Wholesale, Retail, and Selling Your Handmades to Shops, Part 2

comments: 70

Shop1 Oooooh, it's cold and rainy. Sometimes I think having a shop in a warm, indoor mall would be the best idea here in Oregon. . . . Even I, today, would happily sip an Orange Julius and trade $5 for ten pairs of earrings at Claire's if I could park under a roof and leave my coat in the car.

Alas, here, just to the left of this picture, sit I, hoping our "charming" stone wall doesn't start leaking, the way it usually does after a few too many days of drops. I'll look up and see silver trickles down the length of it, falling from somewhere fourteen feet up. So far so good, but if I suddenly stop typing this, you will know I've leapt up to find some buckets. . . .

Now, where were we. This is Part 2 of my post from last week about how to sell handmade things in shops, at least from my perspective as both a small-boutique owner and a handmade-product designer. Thank you to everyone who commented, and to everyone who wrote to me privately to discuss some of the information in that post. I was a little bit nervous about it -- I really don't fancy myself much of an advice giver, and obviously there are lots of ways to do things in the world. But it was interesting how many other small-boutique buyers wrote to me privately and expressed much the same opinions.

The truth about this half of the discussion is this: There is really no "magic" formula for successfully selling stuff, and there is no one way to do it. There is only, as with all of life, the act of arming yourself with information, the practice of doing things to the best of your ability, and the effort to find an equation of give and take that you can live with, and that makes it worth it to sell things you've made in the first place. In my experience, the process of making it all work never really ends, and is constantly changing. My businesses have gone through many permutations in the past six years since I started them; I'm always looking for the right balance, and oftentimes mistakes have only helped me to define my priorities.

At the heart of the businesses is always my life, and the handwork itself, and the appreciation that people have shown for what I do. Those are the things I care about the most, the parts that I love. I like the quiet calmness of my creating days, the way the piles of fabric turn into animals, the way the yarn feels in my hands. These things move me profoundly; more than, say, managing a bunch of seamstresses would move me. More than going to a bank to get a loan to expand would move me. More than selling my own things in stores all over the country would move me. So, I don't sell my work wholesale anymore. I don't have other people help me with it unless they are better than I am and I am overwhelmed. I have a tiny, low-budget boutique that runs on love and elbow grease more than anything else. And this works, most of the time, for me. You will figure out what works for you, but there won't be any easy way to get there. You will try things and have a bad feeling in your stomach. You will take advice that will go against your better judgment. You will do the wrong thing by someone. You will make lots of mistakes. But then you'll try to fix them. What else can you do? Do good work -- do the best possible work-- and believe in what you've done; then just enjoy the adventure. Make friends along the way. Don't burn bridges. Remember the Golden Rule. Keep the faith. And if something's not working, try another way. Work with good people -- choose to work with good people. You spend a long time and put a lot of love into your creations; it only makes sense to put that same kind of attention and care into the business part of things. This is your life, after all. These things are an extension of you. You send them out into the world, filled with spirit. This is what "handmade" means to me. It's not the "look" or the "trend" or the "uniqueness" of the thing; it's the spirit behind it, the life that is nourished by its creation. I started Posie in 2000 during my recovery from a terrible accident. Doing handwork is what saved my life then, and saves it now. It matters to me, and I know that for your own reasons it matters to you. Other than that, I'm making it up as I go along, and you will, too.

Now. Wasn't that pretty. Many days are not! Many days are yucky. I act badly. People are mean to me. I wonder if it's worth it at all. I am mean to people. I threaten to find a nice office to work in again. I want a regular paycheck. I don't want to make another thing, ever. I'm okay with all this. These days are not everyday. These days happen, and they are also a part of the experience. When they start tipping the scale, however, I will take heed.

If you make handmade things, you might want to sell them to stores. You might not. Stores are neat. Lots of people will suggest that you should have your things in stores. (Usually they won't know exactly what that means or how things get to stores, but you should, now that you've read Part 1; don't try to set them straight. They are trying to give you a compliment, not business advice. They are trying to say, "Gosh, your handpainted toothbrushes are so beautiful they should be at Saks, not the church bazaar!" You can say "Thanks!" and leave it at that, then decide for yourself if this is for you.) There is a certain amount of cache attached to having your work in stores, and even more cache attached to having your work in lots of stores. But, as discussed in Part 1, it's important to understand what may be required of you as a manufacturer if you do decide to pursue a wholesale relationship with retailers.

