Selling Crafts Through Stores

Flea markets and craft fairs can be fun and profitable places to hawk your wares, but selling crafts thourghs stores can be even more lucrative.
By Sherry Robinson
November/December 1980
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The holiday season is a prime time for selling crafts, and an attractive display may be all you need to get you business booming!
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Show me a successful craftsperson, and I'll show you a good peddler. Or — to put it a bit more grandly — behind every creative talent there's a marketing genius.

After all, when you make a "thing of beauty," you're only half done. Before you can turn your artwork into income, you'll have to know how to make people want to buy it! Most of us weren't born salesfolk. As children, it was usually with dread and gloom that we trudged door to door to sell Girl Scout cookies, greeting cards, or raffle tickets. However, if you still suffer from that same old gnawing shyness, maybe l can offer a few marketing tricks that'll help relieve the pain.

Are You Ready?

Unless your product is so unusual and in demand that the public will trample the woods to reach your door, you'll have to cart your wares to the potential buyers. Of course, you can sell direct (at flea markets, for example), but if you want the success and security that come with multiple outlets and repeat orders, selling crafts through stores is the way to go. Which means you must deal with a more difficult problem: how to convince retail stores to buy your goods.

In order to sell to such market-wise customers, you'll usually have to make what's referred to in the lingo of the trade as a "mobile presentation". And if that phrase makes you think of the stereotyped dapper salesman who whips open an attaché case with a slick exhibit of samples, charts, color photographs, and the like ... well, you're almost right! Because, although the "slick and dapper" aren't absolutely necessary, a modicum of professionalism is required if you're to be truly successful.

If you're dealing with small items, a relatively neat display of samples on a board or card will suffice. Should your goods be bulky or heavy though, it's best to make a scrapbook of good clear photographs of your products ... plus a few shots of yourself at work. (It's often easy to find a photographer who'll barter with you.)

For medium-sized crafts, you might consider setting up a small suitcase in which to display your wares to curious shopkeepers. For a long time, I pulled ceramic beads and jewelry wrapped in recycled bags out of pockets and purses until my father-in-law gave me a worn-out (to him) briefcase. That darn thing is handy! Now I have a place to display samples of all my finished goods, and the interior pockets can hold invoices, receipts, catalogs, business cards, notepads, and pens as well.

Invoices ... receipts? Well, you may not think you need such formalities, but the stores' owners will expect them. After all, when you fill an order, you need to send an invoice ... and if you do manage to sell the storekeeper some items outright, you have to give a receipt. You can do either on a plain sheet of paper, but you can get batches of the "real thing" — for just a few dollars — from any office supply store. Besides, the mere fact that you such common business forms (along with some sharp-looking business cards to introduce yourself and leave behind as a reminder of your existence) will make you seem more responsible and professional.

Pick Your Targets

Once you've prepared the presentation, carefully select the stores that you'll visit.

Start with the small shops and work your way up to the big department stores. This approach will allow you to polish your presentation while fewer sales are at stake.

The best way to locate good outlets is to talk to other craftspeople about stores that have produced for them. Keep your ears open for any "darling little shops" your friends and relatives might discover, too! And don't overlook the Yellow Pages in the phone book ... an ad can often tell you a lot about a store's merchandise.

You'll find it easiest to "break in" by selling through shops that work on consignment (such outlets will usually mark your price up a third and pay you when the item sells). The periodic payments that good consignment stores can be expected to produce are always a pleasant surprise. Be cautious, however. Some of these shops take little responsibility for the goods, so choose ones in nearby locations that can be checked on from time to time.

Aim For Success

When you've located stores that look as if they might be worthwhile outlets for your particular wares, arrange to visit them. If the shops are scattered over great distances, you might want to telephone first: Ask for the buyer (be sure to note the name for future reference) and find out whether he or she would be interested in selling whatever you make. Remember, though, that — while a phone call can be a good first step — there's nothing like your smiling face to brighten up the glory of your specialty.

I probably don't have to tell you the obvious, but I will anyway: Always be neat and clean. You won't sell much — especially in the kinds of swank resort areas that bring top prices for crafts — if your very presence embarrasses the shop owner.

Try to approach your prospects at times when they're least likely to be rushed. Avoid, if possible, Monday mornings and Friday evenings ... and any day just before lunch.

And when you make your first visit, don't be so enthusiastic that you just rush in the door and make your pitch. Case the joint! If you were a customer, would you patronize the place? Is it crowded? Do the shoppers buy or do most of them just browse? Is there dust on the merchandise? (That likely means that it doesn't sell very fast.)

Look over the inventory, too, and check out the prices. Does the store carry items somewhat similar to yours (or much too similar)? Are your prices competitive? (Remember that stores generally sell homemade items for twice the price paid to the craftsperson ... a practice that's known as keystoning.) Is the shop under supplied with a particular product? (File that information in your head ... if the item is something you could provide.)

