At another recent show, the artist across the aisle from me, who had been observing the pace of sales happening in my booth for a few days, finally marched across the aisle and asked, "Are you having a crazy good show? Or is this normal for you?" He did so in a way that conveyed a compliment, but he was also a bit agitated. That's not unusual either, when other artists get confused or bothered when they see my nearly empty booth. Don't worry, most people I encounter at the end of a show are positive and supportive about it. But still, I do feel uneasy about making others feel bad. It probably can't be avoided, just part of the reality of a competitive situation. Mostly I just need to suck it up, because I am not in a position to complain.
This is how my booth starts out, with more work stored as back stock underneath the tables, sometimes equal or more than the front stock.
And this is typically how my shows end.
Part 1: A Simple Venn Diagram
This is a touchy subject, that most artists do not want to talk about. It should only be discussed in settings of trust and privacy, with people who are qualified to discuss it. I'm talking about the quality and appeal of one's work. When I see artists complaining about poor sales (either in person or on the internet), they tend to place blame on everything else besides their own work. At the same time, when I am walking around at a show, I see a lot of great work, but also plenty of stuff that is not very appealing. Getting juried into a good show does not mean your work is sellable. Some artists will rationalize that impressing show jurors and making sellable work are mutually exclusive, but that's just an excuse. I can get into the highest tier of craft shows, with work that also sells great, and so can plenty of others.
It's a venn diagram of "work that fulfills me artistically" and "work that others want to buy." I see a lot of artists who ignore the second part. Unfortunately, a lot of academia teaches art students that the second part is beneath them, and that is a shame. There's no truth in that way of thinking. It's just out-of-touch pretentiousness. And immaturity. And for those who think it's not possible to solve the diagram, you just haven't tried hard enough. Or possibly, you don't have the talent to do so.
"Work that sells" is not about pandering. I don't chase sales by trying to dazzle people with flashy or attention-seeking pots. I'm also not aiming for "most beautiful" or "highest degree of difficulty." These are vanity traits. If this means most people will walk past gray and brown pots without a second glance, that's fine! Flashiness and vanity have only short-term value. I'm trying to impress the person who picks up a pot and notices its comfort and balanced weight. I want them to realize, at a later point, how much they appreciate it after using it many times. I call that "design merit" and that is my goal. When you reach people on that level, the reaction that you get in return is of immeasurable value.
Just because my work is minimal and neutral, "design merit" does not require these traits. Colorful and ornate work can be loaded with design merit too. The real issues are functionality, ease of use, and quality of construction.
I'm also not really making individual pottery designs. When I design a new pot, I always consider how it fits into my entire line of work. I see a lot of pottery displays containing individual pots that don't relate to each other. Or with pots that are somehow competing with each other. This matters because a functional potter needs to convince at least some of their customers to buy large quantities of work. The "nearly sold out booth" doesn't happen without this type of selling. Like this:
Or even this (this was a wedding registry):
Customers do not buy these large sets unless I accomplish both things that I'm talking about here: I need to impress them with the design merit of my work, and every piece needs to work together with everything else. To the functional potters out there who want to improve their sales, I would start by concentrating on these two things.
As I've written about before, my training is in design, not fine arts, and this is a big advantage for me in terms of coming up with work that sells. Designers are trained to "solve a problem" and/or to "convey a message." I bring these attitudes to everything I make, and every decision about my business. Unlike many artists, who were taught to prioritize self-expression and aesthetics. This is an incomplete skill set for an artist in the real world. You can't just be thinking about your own needs. You must also be willing to view your work through the eyes of a potential buyer, and to consider their needs too. Remember when you solve this as a venn diagram, you are still making work that fulfills you artistically. There is no compromise or sacrifice if you do it correctly.
Don't interpret this too far in the other extreme. You cannot simply focus on the "work that sells" part. Pottery is so physically labor intensive. If you ignore the "work that fulfills me artistically" part, you will burn out before you get very far. I have unfortunately seen this many times over the years, when a potter grows tired of their own work. Even for a potter like me, who has held on tightly to my artistic values, I regularly find myself in the studio thinking "I'd rather not do this today. I'm sore and I have no mental energy." I can't imagine being able to carry on if I no longer liked my pots.
