10 Ways To Doom Your Wholesale Business
Pitfalls, screw-ups and great big mistakes to avoid
Do you sometimes feel like you’re stumbling around in the dark? Like you don’t know what’s working and what isn’t in your business? Like you just want some answers?
Indie Retail Academy is all about strapping on your head torch and shining a light into the shadowy caverns of wholesale. I’m here to help you figure out the answers. But sometimes, the first step is taking a long hard look at the problems. Before you can work out what to do, you need to know what not to do.
So that’s where we’re going today.
Eat a power bar, pull on your potholing boots and check your chest harness because we’re descending into the dark places. Here are ten ways to torpedo your wholesale business.
1. Be bored by your work.
There are trillions of products in the world. No-one needs you to add another churned-out, bog-standard, run-of-the-mill trinket to the pile. If you’re bored by what you make, everyone else is too.
Get a new idea. As an artist, that’s pretty much your job.
2. Be bored by the people who buy your work.
Nothing kills a creative business quicker than a lack of interest in who your work is for. If you want to create a thriving wholesale business, you must become deeply interested in the people paying for your Netflix subscription.
“My customer’s female, forty-ish and likes pretty things” isn’t even close. That description could apply to a woman buying a £2 embroidered bookmark at a craft fair, and a woman blowing £500 on Jo Malone candles in her lunch hour.
If you want to be successful, you have to drill right down into the bedrock of who your customer is. You have to know what she’s really buying from you – because it certainly isn’t earrings, a painting or whatever kind of lovely thing you sell.
It’s making her husband think he inadvertently married an elven queen when she sashays into the restaurant with your earrings sparkling against her hair.
It’s gazing at your work on her living room wall and suddenly realising that, after years of bunk beds and dorm rooms and sharing a cubicle at the office, she finally has a space that’s completely her own.
When you get this right – and use that understanding to shape every aspect of your business – customers (and retailers) whip out their Visa card before your website even finishes loading. There’s no need for a hard-sell because they’re already sold.
If you see your customers as tedious blobs with a Paypal account, that simply can’t happen.
3. Forget that your stockists are customers, too.
Retailers have thousands and THOUSANDS more to spend on your work than ordinary customers. And yet we get about a tenth as much of your care and attention. No-one sprays the packing tissue inside our deliveries with rose water. No-one throws a free packet of Love Hearts in with our order. No-one writes us a thank you note with a big smiley face next to our name.
We’re the Cabbage-Eating Bog People of commerce.
Suppliers are often happy to take our money but not too keen on getting up close and personal. As a result, when an artist actually does take the time to find out what makes us feel valued, it has an enormous impact.
4. Be too polite.
Many artists take the “I’ll quietly wait for this retailer to notice me” route. And why not? It’s less stressful than more direct pitches. It’s polite. It generates a comforting illusion that things are in motion.
The only problem is the retailer never notices. We’re too busy buying from all the suppliers who took the “Here’s why investing in my work makes your customers happy and puts money in your till” approach.
5. Ignore buying seasons.
It’s June. That means most indie retailers are thinking about Christmas. If you don’t pay attention to buying seasons, you might pitch your Christmas cards to a store in early November and be fairly confident of getting a good response.
But wait, the shopkeeper wrapped up their Christmas spending back in August.
By November they’re so busy selling / secretly drinking banana liqueur in the loo because they’re not busy selling, they don’t even see your pitch email, let alone place an order. If you want to sell to shops, you have to know how shops work.
6. Believe you can reinvent the wheel.
Maybe one day someone will build a thriving, profitable wholesale business without doing any marketing. Maybe one day making an amazing product will be enough – the stockists will simply appear.
But it isn’t today.
If there’s making, there has to be marketing. You can, and should, do it your way. But don’t waste time wondering if you have to do it at all.
7. Wait until you feel like it to work on your wholesale business.
My singing teacher at drama school once told us she wasn’t going to teach us how to sing. We already knew how to sing, she said, avoiding eye contact with me. We’d get better at it as we went along, of course, but her goal was to teach us how to sing well on bad days.
On days when we had a cold, or had been up all night with a teething baby or when the lead actor had just thrown up in the wings. And on days when we simply didn’t feel like it. Because most days are like that.
She said the good days – the ones where you have boundless energy and your voice is so limber and flexible it almost feels like the song is singing you – are few and far between. You can’t build a career on good days. You’d grow old just waiting for one to arrive.
But you can learn to be good on the bad ones.
Actors learn how to show up, perform well, make people feel something – even when we really can’t be bothered. You can too.
8. Don’t invest in your business.
Creative people are generally rather good at getting a little from a lot. It comes from necessity.
Your talent calls out in a lordly voice for gigantic primed canvases, the finest gold leaf, high-spec software, tools made by master craftspeople. You’ve got poster paints and a biro and make something wonderful anyway.
But at some point, you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is. You need new equipment, a better studio or training in a particular skill. It’s great to be frugal, but you can’t get everything your business needs for free. If you want better results, you have to be prepared to invest in your business.
If you don’t, you can waste a boat-load of time, money and effort just trying to get off the ground.
9. Assume your stockists are yours for life after just one order.
This is one of the biggest mistakes artists make in wholesale. As a buyer, it’s happened to me countless times. An artist will spend months wooing me until I finally place an order, then I never hear from them again.
It’s not enough to go “If they want more, they know where I am.” If you leave it at that, there’s a good chance that your stockist will simply forget all about you. We have literally thousands of other options available to us, with more product submissions arriving every day. If you don’t give us a compelling reason to come back, then why shouldn’t we take our money elsewhere?
Tracking down new stockists all the time is a crazily expensive way to do business. The smartest and easiest money you can make comes from persuading your existing stockists to order again.
10. Give up.
If reading through this list makes you feel like packing it in, don’t. The secret to a thriving wholesale business isn’t “never screw up.”
Do you think the big dogs have never made a mistake? Are the artists you look up to really blameless earth-angels who’ve never gone “Oh crap” and locked themselves in a cupboard with a packet of Nik Naks and a playlist of whale sounds?
You don’t have to be perfect to make a whole heap of money from wholesale. The goal is to learn from each failure. Keep showing up. Ask for help. Listen to people who’ve been there. That’s how success happens.
Or rather, that’s how your unique success will happen. So live and learn. Fix what’s broken and keep on going.
Just keep going.
Hello, I'm Clare Holliday. I'm a shopkeeper who's helped thousands of creative people sell their work to stores, galleries and regular customers all over the world. Now it's your turn.