HALF OFF (NOT!) Know When, and When Not to Discount Your Work

I was at a party recently where some of the guests knew I was an artist and others didn’t. A lively discussion ensued about the upcoming League of New Hampshire Craftsmen’s Fair. You can see the new work I’ll be selling at the fair here.

One person, who didn’t realize I was not only an artist but also exhibiting at the fair, exclaimed, “Oh, the real reason we go to the show is to get great ideas and then come home and make it ourselves!”

Fortunately, I’d only had one glass of wine, so I merely replied, “Well, we’re kinda hoping you’ll actually buy something from us, too.” She looked confused, and to her credit, later (when she realized I was an exhibitor) she was a little embarrassed.

I will save for another day my rant about people who think the reason we pay thousands of dollars to do that show is so we can pass on our great ideas to crafters for free. (Buy a book, fercryin’outloud!!)

Another person who had followed my work for years (but never purchased), said she didn’t want to go all the way up to the fair. Could she come to my studio? I told her there was an Open Studio Tour by the League in November, and my studio would be open then.

“I don’t want to wait that long! Can I come sooner?”

I wanted to explain that it was really hard to stop working for an hour or two while a casual looker came and hung out. In reality, I’ve come to realize that most people never really show up anyway. So I just demurred and said that would be fine if she called first.

“Good! I don’t want to pay that store mark-up anyway!” she said.

This is a test. Good reader, what is the correct response to this statement?

1) “Oh, sure, I’ll give you my wholesale pricing!, because you’ve been such a good customer!”

2) “Sure, bring all your friends, too!”

3) “Uh, well, no, but maybe I can give you a little discount.”

4) “Actually, my retail prices are the same whether you buy work from me or from the galleries that carry my work. But you’ll get to see a lot more designs and my new work!”

5) “Hey, how about them Red Sox?!”<

If you answered #4, you are a professional artist behaving like a grown-up.

If you answered #5, you’re probably from New England (but not New York.) If you had said, “How about them hapless Red Sox?” you’re probably from Massachusetts.

What’s wrong with the first three responses?

Choice #1 is wrong on several levels.

First, offering the public wholesale pricing is the fastest way to kill every single relationship with any store/gallery/catalog company you ever deal/hope to deal with. You are totally undercutting their efforts to represent you and sell your work.

And yes, they will find out. It’s a smaller world than you think.

Second, this person isn’t even your customer. Why would you reward someone who refuses to pay your (fairly) priced work at retail?

Third, if you decide to ignore points one and two, and if the person actually buys something, you will have a new “customer” who will now expect to buy from you at wholesale forever.

And they will tell all their friends about it (because we all love a deal, and we all love to tell everybody about our deals.) They will brag about the work they got half-off. They will tell how much they saved.

Soon the people who bought from you at retail (or your stores) will hear about it. They will not like the fact that you undersold your work to someone who simply asked for it. They will feel like idiots for paying full price. Wouldn’t you??

Now you can see that choice #2–encouraging them to bring even more people to buy wholesale–makes the matter worse, faster.

Ditto choice #3. Again, why reward someone who has never bought from you before? Doesn’t it make you mad when your favorite magazine offers great deals to new subscribers? How about rewarding us loyal, repeat subscribers?? Same thing. If you decide to ever offer an incentive, reward the people who already collect your work and/or have supported you early on.

And be forewarned that if you offer a discount, many people will assume that discount is forever. (Human nature at work.)

And because it is human nature to go to shows for inspiration, and to enjoy a bargain, try not to respond harshly to people who speak thoughtlessly thus. Keep your head, don’t take it personally. It is an educational moment. Simply explain why you cannot do that and move on.

Most people will do better when they know better. If not, they aren’t my customer anyway.

Bottom line–you shouldn’t feel like you have to bribe people to buy your work. It should be fairly priced to begin with. Offer discounts when people buy well–when they buy a lot of work. If they spend over $x or buy multiples, offer a discount on one item, or offer a free item. They should get something after they’ve given you something–their hard-earned money for your beautiful work.

Make work you are proud of, and don’t be afraid to be paid for it. Believe your work is worth the price you’ve set. Stand by your prices, and don’t sell your work, your retailers or yourself, short.

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?