The Romance and Reality of Retail

Looking back on the beginning stages of my business growth, the idea of selling my products in stores was wildly appealing. It somehow gave a legitimacy to my pursuits. It gave me credentials to use on a business card. I felt that I had “arrived”.

There is much more to retail than that, especially in selling handmade and artisan crafted things. When you sell handmade, the most likely way you will find to sell in retail is through consignment arrangements in boutiques and craft mall style stores. In my experience, the life span of most boutiques is usually very short. My business has outlasted all but one of the many boutiques I have been asked to sell through. If you’re just interested in short term sales, no problem. But if you spend time building clientele at those locations, it can be a frustrating waste.

Craft malls can be a similar experience, although I have had some long term success through a few well-run, well established locations. I have been selling through a home decor and gift, boutique style craft mall chain that has been in business, run by the same family for about 20 years. I have been successful at two locations in that chain for ten years. But even the best retail situations are a much bigger investment in time and money than you would think.

In every retail situation I have ever sold through, I have rented retail space, and I have supplied my own displays, shelving, hardware, decor, props, tags, and inventory tracking. My husband and I have even paid for paint and painted my booth spaces a couple of times. Those things can be a substantial investment.

The needs of your space can change over time, so that investment in those things can be repeated as those needs change. If the store goes from pegboard to slat wall, that can mean investing in entirely new hardware and display systems. If the store decides to move your booth space to a different area of the store, that can mean new shelving that fits the new space. So if you get into a retail situation, be prepared to plan for ongoing expenses related to your physical booth space.

I have a very visible location in both of the stores I sell through, so I have tried to change the look of my display at least seasonally, and I feel obligated to make sure to service my displays frequently to restock, dust and tidy up, at least every few weeks. Until recently, that has required substantial travel time, since I used to live hours away from those locations. Travel expenses and that travel time is also a consideration that has to be factored into the cost of doing business that way.

One of the things most people don’t think about when they do the math is theft. (And don’t even get me started on vandalism.) Shoplifting, depending on location, can be a significant cost. I have had some pretty large losses attributable to theft. And not just theft of product, also theft involving displays FULL of product. And due to the content of most consignment contracts, most of the time, it is not compensated for by the store you are selling through. When I have had this mass volume of loss, the store owner has been kind enough to credit me for cost of product materials, but I have had to absorb the loss of displays, production time, and the retail value of my lost product. It is an expense that is hard to factor into the total tally.

As with any sales channel, in retail, you have to have a sense of what your customer is interested in buying and how much they are willing to pay. In my experience, retail has some question marks that are hard to fill in. The demographics are difficult to pin down. Customers tend to be a wide age range, wide socioeconomic range, and a wide range of interests. Teenagers are interested in different things than their parents are (obviously), so if you have a retail location in a mall, you might have a demographic that is heavily weighted toward teenagers. If you have a retail location in a standalone brick and mortar located in a more remotely located area, you might have more older customers.

Because you are not physically watching the traffic that comes to that store and you can’t see how those customers react to what you sell, you don’t have that kind of “intel” to use when you are planning how to configure your product mix. I have always found that to be the most difficult thing about retail. Other than generalities, I can only base decisions about future products based on past sales. To me, that’s like flying blind. Each sales venue is different. You can maximize sales when you know the demographic of the majority of customers, and who is interested in your product.

There are many positives about selling on consignment in retail locations. Your interactions with customers are limited because you’re not on site when the store is open, but they do happen. I have had customers send thank you notes to the store, thanking me for providing the options to buy that I do. I have had customers contact me through the store other ways, to do custom pieces, and those relationships have been rewarding. And I have been servicing my booth when customers have come by to look at my items and have spent time talking with them. So it’s not all anonymous selling.

The relationships I’ve had with these business owners and their employees have been positive also. Some of the cashiers and managers have championed my little growing business, introducing new customers to my items, loving my jewelry and passing that love along. I have benefitted from the marketing efforts that these businesses have done to get people into their stores. The locations I currently sell through market using paid advertising, coupons and special offers that often include discounts on my items, but I still get full price. So the experience has been really positive overall.

