Wednesday, December 08, 2010

simple sell

Last week, I visited a local tech company to sell my stuff at their private holiday fair which takes place during the week at their campus. I won't name this company but it's probably the most famous tech company in the world. I know better than to do stuff like this but I was beguiled by the chance to check out this company up close and also to have a captured, employed audience. So I pack up some bins and haul them into the heart of Silicon Valley.

We've all heard tale of these fabled tech companies with their ping-pong tables, their arcade video games, their on-site massage therapists, their sprawling hang-out areas with comfy couches and bean bags, their bicycles and skateboards to get from place to place, their workers dressed in t-shirts, flip-flops, and jeans. Okay, it's all true. I was particularly impressed with the open cafe that had every form of caffeine you could possibly want, for free. Also, the bathroom, which had fancy Japanese-style toilets-- which I have a fetish for--and a pile of tampons. An employer who supplies its female workforce with tampons... interesting.

So, I'm all jazzed up, ready to sell. My table is adorable, and the other vendors are coming over and feeling up my stuff. The employees start streaming in, and... and... and... I get totally ignored. I stand there, look expectant and friendly-- not my natural look, it's an effort-- and people are passing me by. They are, in fact, going straight to the chocolate guy who is giving away free samples. I gradually deflate, get sad, then angry, followed by bitterness. I give up trying to look friendly. I sell a couple of things to other vendors, and finally beat it out of there.

I've been thinking about why what should have been a golden selling opportunity was just a total bust. I realized that I gave no forethought to the event, I just went in with my usual shtick and totally failed. Unfortunately I see this happen all the time to other people at shows and other selling venues. Here are a few things to think about as you think about selling at events, especially during the crazy holiday season:
  • Think ahead of time about what environment you will be selling in: I was in a super high tech environment where people work 18 hour days, which is why this place serves up free food and caffeine all day, and provides beds disguised as couches. Many employees were carrying their open computers as they walked around, because they were literally working and shopping. These people are not going to stop working on a project for some leisurely shopping time, they have deadlines. They are the very essence of the distracted, short attention span audience. I'm used to selling to people who go out of their way to buy handmade items and are taking their time to browse and ask questions. These people didn't have time for that, and in that sense I was caught completely short.

  • Think about the audience the environment creates: These were techie people, not arty types. And they were totally puzzled about what I was offering up, they couldn't make sense of what I had. They didn't understand that my nesting bowls are separate bowls and not one sculpture; they couldn't see that my poppy plates are functional for serving food; and they really couldn't figure out what the fuck a cupcake stand was for, (though I do display it with a cupcake.) And they weren't interested in figuring it out, they just "clicked" on to the next vendor. I thought I was doing what I was supposed to do by offering lots of choices, but I just confused people. They were less confused by the chocolate, the artisan olive oil, the knitted scarves, and the baby onesies, and they went and bought that stuff, leaving me in the dust.

  • Then, spoon-feed: Do not make your audience think, that only gives them a chance to think of reasons why they don't need to buy what you have. This does not mean your product shouldn't be intelligent or you can only sell to stupid people. It means your customer needs to understand within about 2 seconds that they want what you have, and the transaction between wanting and having should be as easy and painless as possible. For example, price should always be front and center; people hate asking. The function of the item should be obvious, and if not obvious, demonstrated. Display should be orderly with like items together, people shouldn't have to hunt for that thing you're selling in a different color. I was asking my potential customers to engage with me, to really go through the work I had to offer and find something that they wanted, and that was asking way too much.

My own diagnosis: I was waiting for these people to come to me, when the only way to succeed with this crowd was to go to them, and hand over something that they could immediately hand over to someone else as a gift. I needed a very simple offering that was an immediately recognizable object, like a bowl or a vase. I needed a lot of these one or two items in a few different colors so these poor, overworked, distracted people wouldn't have to process a lot of visual information. And I needed a big sign that had the price, which should be around $38 for the kids who are still paying off student loans, and then $75 for the people who wanted to splash out a bit more. Then, I should have been giving away something, like M & M's or mini donuts, these people need sugar. And, an example of how this item would be packaged: a box, some tissue, a bow, a cute bag. I could have done gangbusters if I knew what I was getting into!


  1. I wrote a piece on my blog the other day about a recent "juried" show I did where the 7th grade child beside me with her glue gun and her felt patterns made head bands to order and left me in the dust. She made twice the money I did after I busted my ass for months making pottery for this show. People passed right by me and went zooming to her to get their custom made felt flower head band.
    Mediocrity is taking over, grrr....

  2. This is so true at a recent farmer's market, folks wanted to wear the ornaments I brought, I didn't bring pendants. some understood the art, many asked what a covered dish could be used for. I would have thought food shoppers would know, but maybe they don't cook. Ha. Thanks for the thoughts, has me re-thinking my venues and displays.

