It’s a common lament…as an artisan you invest your knowledge, skill and time in what you create. You finally take the brave leap to bring your artistry to the world, and no one buys. You get compliments, people say your work is great, but then they walk away without taking home some of your hard crafted goodness. You start to question why you ever thought it was a good idea to share your passion to begin with. Elizabeth Kuble Ross clearly illustrated the stages of grief. Let me illustrate the stages of creating and being an artisan..shamelessly heisted from the internet:
1. This is awesome
2. This is tricky
3. This is crap.
4. I am crap
5. This might be ok
6. This is awesome
We as a culture have become used to cheap and plentiful. I don’t think anyone is exempt from this way of thinking..we look for the best bang for our buck and the best value for our hard earned money. Most of us like to think we are consummate hagglers. With the internet we have an entire world of products at the click of a mouse.
As artisans, we strive to make a product that stands out, that people see the value in. We dream of the customer that understands the knowledge, sweat, and occasional band-aids and scrapes we put in to our work. We want people to understand that yes, you could go buy yarn at Wal-Mart or cheese at Costco..but it’s not the same. It’s mass produced versus hand produced. We try to figure out ways to get people to see the gleaming gems we produce amid the cookie cutter piles of coal.
Here’s the hard part. It’s not always the customer that has a skewed perception of the value of things we produce. Often times, it’s us as well.
It is difficult to present yourself with confidence. You know all of the mistakes made on an item, the cover ups and fixes, the fudging process when you get stuck..it happens. We are people creating, not machines.
You agonize over how to price your work. Is it too expensive? Too cheap? Am I actually making any money after investing in materials?
For us, our skills may come to us easily now. When I spin a skein of yarn, I rarely think about my initial struggles to wrangle a lump of fiber in to a cohesive string. I can do it now while watching a movie or having a conversation. What I produce is time consuming, but not necessarily difficult for me any more. It is a struggle to price it at the value I know it’s worth. I forget that not everyone out there can judge a fleece quality, wash it without damaging it, card or comb it, spin it, ply it, dye it..what is common place to me is a baffling mystery to others. Think about your own work, and the process it takes to create. You may think “well, anyone can do this really” but many people can’t, won’t, or don’t want to.
So…as an artisan…we fight the public perception of our value, and our own perception. Phew..that’s gonna be tough. Been thinking about this a lot and would like to offer suggestions to both sides, in an effort to play mediator and make the world a happier place. In part one, let’s look at our side. Part two will discuss how to be a good customer when shopping artisan products.
1. You are an artist. Act like one. I don’t mean dressing up in wild clothes, putting on airs of mystique and speaking in vague references (unless that’s your thing..but own it!). When people ask what you do, tell them, and tell them un-apologetically. I struggled with this one a lot personally. I wanted a fiber arts business..it is my deep down passion and something I love doing more than anything else. But calling myself an artist? Well..I’ve only been doing it xyz number of years..I dunno. Own it. Introduce yourself as it. You ARE an artisan cheese maker. You ARE a wood crafter. You ARE a fiber artist…get it? Let it open up conversations (it will!). Consider your response to someone who seems unsure when you ask them what they do, or responds as if they have no value..what impression do you get? Learn to discuss what you do with others..just make sure you don’t dominate the conversation and get so technical their eyes glaze over.
2.Define your image. When we think image we tend to get hung up. Take a moment and think of what that word “image” brings to mind. Do you see business suits? Hats and gloves? Think about what you create and what you feel while you are creating it. Miss Bee Haven for me is the wild woman who plays with bees and cooks up comfort food. Her hair is a mess but clean..you come in to her house and she sits you down for good eats…served with a side of honey or home made jam. The bees buzz happily around her and give her inspiration. My yarns are all named after myth and fairy tale characters…the woman who sits at her wheel and passes on wisdom through stories to wile away the dark cold winter nights. What feeling do you want your work to evoke?Are you urban? A free spirit? Meticulous and absorbed in your creation? How do you convey that to your buying public? It doesn’t matter if it is based in reality. Next time you go to the store, cruise the meat and eggs packages…pictures of farms, sunrises, picket fences..most of us know this is not the reality of the people working to make those products..you are being fed an image that evokes an emotional response. If you as a customer were looking for a child’s dress to give as a gift, would you be more drawn to a picture of a dress on a rack, or a dress on a child in the sun crunching through Autumn leaves and smiling? Can’t think of an image you like? Look for a theme in what you create…ask other artisans for help and feedback.
3.Don’t undervalue your work. This is tricky. We want to price things so that they sell, but we also want a return on the time and effort it took to create it. It is easy to be tempted to price too low, but often low prices cause low confidence in customers. If your price is too low, people question what is wrong with the item, and what kind of quality your product is. If you are looking at 2 hand crafted wooden bowls made out of the same wood, using the same techniques and finishes..one bowl is $10 and one bowl is $20 which would you perceive as the better quality item? The flip side is over pricing. People seek value, and dollars can be difficult to part with, even if you understand the quality and craftsmanship behind an item.