The upside to doing consignment is that you can reach those kinds of customers without the commitments of creating your own retail location. You don’t have all the headaches of managing a brick and mortar location yourself. You don’t have to make those big decisions that can make or break your business, you don’t have to manage employees, and you have the freedom to do other things while someone else sells your items. You can also easily walk away if it doesn’t work out as well as you had hoped.

The pros and cons can only be determined by you. Some priorities carry more weight for some people than for others. So even if consignment doesn’t work for some people, it may work for you.

 

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At the Crossroads

I have written before about how “multi tasking impaired” I am. It is still true. I am again at that point where my seasonal sales focus demands to be divided. This year, however, I have arrived at this point with the desire to make some changes in direction.

There is risk in the whole idea of selling anything. So many forces are at work that cannot be controlled, that can have an effect on how robust sales are. For that reason, I have always diversified my selling options as much as possible, and that has served me well.

Recently, I have felt that my focus has been too divided. Being torn in different directions has created a weird kind of “guilt” that rests uncomfortably on my psyche. I “should” be taking photos to list on Etsy, but… I “should” be planning and creating my holiday theme for my retail locations, but… I “should” be organizing the mess in my Beadatorium so I can find all of the materials I know I have, but… I “should’ be developing a launch plan for my new website, but…I “should”… I “should”… I “should”.

I’m not sure why “guilt” is the designated emotion. Perhaps it’s because I am so well practiced at feeling guilty. When I analyze the feeling, I realize it’s more of a desperation about missing opportunities that I know are right in front of me. I don’t think this is an uncommon feeling among creatives that are driven to succeed at what they set out to do.

I’ve heard the same thing expressed in different ways by Etsy sellers when they express frustration. When talking about their experiences, I’ve heard some say “It’s not my fault that I’m not getting sales”, as if there is blame to be placed somewhere. There is no “blame”, no “fault”, no “guilt”. There is only the need to assess your processes and your real goals.

And so that is where I find myself; assessing my real goals. Lack of sales is not my problem, growth is. Growth is a good thing. That’s what we set out to do when we start a small business. But there comes a crossroads where a decision has to be made about how much growth you can handle. In my case, my real goal is to have an avenue to sell my products that brings in a certain level of income, but that does not require employees, additional facilities, or a restructure of my business as a whole.

I like the personal connection that is possible when you’re involved in every step of the process. I enjoy connecting with buyers, creating things that invoke emotional responses for individuals. I also enjoy the flexibility that I can have by keeping things simple. After working for years with large organizations at every level, I am finding that being able to solve problems without going through a bureaucracy is refreshingly satisfying.

In order to manage growth in other areas of my business, I have decided to withdraw from retail. To focus more completely on areas that are more profitable, I have to eliminate the sales channel that reaps the least rewards. It has been a difficult decision, and I’ve been on the fence for a long time. But I know it’s the right decision. In days ahead, I will share information about my journey through retail. The good, the bad, and the ugly of selling your products through retail channels. There is a lot of good. (I’m almost afraid I’ll talk myself out of my decision to leave retail behind.)

Interestingly, It’s beginning to feel like the last day of school is approaching, or the end of my two-weeks’ notice, from a job I’ve held for a long time. I have mixed emotions about leaving. Is it the right decision? I know it’s the right decision. Making that decision is liberating. It frees up that part of my brain to work towards those things that will get me closer to my next goal. And isn’t that what all of this is about?

Navigating a Strange New World

I have written before about my struggle learning how to effectively sell online. Through that struggle, I have learned much more than I thought I was capable of learning. I have been a little worried that since I’m in my fifties, and everything I’m working with right now is completely new to me, I might not have the foundation necessary to comprehend all of the nuances. However, I have surprised myself.

One of the biggest things I have learned is that the way people buy things online is changing quickly and dramatically. Apparently, I wasn’t even paying attention to my own shopping behavior. There are very few “destinations” left online. Everything is now being search engine driven, instead of website driven.

It used to be that if you wanted something specific, you looked for a website through a search engine. The goal was to get a customer to your website (or destination) and then that customer would look through all of your items and choose something, or move to another website. This is not happening as much anymore. Akin to the brick and mortar dilemma, online retailers are having to shift the way they market to be able to get to where the customers are. Search engines are now serving up all of the options without sending you to a website. Customers are seeing a myriad of offerings without even clicking a single link.

