by Donald Clark

Courtesy of Handmade Business

My family and I have wanted to open a handmade retail store for a while, but something always got in the way. Now we found a rental space in a hip, growing community, but aren't sure how to build inventory. Shows? Local artists? How can we know what will sell well?--Christina Mosa, Philadelphia, Pa.

Several trade shows feature a wide selection of handmade items and would be a great place to start. In no particular order, a short list: ACRE Las Vegas and Orlando; the New York International Gift Fair; the Boston Gift Show; the Fort Lauderdale Gift Show; the Orlando Gift Show; the Philadelphia Gift Show; the San Francisco International Gift Fair; Beckman's Los Angeles and Chicago shows; the Buyer's Market of American Craft--Philadelphia; Americas Mart Atlanta; and the American Craft Council's Baltimore and San Francisco shows.

Fortunately, if you can't make it to a show, you can just turn to your helpful friend: the Internet. Start with Wholesale, where you can actually purchase products, and, a great clearing house for fine crafts. Then you might go to, a retail site (but nevertheless a great source for product ideas since you can directly contact the artists through this website).

Be sure not to overlook local artists, who will perhaps be your best people to contact. The benefit here is that communication is simple since you can visit their studios and choose just the pieces you want. And because they're in the area, local artists can also participate in events at your shop. Having artists around their products can only be a good thing!

It's impossible to be certain what will sell in your shop and area. A seasoned retailer can usually pick the right items, but there's always room for surprise. I might suggest that you find someone to act as a consultant buyer to work with you for the first year or two. Choose someone with experience buying for the kind of shop you envision. For more ideas on getting the buying right, please read the next question and answer.

Stay on Task While Attending a Wholesale Show
As a buyer at a wholesale show, what strategy should I employ to make the most out of my time and stay aware of my budget? If I go to a three-day show, I am worried that my whole budget will be blown on the first day before I even see all of the show's offerings!--Bethany Pearson, Seattle, Wash.

An essential tool for staying within one's budget is to have a budget based on sales information and inventory levels that are consistently monitored throughout the year. I would hope that you track sales in various departments, for instance functional ceramics, ceramic sculpture, jewelry under and over a certain amount, frames and candles. Knowing your sales history and inventory levels will allow you to develop a budget based on actual needs. You can then use your budget number to establish open to buys (an open to buy is just that, how much money you can spend on a department and when you can spend it). I understand that maintaining accurate inventory information is time-consuming, but it is an essential tool for running a successful business.

I preferred to work with open to buy numbers for each department and to assign dollar amounts to current accounts before going to market with a shopping list of items I wanted to add to the mix in each department, but was always careful not to over-buy--it's just the way I'm wired. Not you? Read on.

A sure way to avoid over-spending is to not buy anything at the shows. Follow my thoughts above but only collect information about the items you have in mind. Bring back all of the catalogs and brochures you can lug and shop at your desk. Get all of the similar lines together, choose the one you like the best and assign a dollar amount to it. When you've done all the pre shopping, add up the numbers--if the bottom line works, place the orders. If you have over- or under-spent, go back to the paper and make adjustments.

When to Update Your Catalog
How often should I print/update my catalog? What do I do if I have new work or old work that has been discontinued? I have thought of just printing a supplement to it when I have a new line come out, but I can't really just cross out the discontinued work--or can I?--Lindsay Marion, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

In the olden days, about ten years ago, manufacturers printed new catalogs each time they introduced new product, which could be twice a year, to coincide with the major buying times (or in the fashion industry, with each season). The size of the business would typically dictate the budget, quality and character of the printed pieces produced. Whatever was printed consumed lots of paper and ink as well as staff time and money. You don't say what you make, so it's impossible to be too specific about a printing schedule. You certainly could get more use from your materials by stamping items "discontinued" (I've seen that more than once).Then add an addendum listing the new items--or you could take a completely different route.

Flash forward to 2010 and we now have other options for getting out the word about our products. One straight forward way is via a website where you can sell at retail and create a separate section for wholesale buyers to place orders using a password. The retail and wholesale items certainly don't have to be the same.

Another approach would be to produce your catalog on a disk, which is much less expensive to produce (you can do this as they are needed) and considerably less expensive to mail. This is a win-win. Both approaches save money and allow you to add and delete items rapidly. So maybe you will never print another paper catalog!

On a somewhat similar note, at a recent wholesale show I encountered a number of booths that were not only paperless, they were nearly product less. Each booth had a few physical samples of the product being sold, a desk and comfortable chairs. On the desk was a computer monitor with a large screen where the buyer could view the entire line and make purchases while resting their feet. This seemed very smart to me.