Ah, Saturday morning here at the shop. Hot coffee, a little Pavement to get the brain going, and a survey of our offerings here at Ella Posie. Lately, people have been dropping in to sell us things right and left, and I wanted to write a bit about how to sell your stuff to boutiques, in my opinion.
My position on this topic is a little unique, I guess -- I both own a small boutique where I buy products from designers, and I create a line of original handmade things myself. I won't go into how I got here (I only bore famous Pulitzer-Prize-winning authors with my life story, after all) but I will say that I have been on both sides of the handmade-stuff-selling-and-buying relationship, so I've had occasion to make lots of mistakes in both arenas. It took me a long time to learn these things, and I never really knew where to look to find the answers, so hopefully I can save you some of that confusion here.
I'm assuming that most of you reading this blog are crafty-types, not unused to being asked to sell something that you've made, not unused to having your friends and family tell you that you are so talented you should be selling your things to stores. You are and you should! The world needs you! We are all fighting the war against the corporatization of American retail! (One of my favorite subjects, but more on this another time.)
Let's say you are singularly obsessed with making handpainted . . . toothbrushes. You've given them to all your family, all your friends, all your co-workers, and sold them at the cool indie holiday bazaar down the street. Everyone loves them, everyone agrees they are unique and wonderfully made, everyone says they've never seen anything like them anywhere else. A ha! think you. I'll start my own toothbrush-selling business!
If you really are serious about starting a business, there are good reasons, even in the global/web-site-lush world of commerce, to sell your products to shops, the most obvious being the exponentially increased exposure you will gain. When you first start thinking in this way, it's helpful to familiarize yourself with the basic wholesale/retail structure that most little shops will expect you to understand. To that end, a little vocabulary:
Product: What you've made, and what you will sell
Product line: The entire range of things offered by a designer or manufacturer
Manufacturer: Not a romantic term, but let's face it: If you're going to sell things to stores, this is what you'll be called. There is very little about this relationship that is romantic, anyway, I promise.
Buyer: The person at a shop who makes the decision about what to purchase for its shelves
Wholesale price: This is the price that you will sell your handpainted toothbrushes to shops for. Generally, it's 50% of the retail price.
Retail price: This is the price that the customer who ultimately buys your toothbrush from a shop will pay, sometimes also called the "price point." It is generally double the wholesale price that the buyer has paid, and can be marked up to include shipping costs, neighborhood cache, etc.
Consignment: The practice of "giving" your toothbrushes to a buyer without getting any money for them up front. The shop will sell them for you, and pay you a percentage of the retail price regularly when/if they sell.
Products come to our attention in a couple of ways. We find them; a rep stops by and shows us a bunch of product lines that she represents for the manufacturers; or they find us. For the purposes of this post, I'm going to assume that you, toothbrush painter, are interested in finding us to see if we want to buy what you have to sell.
Products make it to our shelves in one of two ways: We have either purchased them at a wholesale price from a manufacturer, or we have accepted them on consignment from a (usually local, but not necessarily) designer. When we purchase outright, the product is ours to sell, and ours to keep if it doesn't sell. It's always a gamble that we take, so we try to think carefully about the purchases we make, and that thinking involves many things: What do our customers want? What can we offer that will surprise them? What is unique to our location? Is the price point right for our customers? Do we have room to display it? Do we have other things like it? Do we love it? Many of our stores exist quite precariously in this economy and retail culture to begin with so we try to be quite careful in what we buy, much as you are careful with your own purchases. We may like and want lots of things, but we are limited by some of the above criteria. You shouldn't take it personally when a store says no to carrying your products. You should also learn to edit the advice you receive quite carefully. Success involves both flexibility in the marketplace and integrity; don't automatically sacrifice either when someone rejects you or tells you to change. All of us must, in the end, find our own way, and no one has a crystal ball.
But when you approach a store with the intention of selling us your toothbrushes, it's important to think like a buyer, and recognize that the above questions are paramount in that buyer's mind whenever they are considering carrying a product. We really aren't thinking about you and how long it took you to make that thing. We aren't thinking about how much it cost you (financially, emotionally, physically), how many bills you have to pay, or your hopes and dreams at all. We are thinking almost exclusively about ourselves, and whether we're going to be able to sell your product at the price point you are suggesting. I hate to be mean about it, and I'm not being: But understanding what is going through the mind of the buyer considering your product will help you have more success with the transaction and ultimately more success with your business, I think.
