So far, two of my spring and summer shows have been cancelled. I expect to lose a few more. At least. My original plan was to keep making pots as normal, and to try to make up for lost income later this year or next year. I quickly realized the flaw in this plan, which is that I don’t have room to store months worth of production. I can only store about 10 weeks worth of production at a time.
I’ve been seeing a lot of artists trying to sell online more, and that many of them are finding receptive audiences, who miss art festivals as much as the artists do. The thing is, I had sworn off online selling at the end of last year. Or, to be more specific, I had sworn off SHIPPING pottery anymore. I hate packing pots into shipping cartons. "Hate" is not a strong enough word. It’s such an inefficient use of time, and it produces so much trash in terms of packing materials. It creates an unacceptably low limit on volume of sales, due to the amount of time it takes to pack the boxes.
I was so sure that I wouldn’t sell online anymore, that I deleted my BigCartel account.
Here’s my new version of an online sale, that doesn’t involve any shipping, and works within our current strange circumstances. I called it The DC/Baltimore Area, Maximum Social Distancing, Free Home Delivery Pottery Sale.
Here’s the email I sent to my customer base, explaining all the terms and conditions:
Note the part about taking reservations in advance. This is something I’ve been doing with all of my shows for several years, and many of my customers have learned how to work with me this way. I have found this to be incredibly valuable in terms of building customer relationships. As soon as I sent this email, the reservations came pouring in. Along with many nice messages of support and “go girl!”
I built an online store using the Square store platform this time. I already use (and like) Square to process credit cards at shows, and I was able to build a no-frills online store for free. Overall, I liked this platform better than BigCartel because the payment process was faster for the customers. With BigCartel, I was encountering an annoying problem with overselling, because the payment process took too long when customers were shuttled between BigCartel and PayPal. This meant a second (and sometimes third) customer could buy the same item before the first customer finished paying for it. With the Square store, the payments were processed on the same website as the store, and I did not have any items oversold.
The new store went live at 10am last Friday. By noon, all but four items had sold. I only had one item left when I shut down the store on Sunday.
Then came the next phase … I needed to deliver all of these pots! I had 46 addresses to visit. Fun fact, when I was in college, I worked part-time in a flower shop. On the busiest flower shop holidays (Valentines, Mothers Day, etc), they let me make deliveries instead of working in the store. I enjoyed this so much, being able to work independently in my car. And I got paid per delivery, thus would make a lot more money compared to my hourly wage in the shop. This was way before Google maps existed. So I was confident I could make these pottery deliveries.
First I sorted all of the purchases into neighborhoods.
Your pottery will be delivered tomorrow, Monday 4/20, between 12noon and 2pm (give or take). I will assume you are home, so I will knock or ring the doorbell, then leave. If you have any special delivery instructions (eg, leave on back porch, etc), just let me know!”
That last sentence proved to be very valuable, because quite a few people responded with instructions. In particular, those who live in secure apartment buildings. This allowed every single delivery to take place without a hitch.
I followed the sorting order as I packed the pots into shopping bags (which takes no time compared to packing them into shipping cartons), and therefore the shopping bags were sorted in my car in the same order.
The total sales from the MSDFHDPS ended being only $30 less than my 2019 average gross sales per show. Sales at shows vary a lot, between $2700 and $12500. And so do the expenses, between $200 and $2000. My expenses for the MSDFHDPS included 47 shopping bags ($0.60 ea = $28.20), and 1 tank of gas ($30). This means the MSDFHDPS came out ahead, given how low the expenses were. I am really stoked at how well it turned out.
How does this compare to selling online? In the past several years, my use of online selling has been limited to once a year. In December, when my annual Open Studio was over, I would offer the remaining pots for sale online. So I have never tried to sell a full-show-size inventory online. The largest online sale I ever had involved 35 pots, for a total dollar value of $2550. It took me about 10 hours to pack all the pots for shipping, spread over 2 days. And remember, this is labor that I hate so much, I felt like a zombie when I was done. There were also some substantial expenses. I spent $264 on shipping supplies (boxes, peanuts). I collected $315 in flat rate shipping fees from my customers, but ended up spending $441 on UPS that year (net loss of $126).
So it took me 10 hours to pack 35 pots into shipping cartons for an online sale. It took me 14 hours to deliver 154 pots for the MSDFHDPS.
Do you see how inefficient online selling is for a potter? Financially, materially, and time-wise? This is true for any artist who sells fragile, bulky, heavy items. And given the choice between spending my time packing boxes, or driving around in my car, it’s a no brainer. Especially when driving can yield so much more net profit. Driving is part of being a full-time festival artist anyways. If you don't like driving, your available choices for shows will be severely limited. When I had dropped off my last delivery, I felt sad that it was over, not like a zombie. And now more than ever, I needed a reason to get out of the house, in a safe fashion.
Does this mean I think the MSDFHDPS is better than shows? No way. As much as I enjoyed it, the MSDFHDPS was missing a very critical component, which was the opportunity to meet NEW customers. To survive for the long term, a pottery business needs a steady influx of new fans. This past week, I reached out to my existing customer base, but did not grow it. I won’t be able to do this too many times. If all of the summer shows get cancelled, I’ll probably do this again in late summer. And if all of the fall shows get cancelled too, I will hold my December open studio in this fashion. But I don’t think it would be wise to do it every month, and hopefully not into 2021. And in the coming weeks, I need to figure out places to store more inventory in my house.
On the plus side, though, the interactions I had with my best fans this week were overwhelmingly positive. They are all stuck at home too, and feeling unhappy. Some of them seemed genuinely tickled that pottery was arriving at their door. Everybody could use a bright spot right now, and I’m glad I could provide a small one. Although I did not grow my customer base with this sale, I do think I built stronger ties with my existing base.
This brings me to one last point, which I have been preaching about for years on this blog … the importance of building and using an email list. It is the best way to stay in touch with people who actually want to buy your work. The ratio of serious customers within an email subscriber base is very high. The ratio of serious customers within a social media following is very low. And even if social media fans buy, chances are you have to ship their purchase to them, which is a real bummer, as far as I’m concerned. And the best way to build an email list is to do shows, because that’s where the right people are. It’s a slow process to build a list, one person at a time. But when you have done it consistently for many years, it can provide immeasurable value, at times when the world has been turned upside down..
(This is pretty much the exact same concept I wrote about in my recent blog post about financial preparedness. Think and plan for the long-term. Practicing consistent good habits over many years will pay you back when you need it.)
Many, many thanks to all the wonderful people who made this event work! And once again, to all the artists out there whose shows have been cancelled, please feel free to copy this idea. My friend Nan Rothwell has already created the Charlottesville, VA Area MSDFHDPS, which goes live this Saturday 4/25. If you are in her area, lucky you!