Tuesday, April 15, 2008

more rules of wholesale

A question I get a lot concerns the cost of the wholesale trade shows. The cost is unbelievable. New York Gift usually ran about $4,000 (and that with couch surfing and cooking at home), Philadelphia a bit less. The ACRE show I almost did at the end of this month was significantly less, but still a new and therefore unproven show, so even the relatively low cost can be money down the drain if they can't get the buyers in. ACC is in between ACRE and Philly, but sales can be very rough at those shows. When you figure in the cost of the trade shows with the profit margins on your wholesale items, it can leave a girl asking, "don't you mean profit loss margin?" Sometimes I think I could make more money in Vegas playing blackjack. Drunk.

I seriously question whether trade shows are the way to go anymore, considering the access retailers have to artists through online venues like etsy, trunkt, wholesalecrafts.com (to name just a few), and the endless "design" blogs. The only question is how do you access retailers if you want to wholesale but aren't ready to gamble baby's college education fund away yet?

Second rule of wholesale: You must invest into marketing your wholesale items if you expect to take wholesale orders. As artists, marketing can be a word we want to pull away from. But marketing can be fun and there are so many ways to approach it that you don't have to turn it into a dreaded chore. But marketing means time, and it means money. And what does marketing mean in this context? Here is my short list of must-have and must-do for artists marketing wholesale:

1) A clear and concise one-sheet with prices and terms.

2) A catalog with images of your work. Don't flip out when I say "catalog" and get all scared you can't afford it. A catalog can be a simple color sheet with thumbnails of your work-- that's what I have, and you can get 250 printed up at PS print for just over $200, and that number lasts me almost a full year, even giving them out to some of my retail customers. A friend of mine prints up her catalog on 4x6 color postcards, with 8 images per card. That way she can add cards as her line expands without having to print up a brand-new thing every season. Very clever. Don't put your prices on there because then you can't use it for retail customers OR raise your prices while you still have that sheet. And you always want to be able to raise your prices!

3) Create a place online where retailers can access your work and see images. A blog, etsy, and a website are becoming mandatory for people selling their art. I don't think you need all three, but you do need at least one. Make sure these things advertise the fact that you wholesale. For those who simply cannot handle navigating a website yet, I highly recommend using etsy as a launch pad and using their community forums to ask other artists how they are handling website stuff.

4) Wholesale begets more wholesale. Go out and get that first wholesale account, and there is no better place than somewhere in your hometown. Find the perfect store for your work, one that carries handmade work (there is a huge difference between stores that carry imports or factory made work and one that carries American handmade), and pitch them. Retailers need you just as badly as you need them-- they can't stay open if they can't find cool stuff to sell, and they probably don't know you exist! Show them who you are.

5) Read those design blogs and research the stores they cover. I will often send out catalogs to stores I think should carry my work-- or I used to anyway, before I got totally sick of wholesaling. That brought in a few accounts and cost me hardly anything.

There is always the option of hiring a rep too, but if you are considering that you should already be well into the wholesale game. A rep takes 15%, so you need to be able to produce a lot in a short amount of time to make up for their take. Speaking of making a lot in a short amount of time, I'm off to the studio now!


  1. You have reminded me why I don't do the shows anymore. I only did the Baltimore ACC because I could have that retail on the weekend when the public was invited in. I never understood how one could pay so much up front as in the NY Gift show and the Rosen Show. It's a real gamble. I guess I wasn't keen on having a pottery sweat shop.While the wholesale show was pivotal at an early stage in my career, I'm lucky now to have developed a retail following. Being near the Penland school is helpful and since there are so many studios in the area, customers come to spend the weekend scooting around from shop to shop.

    Back to wholesale though. I think that I would do wholesale only as long as you had to. You're right about having lots of options, but the internet is still pretty unpredictable and the time it takes to set up an online shop cuts into your net.

    The other benefit of doing wholesale for me was getting reorders and soliciting reorders. It never hurts to call.

  2. wow, thank you Whitney! I learn so much from reading your series of post on wholesale.

  3. Incredibly helpful. Thanks for the perspective. After I read "Craft Inc." it solidified that shows weren't for me. Half the time I wonder if wholesale is for me. The profit-less margin is quite overwhelming.

  4. This is a real service Whitney!
    I keep coming across wholesaling tips on taking your business to the next level but these how-to's seem to all be circulated by the show promoters - it's really great reading about it straight from the artist.
    Thank you,

  5. Anonymous7:22 PM

    That was an amazing post. I have found trade shows to be so exhausting and avoid them now but I'm not wanting to grow much more than where I am. Walking into local stores is great advice. My best move was talking to a wonderful store owner and asking her where she found most of her artists. She suggested wholesalecrafts.com and that has been so good for me. I get emails with orders and credit information and I just send out orders as I fill them.
    Karissa Chase

  6. My aunt sells wholesale general merchandise (mostly plastics) all around the US. I guess she would appreciate your tips.

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