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by Patrice Lewis

 

You've started a craft business. It's booming. You're on the road nearly every weekend attending craft shows. You're frantically making more products during the time between venues. You're stressed, exhausted, and insecure.

Ready to quit? Don't! There's an easier way.

It's something of a box into which many artists squeeze themselves--the idea that you must sell your work yourself. You have an intimate connection with your craft, and you often feel that connection includes the final transaction of selling your creation to a customer.

As your business grows, it becomes harder and harder to connect with those customers in person. Doing so means being on the road and selling your products yourself--something that is squarely at odds with having small children, a spouse, pets, at home. And being on the road is expensive--you must pay for gas, food, motels, booth fees, vehicle breakdowns, and other expenses.

From Retail to Wholesale

So what's a craftsperson to do? Consider going wholesale.

My husband and I make wooden tankards (like beer steins, made of wood). We've been doing this for nineteen years, and 95% of our sales are wholesale. We still do one or two retail shows a year for the pure fun of it, but there's no question that being able to make a living from our craft stems from our ability to sell them in wholesale quantities.

Our experiences are not unique. In fact, our story is eerily similar to the crafting history behind wholesale jewelry artist Sara Harding of Sara Danielle Designs (www.saradanielledesigns.com). Sara started her business part-time in 2006 and went full-time in 2009. She defines "full-time" as "no other means of income." I think that you'll agree that's an enviable position to which many aspire.

"My first sale was a $5 ring," she remembers. "I sold it to a co-worker at a small craft affair that I arranged at my workplace. This branched into doing local craft shows, and I simultaneously and serendipitously met boutique owners who were interested in purchasing my work for sale in their shops. The large volume orders from stores slowly became the majority of my business, and eventually I was able to phase-out shows entirely."

Like us, 95% of Sara's business is wholesale. The remaining 5% stem from online sales. This emphasis on wholesale gives Sara flexibility in terms of her location and working hours.

The Road Years

When we started our woodcraft business in 1993, we lived in a rural area far away from most of the major shows that provided us with income. For nearly four years, we ran ourselves ragged, driving a minimum of four hours (one way) to peddle our products. We never knew when a show would bomb. It was a grueling frustrating, precarious beginning to our business.

One evening we got together with a friend for dinner. If anyone could understand our insecurity and exhaustion, Tom could. He had started a small business five years before, and expanded it until his products were carried in retail stores all over the country.

When we explained our situation, Tom offered some brilliant insight. He said, "Get out of the retail side of things. You'll burn out too quickly. Instead go wholesale." It was the best advice we've ever got.

Tom explained that by selling wholesale, we received only half the money per item, but we would have none of the expenses incurred by being on the road. No travel expenses, no broken-down vehicles, no booth fees, no gas or food purchases, no motels. Plus, and this was the largest advantage, we didn't have to be away from home. Time away from the manufacturing process was our most costly factor of all. If we sold wholesale, all of our time could be spent making produce, rather than just a fraction of our time.

Sara confirms these advantages. "Traveling, prep and booth setup are fun and exciting at first--for years, even," she recalls, "but it can become exhausting. Additionally, the overall personality of a particular craft show may change by the year or even by the week, and you may be uncertain whether the demographic will respond positively to your product. By selling wholesale to retail establishments who know their customers' interests, that uncertainly is eliminated."

The Best Product for Wholesale

What makes a particular craft suitable for wholesale? Three things: production time, replication potential, and cost.

"The price must reflect a profit to the artist," notes Sara, "but also for the retailer who works very hard to sell on the artist's behalf. When there's room for markup without pricing the item out-of-reach of the retail customers, the craft product can be a great fit for wholesale."

Cost, as any other person can tell you, is heavily involved in not only the materials going into the product, but the production time as well. If a single item takes a week to make, it is less likely to lend itself to wholesale.

