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“Why Won’t These Jackalopes Buy My Work?”

Put down the sledgehammer and we'll talk.

Frustrated by your wholesale business? You’re not the only one.

Here’s a question from Zell, an Indie Retail student.

I’m having a hard time getting my foot in the door with stores. I’ve written personalized emails, followed up, created collections and worked on my wholesale catalogue but I can’t get any interest from retailers. The feedback I get is they aren’t looking to buy at this time or they do the majority of their buying at a trade show.

I’ve looked into doing a wholesale show but booth fees start at around $2,000 and up. That’s a big investment and I don’t know if it will give me a big enough return in orders. I just keep thinking I can get orders on my own without doing a show but so far that hasn’t been successful. So how can I get stores to buy my work?

I hear this kind of question a lot.

Sometimes I’m amazed the streets aren’t filled with enraged artists smashing windows and howling “WHAT THE HELL DO YOU WANT FROM ME?” through the letterboxes of independent shops and boutiques.

Because I think what Zell’s really saying is something like this.

I’ve put in the work.

I’ve jumped through all the hoops.

I’ve given you everything you said you wanted.

And you beef-witted, pig-snorting ABOMINABLE JACKALOPES still won’t buy my work.

What’s up with that?

(This is actually a direct quote from the note pushed under the door of my shop this morning. I don’t know how they found out about the pig-snorting. We’ve been so careful.)

Maybe you feel this way sometimes too. So let’s see what we can do.

Just put down the sledgehammer first.


If you’re in this situation, your instincts are probably right.

If you’ve taken my workshops or used my templates, you’ll know whether your submissions to retailers are good enough. By writing personalised emails, following up on her pitch and having a smoking hot buyers’ pack, it sounds like Zell is doing everything she can to grab the attention of potential stockists. The way she’s approaching shopkeepers is unlikely to be the problem.

There’s always room for improvement, but if you really are putting together excellent submissions, you’ll know.

If, on the other hand, there’s a little voice in your head saying “my product photographs suck” or “I send exactly the same email to every retailer,” then that’s where your energy should go. Fixing those things might be all it takes to start seeing orders coming in.

I think Zell’s instincts are good in another respect, too. She says ” I just keep thinking I can get orders on my own without doing a show.”

And she’s absolutely right.

Also, trade shows ALWAYS cost more than you think.

The stand might come in at $2000, but that’s really just the start.

Other expenses include travel to and from the show, accomodation and meals while you’re there, printed materials to hand out to visitors, designing, manufacturing, transporting and installing your display, and something to wear that isn’t covered in paint and sweat.

That’s before you even think about the costs of making enough of your lovely thing to fulfill all the orders you’re hoping to receive.

Exhibiting at trade shows is crazy expensive. If you’re at a stage where you can sustain it, they can be wonderful, business-boosting, profile-raising cavalcades.

If not, they can be a black hole your business struggles to escape.

The key is knowing where you are. If you have a handful of stockists, or none at all, exhibiting at a trade show is probably not the right move. It might be soon, but getting some stockists under your belt first is likely to bring you much more immediate benefit.

One thing you must do, however, is start visiting them.

It’s only by actually going to a trade show that you get a feel for what it’s like, who it’s for and whether it might eventually be a good fit for you. Start doing this now and you won’t be flying blind when your time to exhibit does come around.

So find some shows you’re interested in and book yourself a research trip. It’s fun. And tax deductible.

Now let’s see what we can do to help Zell (and you) snag some stockists right now. The way I see it, what we’ve got here is a pipeline problem.

Zell is feeding retailers into her Wholesale-O-Matic. She knows her submissions are good and that part of the machine is working properly, but she’s still not getting an avalanche of wholesale orders.

Instead she’s receiving a lot of annoying feedback from shopkeepers about it not being the right time, or only buying at trade shows. Let me tell you something

When retailers find a product they’re excited about, they’re on it like a badger on jam.

It might be Christmas day. Or the middle of their kid’s acting debut as a beetroot in a school play about salads. They might be lying on the bathroom floor, stricken with a horrendous vomiting bug.

It doesn’t matter. If your lovely thing gives them that “YES!” feeling, they’ll get back to you.

True, we might not be able to make an order there and then, but we won’t let a dead-cert product pass us by.

Which brings us back to the pipeline. If your submission is in the best shape it can be and you’re still not getting orders, two things might be happening.

1. Your wholesale price or terms and conditions are off.

Your lovely thing might be too expensive – or affordable – for the stores you’re approaching. If your work is on the pricey side compared to similiar items, the reasons for that should be clear.

Maybe you use premium materials or a special manufacturing process. Maybe your stuff comes wrapped in gold leaf and accompanied by a free chinchilla.

Whatever it is, I should know why you charge more than your competitors within three seconds of opening your email.

The same goes if it’s less expensive. If you make a budget or no-frills item that still appeals to shoppers, make that obvious.

The other possibility is that your terms of business are the obstacle. If, for example, your minimum order is £500 but your lovely thing has a wholesale price of £2.50, you’re expecting retailers to make a very big investment in a product that’s completely untested in their store.

Most won’t go for that without a lot of encouragement.

So go back over your pricing and terms and conditions to check you aren’t scaring potential stockists off.

2. You’re approaching the wrong stores.

If you’re doing everything right when you pitch to retailers you’re still not getting anywhere, those are the wrong damn retailers.

Sometimes artists get a very fixed idea of the kind of shops they should be approaching. They get an Anthropologie-or-bust mindset. They only consider pitching to a narrow band of stores who make them feel all flushed and swoony.

There’s nothing wrong with that. If you want your stuff to be picked up by Anthropologie, or any store that makes you heart skip a beat, you can make that happen eventually. But part of that process is selling to stores who match where you are right now.

And if you’re just starting out, that might look very different to what’s in your head.

The bottom line is that if you’re not getting any traction with the retailers you’re pitching to, it’s time to find some new ones. Constantly hearing “No” when you say “would you like to buy my work” is no fun at all.

So for now, disregard every store you’ve pitched so far and start with a clean slate. Leave your ego at the door. Assume you’ve been wrong about this up to now.

Who else might possibly be interested in your lovely thing?

Museum shops? Hotel gift shops? Spas? Airport shops? Health food shops? Vintage shops? Pet shops?

This is hard, so here’s a sure-fire way to get fresh ideas. Make a list of five or ten of your best customers. Not retailers – just normal people who really like your stuff.

Ask them “Where do you wish you could buy my work?” Ask them to be specific and name actual stores. Then ask them why they picked those places.

When you do this you’ll get a boatload of information about how real customers see your work and how it fits into their lives. If you’re humble enough to accept and act on it, you can turn those ideas into real money landing in your bank account.

And the best part?

You can fix this problem and get your wholesale business thriving like mad, without spending upwards of $2000 on a trade show.

That sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

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