  3. Love how you said they 'clicked' on to the next vendor.
    I think you're absolutely right in your diagnosis, you would have racked up if you'd gone that route. It's hard to know these things sometimes ahead of time. Good lesson learned.

  4. I work at a place like that Whitney; let's say the Biggest BioTech company blah, blah, blah...and I can give you some insights to "campus" company environments. Let's just say they operate under very different rules than the "outside" world. (Think Housecat syndrome). Honestly, the oft applied thinking about the 'rules' simply don't apply because it's sooooo different an environment. I'm not surprised it went that way for you.
    Sorry it did, but not surprised. But, you never know and it's always good to check these things out.

    I ran the art show at my company for three years and it was an eye opener as to just how odd the collective conscience of a campus environment is - your example, tech, mine science.

    I think I'll see you tonight at the cup invitational, we can talk more about it:)

  5. Another great post, Whitney. I love your analysis and think you are spot-on!!
    So- 1) you got to see the inside of that really interesting place and 2) you learned an invaluable lesson that you will always remember! And BONUS for us, because you shared your experience :)


  6. great tips whitney! i'm preparing for a big show this weekend and i'm glad i just read your post! you are so right about keeping it simple! best of luck in your holiday sales! xoxo, leslie

  7. I recently had a very small space and a 3hr window to sell my work.
    I put a lot of thought into it; shot cups, candle holders and my vertical display for mugs plus a couple larger items to show more variety and ability and made a slide show displayed on my ipad (which had dbl duty as credit card processor).

    It was a big success.

    Last year: same space, same event- didn't sell a thing!

  8. Great tips, must say I always try to be engaging at shows. I see a lot of sellers get passed by because they dont talk to people enough!

    Probably the opposite is true here though, shame it didn't go so well for you since I can see how good an opportunity this could have been. I know a lot of people in the tech industry myself.

  9. Tracey, that is kind of hilarious, the same thing has happened to me many times. I was once totally upstaged by "fairy crowns" made with cheap tulle and glitter.

    Laura, trying to predict the success of a show is like trying to tell the future with tea leaves-- impossible and so frustrating!

  10. Thanks for the glimpse into your sales experience. As others have said, sorry it did not go well for you, but at least you have the sense to understand why it didn't go well. I probably would have been clueless.
    What is especially irksome to me, though, is that right now this is the direction most of the world is going. People don't necessarily want the best product, they just want what is presented in the best package and easiest for them to understand. People don't want to THINK! Sad but true.

  11. Wow you self-assessed so well!! I'm afraid I would have fallen into the same trap as you did -thinking that you had a captured audience who would love and appreciate all things artful, gladly purchase all things beautiful and be thankful for a bit of true aesthetics into their environs. You should submit your article to several pottery magazines, American Style, American Craft and or the Crafts Report -it's that right on.

  12. I recently partisapated in a employee only holiday craft show at our local power company. I sold a few inexpensive pieces. The big seller was a Grandma who was selling her homemade Chocolate Moose Turds. She sold out.

  13. Oh Whitney... this sounds so frustrating. (So do everyone else's bummer sale stories.) I'm so sorry it didn't work out for you. But thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, they are, as always, enlightening. Hope fully you did much better at Fourth and Clay and that you will do much better at Renegade this weekend.

  14. I'm so sorry that this happened to you - and to everyone else here who has posted. But I feel kind of comforted that it's not just me! I just did a craft fair and I hardly sold a thing! It wasn't very busy, but those who did turn up all bought jars of homemade jam and knitted scarves. I even did a demo on the second day, and people were puzzled by what I was doing! They didn't commect that I was demonstrating how I made the pieces on the table right next to me!!

  15. educate-education.
    Go back and be ready to educate the group.
    It is hard to go into a place where you are unknown.
    Any place or even a show where what you do is different.
    Look at this as a teaching and learning experience and if you go back go back with your knowledge.
    You might just turn a whole flock into art buyers.

  16. that's a great point. and true. although i think your art is pretty self explanatory... although picking something specific to their population would resonate more loudly. i love your art.

  17. Kudos to you for "seeing" what was happening & being able to write it out. Maybe they are not your "people".I have done shows where I wished I was selling cookies and fudge instead of art.You can't please everyone. If you are clear and lucky, you can concentrate on selling to your fans and not worry about the rest.

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  19. excellent points! Maybe have bowls with edibles in them (like m & ms) so folks could understand what to do with them. Many people buying artsy items are not creative themselves and cannot see the potential/know all the uses you do.

  20. I'm pretty sure I work at the company that you are describing! :)

    I am a huge fan of your work (let's just say you recognized my name on my credit card at the Renegade Craft Fair)! I didn't realize you were coming to the fair and unfortunately had meetings through the entire window anyway. The holidays are a hectic time as we push a month's worth of work into two weeks - please forgive us!

    It was great to see you at the Renegade Craft Fair (I love my little flat jewelry dish with cherry blossoms). Happy New Year!