I do feel generally happy with my home state of Maryland, for understanding the situation and choosing smart policies. We still have pockets of dumbassery here, but it’s not as rampant as in other parts of the country. When I leave my house, which is rare, I feel safe. Everyone I see is masked, and everyone keeps their distance.
Initially, my pandemic plan was to stay home, keep making pots, and live off my savings account. I thought we would be doing shows again in the fall, at the latest. Well, that proved to be wrong. Right now, there is no clear indication that we can have shows in 2021 either.
As I talked about in my last blog post, before the pandemic I had vowed to never ship pottery again. I found a way to sell pottery without shipping it, which is to sell pots online to local DC/Baltimore area customers, then deliver the pots in person. I also did a sale like this for the State College, PA area. I am planning to do one for the Philadelphia area in the fall. These places are not too far from home. My mailing list contains many nice contacts for these areas, because of the number of shows I have done there.
I am wary about how many times I can reach out to my local customers this way. One of my business goals is to constantly add a steady stream of new fans to my mailing list. This is accomplished by doing shows, and meeting new people at every one. So by selling in the “home delivery” model, I am tapping my existing audience, but not growing it.
My mailing list also contains contacts in further places too. But the numbers get a lot more sparse. I felt like I also needed to reach places where I could not make home deliveries. I was having an argument with my brain. “Just face it you have to start shipping pots again.” “NOOOOO!!!!!” “But you can reach the entirety of your mailing list all at once.” “BUT TRASH, BREAKAGE, ANXIETY, WASTED TIME!!” “You only have to do it until the pandemic is over, which will happen eventually.”
I thought back to my previous online sales. During those long, tedious hours of packing, whenever I picked up an order sheet that only contained one small item, I would brighten up. Small items are the fastest and easiest to pack. They only require a small amount of packing materials. And because the boxes are small and light, they are the least likely to suffer damage during shipping.
So this is the settlement I negotiated with my brain. I would ship pots again, but only small pots, and only a limited number. And only until I can do shows again.
For the second edition of the online sale, I included the following language in my marketing emails and social media posts: “Last time, the pots sold out in minutes. If you have an item in your cart, it is still available to everyone until you finish paying for it. If an item disappears from your cart, that's because somebody else paid for it first. Be prepared! Speed counts!” I did not get any complaints afterwards. I realize now that communicating how the shopping cart works, and that there is an unmoderated race to checkout, is my responsibility.
Here’s another thing I learned. I sent some marketing messages that talked about both my first “small pots only” online sale, and my “home delivery” sale for State College, PA. They were scheduled about two weeks apart, and I wanted to give the State College customers an ample amount of notice. This was a mistake. Some customers conflated the two events. When the State College sale went live, I got orders from all over the country. I had to cancel more orders than I accepted. Once again, most of the customers whose orders were cancelled were nice about it. But one customer in particular simply could not understand why I was refusing to ship his order. Argh.
I learned to never advertise two events at the same time, because this causes confusion. I need to schedule the events far enough apart, so they each have enough room for an their own, exclusive marketing campaign. It was never a problem to advertise more than one art festival at the same time. These events have clear, physical boundaries. Only those who attend in person can purchase. But the online space is just one big, vague space. Defining the parameters of an online event takes a lot more effort and care.
I’m really happy with my decision to only ship small pots. My definition of “small pot” is one that can ship in a 9x9x9 inch box. This drastically simplified the sourcing of packing materials. I only need to buy two sizes of boxes: 9x9x9 for one pot, and 16x9x9 for two pots. One of the biggest drags about my previous online sales was when I had a large or weirdly-shaped pot, and no appropriate box. Buying boxes efficiently requires buying bundles of 25. It sucks when you only need one of a odd size box.
I offered 40 small pots in the first sale. The packing took about 4 hours, which I found manageable. Packing the boxes was so much faster, and less mentally taxing, than packing pots of a whole range of sizes.
In the second sale, I offered 50 pots. Predictably, the packing took 5 hours, which was also manageable. However, I think I will go back to 40 for future sales. 50 pots took 3.25 bags of peanuts. That’s inefficient in terms of sourcing, I don’t want to buy 4 bags of peanuts and have so much leftover. 40 pots required 2.5 bags of peanuts. Having half a bag leftover makes more sense, and the leftovers easily fit into sourcing for the next sale. Maybe I can pack 45 pots with just under 3 whole bags of peanuts? That would be even more convenient, and might be worth trying.
For those who think online selling is “easier” than shows, I’m not so sure. It certainly doesn’t involve any heavy lifting. Or dealing with bad weather. But it still takes a lot of time to put together an online sale. The pots need to be photographed, the photographs need to be edited, then uploaded to the store, along with descriptions/prices/inventory counts. The store’s user interface is a website, and all the steps are done with mousing and clicking, not keyboarding. It’s tedious and slow. It’s easy to skip a step, or to do things inconsistently. It requires paying close attention to something that is very boring. At a show, I can setup a canopy and a full display in less than 3 hours. For an online sale, even though I now have all of my item descriptions saved in a text file for copy/pasting, it still took about 5 hours to put the whole sale together. Not to mention, one of the big reasons why I was so eager to quit doing design work, and opt for a pottery studio instead, is because I was tired of sitting in front of a computer all day. It's also much easier and more civilized to work with customers in person at a show, and to convey your communications more clearly. And as I described above, customers feel more entitled to be argumentative and demanding from across an online space, and misunderstandings are a lot more common.
I think it’s important to mention that I really don’t have a big social media following. I don’t have 50K Instagram followers. I have about 8K Instagram followers, and 1.2K Facebook followers. I like to use both platforms, but do not view them as sales generators. I have no interest in playing those games that drive up your follower numbers. Nor will I try to make my pottery studio look “pretty” all the time, because that’s not real. I’ve advocated for many years on this blog that a mailing list is far more valuable than a big social media following. My online sales are coming from the following sources: 1) customers in cities where I travelled once for a show but haven’t returned, 2) customers who used to live in the DC area but have moved away, 3) fans of my blog, which is a very niche audience but those who get it really get it, and 4) students of my online pottery school. My mailing list currently has about 1400 contacts (after recently purging a bunch of contacts so I can continue to use MailChimp for free). So although my following isn’t huge, the connections are more meaningful than the average social media follower. Having spent many years developing an audience of this depth has proven to be invaluable during this crisis. I’ve had to totally reinvent the way I sell my work, and this audience has responded amazingly, both for the “home delivery” sales and for the “small pots only” online sales.
Even though I got a few unhappy notes after the first online sale, on balance I got so many more nice notes! They were thanking me for making my pots available to them. Although I am still shipping pots on a “grudgingly” basis, I admit that it makes me feel good to discover that people in far off places have been waiting for a chance to buy my work.
It took some experience to get my bearings, and correct some mistakes, but I think I’ve made peace with all of my misgivings. The narrow parameters make it work for me. My “home delivery” sales are my main source of income right now, but these online sales are a worthwhile supplement. I’m willing to do it on a regular basis, until we can put this pandemic behind us.