From the May/June 1999 issue of Clay Times.
Editor's Note: The following article is a second excerpt from Clay Times columnist Steven Branfman's new book, "The Potter's Professional Handbook" (Krause Publications, 210 pages, $29.95).
Locating appropriate sales outlets can be a frustrating and time consuming effort. A variety of venues exist for craftspeople to sell their wares.
For many, the ultimate goal is to not only have a workspace of their own, but also to be able to sell their work out of that space. If you are building, or on the search for a studio, or in fact have one in which a sales room could be incorporated, sales out of your studio may an appealing notion.
Selling work directly from your studio may be the most glamorous and has the potential to be the most financially rewarding of all the marketing methods. However, it is not as simple as it sounds. Many things factor into whether sales from your studio will be successful or not. Issues such as the location and accessibility of your studio will have much to do with attracting and maintaining customers. To effectively market from the studio, you must have a dedicated display or sales space that is separate from your work area. Not that you don't want people in your work space but you do want to control access to that space. You also need to try to keep your finished wares dust-free and displayed in a fashion that will encourage serious sales consideration.
Of course, there are some advantages to opening your studio to the public. People who choose to come to your studio over a shop or gallery will be those looking for a different kind of experience-to visit the actual place where the wares are made and get a glimpse into the life and lifestyle of the potter. You can tap into this kind of emotional desire by staging special events such as kiln openings or the unveiling of a new line of work. Be careful when you use the term "sale," though, as you don't want to give the impression that you are discounting the price of your work.
When selling from your studio you needn't pay a sales commission to a gallery or shop, but there is more to the financial angle than that. The commission you pay to a shop covers the costs of promoting and selling your work. By taking on these responsibilities yourself, you will be taking time and financial resources away from the other activities that you perform as a potter. You must be prepared to stop your clay work to accommodate a customer. If you perceive this as a disturbance or bother rather than an opportunity, sales from your studio may not be right for you.
Of course you can set up any guidelines of operational style that you desire. If customer visits are more infrequent, you can arrange the studio so you can see or hear the showroom and continue to work as people visit and browse. Don't be a hermit though: if you don't greet your visitors and make the experience inviting and comfortable, it's not going to be a success.
Another method is to limit the weekly sales room hours and plan to sit, do paperwork or relax during those hours. You can also have the studio open during the summer only, leaving the rest of the year for production. Another strategy is to hire a salesperson to run the gallery while you are in the studio working. This way, you can meet visitors and invite them into your workspace but needn't take substantial time away from your production efforts.
Yet another way to sell from the studio is to do it on a limited basis by having one or two studio openings a year. There are potters who have built up a such a loyal customer base in this way that they wait for the open house and make all of their gift purchases for the entire year in one day!
Realize that while your studio as a sales gallery may be an appealing notion, and may in fact, be exactly the kind of operation that fulfills your dreams as a producing craftsperson, there are sacrifices and adjustments that will need to be made. Only you can determine whether those adjustments are worth the possible rewards.
A commission sale is one in which a client works with you or an agent, be it a gallery, art consultant, or sales rep, to design or simply produce a piece or series of pieces especially for them. There is no question that selling work from your regular production line and stock is more convenient, easier to plan for, carries lower production costs, and is far less stressful, than doing work on commission. There is so much room for miscommunication, misinterpretation, and ultimate disappointment that for many, taking on commission work is simply not worth the effort.
Commissions can involve different degrees of "specialness" ranging from a regular piece of your work simply created new for an individual and not sold to them off the shelf, to something totally out of the ordinary. Regardless of the nature of the actual piece, a successful commission depends on a meeting of the minds. This is often an impossible task! Assuming the customer knows exactly what she wants, she must communicate that to you and you must produce the piece that the customer envisions. Often, however, the customer only thinks they know what they want or even admits that they don't know quite what they want. This can be a real problem.
If you are taking on a commission through an intermediary (art consultant, etc.), do not allow them to hinder direct communication between you and the client. My general advice is to only take on a commission if you feel comfortable with the request. Through experience I have learned to turn down a commission if I get the feeling that the client is more interested in seeing their design and aesthetic come to life than having me do something for them. If the client is a frustrated potter looking for someone else's hands to do their work, it will be very difficult for you to produce a piece that will satisfy them.
