7 Insider Tips Guaranteed to Get Your Craft into Retail Stores

by Patrice Lewis

Courtesy of Handmade Business

If you're tired of hitting the road doing craft shows and would like to transition either partly or entirely to wholesale, there may come a day when you'll need to approach retail establishments and inquire about whether they'd be interested in carrying your products.

We often hear an artist's side of the story on how they sell to retail establishments, but what about hearing things from the retailer's side?

1. Don't Be a Bully - You can't just barge into a store and announce that your crafts are the greatest thing since sliced bread (at least, you shouldn't).

After twenty years in the business, we thought we'd seen it all. But one incident still stands out in my mind and illustrates the wrong way to approach a store about whether or not they should carry your products.

Many years ago I was teaching an adult education class on how to turn a craft hobby into a business. The subject of craft show sales techniques came up. I explained how customers don't like to feel pressured when they enter a booth. They don't want to be backed into a corner in order to have the merits of the product explained to them. Very few people will purchase a product under these circumstances unless it's just to shut you up and escape.

My students understood this concept--or so I thought. After class, one woman almost literally backed me into a corner and started telling me how her husband sells a gizmo that increases the gas mileage on cars, and if I buy one right now she'll take 25% off the price, and she accepts both Visa and MasterCard, and how many gizmos did I want?

Okay ... so she didn't get it. She didn't get my concept, and she sure as heck didn't get my sale.

You can't walk in unannounced, back a hapless clerk into a corner, and try to force a sale. Clerks and sales personnel aren't buyers. The best that they can do is to pass your information on to management--which they decidedly won't do if you try to bully them.

2. Talk to the Right People - I spoke with Megan Rae, store buyer for MaryJanesFarm (www.maryjanesfarm.com) with retail stores located in Moscow, Idaho and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. "Let's start at the beginning," I said. "Let's say I'm an artist and I make a product I think would be a good match for your store. What's the first thing I need to do?"

"The first thing to do," Mrs. Rae told me, "is make sure you're speaking to the right person ... someone who actually makes the buying decisions. Sales personnel don't make those decisions. You need to speak to a manager or the owner. Too many people think the first sales person they see is the one they should talk to. You also need to make an appointment," she added. "You can't just walk in and assume we'll be free to talk with you. An artist needs to establish a time that works for both the buyer and the seller. We need to make sure we're not too busy to give you the attention you deserve."

I asked about bringing in samples. "Yes," she answered. "A verbal description won't work, nor will photos. We need to see what it is you make, so bring in actual samples. If you make a variety of products, then we'll need a variety of samples."

MaryJanesFarm Store is a family-owned business that MaryJane Butters and her daughter and son-in-law, Megan and Lucas Rae, opened in 2008. The shop offers a wide range of romantic Farmgirl wares, from bed linens to measuring spoons to Farmgirl necklaces. The owners strive to feature handmade and locally crafted goods and places great importance in working with other family-owned businesses.

3. Be Professional - Mrs. Rae stressed that an appointment with a buyer is like a job interview, so the entire presentation should be professional. "That includes having paperwork in order, a tidy appearance, that kind of thing. When you walk through the door, you're representing your product, so you want to dress and act like a professional."

That professionalism must extend even after a sale is made. "I've dealt with people whose products are good, but they don't follow through on the organizational details. They don't invoice when they're supposed to, or send products when they need to. They're not organized. In the end, it doesn't matter how good the product may be. If it's too much work for the buyer to keep their items in stock, they're less likely to continue carrying it."

While every retailer is different, I asked Mrs. Rae what criteria she uses to determine what products are carried in the stores. "We look for locally made and hand-crafted," she replied. "We prefer to focus on hand crafted and family owned businesses. We love working with our crafters."

An advantage of doing business with small retailers like MaryJanesFarm stores is they can be flexible when it comes to payment terms. Unlike the giant stores who often have a net-60 or even a net-90 for payment, small stores can tailor their terms to meet the needs of the artist.

"Small companies often do a net-15," said Mrs. Rae. "We try to determine if an artist needs the money up front in order to make more products. However, we usually don't do cash on demand because we need to keep a paper trail."

4. Take the Right Path - Mrs. Rae's advice is echoed by Pam Mimmack, co-owner of Northwest Handmade (www.northwesthandmade.com) in Sandpoint, Idaho. "The best way to make contact with us is by phone," said Ms. Mimmack, "and make an appointment. Always make an appointment."

She explains why a walk-in sales pitch won't work: "With walk-ins, we can't spend quality time with a craftsperson to determine whether or not a product is suitable. We've had walk-ins arrive with a loaded truck and they expect management to drop everything to look at their inventory. This can't always be done."

After the initial phone call, Ms. Mimmack asks the artist to send photos. "This helps us determine if the product is a good fit with our inventory. Since our theme is the northwest, our store has a certain 'flavor' to it, and we'll know from the photos whether or not a product matches our theme."

5. Pay Attention to the Details - After that initial screening process, Ms. Mimmack makes an appointment to have the artist or craftsperson bring a sample product into the store to be reviewed for quality. "If it needs refinement, we can make suggestions. We want it to sell, so making certain adjustments for product improvements can help sales."

I asked Ms. Mimmack what could reduce an artist's chances of being carried in their store:

"Product quality," she replied. "A lot of products are good, but the details are not fine enough. Perhaps the item isn't adequately sanded or the paint job is sloppy." She concentrates on assisting an artist with ideas for product improvement. "We ask that artists come in with an open mind--being open to input and feedback," notes Ms. Mimmack. "We know the kind of quality our customers are looking for, so that's why we might suggest improvements that will increase sales. And if we say the product isn't for our store, don't take it personally."

This is a point that is often overlooked by craftspeople eager to get their products placed in retail environments. The retailer is the expert on what will and will not sell. They are intimately familiar with the demographics of their area and their customers. Trying to force a sale to a store whose demographics are not a good match is counter-productive.

6. Price Realistically - Another issue that artists often face is an unrealistic idea of what a product will sell for. "An artist might ask for a large amount of money for their product without having any idea of what it's worth on the market," noted Ms. Mimmack. "They have no idea what the selling price should be."

Craftspeople should know that since retailers are intimately familiar with the demographic of their customers, they can accurately determine what someone will pay for an item. "It's not realistic to ask me to pay them $50 for a birdhouse," said Ms. Mimmack. "We have to add our markup, so that makes for a very expensive birdhouse that no one will buy. If you're going to sell retail, you must have faith in the buyer's assessment of what a product will sell for."

Ms. Mimmack summed up her advice this way. "Don't be discouraged. One of the traits of a professional is being able to listen and act on constructive criticism without an ego getting in the way."

7. Appreciate Salesmanship - Salesmanship is an underappreciated art form, as any retailer can tell you. This includes how an artist approaches a store buyer. An artist must be sensitive to the needs of a retailer. Not all stores can or will be able to carry your product. Besides fitting the demographic and theme of the store, retailers must keep in mind the seasonal buying schedule as well as any similarities to existing products. It takes both tact and realism to approach retailers, as well as the ability to handle constructive criticism and take recommended advice.

On the other hand, a warm and supportive relationship with retailers is the goal of every wholesaler. Retailers are professionals, yes; but often the professional relationship can go beyond pure business into the realm of friendship. It's a goal well worth striving for.