This has been the case on Google for a long time. I just was not cluing into it until recently. With the monstrous expansion of Amazon’s search engine and all of its’ entities, other platforms are changing the face of their search engines to reflect the way people shop on Google and Amazon. Etsy, the platform I have been with for nearly ten years, is following this trend.

My assessment, after some fairly extensive research, is that the “destination” format that has allowed Etsy sellers to feel ownership in their corner of the platform, (their Etsy shop) will continue to diminish in it’s importance. Etsy MUST bend to the way customers are shopping, because customers will not continue to use antiquated methods.

I must admit that the idea gave me a little heartburn for a while. It gave me the feeling that the “Handmade, small business, artisan crafted” element of Etsy was being abandoned in favor of the more profitable “mass production” “sell tons of stuff in a hurry” business model. But after giving it some thought, I believe it doesn’t have to. Etsy would be foolish to try to duplicate Amazon’s model. It would also be foolish to ignore the need to adapt to how customers shop online.

So what does this mean for me as an Etsy seller? I’ve got more work to do. I need to become proficient in getting what I sell in front of customers who want to buy what I sell. I have to learn more about search engine optimization. I can’t be complacent and think that once I’ve figured something out, I’m done. Things change constantly, so I have to keep on top of it. I already use tools to guide me. I need to stay close to those resources that keep me informed and up to date. I have to be willing to look at things in ten different ways instead of digging in my heels and protesting because the world keeps spinning around.

Why do I think Etsy will continue to embrace it’s Handmade roots? Because the humanity in us all seeks out other humans. I believe there is a growing number of people who are looking for things that are special, unique, and artistic. I was also encouraged today when I read a statement by the new CEO of Etsy Josh Silverman, in which he made the comment “You can’t automate creativity.” If that fact still resides in the most influential minds at the top of the company, Etsy will live long and prosper. And so will I.

Standing Up for Handmade

As a jewelry artist, I look at a lot of what is available to buy online, and I am a bit disappointed by the apparent effort by hand crafters to appear like the mass market. The idea of hand crafted, small business, uniqueness, “one of a kind” gets a lot of buzz lately, and yet sometimes it appears that people are confused about what that really means.

I was listening to a webinar broadcast recently, and the presenter stated that consumers aren’t interested in “one of a kind” items, or how much time was spent to create an item, and furthermore, would not pay for it. The message seemed to be that consumers want to buy whatever everybody else is buying, and they want to get it cheap.

Within the past year or so, Etsy has added an option to the listings categories available to Etsy shop sellers. It has changed the way many people look at “Hand crafted” offerings in the Etsy marketplace. The added category is “Production Partners”, and Etsy defines it this way: “A production partner is anyone who’s not a part of your Etsy shop who helps you physically produce your items.” “Out-sourced” would be a term often used to refer to the production of a product by someone other than your own production processes. So has this become an accepted interpretation of the process of “hand crafting” things for sale in a “hand crafted” marketplace?

There are many advantages to the consumer of buying from a small business selling hand crafted items. The greatest, I would say, is that nobody cares about the product more than the person who makes it and takes credit for it. In mass production processes, anonymity rules the day. You don’t know who did what in the manufacturing process, and many times, all you know is the country in which the product was made. The production line does not care about the end consumer. The production line doesn’t care about flaws and quality issues. An artist or a hand crafter does.

I am beginning to think this is the reason there is a nostalgic tone that seems to be coming to the forefront of American culture. As hand crafted items from bygone days are dug out of garages and old barns, an appreciation for how things were made is starting to develop. There seems to be thoughtful consideration of the hands that created them.

How fortunate am I to be in a Niche of the worldwide marketplace that marches to a different beat. The folks that appreciate the works of myself and many of my friends, see value in a completely different way than the webinar presenter did. They can feel the creator in each item and see the individual differences that are evident when an item is hand crafted. They like the fact that there aren’t thousands of identical items assembled by automation, or in a mindless way, without any intellectual or emotional investment.

Those customers are out there! I meet them every summer when I do arts festivals and live marketplaces. I know they are searching for you, the hand crafter, artisan, micro business person who CARES like no one else about them. Believe me, when an artist puts that much of themselves into a “product”, they CARE about what happens to it. They want it to go to someone who is thrilled to have it.