This leads to another element of good selling, that I mention throughout this blog post, which is "longevity." In order to achieve the "nearly sold out booth" on a regular basis, you need to be out there selling for a really long time. Years and years. It takes that long to develop a fully-fledged and motivated customer base. Plus, many customers buy full sets (like the ones pictured above) a few pots at a time, over years. They need to trust that you're going to be around long enough to finish their set. But your business won't last if you are not taking care of both parts of the venn diagram, because you will either burn out artistically or you will run out of money.
Part 2: Inventory and Pricing
There are two places where I've discussed this subject before, this blog post, and this video in my online school.
Making sellable work is just the starting point. I also strive to make work in the right quantities, and charge the right prices. I do this by keeping track of my sales, and using these metrics to guide me. My system is very simple, a notebook and a pen. As I prepare for a show, I make a list of every pot I'm packing. At the end of a show, I make a list of what's left. As I explained in the above-mentioned video, it takes about 10 shows before you start to see selling trends. After 20 shows, you'll have a really good idea about how to prepare the right inventory, and whether your prices are correct. I've been doing this consistently for years now, so these days when I am packing for a show, I feel pretty confident that I'm going to sell most of it.
Here's an example of my before and after lists from a show in 2018:
At the beginning of every year, right after the holiday sales season is over, I take a hard look at the previous year's selling data, and use it to adjust my production plan for the next year. Here is my 2022 Inventory Production Plan:
For what I consider a "large" show, I will try to complete and pack all eight lists. I will scale my packing quantities up or down depending on the size of the show, and based on how sales went at a show the year before, once again referring to the before and after lists.
Note the range of quantities for different items. Again, these quantities are based on selling trends. Mugs are my bread, and small bowls are my butter. If the thought of making thousands of mugs in your lifetime turns you off, professional pottery might not be a good choice.
Sometimes when my booth is nearly emptied out, somebody will tell me that I should have packed more. I shrug and say "maybe" but I don't feel any regret. The person who said that didn't see how much I started with, including all of my back stock. Could I have made more sales by bringing more stock? Maybe, but I'm already taking home a nice paycheck, enough to make me feel like my time and effort were well spent. I like it when I only have a few pots left. Full boxes of pottery are heavy! It's a nice treat to only have to transport them in one direction. At the show where I sold out, I did sort-of wish I had more pots. But when I am left with a single-digit number of pots, I feel like I nailed the planning just right.
Now on to the other half of this subject: pricing.
When I introduce a new item, I offer it at a low introductory price. If it doesn't sell well, it simply gets eliminated. If it sells well, I raise the price, a little at a time, until it stops selling. Then I reduce the price back down to the last number where it sold well, and call that the "sweet spot" price. Over time, I am constantly evaluating whether a price needs to be adjusted up or down. The before and after lists come into play here. Usually, these metrics tell me to raise or lower quantities, but sometimes the better choice is to raise or lower prices. In other words, I know my prices are correct because they are based on data. Not guesses.
My prices end up in the middle, compared to how other potters price. Not the lowest, and not the highest.
Pricing is another touchy subject for many artists, because too many of them are using ego as a basis, rather than metrics, and egos are very sensitive. There's also a lot of peer pressure going around, to make our prices unnecessarily high. Sometimes, other artists will tell me that I need to raise my prices. I smile and pretend it was a compliment. But inside I am thinking "I'm sorry you're having a bad show." I can see they meant it as criticism, because they are cross with me for selling so well. Which, of course, wouldn't bother them unless they were having a bad show. And this means they are not putting much reason or proof into their own pricing. If they were, they would know better than to tell another artist what to do, without knowing anything about that person's business.