These factors are also intimately tied with the ability of a product to be replicated. "How long does it take you to make one of these?" is a frequent question we hear from customers who see our tankards. "One takes about a week," I'll tell them (which usually elicits a gasp). "But it also takes a week to make a hundred." Then I explain how we construct our pieces assembly-line fashion in order to maximize efficiency.

The ability to replicate a product is important for wholesale. A talented watercolor artist named Andy Sewell (www.finewatercolors.com) is successful in marketing his paintings, in part because he makes high-quality prints of his artwork in order to sell more of them. That's a reality he accepted long ago in order to make a living through his talent.

Crafts which are assembled (as opposed to individually crafted) are almost always adaptable to assembly-line or other efficient production methods. This is a key factor in saving time, which, in turn, is a key factor in selling wholesale.

When Wholesale Doesn't Work

Yet too many artists are either unwilling or unable to go wholesale.

The unwilling part, as Sara points out, is "a lot of people are true artists and aren't interested in "mass production." Making multiple copies of the same work of art is difficult for some people to consider, and that is a very real concern when deciding whether or not wholesale is right for your craft business."

She notes that many artists don't understand how to approach a retailer about potential sales. "It's not cookie cutter in how you should or shouldn't approach a retailer, and I think this is a barrier for some artists," she explains. "Some store owners like to see you in person, others prefer email. Or even if you have a great product, it might simply be the wrong time of the year for the store's buying schedule, or your work may be too similar with an existing artist they carry. You have to look at rejection in a constructive manner and move onward to your next learning experience."

Salesmanship--even on a wholesale level--is an underappreciated art form; and the ability to convince a retail establishment about the suitability of your product for their inventory takes both tact and a realistic grasp of sales potential and marketability.

This addresses the necessary transition of becoming a business person rather than solely an artist. Artists who apply ALL their time and energy into their craft are fortunate and rare. (Or they support their art through outside employment). But most successful artists are also business people who have learned to balance the realities of selling enough of their work to survive.

But sometimes a person may be unable to go wholesale simply because his or her product does not lend itself to mass production in any way. I know a weaver who creates ethereal shawls and blankets of shimmering gossamer beauty. Her items are one-of-a-kind and are impossible to make assembly-line fashion. Since each takes upwards of a week to weave, they are expensive. In her case, direct retail sales are the best marketing answer, or, at best, selling the individual pieces to high-end retail establishments which then doubles her asking price. Both options have worked for her.

The Benefits of Wholesale

So why go wholesale? What's the big deal?

Besides the burnout factor, "it's a streamlined way of doing business," says Sara. "It allows you to target your demographic more accurately because retailers know the pulse of their customers and can pick their favorite pieces from your collection. You can produce your best work and be comforted that it will be personally tailored to each shop's clientele.

Being a wholesaler, notes Sara, means you still have plenty to do, but don't have to do it all. You can concentrate on creativity and getting your books in order without needing to handle retail sale as well.

And let's not forget, every artist is a people-person. For those who are creative but shy, dealing directly with the public can be difficult. Wholesale allows you to work in the privacy of your own studio or workshop without the need to learn salesmanship, handle cranky or critical customers, or hassle with crowds. Retail stores specialize in dealing with the public--sometimes there's an advantage to leaving sales up to the experts.

All or Nothing

Thankfully in this day and age, a craft business doesn't have to be "all or nothing." It doesn't have to be all retail or wholesale--you can incorporate elements of both.

A craftsperson may choose to attend a craft show a few times a year as a change in scenery. In our case, we enjoy the chance to travel and meet customers in person. We can get feedback on our products as well as suggestions for new items.

For Sara and endless other artists, the internet offers enormous potential for both retail and wholesale contacts without ever leaving home.

Sara concludes by offering sage advice. "Create the product that you passionately care about, then find the demographic to match. There are customers for every piece you create. You just have to find them."

If you're on the road to burnout from your efforts to make a living from your craft, it's time to seriously consider whether your business is a candidate for selling wholesale.


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