So you really enjoy making wearable art, and now all of your family and friends have tons of your work, but you still want to make more. Supplies are expensive. How to feed your habit? Perhaps you can sell your craft, to provide funds for more materials. Should you start a business? And if so, how should you go about it? Are fairs and festivals right for your product? Should you rent a store front or sell on-line? You have heard about consignment shops and co-ops, but what does that mean?
My business grew out of a hobby that had morphed into a passion. Unlike most craft artisans, I began by teaching my craft to others long before I attempted marketing. Therefore, I had several years of product development under my belt, plus several years of small business retail management experience from my actual wage earning vocation. I was also very blessed to have a spouse with a professional level income sufficient to support our family, and my infantile business. A healthy economy and scarce competition at the time were certainly factors in my success as well. Even with all those favorable conditions, it took a great deal of hard work, perseverance, and time to actually see a profit. I have marketed in the following ways: consignment shops, festivals, wholesaling to retail stores, in a co-operative, on-line, and in my own store front in an artsy/tourist district. Each situation had advantages and disadvantages. I am now using a combination of on-line sites and consignment shops to sell my wares, as this is what suits my current life circumstances. Please bear in mind, MY experience is not YOUR experience. You and your family may have very different dynamics and needs from your ‘hobby becoming a business’ venture.
The first consideration to marketing a handmade craft item of any kind is product development. Do you CONSISTENTLY produce a quality item that is professionally made, fairly priced, and will attract consumer attention? It it not enough that your family and friends think your craft is grand, or that you believe it is going to take the world in a storm of commerce. The unbiased opinions of total strangers is what really counts. Try to test the waters in a couple of retail avenues with samples of your work, before diving in head first. Perhaps a locally owned business will allow you to test the market through their store front with an introductory display. Sending items to a festival venue with another craftsperson, or sharing a booth space is a good way to test feasibility. Using a website designed for craftpeople is a very popular avenue for product exploration, too. One time, I was developing a line of reversible tote bags and shoulder bags. My oldest daughter took a big box of my test products to her work place in a large city. She sold everything in less than an hour, telling me two important things–1. Yes, they were marketable products, and 2. I was not charging enough!
Once you have ascertained the marketability and consumer appeal of your wares, you should investigate the commerce laws of the municipality in which you reside. Check with the Secretary of State for your state of residency, if you are in the USA, or your County Court Clerk. Each State has different laws regarding how small businesses operate. Many states do not require the purchase of a business licence until a set annual gross income level is reached. Having a business licence is usually not expensive and can be to your advantage in many ways. It provides protection for the business name, allows the business owner to purchase tax-free for resale, and gives the business owner access to purchasing supplies in bulk at wholesale costs.
It is an age-old custom for craftspeople to gather in a large group to conduct commerce. Fairs or out-door festivals are the route that many craftpeople use to market their wares. A vendor’s fee, plus travel expenses, is a somewhat inexpensive means of accessing thousands of potential customers who are interested in purchasing hand-made items. Festivals are an excellent venue for wearable art products. My business selling tie dyed and batik clothing flourished in the out-door festival venue, in part because clothing is a light-weight, portable item. Lugging metal sculptures, fragile stained glass, or heavy pots around a large festival site is tiring and cumbersome for the shoppers. My experience at indoor fairs was dismal and frustrating, thus short-lived. Although it was the same product in the same city, I found my customer base did not attend indoor events.
The primary disadvantage of marketing at outdoor festivals is the risk of bad weather. Rain, wind, too cold, too hot–all work to keep customers away, and discourage lingering. Since booth fees are usually paid months in advance, there is just no way to plan against the weather. Unless you are willing to travel long distances, or reside in a mild climate, seasonal changes may limit the out-door festival possibilities as well. I spent the Winter in the studio building inventory for a March to November marketing season.
Joining, or establishing, a marketing co-operative (guild) is another often- used means for the emerging artisan. Co-ops generally require an annual membership fee, a percentage of each sale, and frequently, work hours for the members. Co-ops provide a business manager to handle sales and bookkeeping for the group, an established gallery or store front from which to sell, and the advantage of diversity of products to attract a broad range of consumer interests.
Consignment sales is a low-cost, no investment-up-front method of marketing art work. The artist places his or her work in a gallery or shop. When an item sells, the shop keeps a percentage of the sale, and pays the artist a percentage. Consignment store usually pay their artists monthly for the sales made in the previous month. A common split in consignment is 40% to the shop or gallery, and 60% to the artist. A reputable consignment shop will have a contract, keep excellent records, and pay by check on a regular schedule. Beware of oral agreements!
I think every crafts person dreams of owning his or her own shop at one time or another. It seems like the perfect, ideal situation. And for some folks it is! Overhead costs of rent, utilities, insurance, plus inventory-building expenses, plus labors costs all have to be considered before any profit is realized. Economic experts advise having at least 9 months of operating expenses saved before starting a new business venture. It is unreasonable to expect to see a profit before the first three years in business. All this coupled with the demands of being there to operate the business, result in a high burn out and failure rate. In the neighborhood where my store front was located, the average life for a small business was two years. Many only lasted a few months. This sounds very discouraging, I know. But it is best to have a realistic view, and reasonable expectation if you want to survive. For myself, being tied to the store front was very confining. Most of my time was spent waiting on browsers as they shopped, not actual customers. It left me very little time to produce my wares–which was the whole point of being in business!
On-line businesses are very popular and the growing trend among retailers. Some of my most loyal patrons I will never meet face-to-face because we live on different parts of the planet. With on-line sales, global marketing is the norm. Many sites are available to the craftsperson for group and individual marketing opportunities. For a small fee, there are companies whose sole business is building and maintaining web sites for small and large businesses. A website can literally be operated in your bathrobe, with products created after the order is placed and the payment received.
And, finally, there is this well established fact to mull over. For many, many folks converting a beloved hobby into a business drains all the fun out of the activity.
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