And then there are artists who are addressing the art world in general with "We all need to raise our prices, in order to benefit each other." Um, I guess they don't realize that's called "price fixing" and it is illegal. People who say this are demonstrating how ignorant they are about business. It's another indictment of arts academia, where these attitudes of entitlement are taught, and business sense is not.
Another mistake I see is when artists express something like "I need to charge this exorbitant price because I deserve to be paid for my tttiiiiimmme!!!!!" I want to grab them by the shoulders, shake them and say "It doesn't work that way." Your time does not have an automatic value. If you devote a really long time to one piece, that doesn't make the work more valuable. It might only mean that you are slow and unskilled. Inexperienced sellers only have "time" to measure their worth, because their perspective on "expertise" has not yet been developed. When an artist has developed some real expertise, they can see that time spent does not correlate with finished quality.
Your pricing should be based on one thing: market value. My method described above will find the market value. If you want your time to have a good value, you can't just demand that from others. It's up to you to provide that value to yourself, by developing your skill and speed.
This is another thought that goes through my head when another artist tells me to raise my prices. Not only do they not see my selling metrics, they also don't see how quickly I can produce my work. This allows me to charge reasonable prices, making my work accessible to a wide range of people, and still get paid handsomely overall. I don't feel any financial pressure to charge more, which allows me to stick to market values in an objective way.
Speaking of market values and accessibility, another common mistake I see is when artists decide they will only go after the top 0.1% of wealthy people, by charging prices only they can afford. They think they are being savvy, by expecting to make more money for less work. This is a complete misunderstanding of demographics and wealth. A tiny percentage of artists can succeed with these price points, when their market values actually match the prices. These artists have built up the quality of their work, their following and reputation over a long time. You cannot simply assign these market values to yourself. But I see this all the time, artists sitting in their booth at a show, with unrealistic prices on their work, looking very glum.
The truth about wealthy people is that they don't spend money for the sake of owning something expensive. These are intelligent people and they care a lot about getting value for their spending. The ones who spend loosely are the "pretend wealthy" and they are more attracted to flashier things, like cars, technology, and other status symbols. Not art and craft. In another blog post on financial preparedness for artists, I recommended the book The Millionaire Next Door, which does a great job of illustrating the difference between "actual wealthy" and "pretend wealthy" people.
Pricing is where so many artists make mistakes. Again, I wish the formal education system for artists would teach them applicable and realistic business skills.
In one sentence, my goals regarding inventory planning and pricing are to make pots as fast as I can, in the right quantities, and price them so they sell as fast as I make them.
Part 3: How I Interact With People
My thoughts about customers can be found in this blog post, and also my most recent post.
This is one of the most rewarding aspects of this line of work. The people you deal with are lovely. How many jobs can you say this about? It is a great privilege, and I do not take it for granted. Not all art fairs will deliver this type of customer, it's something you find as you move up into the higher quality shows. This is not necessarily about wealth. It's about maturity, education level, and an appreciation for the arts.
I have a code for how I treat customers. I respect their time and their boundaries. I communicate clearly, thoroughly, and with timeliness. I put my prices in plain sight, because I don't play games, trying to make people guess. I have tight policies about my mailing list, making sure to only add contacts when they have intentionally opted in.
I have my own boundaries that I expect others to respect. I'm not trying to be a service worker. I want to be treated like an expert, and the owner of a busy enterprise. I find that you attract even higher quality people by fostering a "mutual respect" environment. Only happy and intelligent people are capable of this.
This relates to the "longevity" issue that I spoke about earlier. A lot of festival artists quit because their customer interactions turn unpleasant too often. It takes a great deal of energy to keep things positive, when dealing with hundreds of people per day. That energy needs to come from the artist. You can't be passive about it, but many artists are. Even though I enjoy this part a great deal, when a show day ends, I retreat to my house or hotel room and don't want to talk to anyone! My well is dry, and I need to replenish it before the next day begins. If you aren't managing the people skills well, you're going to hate art festivals and you aren't going to last. And like I said above, you don't get to "nearly sold out booth" level unless you've been around long enough.