You know that selling "wholesale" basically means you will be selling things at 50% of what the store will sell them for. (When I first started selling my products wholesale, several years ago, I was really shocked by this percentage, but now of course I understand it. Retailers have commercial rent, advertising, fancy packaging, credit card fees, employee wages, commercial utilities, special events, insurance, all sorts of overhead. They are also talking about you and your products to people every day, and occasionally getting editorial coverage for the lines they carry, which benefits both of you. Good stores earn their 50%, and the reward for both of you is their re-order, meaning they're making their profit and you're selling more stuff.) I won't go into a lot of pricing theory here; a quick perusal of the shelves at my local bookstore last week revealed at least a half-dozen books devoted to selling handmade things, and all of them discuss pricing (as well as the logistical stuff, like invoicing, shipping, etc.) at length. It's good to read these things. Barbara Brabec has written several books on selling handmade goods, and I think they are must-haves for your bookshelf. (Of course, I think it would be lovely if you got them at your local, independent bookseller.)

I will say that the reality of today's retail market is that there hasn't really been a paradigm shift in the traditional wholesale relationship that accommodates the handmade-product manufacturer very well. You, as a manufacturer, are competing with companies that mass-produce their goods at very low prices. The retailer is always going to try to get your prices as low as possible because that is what their customers demand; customers who are choosing not to be at Wal-Mart in the first place are already fewer and far-er between than we'd like. Unless you are able to target very high-end markets who can ask very high-end prices, you will be pressed to find a way to meet the demands of the general public, who are, for the most part, buying happy meals that are cheaper than they were ten years ago. In a slow-ish economy, everything's a tough sell if it's not on super-sale. What people do and what they wish they did when they shopped can be very different things; I think that, theoretically, people would love to support us indie designers. In reality, Urban Outfitters knocks off the deconstructed-seam-allowance look much more cheaply than we can, and it serves many people who appreciate the handmade aesthetic but can't afford the real thing.

That said, do not underprice your products. Price them fairly for yourself, and what you believe to be fairly for the marketplace. Believe that you are offering something special and stick to it. Increase the perception of the thing's value through style, quality, packaging, and originality. Know exactly how much you need to get for it, and stand firm. Don't feel the need to justify this to anyone else; don't make excuses for it. It is what it is. If you are consistently being told that your price is too high or if you find that no one is buying, rethink things. But don't start out at the lowest possible place. It's hard to raise prices when you feel like you're doing too much work for too little. It's easy to drop them. Alternately, you could consider consignment, or doing craft shows or art fairs, or selling your things in on-line handmade marketplaces, like the phenomenal etsy.com, that take a lower percentage than a traditional retailer and offer you many more potential customers than you would be able to "get" on your own.

But let's say that after all this dirty realism, you are still thinking Shops! By all means, shops! You've got your product, your prices, your wholesale price list, and your sales policies. Most people start by pounding local pavement, and, as I've discussed in Part 1, it's best to research locations before you start approaching buyers. Once you've come up with a list of places you feel would be appropriate, start at the top. Pick the best one, your favorite one, the one you really love, even if it seems a little bit beyond your scope. If you get rejected, work your way down the list. But don't start at the bottom. Start at the top. So, now you've got your list.

This is where it gets tricky, and also, I'm sure what you've all been waiting for: How do you get an appointment with a buyer to show your stuff and write an order successfully?

The answer is, I don't really know. You just gotta try.

I know you didn't want to hear it, and I've been worried about telling you, I really have. But it's true. It's hard to say exactly what will work. It depends on the buyer. It depends on what kind of mood she's in. It depends on how much inventory the store already has. It depends if she likes handpainted toothbrushes. It depends on so many things. All you can do is try. How's that for wishy-washyness. Here's what I'd do. I'd call the place. I'd ask for the buyer's name. I'd write a little letter, introducing myself and what I do, with my name, address, contact info, and web site clearly indicated. I'd include a "line sheet," or a piece of paper with a list of my products and their descriptions. I'd include a price list and my wholesale policies. I'd send it over, with a sample if I could spare it, knowing full well I may never get it back, let alone a response. I'd package everything up so that it looked really cool and made the recipient feel like I actually cared about what I was doing. I'd time it so that it got there on a Tuesday. (I don't know why this is, but Tuesday seems like the day when people in general are most receptive to anything; Friday is the worst day; Monday's are too busy with engine revving and regret that the weekend's over.) I'd give a call soon after to check in. I'd ask for an appointment to stop by in person.

