I started offering my workshop for crafters called "The Art of Selling" last year, in large measure to address the question of appropriate pricing. There are those makers who would argue you can never charge adequately for handmade, so you might as well either give it away, or underprice. I don't agree.
Some items, such as handknit clothing, are very hard to sell for what they are worth. An adult sweater is a very time-consuming project, and the sad truth is that very few people can afford one. But children's handknits and accessories like hats and mittens are marketable, to the right people and with the right message. That message is about the quality and durability of handmade. The math stands up to inspection: a $50 hat that lasts 10 years is way better value than a $15 hat that lasts two. Handmade will never compete with Walmart, and there is no point even comparing.
I always ask artisans who are at a loss as to how to set prices to do this obvious but often overlooked exercise: decide how much you want to pay yourself per hour, count the hours, add in the materials and overhead costs (ink, paper, phone calls, internet...if you're not sure, just add 20%) and you'll arrive at what you should consider your wholesale price. Unless you are going to sell exclusively person-to-person, there will be mark-ups, whether it's the cost of a booth at a show, or the commission a retailer takes.
So, if your beautiful handmade whojeeflip takes 90 minutes to make and uses $12 in materials, you need to charge $34 to earn minimum wage. You should be paying yourself more than minimum wage, of course, but it's surprising how many people realize belatedly that they're making under $5/hour. Next, you need to consider whether this whojeeflip, gorgeous as it is, is worth roughly twice that to the consumer. If you don't think anyone will buy it for $68, then you have a few options: see if you can reduce either your time or your materials costs, consider modifying the design, or go back to the drawing board altogether. I made a charming felted reindeer ornament last year; the prototype took me 3 hours, and it was pretty clear I couldn't sell it for upwards of $75. But I kept making them, taking a few shortcuts and simply getting faster with practice, until I could make one in 15 minutes and sell it for $25.
If you underprice, you take several risks. One is that your product will be popular, and you will set yourself up to make virtually no money filling unmanageable orders. Another is that you will create a demand then piss off your customers when you have to jack your prices up. You can always mark down, but it's pretty difficult to mark up. Most importantly, when you underprice, you contribute to the undervaluing of handmade in general. It's like any labour... if somebody is willing to do a job for $10/hour, what compels an employer to pay a living wage? But if you join a union and nobody agrees to work for less than $20/hour, the work is valued at $20/hour.
I have occasionally turned down work that is too cheap. Sure, I might sell a bunch of whatever-it-is, but I'd be selling short the other artisans in the shop, and myself.
Ever since I went to a live taping of Q last month, I've been thinking about what it is to be hip or a "hipster." Jian Ghomeshi used this term a number of times. I think he was referring to people rendered blase by constant exposure to the latest trends in music, art, fashion or food. I'm not sure if hipsters are meant to lead or follow trends, but I know I don't do either.
I was hip briefly. It lasted about 6 months, in 1982. I was still a nerd, really, in hipster's clothing. The clothing was mostly from my friend Glenn's wardrobe; he was a very snappy dresser. I did all the necessary things - leaving the house at midnight to go dancing, ending up at Fran's for 5 a.m. pancakes, refusing to squish my hard gelled hair under a hat. But flirting with hipness was pretty uncomfortable, if not downright painful. Being one of the cool kids is hard work, and almost inevitably requires camouflaging oneself.
One of the great pleasures of being middle-aged is that it pretty much precludes being hip in any way, shape or form. Instead of being hip, I can be enthusiastic, outraged, outrageous, silly and comfortable. I'm letting go of the impulse to give a shit what anybody thinks of my point of view or behaviour, much less my appearance. And I've got no need to go anywhere where the drinks are overpriced, the lighting is too dim to read the menu, the music is too loud to hear your companion, and you're (ironically) invisible if you're bigger than a size zero.
Shari Graydon has just put together an anthology on aging, called I Feel Great about my Hands, in which the indomitable Mary Walsh describes herself as a "brassy bit of aging crumpet on the slippery slope side of fifty-five". You can read her hilarious piece, published in the Toronto Star by clicking here. Given the choice between hip and Marg Delahunty, I'll take Marg!
Wise Daughters is experiencing a happy and unusual serge in sales of popcorn monster puppets, made by local puppeteer Joel Brubacher of Banjo Puppets. It seems to have started with a neighbourhood birthday party about a month ago. The young guests admired the birthday girl's very appealing puppet, and soon a few had also acquired them. They took them to the local school and daycare, and pretty soon a fad was born. I've sold about 30 since, and it's been interesting, for a number of reasons.
The first is that some parents are expressing their genuine pleasure that their kids want a locally handmade toy, not the latest plastic piece of crap. Some have even taken the opportunity to share with their kids the concept of a carbon footprint. These puppets come to Wise Daughters by bicycle, from about 6 blocks away. If ever there was a teachable moment about sustainability, this is it.