I want everyone to leave my booth feeling glad they entered it, whether they bought something or not. Don't underestimate the importance of "customer experience" when making sales, and especially repeat sales. Sometimes I hear struggling potters say "how can I compete with $5 mugs from Target?" The answer is, you need to make the experience worth it for your customers. You don't need to be "entertainment" though it doesn't hurt to display some humor. I have a lot of well-rehearsed blurbs at my disposal, to put people at ease, and to be informational about common questions. Mostly it's about being kind, respectful, professional, and competent. It doesn't take that much on a per-person basis. But it does take a lot to maintain this consistently throughout long days.
I try to make everyone feel welcome. But I make a point to treat repeat customers better than new ones. At this point, I have so many repeat customers, I don't always recognize a person upon seeing them twice. But after three or four times, I will catch on. I try to learn and remember their names. I am extra nice to them. I make sure to acknowledge and show appreciation, and let them know they are important to my business.
Which brings me to the point of the entire blog post.
This is all about converting customers into repeat customers. 1) I try to design pots that will inspire customers to build a collection rather than buying just one. 2) I make the quantities they want available, and I price them fairly so repeat buying is accessible. And 3) I give them a customer experience that makes them want to come back. And when they do, I make sure they feel my appreciation.
Here's what's so valuable about repeat customers. They know me better, and my work, and my business. They know that popular things might sell out, so they reserve their pots in advance. For many shows, I will be in the black before the show even starts. Or, they arrive as soon as a show opens to see the best selection. This gets my show off to a running start. Experienced festival artists know that selling happens in waves. When somebody is making a purchase, your ability to impress new customers is at its highest. It spawns more selling. In other words, repeat customers are the ones who sell out your booth, both with their own purchasing, and by helping to convince new customers to do the same.
At the show where I sold every single pot, the last few sales were made to people who had bought my work before. (Thank you Kerreesa, William, Tracy, and Nathaniel!) Again, when a booth is nearly empty, you're not going to convince a new customer to buy something, because they will assume they missed out on the more popular items. But existing customers, who are already familiar with my work, don't need to see the rest. It helps that this show was in my hometown, where my customer base is the largest.
It's important to recognize that repeat customers have a life cycle. Typically, they start with a pot or two. Then they realize they want more, and start collecting. Eventually, for various reasons, they will finish their collections and reach the end of their cycle. This is not a bad thing, it's natural. I wish them well! And I'm grateful for the support they gave me. At the same time, I know that I need to be constantly seeking new customers, to find those who will start the cycle from the beginning.
During the pandemic, when there were no shows, I relied entirely on my mailing list of existing customers, in order to promote my sales. I was really grateful to the people on this list! They kept my business alive during a 1.5 year-long shutdown of in-person events. But during that time, I was also a little worried about not being able to find new customers. It feels really good that shows have returned (at least for now, knock on wood), so I can resume my usual strategies for keeping my business healthy.
In my last blog post, I said that the way some businesses harass and trick their customers into joining their mailing lists is really cheesy. I put my mailing list signup pad out in my booth, but never refer people to it, let alone pressure anyone. Now that I've thoroughly explained how I get customers to sign on, through merit, fairness, and customer experience, I hope you agree this is a better and more sustainable way to go.
I hope you weren't looking for a quick-fix that would allow you to start selling out your booth in a short time frame. The answer is a combination of factors, plus a great deal of time and consistency. It all centers on fostering repeat customers. I did my best to provide every detail of what I'm doing, and what I'm thinking. For those who read this in order to improve your sales, my advice is to be honest and objective with yourself. Don't look for others to blame, because that is a waste of time. If you are the product of arts academia, you have a lot of brainwashing to unlearn. The good news is that the answers are entirely within your control.
The things I've described here are not for beginner sellers. This post is written for those who are already past the basics of selling, and want to reach a higher level. For those who want more entry-level advice, read my blog series The Art Festival Plan. Some of this series was referenced above, but it also provides guidance on picking the right shows, tips for designing a good display, branding, and email marketing.