Monday, March 24, 2008

the rules of wholesale: part 1

Many ceramic artists face the dilemma or whether or not to wholesale. In some ways, it seems that getting your goods into a store is the goal. It's exposure, it's validation. When I did my first ACC wholesale show in Baltimore back in 2001, I couldn't imagine anything more exciting than having a store carry my work. But I didn't have a clue what I was getting myself into. My work back then was incredibly labor intensive and unique. I knew how to throw in a production schedule, but the finishing work was impossible to fit into a production mode without losing my mind from the repetition. But I didn't know this yet. I went to the show, was happy to come home with $5,000 worth of orders, and promptly burned myself down to a tiny little crisp in the following months as I filled the orders. I quickly realized my precious pots, priced to move, weren't going to begin to compensate me for the amount of time I was putting into creating them, nor would they cover my costs at the loony bin where my husband was threatening to send me.

First rule of wholesale: never wholesale anything you can't reproduce quickly and consistently. If you love making your labored artworks, believe me: the joy will be sapped right out of it when you are forced to make them over and over again at the rate of about $3 an hour. Consistency is also very important. If you are making work in a production mode, your studio will get overwhelmed with seconds if you cannot make a consistent product. I'm sorry to call your artwork a product, but if you are wholesaling, that's what it is.

So, where do you start with the fast and the easy when your work is neither? My hang up for a long time is that I did not want to work with molds or any other kind of reproduction method. I thought it zapped the magic out of my work. And there is some truth to that idea; the hand infuses an energy into your work that simply cannot be replicated by anything other than a human. At the same time, your idea also contains magic, and challenging your brain to figure out how to get that idea onto 200 pots in one week-- as opposed to 6 months-- also creates its own magic.

To answer the question for myself I created my Seed & Pod line alongside my more intense Flower line. It was simple to throw, easy to finish. And I loved giving myself something else to work on that reflected a different style. When I jumped back into serious wholesale again in 2006, I only took my Seed & Pod line. Simple, easy. In time the orders jumped over what I could realistically make by hand, and that's where Hector came in. Hector makes molds from all of my the work I want to wholesale. Over the past two years I've even been able to add my best-selling items from the Flower line and have them molded to expand my line and keep it interesting.

So if you are thinking about wholesale, you really have to answer "yes" to these two questions of efficiency and consistency. If you're saying "yeeeees", kind of slowly, or "most of the time", or "I don't mind working 60 hours a week!" then you are not ready for wholesale on a large scale yet. And by large scale I mean 50% or more of your income.

How you get to efficiency and consistency is up to you. I say listen to everyone, and listen to no one. The way I do it works for me, but it's not the answer. I've cobbled together my solution over the years by following only what I am comfortable with. I look at some people's work who want to wholesale and I think, "You make a mold of that bowl, a decal of that design, and you are good to go". But that person may not like decals. Or molds. They may need to come up with a new design that echoes the original idea so they don't feel they have to sacrifice some aspect of originality. Or they may just have to totally burn themselves out to realize molds and decals ain't so bad.

I am going to continue to write on this subject of wholesale, so if there is a particular aspect that you would like to have addressed, please email me or post a comment.


  1. Thank you so much for a such a great account of what wholesaling really is all about! Your post are always refreshingly straightforward and honest. Thank you!

  2. Thanks for an informative post on wholesaling. My position has always been that a one-person studio can't really sell wholesale, but I never considered slip-casting. Your pod forms are beautiful and don't suffer at all from being cast. you've got me thinking....
    Also, I just wrote a post on vases and spring and included one of your vases from your etsy store. I hope you don't mind. You can take a look at:
    Is that a real cupcake on the cake stand? Or is it clay?
    Great blog, I am a regular fan.

  3. Perfect post - It's just what I need to read right now. I just got my first wholesale order last week and after a few false starts, spent the weekend making some molds so that I can be more efficient.

    While no one is breaking down my door for more of my work, I'm going slowly so I can think this through. And, fun you should mention decals...

    Thank you!

  4. So helpful.
    Just doesn't seem like an option for me at this point...
    I love reading your reassuring .
    The cupcake looks yummy.

  5. Even though I do jewelry and not ceramics I find your wholesale insight very helpful. A lot of what you said applies to jewelry as well. Thanks for the information! And one day soon when I make a good jewelry sale (to treat myself) I will be purchasing some of your beautiful work from etsy! :)

  6. I really enjoy reading your blog, and I like that you're very honest and open. I whole heartedly agree with you on wholesale. Before I sold on Etsy, I sold some items to a shop wholesale. I was so happy to make a sale, that I didn't realize how little money I actually made. I cant wait until the day I am at the point where I can have a product line...maybe one day. It would be fun to have my own Hector :)
    Thank you so much for your insight and knowledge.

  7. Whitney
    Thanks for your post on wholesaling. I'm not there yet, but now have some concept of how to go about it when i arrive.
    You spoke of several topics i.e.: originality vs molds which hits the mark and i'm so glad you addressed these. Very thought provoking especially with your solution of creating a line exclusively for wholesale.

  8. What an interesting post. Just discovered you blog through your Etsy listing, and think it's great. Love the work - another one to add to the favorites list. See you again soon.

  9. hey whitney,

    thanks for your insight here...very helpful and thought provoking...i have linked to this post from my blog where i have been thinking, and rambling, about production methods a helps to sort it all out! not sure if it makes for good reading, but i feel better! ;)


  10. Hi Whitney,
    Thanks for the post on wholesaling, you know I am considering what to do on this topic. I like the idea of designing the work and love how you utilize Hector. I am wondering if you can talk about how outsourcing part or all of your production fits into a handmade category, like marketing that work to craft galleries where the customers think they are buying something that is 100% from the artist's hands? Meaning from the lump of clay to the beautiful vessel. I struggle with this concept although it is one of my goals!!! But wonder, if this is something to market to the masses, well maybe the boutique masses instead of the craft galleries!
    Thanks, Linda

  11. love that picture of those bud sculptures. and the article is very well written :) thank you

  12. Anonymous1:27 PM

    Hi, I just came across your blog. Saw your interview on Etsy. I love your work, it's beautiful! Can I link to you from my blog?


  13. This post is heaven sent! As always, Thank you Whitney.

  14. Cheers for such a down-to-earth and helpful article! I've turned down all offers from shops to sell my stuff because I know they'll want loads for a pittance... people don't realize how much work and care goes into handmade things when shops like Primark sell wallets for £2...
    It's great to share your experiences so that the rest of us don't have to go through the same problems. :D