These same parents do not balk at the $19 price, understanding that handmade = labour intensive. Others, however, do a little ranting. I understand that $19 is a lot of money for a lot of parents, and absolutely respect those who say "no" or better yet, "You'll have to save up for that." Some grown-ups have wondered aloud why Joel doesn't just have them manufactured offshore somewhere. This is also a teachable moment, but these are my customers, not my students, so I have to tread carefully. I explain that a mass-produced version would not and could not be the same as the lovingly handmade one - not in the quality of the materials nor in the craftspersonship. And I try to work in a mention of the merits of local goods, without sounding too much like a self-righteous hippie.
But the most interesting aspect of this puppet fad is the discussion around what this product "does". A dad turned it around and around in his hand today, asking his son: "But what does it do?" I'm not suprised when kids look for the "on" switch, but I kind of expect adults to know that a puppet is operated by the imagination.
I used to run a theatre program for homeless youth. The theatre director had this quote from Shakespeare in Love (and film stills from the scene) on his wall. It pretty much sums up not only theatre, but non-profit work, and the world of small business. It would seem my career choices reflect a lot of blind faith on my part.
I never really know if things will, in fact, turn out well. Plenty of things in my life have turned out really badly, entirely by chance. I don’t necessarily expect or assume that things will turn out either well or badly, but I guess I choose not to worry too much about it. As a recovering perfectionist, what I do know is that worry is useless. So is guilt. You can’t learn anything by worrying or feeling guilty, so why bother? Regret is different; you can learn from regret and do things differently the next time. But most of what we worry about never comes to pass anyway, while much worse things happen unexpectedly. Better to be able to cope in a real crisis than prepare for an imaginary one. And guilt is a terrible motivation for anything; acting out of guilt will almost certainly not turn out well.
In the end, it’s a mystery. Why spoil it?
Yesterday I wrote about how the craft business requires forging a relationship among the maker, the buyer and the object.
Today's topic is more advisory (or possibly motherly, or possibly grouchy) in nature.
I teach a class called "the art of selling" where I really emphasize the basic need to be professional in one's dealings with potential wholesale buyers, retailers or show organizers. I spent a lot of time my first 18 months or so putting up with time-wasting visits, calls and emails from artisans whose work was all wrong for my market, but whose approach made it very awkward for me to express this. There was the woman who came in unannounced with very strangely decorated net covers for picnic food; when I rejected those, she proceeded to spread ugly beaded jewellery all over my counter, even though I had made it clear I couldn't consider taking any more jewellery at the time. I have since been compelled to post instructions for selling at Wise Daughters on my website. I figure if you haven't even bothered to go to my website yet, you're not ready to sell here. I do my homework to find out about the artists whose work I carry - they should do as much. At the very least, their emails should start, "Dear Mary", not "Hey there!"
There are sellers who are off-puttingly cocky (about which, more next paragraph), then those at the other end of the spectrum who meekly whisper something about how I probably won't want their stuff, but here it is... Selling isn't easy. It really is an art. You've got to find the right behaviour balance to connect with people without pushing them too far. And this harkens back, in a way, to my piece on youthful people, some of whom are not developing social skills at the rate polite society might hope. I want to tell them to stand up straight and look me in the eye, but we're supposed to be conducting business, so that seems inappropriate.
So, about the divas... all I can say is that there is nothing less attractive than arrogance. I guess I naively expect the world of hand-making to be full of warm, creative people who would rather eat a felting needle than stiff somebody else. Mostly this is true. But there is the odd one who has no compunction about hawking her wares a block away (fortunately my fellow small business people don't much go for this). Then there are a few people who will place the blame on poor sales squarely on my lack of marketing skills, display sense, or other failings of a vague nature. The problem with denying that there could be anything amiss with the product or its pricing, is that no learning can come of it. The best artists - and I have the pleasure of working with lots of them - ask for feedback, consider what's working and why, and make adjustments to give customers what they want. There is no point arguing that people should like something. It doesn't mean you have to sell out and make stuff you can't stand. But if you want to derive an income from your craft, you do have to come up with some bread-and-butter items that'll support the experimentation you really want to do.
Truer words were never spoke. We spend our whole lives pursuing, nurturing, screwing up, saving and abandoning relationships. It’s also all about the relationship in business. At least in my business.
I often tell artists that they need to relate to their customers; it’s mostly through their handmade object that this relationship takes place. A painting speaks to its observer; a piece of jewellery or clothing belongs on somebody’s body; an image or a texture or a scent evokes something personal and powerful. But the connection also happens through the stories of the object, its maker and its recipient. Maybe the maker’s practice harkens back to a tradition within the buyer’s family. Maybe she crafts in public and it becomes a social thing. Somehow the maker of the object creates something that fills a void, answers a need, resolves an issue, or satisfies a desire within the buyer. Nobody has to make or buy objects of beauty; they could choose pure function instead. But since the beginning of time, people have made their functional objects beautiful. They have added some of themselves into the creation of the most humble bowl or tunic. And now we can relate to them as a result.
It would behoove Rob Ford and Stephen Harper to remember that the great civilizations of the past aren’t remembered for the day-to-day machinations of their money-making operations. They are remembered, and understood, through their art.