So I will ignore the advice givers telling me and my fellow artists and crafters that no one values “one of a kind” anymore. It’s up to us to keep working to prove them wrong.

The Truth About Photos

 

For years I have been reading, searching, asking advice givers, about the best thing to do to improve my online sales. The most common answer I have been given is “Post good photos”. However, the advice about a way to accomplish that is not consistent at all. The most consistent piece of advice is “pay a photographer to take professional photos.” For my small business, that was an extremely impractical solution.

There are a few facts about good, professional photos. They could get your products extra attention that might translate into sales. For example, the photos of the products that Etsy chooses to use in their promotional media tend to look very slickly produced, professional and media friendly (like a magazine photo). They use cleverly placed props, beautiful lighting, lovely models and dreamy photo effects. Those photos tend to capitalize on what is visually trendy and stylistically on point. If you have the money to invest in these types of photos, that’s the way to go.

Most of the handmade crafters I meet in my travels can’t afford photos like that. In the early stages of a business, especially if you’re trying to keep it simple and keep your overhead down, you need to know how to do your own photography at a cost that won’t put you out of business. I have pulled together a few simple things that have helped me improve my photos, even if they aren’t fancy.

Equipment:

The camera is the most important thing, of course. But it doesn’t have to be an expensive, fancy camera. I wouldn’t know what to do with a fancy camera if I had one. Unless you’re really into photography, all of the settings and features of fancy cameras are pretty useless. The camera needs to be able to take photos of at least 10 Megapixels. The most important features in a camera for someone like me are the basics like image stabilization and auto focus. You need to be able to take clean, clear, crisp photos, and with the help of a decent camera, anybody can do it.

Environment:

If you take photos of small items like I do, a pedestal table will be almost mandatory. You need to be able to take photos from all angles, and otherwise you’ll be taking a lot of pictures while in uncomfortable positions, which doesn’t make for very good quality photos. My husband made one for me out of two wood crates stacked on end on top of each other with a small wood finished table top. (Home Depot and other hardware type stores have bare wood table tops for relatively inexpensive and if you stain or paint it, it can serve as a background in some of your photos.)

Lighting:

Lighting is a big deal. The worst photos I’ve seen posted online are the ones where regular inside lighting was used and the flash was added. (I can say this because those used to be MY photos.) TURN OFF THE FLASH. There are simple things I started doing with lighting to improve the quality of my photos.

The thing you will see in all of the books about taking photos of your products, is that everything looks better in natural light and you should try to take photos outside as much as possible. Good advice, but I have not been able to make that work consistently because I live in Utah, and we have a lot of photo unfriendly weather. I also read a lot of info that told me to buy a “light box”. So I bought one, thinking if it helped me take better photos, it would be a good investment. I fumbled around with it for a while and decided I didn’t know enough about photography to make a light box work for me.

What I have found that works for me is inexpensive torch style lamps that usually run around $10 each at Walmart. I have four of them, but generally, I use two of them. The lamp shades need to be white, and the light bulbs need to put off white light. Yellow light does not take good pictures. The purpose is to create light that illuminates your product without casting shadows over it. I think of it as recreating a bright, but overcast day with light that floods diffusely rather than shines directly.

You can move the lamps around easily while you’re taking pictures to place the light in areas that make your products look the best. I also use pieces of white or black foam board (dollar store variety) to either reflect, or absorb light against my jewelry. You will want to experiment with the process of placing your lights and using foam board to direct the light.

Props and Scale:

Occasionally I use props in my photos, but that has to be done carefully so that you don’t distract from the item you’re taking the picture of. Usually I default to a basic background. One important thing I try to include in all of my listings is at least one photo of the item in my hand, or with my hand interacting in some way with the item. This is the least obtrusive way I have found to demonstrate the basic scale of the item. I have tried taking pictures with my jewelry next to a coin, or a ruler, but not only does that look a little out of place, but also isn’t a universal way to communicate scale. If you sell to customers outside of the US, using a dime to demonstrate scale might not mean anything to someone in Europe.

