Thursday, November 13, 2008

Coping with Retail

66. Coping with Retail

Over the years I’ve been surprised to find that many students of ceramics do not cope very well with either the idea of making work to sell or the practicalities of direct sales. Luckily for them, there are other ways to earn a living from their skills as a ceramist. However, given the history of our profession, a failure to even attempt to learn about retail sales must be considered unacceptable.
There are two parts to this discussion. The first concerns selling at all. The second concerns the variation and principles of direct retail sales.
If you are a ceramic artist, potter, craftsman/designer, etc., you make objects. Those objects have three possible fates. They can be destroyed. They can be kept and stored by their maker. Or they can become the property of someone other than the maker.
I suppose, as a matter of therapy, that the simple making of an object might be enough for some people and the objects themselves might then be unimportant and of no value. Certainly some objects ‘fail’ as either utilitarian or strictly aesthetic projects. Those pots may well deserve destruction, but I find it too depressing to imagine that the entire output of an artist’s creativity might be worthy of immediate doom.
So, of the surviving objects, some get given away as gifts and others stay with the artist. Sooner or later, this will become a storage problem. Selling part of your inventory is the solution.
What if no one wants to buy your work? Well, then either you aren’t presenting it well to the right audiences, or your instructors have been lying to you about its quality and your skills.
Unfortunately, the practical details of retail sales are numerous enough to fill a complete book of their own (versions of which have already been written), but there are three general areas of concern that I can address in the space allowed here.
First, not all retail spaces are created equal. A table set out on your driveway, yard sale fashion, is not the same as a Ceramics Department Christmas sale, which is not the same as an Ann Arbor street fair, which is not the same as the annual Smithsonian Craft Show. Some of the principles remain the same in all settings, but do your research. Don’t let the first Fair you go to be the same Fair you’re selling your pots at. Go to some Fairs as a tourist or, better yet, as a helper for an established artist. Pay attention.
Second, know your own work. If you’re selling functional objects understand the utility of each type. How much does that mug hold? The question will come up. Be able to describe your pots performing their functions. For instance, “That type of mug works particularly well with hot chocolate.” Or, “This particular size of colander works well for steaming vegetables. This is how you do it.” When the potential customer asks, “What do you use this for?” they don’t want to hear, “Whatever you’d like.” They want ideas. Have some ready.
Third, show some respect for the process. Yes, some customers defy understanding and some retail venues are disastrous. Don’t let your contempt show on your face or in your body language. It is not beneath your dignity to be selling your colored bits of burnt dirt for money that represents hours of labor to people who slave away at jobs you would probably hate. Among the people you sell to will be individuals who have never owned art before, individuals whose lives may well be improved by daily interaction with an object you made, and individuals who may well bring you business (i.e. money) for years to come. Further, your return customers are often the friendly faces that will sustain you emotionally when mere money starts to seem less important. Smile. Enjoy yourself. Enjoy having customers. Let them teach you about your work.
I know people all across the country simply because they have bought my pottery. Selling through shops and galleries filters out that contact and separates you from an important source of emotional sustenance. Ceramics can be a lonely enough occupation without you hiding in your studio all the time. Go to a Fair. Gawk at the people walking past. Tell a few stories. Sell a few pots. Have some fun. Be happy in your successes.

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