Judge fairly, but do be picky. After all, you don't want your crafts in just any old store. If you're not impressed with an establishment, don't bother with it.

Sell With a Smile

After you've completed your inspection, simply ask any salesperson if you may speak to the buyer. (In small shops you may well find that you're already face-to-face with the owner/salesperson/buyer/janitor!) Here's how to approach this brief but important encounter:

For one thing, do business only when you're in a relaxed and positive mood, because your attitude can be the most important ingredient in the sale. Buyers are quick to sense a negative or hesitant approach ... and will often respond to it by not purchasing your merchandise.

Therefore — cheerfully — ask the person in charge whether he or she would like to see your product. Notice we say see ... not buy. For some reason the words "buy" and "sell" put off potential clients. "Seeing" something implies no commitment and most buyers are on the lookout for new items to market.

If possible, put an item in the buyer's hand or set it down where he or she can touch it. Explain a bit about how you make the product, the materials involved, and the special techniques you use. If you've already sold to other shops that are successful with your product, mention them. Meanwhile, the tactile sensation of your goods (and your obvious skill at your craft) should be working for you.

Know the Score

Next comes the big question of "how much." Be prepared to quote prices singly, by the dozen, and — if you can supply large numbers of items — even by the gross. Try to give the buyer a break on quantity purchases. If you've figured your prices so that you have room to dicker, it's your privilege to do so. However, if you've tagged your goods at rock bottom, you might tell the customer that other shops pay that amount and that it would be unfair to sell to anyone for less.

In your great eagerness to make a sale, don't quote a ridiculously low figure that you'll regret later on. Unless you've come up with something entirely new in the crafts world, there's probably an established "going rate" for your product. You might want to agree in advance on the amount of markup. Some stores will triple — rather than double — your price if they think they can get away with it ... and it's common knowledge that the higher the price, the slower your crafts will sell.

When you land an order, give the buyer a realistic delivery date. Avoid promises of early fulfillment if you know good and well that in the meantime you'll also have to cut a few cords of firewood, cope with a lambing ewe, or build a bathroom, because once you've committed yourself you must make sure to deliver on that date. Remember that the first sale is just the initial victory. The great advantage of selling through stores is the potential for reorders that can put some security into your life ... and you won't get repeat business unless you prove to be reliable and skillful!

When You Miss the Target

There are several types of negative responses that you might receive from store buyers. The first is definite and emphatic ... when the man or woman doesn't like your goods and tells you so! (Sure it's an ego blow, but don't be overwhelmed ... just go on to the next store.) On the other hand, it may be that your product is simply not what the store's customers want. Or perhaps the buyer loves it, but the store is low on capital or the tourist trade is down. (Make a point to return to such an outlet later on.)

Another kind of no, which is really a maybe, goes like this: "I don't know .. . we've never had that type of thing in here before!" In this case your reply should be, "Would you like to try out a few (or one, or a sample order) and see how it goes?"

If the buyer still hesitates — and you think the item would sell in the shop if given a chance — you can offer to replace the product if that particular style doesn't please the store's customers. (Don't offer a refund , mind you — as that would place you in the ticklish position of shelling out money at the whim of the owner — but simply an exchange for a different craftwork at the same price.)

As an aid to the reluctant buyer, take along a headful of ideas. Propose a variation or some new thing you're working on. Should you be asked, "Do you think you could make such-and-such?" ... consider the suggestion seriously. It's the buyer's job to know what will sell in that particular store.

If you constantly get negative or hesitant responses, take a hard look at your product. Maybe it's just plain undesirable. Don't give up if you come to this realization, though. Just make something else, and keep on trying new items until you do discover a craft that sells.

There can be other causes for rejection, too. Is your craft relatively easy to learn? Are the materials common? If so, the market may be glutted with such items. Or your timing could be responsible for refusals: For example, it's very difficult to push craftwares between January and April. You should plan ahead for the big holidays and the peak season, especially if you sell in resort areas. (Stores may put in orders for Christmas as early as August or September.)

Collect Your Winnings

It's customary for shops to pay their bills at the end of the month, so — if you've shipped or invoiced your goods on the first — you may have to wait as much as 30 days to be paid. This delay means that the serious home business craftsperson has to keep up the self-discipline of constant production and sales.

If the 10th of the following month rolls by with no check from one of your buyers, send out a copy of your invoice with "past due" written on it. If that doesn't work, write a letter ... then call ... and, finally, remove your goods from the store. (This shouldn't happen often, but it does occur ... and is another good reason to pick your outlets carefully.)

Good Luck!

Any or all of these suggestions should smooth your path to successful sales. Just remember that when you go out to market your crafts, you have two great forces at work for you: one, the strong belief in your product, and two, the necessity of making a living.

And — for those who love to spend their days in the creation of beautiful things — selling handmade products is much more fun than punching the old time clock!


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