Why is it important to communicate scale? I used to think that if I included the measurements of my jewelry in the description, that should be good enough. But soon I noticed that the only complaints I heard coming back in my reviews were “I thought it would be bigger” or “I was expecting it to be smaller.” Even with a very detailed description of the measurements of the item, their mind’s eye could not conceive how big, or small, that pair of earrings was going to be. When I started paying attention to my own shopping behavior, I found that I was no different. If I did not have some visual way to see the scale of the item, my expectations were nowhere near reality. When I see a charm in someone’s hand, I find my expectation of what I’m going to get is a lot closer to what I end up with. Since I started using my hand as an illustration of scale, I have had no reviews with complaints about the size being different than what they expected. (Just make sure your fingernails are clean.)

Creating Dimension:

The other important thing about your photos in your listings is using as many different angles and ways of displaying the item as possible. I came to know how important this was just recently. One of the features of the search engine optimization tool I use, is a grading system that uses certain criteria to give each of my listings a grade from A to F. At first when this came out, I grumbled about being graded. But a minute later, I realized how valuable this was. It was a simple way of helping me improve the quality of my listings. One of the things that immediately brought my grades up was if I used all of the spots Etsy gave me to put a photo.

So I systematically started to make sure all of my listings had 5 good quality photos. With a goal of keeping close to 500 listings up at a time, this process is still ongoing. But at this point, after several months of working on this, the listings where I have improved the quality and maximized the number of photos, are the ones that are selling most often.

I have a theory. It may be obvious, but it never really hit home with me until I started working on this project. Since purchasing a product remotely is such an act of faith, people want to feel like they are minimizing their risk as much as possible. If there are several different views of the item you are considering paying money for, whether one view is drastically different from the next view is not important. Even a small shift in the point of view makes you feel more familiar with that item. It feels less like looking through a peephole at your prospective purchase. More photos make for a more three dimensional feeling about the item. Since you can’t pick it up and look at it, you’ve got to have some way to get the feel of that experience.

I am far from being an expert on taking photos of things for sale online. But these are simple things anyone can do as a jumping off point. They have had a direct impact on improving my online sales. I talk to people all the time who have no clue where to start, and since I was one of those people, this post is for them.

The Truth About Selling Online

For the past year I have been completely caught up in the process of learning, trying and applying new ideas to grow my little micro business. I have gained a lot during these endeavors, and the good news is that I have seen successes, and I have added to my bank of knowledge.

There are a few consistent thoughts that I have had during this process. There is a lot of new information out there, a lot of new ways to grow all kinds of businesses, and MANY people telling you that they have the “tried and true” methods that are “guaranteed” to bring you truck loads of success, and a multi-figure monthly paycheck. Being the skeptic that I always have been, I have done some research and analysis, albeit unscientific, and have come up with some conclusions that make sense to me.

First and most important, I have concluded that there is nothing that brings IMMEDIATE results. That seems to go without saying, but I have to say it because there are people touting programs, services and methods that will bring immediate and miraculous results. I have looked at a lot of these things and have been discouraged because when I compare the testimonials to my own statistics, of course, I fall short. But when I take a more objective look, I see an “apples to oranges” comparison, and I see the disclaimer that ought to be included, but isn’t; “RESULTS NOT TYPICAL”.

My current focus is online sales, an area where I feel like a complete alien. I did not grow up with a silver I-phone in my hand. When I was in grade school, we toured the telephone company and was taken through one of the “rooms” that housed the computer; a computer that probably did not have the capability of the smart phone I carry around in my pocket today. So technologically speaking, I’m coming a little late to the party, relative to most of my competitors. But in all of the stacks of information about that fabulous new-fangled tool, there are basic truths. These truths do not change, no matter how much the technology changes.

Truth number one: People need to be able to find what you’re selling. Sounds painfully obvious, but I did not realize how complicated it would be to get found in an online market. I initially thought “If you build it…they will come.” I thought that if I had items listed in a platform (such as Etsy), people would see my products, and buy them. And in a minor way, it did happen. Just not in very impressive numbers. Just being there was not enough. Then I heard that if you list a large number of items, adding a few every day, that would keep you visible in the Etsy universe, and people would buy. That helped…a little. That did increase my sales, and the more items I listed, the more sales I got.

And then the Etsy universe shifted. As the number of Etsy customers increased, so did the number of Etsy sellers, as did the number of mass produced product pushers masquerading as small time crafters and artistans. Competition for attention became outrageous. And to compound that, Etsy “refined” it’s search engine algorithm so that it became vital to use very specific search terms in your titles and listings in order to get found by anyone. I discovered that the reason my sales online did not match the volume I was able to make in person and in retail, was because I had become almost invisible online. My products were not being brought up in searches very often because of the way I was listing them.