If you are doing the work through an agent, their percentage should not exceed 25% and should rather be in the neighborhood of 15-20%. This is a sale that requires no investment on their part, takes up no floor space in their shop or showroom, and involves very little actual work-the responsibility is primarily yours.
A contract that includes the price, delivery date, and commission paid to the agent must be prepared. The remaining contractual points have to do with the actual piece. Details regarding the exact nature including shape, color, clay, glaze, and whatever other pertinent factors there are, must be clearly spelled out for you and the client to see and agree on. If a piece is supposed to be 18" tall on completion, there should be some agreement as to what is an acceptable range of heights.
Do not under any circumstances leave anything to the imagination or make assumptions! Keeping all this in mind, there are two approaches you can take toward commissions. First,you can go through the negotiations, draw up the proposal into a contract, and assume responsibility for completing the work. If you choose to proceed in this way, I strongly suggest that you include a payment schedule where you receive partial non-refundable payment as the work proceeds. For instance, you might decide to produce a series of glaze samples for the client to see and approve before glazing the actual piece. This will ensure at least partial compensation in the event that the commission is not completed, the client changes their mind, or the work is capriciously rejected by the client.
My own approach to commissions is quite a bit different. I am not interested in getting into a stressful situation where one of the parties can be disappointed, resulting in bad feelings all around. I am equally not interested in doing work that I don't feel comfortable doing. I will listen to a clients' wishes and as long as I feel that the work is within the limits of my interest, I will agree to do some work which I feel will satisfy them.
I state what the finished piece will cost and explain that I am doing the piece for them. If it meets with their approval they can buy it. If not, no bad feelings. I write up no contract, and take no money. By doing this I retain complete control over my work and if the piece is rejected, I still know I have done something that I very well might have done anyway.
If you are serious about trying to make the sale, you do have to treat the situation with seriousness and a degree of exclusivity. One of the customer's attractions to commission work is to have something done that is one-of-a-kind and specially created. If your attitude the way you present yourself undermines that feeling, you will defeat the uniqueness of it all and will alienate the client.
Selling your work through a catalog can also be a viable way to market your wares, though individual craftspeople often think of catalog sales as beyond their realm. Most popular among the reasons are that their work is unsuitable, catalog companies are not interested in small-time potters, or they fear they won't be able to meet the required production levels.
Of these, only the last has some merit. Being involved in catalog sales does present some special considerations: among those, the possible concern for copyright protection (a call to your attorney would be advised). If production pottery interests you, an investigation into catalog sales as an option should not be overlooked. In fact, national catalogs are always looking for unique, innovative products to bring to their customers. You may be making that item as we speak.
I have placed this manner of sales and marketing last on the hit parade, not because it is the least viable or popular (though it might be), but because it can encompass all of the previously discussed methods. As I first mentioned about considering direct sales from your studio, one of the difficult aspects of marketing and sales is the time it takes away from your actual production of pots. A way around this is to contract the services of a sales rep or agent. Essentially, an agent will represent you and present your work to a list of clients such as shops, galleries, designers, decorators, or others. For a fee that usually amounts to around 10% of the sale, they will do their best to get your work placed in appropriate sales outlets. Exactly what an agent may do for you, in addition to placing your work, is variable. An agent may negotiate the terms of a sale, check the credit rating and payment frequency of a gallery, and even handle all of the financial transactions for you. As the agent takes no fee up front, you have nothing to lose in experimenting with an arrangement like this. While the rep will be doing work that you would ordinarily be doing yourself, that doesn't absolve you from some of the responsibility. Interview the individual to be sure he or she understands your craft, your sales terms, production capabilities and schedule, and anything else that is particular about your work. Ask about the places where your work might be shown. Provide them with whatever promotional materials would be helpful. Keep in contact on a regular basis with updates on your work. The more interest you demonstrate, the more aggressive your rep is likely to be about showing your work.
The Potter's Professional Handbook is available from The Potters Shop, tel. 781-449-7687.
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