Decide if you’ll charge for the actual design process. Get as much input from the customer as possible (size, price, color, etc.) Get a deposit upfront (to ensure the customer is committed.) Get them to sign off on the design stages, even sending images, if possible, of the work in progress. And get everything in writing.

And I’ve enjoyed success with most of my custom orders. Customers seem to be thrilled with the finished products, and often come back for more.

But there are still sticking points. Today, in the wee hours of the morning, I woke up with a better understanding of what those are, and why I struggle with them.

When a customer falls in love with a piece I’ve already made–at a show, in my studio, in my new Etsy shop–that emotional connection is palpable. And immediate.

They see it, they react to it, they buy it–and they’re happy. Instantly.

There is that astonished moment of recognition–“This is the one!”–a moment that is the culmination of my creative process. I made something I think is beautiful, and someone else agrees. They trade their hard-earned money for my time, my energy, and my vision. The transaction is complete.

I love that moment.

With a custom order, we both get partway there. But then that final moment is postponed. It becomes nebulous.

I go back to my studio after the show. There’s usually a significant amount of downtime. I have to recuperate, physically and emotionally, from the stress of doing the show. There is inventory to be put away, booth paraphernalia to be stowed, paperwork to be completed, sales to be recorded and deposited.

The excitement of the show dissipates. The memory of the actual encounter fades. (I’m getting older, after all!)

I can’t read my own notes on the transaction, or I don’t understand what my sales assistant meant by her notes.

The desire to make that customer happy is still overwhelming. But
the energy has faded, the details have become hazy.

Doubt and second-guessing sets in.

She said blue. But which blue? Sky? Turquoise? Baby? Cobalt? Copen? Capri? (Yes, I have all of these blues in my stash.)

She said handmade ivory beads, but not too big. What does that mean??

She said she didn’t care, she trusted my judgment. But the seeds of self-doubt have been sown. I don’t trust my judgment anymore.

I’ve become paralyzed trying to anticipate the desires of a customer who’s no longer in front of me, and whose heart is not known to me. (Geez, I struggle making things for people I’ve known intimately for years….)

I’ve moved the center of my creative energy from pleasing myself, to pleasing someone else.

I care deeply about being successful, yet I begin to question every design decision.

It’s not the customer’s fault. It’s just the nature of the process, for me. I struggle with this particular dynamic.

I don’t mean to sound presumptuous, but I sometimes wonder if God felt this way when he created Eve. “Hmmmm, yes, I’ll make him a companion, sort of like what I did with him but a little different. Dum de dum de dum de dum da….. Wow, that’s pretty good! Very nice. VERY nice. Wait….what if he doesn’t like brunettes????”

One thing I know for sure: I have to figure this out.

If I move into making bigger fiber wall hangings, if I hope to work with interior decorators or do commissions for public works, I’m going to have to get over this hurdle. Because these will all be “custom orders” in a sense–site-specific, made-to-order, the whole shebang. And the bigger the work, the more money involved. And, I assume, the bigger the risk of not pleasing the customer.

I realize it is this fear, this huge issue of self-doubt, that is holding me back from that next big step in my professional art career.

So how do I get past this?

It may simply be a process of learning to trust myself, completely, with full heart and steady resolve.

After, my customers did.

And maybe once again, my life situation and my art are closely intertwined. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, just as I’m realizing my next step in my martial arts practice, a log jam in my creative process is slowing breaking up.

All I ask is, I wish it would hurry up.

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.)

This is important: DO NOT TRY TO SELL YOUR WORK AT THIS POINT.

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.”

BUT….

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!