Nevertheless, there are certain things you can do before the buyer even sees your product that will help you curry favor. Here's one: Research. When people start out selling their handmade things, they usually start with local stores in their city or town. If you're not a big shopper and you aren't familiar with your local shops, take a day off and get out there. Look at what they carry, how it's displayed, what the general aesthetic and price point is. Take a business card. Buy something, and get a feel for the climate of the retail staff, how they package things, what's emphasized among the product lines they carry. Don't introduce yourself as a local artist looking to sell your toothbrushes! Nothing, and I mean nothing, will result in an icier reception. I can't say exactly why this happens, but it happens. Resist the temptation to introduce yourself. Pretend you're Veronica Mars and just spy. You're doing research here, remember? You're trying to save yourself the ultimate pain of approaching stores that are completely inappropriate for you and having them bitchily say, "Lady, do you know what we sell here?" (I of course never say this, I hope, but I do think it, and bitchily, too.)
I have great compassion for people who muster up the courage to pound the pavement. Trust me when I tell you that no one who loves sitting alone in their studio painting toothbrushes can possibly have the same Myers-Briggs personality type as someone who loves selling . . . anything. You are not alone in not wanting to do this. I promise you. But this is how people start out. And there are certain ways not to do it. I can't tell you how many people we've never seen before come into the shop with a bag full of stuff and expect us to drop whatever we're doing to consider their offerings. They may be out there, but I don't know of a single buyer who appreciates this. Please don't make this mistake -- it is the surest way to make a buyer think you are unprofessional. Unless you've got some cupcakes for us in that bag, too, we will talk about you behind your back and think you're dumb if you do this. On principal, we never buy things from these folks, and I can't think of any book on business I've ever read that suggests it as a tactic. It is an inconsiderate and amateurish approach, and sends up warning flags to your potential buyer that you will be inconsiderate and amateurish to work with in general. I'm vehement about it because it happens so often, amazingly.
Instead, try this. Research the stores you think would be potential candidates to carry your products. Make sure they are in different neighborhoods, or that they aren't in direct competition with each other; stores want to be unique, and they don't want their customers to feel like they can get the same stuff on every corner. If the store has a web site, go to it and read it. Discover whether or not they are strictly brick-and-mortar or if they also might sell your things on line; be prepared to have an answer if they ask you where else you sell your things, or whether you make them available on-line.
Know your pricing. Don't expect your potential buyer to figure this out for you. Pricing is a complicated topic for another post, perhaps, but I will say this about it: You need to look hard at your toothbrush and think about what's gone into it: How much time have you spent painting it? How much money have you spent on its materials? How many miles have you put on your car driving around looking at shops? You need to think hard about what its perceived value is in the marketplace: How much are people willing to pay for a toothbrush, no matter how cool? Can you live with receiving half of that for every one you make? How will you feel if someone orders 100 of them?
If you intend to sell your toothbrushes to many stores, and also sell them off of your own web site, and also at craft shows, you should know that the retail price at all of these venues should be the same. I know you will tell me that this isn't fair/true/necessary, but I will insist that it is, if only because it will make your life exponentially easier if you start out pricing your products in this way. If you have different prices for different people or different places, or you try to sell your toothbrushes on-line at a price that undercuts the retail price your stores are selling them at, you will run into problems. I urge you to be realistic about your pricing, but to also value everything that you've brought to your product, and set a wholesale price that you are very comfortable living with. If you can't let it go for 50% of the retail price, you might consider working out a different percentage (60% to you, 40% to the shop, or even 70/30) especially if you are willing to place things on consignment, but it's fairly uncommon for a standard retail store to accomodate this. More on this, and consignment, another time, perhaps.
In addition to your wholesale/suggested retail prices, this is what else your buyer will want to know: Where else are you selling your stuff? What is your turnaround time? What are your terms (i.e.: how and when do you accept payment)? What is your minimum opening order amount (i.e.: how much do we have to spend to make it worth your while at all)? What is your reorder amount? If you're just starting out, I think it makes sense to set your minimums fairly low -- around $100. This gives a store more incentive to take a chance on you, and reorder when/if things sell without risking a bigger investment. It is lovely if you take the time to think about these things before you make contact with a buyer; it's even lovelier if you've typed it all up along with your contact information and some really good pictures of your products.
When you've done all this, I'll bet you'll be more than ready to make your informed, confident approach, which will hopefully result in the buyer setting up an appointment to see your things. But I'll talk about that next time because, really, how much free advice can one girl be expected to give away in one sitting.
Here's Part 2.