This fact overwhelmed me. How was I going to learn everything I needed to about being found in a search, especially if the rules of that game were constantly changing? After months of struggling to figure things out, I ran across a statement that helped me. I read the words “If you want success, find someone who is successful, and do what they do.” I learned that the online sellers who were successful used tools.

So now I’m using tools. Search engine optimization (using the right terms to get found in a search) is something worth investing in. If you find the right tool, it will not only get you found in a search, but it will put you in front of customers who are ready to buy what you are selling.

The search optimization tool I use is specific to Etsy. It uses the Etsy database to guide you in choosing good search terms based on what Etsy customers are currently typing into the search engine to look for items. The tool I use is called “Marmalead”. (I am not getting paid to endorse this service, I just want to share the love.) They have a free version that gives you a very basic tool that is extremely valuable as a stand alone service. But the paid service gives you so much data to use that it takes time to digest all of the information and to learn to use it to your advantage. But that’s the exciting part. As you learn and apply the information, you can see tangible results.

Just to illustrate, my December sales in 2016 were almost triple what they were in 2015, and the only thing I changed was the way I was listing my products. I did that by using the tools they offer in Marmalead. The interesting thing about those statistics is that in December of 2016, I had FEWER views than in December of 2015, but sales tripled. That is because my listings in 2016 were being brought up in front of people who were READY TO BUY, and not just browsing.

Good services like Marmalead also offer other things that assist you in improving your results. They keep on top of the changes that come along, and they pass that information on to you. They offer prompt and accurate customer support, for things that may or may not have to do with the technical functioning of the tool. A good service will assist you in learning how to use the tools you are paying them for. If you invest your money in services and tools, make sure there is substance behind the service, and you will get a return on that investment.

Stay tuned for TRUTH NUMBER TWO. I’ll give you a one-word hint: Photos.

A “Brand” Beyond

One of the things I have been reading a lot about, especially lately, is branding. Businesses need to build their “brand”. If you want to get your message out to the masses, you need to establish a following that feels loyal to your “brand”, and shares that feeling of loyalty with friends, family and associates. That’s how McDonald’s, Walmart, and Starbuck’s got where they are today.

I have also been learning about creating a “buzz” around your brand. “Launching” product lines, cultivating an “image”. I do understand all of that. I see it in action every day, from the Tide I grab off the grocery store shelf, to the bank where I allow my money to rest briefly before moving on to the power company, the gas company, and everywhere else my money has committed to go. Branding makes the world go round.

The current advice out there being given by many advice givers regarding selling your handmade items is about branding, creating a buzz, launching product lines, and projecting an image to the world. I am not an expert on anything, but I do pay attention to my gut, and to the reactions of people around me. Again, I find myself resisting the advice givers advice.

After reading pages and pages of this type of information, I found myself venting my frustration about it to my husband. “I’m not a brand! I’m not Proctor and Gamble. I’m a one-person small business. I’m not planning on taking over the world, I just want to earn a living doing what I love to do.”

I began to ponder the reasons I was so put off by the concept of handmade crafters branding. I think it comes down to authenticity. The idea of creating an “image” has always bothered me. I think one of the reasons micro businesses are appreciated by more and more people is that there isn’t that carefully crafted “image”. They are not like the big box stores. They are not “The Great and Powerful Oz” behind the curtain. They are usually just a person, doing what they love to do.

Authenticity shines through everything you do when you are creating something from within yourself. I admire the truly artistic creators whose personality and imagination combine with skills developed through many hours of dedicated effort. This combination of factors defy branding. I so revere true artistic value, where each individual item is so distinctly different that you could never “replace” the artist by hiring individuals to mass produce copies. This is where the core of authenticity lies. The warmth of the creator; the soul, the mind, the hands. Without the creator, there is no “product”.

That is the place on the planet I would like to occupy. I want to create meaningful things that impart a certain feeling to the buyer. Whether that feeling is nostalgia for a forgotten era, a memory, a connection to someone significant in their life, or a feeling of peace. There is no brand for that. And that’s just how I like it.