Alternately, you could do all of this over email; email seems more convenient and at the same time easier to ignore. As a buyer, I receive both snail-mail inquiries and email. As a manufacturer, I sent both. I can't say what worked better. As a buyer, I receive dozens of emails; I used to try to respond to all of them, but if I know immediately the products aren't a good fit, as they say, I don't always have time to respond to every unsolicited inquiry. I've also approached manufacturers whose work is entirely appropriate and who have responded enthusiastically, and then I've cruelly not placed an order, not because I didn't like the stuff or think it would be a good idea, but because, I don't know, I spaced out, or something else came up, or I didn't feel like ordering that day, or I changed my mind, or who in the hell and the hootenanny knows. Information overload. I love my manufacturers. I am grateful that they do what they do and sell it to me so that I can sell it to someone else. I love what they make and I try my best to show it off in the way it deserves. But the reality is that there are a lot of good products out there and wonderful people behind them that I'm sure I've blown off because the timing hasn't been right, or I haven't had the money, or I just plain forgot. All this is to say, Don't let the turkeys get you down. Move on to the next one. It's my (her, their) loss. You're great.

The reality is that if you really want to sell wholesale, you'll probably only have to do this particular, thankless brand of courtship yourself a few times. You'll do it a few times and it you'll quickly decide that a) you don't want to sell wholesale after all or b) you need a rep. Sales reps, either individuals or groups, haul samples of your stuff around their territories and sell it to buyers and boutiques for you. They pick the shops, they take a commission, and you wait for the faxes to come in. The catch-22 is that in order to get a rep, you usually have to show that you are willing to pay your dues, and are in a few stores already. Usually. Reps can be good, and they can be not that good. If you find a good one, treat her well. How to find a "good" one? It's a relative term. As my sister says, one person's dream rep is another person's nightmare -- you have to find the right fit for you. Nevertheless, some manufacturers can be sort of cagey about telling other manufacturers who their reps are; in doing so they are almost recommending you, and they just might not want to get into that. That is their prerogative; it will be yours, too, someday, and then you'll know what I'm talking about. And while we're on the subject, I will say that no one else finds their sources, materials, reps, or whatever it is that you don't know how to find easily. These things can be worth their weight in gold once found, and it is no wonder at all that people can be pissy when expected to just give information away to every random person who asks; and they do ask. Weigh your requests carefully and use them wisely. Respect the hard work and hard-earned experience that have gone into your colleagues' businesses and be careful in your demands.

Buyers have sort of a love-hate relationship with reps. Some won't work with them at all. Some have favorites. If you make friends with a buyer, she might tell you who her favorite reps are. If you can get a buyer's recommendation, that's not a bad place to start doing research. Always do some research, of course. Some manufacturers list their rep groups on their web sites. If you live in a big enough city, you may have a wholesale gift center. Call them and see how you can get in and have a look around (they are usually open to buyers on certain days of the week). Introduce yourself to the reps in showrooms that carry products similar to yours, or have an aesthetic that jives with what you're about. Get a feel for who they are; they will be representing your work, after all. You want them to be professional, respectful, conscientious, and likeable; you should try to be the same. You want to feel that they will handle your hard work with care. Presentation counts, and if a buyer doesn't like your rep, it is unlikely that she will want to suffer her company for long. Talk to reps and inquire about whether they would be willing to consider taking on new lines; ask their policies and prices. Present your products to them much as you would present them to a buyer. They need to believe they can sell what you're offering, since they get paid when they sell something.

Mostly, believe in yourself. Once those orders start coming in, it's a whole new world. Grow at your own pace. Trust your own instincts and advice. Enjoy the uncomfortableness of starting something new. Be willing to discover. Remember how it felt to be a freshman, and then what it felt like to be a sophomore; soon you'll be a sophomore and you'll know everything. Just take a deep breath and proceed. You'll be fine, I just know it.

Best of luck,
     Alicia

70 comments

Alicia: Part 2 was SO informative. Thank you for being so generous in sharing your knowledge and experience with the rest of us. You're the best!

Thanks again for another well written piece of advice. Much appreciated! xo

Thank you again, Alicia, for sharing your experience. You write so well!

I'll repeat what's already been said, thank you again for such good advice!

You were recommended by a friend, and I stopped by right as you posted Part 1, and I just wanted to tell you: I don't even MAKE handmade things, much less want to sell them, and I was blown away by your honesty, creativity, and excellent writing in this 2-part advice post. Nicely done!

Alicia,
I just heard there was an earthquake in Portland, a minor one it seems.
Just checking in to see if you're okay.