4.Present you work like you mean it..especially on line. This ties in to image. If you are selling on line, take time to photograph your work well. Put it in settings that are in line with your image. Search for pictures of similar items on line. Which ones are you drawn to and appeal to you? The biggest problems in photographing your work are lighting (too much, obvious flash reflection, or not enough), and clutter. If you’ve ever sold a house, the realtor will tell you to make the house as empty as possible for viewing. You love your stuff, and your stuff made it feel like home. A customer wants to visualize their stuff, and may have different ideas of what home is. Practice presenting your work in a way that lets the customer’s mind picture what they would use it for.
In a market setting, have enough space to present you work without overwhelming the customer. Utilize different levels an heights to present objects. You may have 20 hand thrown goblets for sale, but if you put them all out at once your customers are blinded to the individuality of the pieces. Creating is messy business in many cases. People may be interested in your process, but the final presentation should reflect the beauty or functionality of what you create.
The presentation (Thank you Corie Weaver for allowing me to use these images!)
5. Let customers know what you’re made of. That amazing wind chime that sparkles and catches every ray of sun? It was made out of driftwood and sea glass picked up while walking on a Spring day by a river full of music from the snow melting…the flattened spoons were found while perusing flea markets full of tons of items you *could* have used, but you chose those specific spoons. Be realistic about the items and ingredients that create your masterpiece, but don’t be afraid to describe them poetically. If your product is utilitarian (a sweater, home baked bread, spray room freshener) be sure to let people know what the ingredients are, and be willing to answer questions. If there is a reasonable way to demonstrate what you make, do it. A binder with examples of your work, Having your tools on site..get creative. People need to know visually if possible that this is hand created. I used to bring my spinning wheel to markets and spin. It covered up my introverted anxiety, attracted attention, and illustrated that yarn making is not a quick process.
6.Fake it till’ ya make it. We all suffer self doubt with our creations. We invest emotions in to our products. When we sell them, customers can sniff out any hesitancy we may have about how wonderful they are.
I had a $68 dollar skein of yarn..I swear it was appropriately priced based on the cost and rarity of the fiber. It was painstakingly dyed to bring out the fiber texture and butter soft feel. A woman picked it up and squished it in her hands..cue the panic button! That $68 would make my booth fee..it was my best skein by far..if it sold I would feel sooo validated as an artisan.
She told me she was looking for a gift for a friend, and wanted something so unique that only she could give it. Her friend was a knitter. She thought the skein was beautiful and so very soft. I explained to her that it was yak down..her smile got bigger..my anxiety got bigger. She held it away from her and flipped the price tag over (sweat sweat sweat). I see her pause in hesitation. Do I lower my price a little? Do I tell her it took me at least 8 hours to create? She expressed her hesitation (I’m worthless as a spinner, my stuff is over priced. I remember when that skein was causing me grief while plying it…). I kept my mouth shut. I reminded myself that to her, I am an artist. Her hesitation was over the color. Her friend LOVED green. The yarn was 10 different shades of green. She wasn’t sure what shades of green her friend loved. (Oh happy artisan, my yarn is awesome, your friend will be getting the most unique quality present in the world!).
I assumed price was an issue, which made me question my validity as an artisan. I was wise to zip it, smile, and let her sort out her thoughts…they had nothing to do with my insecurities. She bought the yarn after I told her with that many shades of green, one of them had to be a favorite, and she could compliment it well by adding other skeins in different shades. Phew. You can always spazz out after the customer walks away.
Selling is a skill, and you develop it just like you developed your artists skills..practice, and more practice.
7.I f you know another artist, swap selling each other’s work. I have made MORE sales when I have walked away from my table and had someone watch it. My husband sold my PERSONAL hand spun husky fur hat that I left at my booth..while I went to the bathroom…for more than I ever would have priced it for. And it had my hair cooties on it and the woman was aware of that. This was (un)scientifically confirmed by my mother. When she would ask my aunt to watch her booth, she sold more bags. At a local small fair, my friend and I swapped booths. She made amazing earrings, I had my yarn. She could be excited about my work for me, without anxiety, I could do the same. Customers caught the vibe. Excitement is contagious. So is your anxiety.
8.And finally….criticism is your friend. Most of us ask for opinions on our work from family an friends. We want to hear that it is amazing and beautiful and worth every penny we charge for it. And family an friends will happily oblige and tell us this while our inventory sits there full and our pockets sit there empty. Talk to people about your work and practice keeping your defensive line backer in check..people in general are polite and don’t want to be insulting..if they are worried you will knock them over with contradictions and defensive answers, they will give you the smile and polite answer they sense you want to hear.
I made some beautiful skeins of yarn..people complimented them, squished them, oohed and ahhhed over the colors…and then walked away. I finally got the courage to ask people about my work..politely, treating it as they would be giving me a gift that cost them nothing to give. One woman finally told me that she loved the yarn, it was beautiful, but she couldn’t picture anything to make out of just one skein. Lo and behold, I now make my yarn and many other items in lots. Single skeins are not the fore front of my display, but off to the side. Listen to what your customer wants, and ask for honest feed back. Allow it to help shape your process. Family and friends may be a good ego boost, but they also don’t want to hurt your feelings.
So..let’s hear it..what tricks and tips do you have in your artisan bag? What makes you get up every morning and continue to pursue the things you love?