What? An earthquake? I hate those! Didn't even feel it, though. Thanks for checking on me, E! And thanks for the nice comments, everyone. Glad it is helpful for you!

Update: Looks like the epicenter was actually on my street! Just a mile up. But I think it was only 2.8 or something like that -- and I think I was driving at the time.

Wow... thanks for all of the information and honesty.

Alicia, again this is so brilliant and so helpful. Thank you so much for taking the time and trouble to give us all some insider knowledge and straight forward advice. Many thanks! Jen :)

Most of the time I don't feel earthquakes here, either. I seem to be driving when they hit, too.

So I went yarn shopping today and bought this sock yarn and it kept bugging me why it seemed so familiar.
Turns out it was your "Brachs" sock yarn! It stuck in my consciousness!

Thank you again. And thank you for including insights into the sometimes harsh reality of buying and selling. It is information like that that you don't get from books.

Bless yer cotton socks! Thanks for sharing. You truly are an inspiration.

Wow - I know all of the other commenters have already said it, but this is so helpful and so amazingly gracious of you to share your knowledge and experience with the rest of us. These two posts have really given me a lot to think about.

Thanks so much for sharing these invaluable insights. I've read Barbara Brabec's work and I've just fulfilled my first wholesale order. 50% off is still a bit painful to me, but it's for a more high-end store. So, like all things in life, we'll see!

That was a veritable treasure trove, thank you for your generosity.

could I just ask you something please ?
I read everything but I still have a question and plus I've been asked today if I do wholesale.
Wholesale means selling at half price but the the buyer (store) pays right away ?
Sorry for asking I'm in France and the question was made by someone from usa so I don't really know what to say.
Sorry and thank you

Hi Sofia,
Yes, that's right. If someone asks if you sell your products wholesale, they are wondering if you sell them to stores at 50% off the retail price. You can and should, of course, say that you have a minimum order amount, meaning they have to order $100 or $200 (or whatever you decide) worth of merchandise in order to make it worth your while. And yes, you can request that they pay you right away (some will want to pay in 30 days, but that is entirely up to you; unless they have established credit with you and have given you references, etc., it is typical that they would write you a check immediately upon delivery). Hope that helps!
Best,
Alicia

hi Alicia, it really shows that you have been on both sides of the fence! as a designer trying to get into the mindframe to start approaching retail stores-yet again!- i found your posts inspiring and so so true :) thanks!

In my current research on the subject, I just ran across this post with your advice on getting my handmade items into stores. It was by far one of the most helpful pieces I have found thus far. I am attempting to get my handmade baby clothing and gifts into stores and my question is this: I have many products; is it better to show everything to stores and hope they like something? or should I narrow it down in the hopes that it's not overload? I am currently working on putting together my sample pieces and literature and just want to be sure that it's got the best chance of catching a buyers eye...
Thanks so much for your advice and for posting your experiences for others. I would love to someday open a boutique of my own--it's great to see that it can be done successfully!

Thanks for posting these 2 articles! I've been on both sides too-and I'm currently back on the "artist" side. I'm a great seller of others peoples work, but not my own. I am currently 'stuck' and your blog has helped "kick me in the pants".

Thanks for doing this.

As a manufacturer, I appreoiated your paragraph reminding me that a response not to buy or a lack of a buy reponse isn't a slam against me or my products. That will help me as I hit this next trade show. Thanks!

just came across your blog and it's just what I was looking for. You are the best and now I'm not confused but prepared to get out there. Thank you for your honest and candid advice.
Thanks!

o found my way over here from the forums at etsy :)
This is a great article, with a real down to earth and honest descriptions of all the ins and outs of retailing in shops. Thanks for this!
I sell in just one boutique so far, and am planning to "spread my wings" a little to giving it a shot in small boutiques in other areas of the city. I've found your advice extremely useful and you've given a lot of good pointers and gard truths :) Thanks again!

bad typos there... apologies :(

Thank you! This is super helpful. I just started a greeting card business and I'm at the tentatively approaching stores phase. So far it's going really well and I have four stores carrying my line now, but I was wondering about the Net 30 terms and you just answered my question.

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About

My name is Alicia Paulson
and I love to make things. I live with my husband and daughter in Portland, Oregon, and design sewing, embroidery, knitting, and crochet patterns. See more about me at aliciapaulson.com

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Since August of 2011 I've been using a Canon EOS 60D with an EF 18-200mm kit lens and an EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens.