The Ultimate Guide To Getting Ready For Retailers – First Steps
Here's how to get your feet wet in wholesale
First, a love letter.
Hello. I’m Clare, the founder of Indie Retail Academy. I help creative people like you sell their work.
I don’t do it for the good of my health. I don’t do it to be nice. Or because I’m working towards my Girl Guide badge in Advanced Helping. Or to pass the time until Midsomer Murders comes on.
Want to know the real reason?
You’re a creative person. So am I. I know that can be a damned hard thing to be. At times, the pressure to throw it all in the bin, get a job in a call centre and let that part of yourself drift away can be overwhelming.
Believe me, I’ve felt it.
But I think the world needs more people like you. You’re an artist. You’re plugged into something important. You conjure things up.
You create value.
So forget drifting away. Not on my watch. And especially not because starting and running a creative business is challenging. Let me say it again. You’re an ARTIST.
You’re naturally inclined towards solving problems, asking big questions, tuning into deep meanings and noticing things other people miss. Do those abilities remind you of anything? Like running a business, perhaps?
And while we’re at it, cast your mind back over all the obstacles you’ve had to overcome to get to where you are right now. It’s not exactly been a breeze, has it?
And yet here you are.
You’re a marvel of natural engineering. Just like a shark, only you have cooler hair.
You’ve already got the talent, courage and determination to create a successful business from your art. And today, I’m going to help you get ready for retailers.
- You make a lovely thing.
- It’s already selling pretty well.
- You’re ready to go up a gear.
This guide is designed to give you an understanding of how wholesale works and how it makes you money. Before we get to that, however, let’s take a quick look at some of the secret benefits of wholesale.
Selling your work to shops is a way of scaling your business.
That means producing larger quantities of your product, selling more in each transaction, widening your customer base and making more money. The wholesale business model can also make things more predictable.
When a shop places an order you’ll be able to work out how long it will take to make those items and therefore when you’ll get paid. When you sell directly to the public, you have to react to sales as they come in. Wholesale lets you call the shots much more.
And you have the opportunity to reach many more customers than you ever could on your own. When you team up with a retailer, your stuff gets promoted by their marketing strategy as well as your own. That can hugely increase the number of people who know about you.
But here’s one of the best reasons to get into wholesale.
For the freedom.
If you want to be your own boss and make a living from doing what you love, wholesale could be a game-changer for you.
Sure, it’s scary when you’re starting out, but you’ve done scary stuff before. Part of the fear is not understanding how the process works, and this guide is here to make that better.
Shall we get started?
So what the heck is wholesale, anyway?
At the risk of triggering an unpleasant flashback to that time Mrs Wormthrapple made you stand up in front of the class and spell “physiognomy,” let’s start with a definition.
noun the sale of goods in large quantities to a retailer.
adjective, adverb buying and selling, or concerned with buying and selling goods in this way.
It’s not exactly titillating, I’ll grant you, but it’s a good, honest, workmanlike kind of word. The two things to grab onto here are large quantities and to a retailer.
Wholesale is all about bigness. We’re usually talking about selling huge wodges of stuff when we use this word, not teeny tiny amounts. To put it in food terms, wholesale is an enormous side of roasted hog, not a cucumber sandwich.
If you sell your work directly to the public, you’re probably used to orders of only one or two of each item when you make a sale. That isn’t the case in wholesale. Shopkeepers don’t just want a couple of your hand-knitted nose-warmers, we want twenty, or sixty or a hundred-and-five. We need large quantities in order to keep serving our customers, and it’s less expensive for us to buy a lot all at once than small amounts again and again.
There are always exceptions, however, and it’s perfectly possible to wholesale a single item, but in general wholesale means BIG.
The other important bit of our definition is “to a retailer.”
If you sell your work to a shopkeeper who intends to resell it, that’s wholesale. Anything else, like selling on Folksy, Etsy, on your own site or at a craft fair, is retail.
Let me put it like this.
If you sell a nosewarmer to your gran, that’s retail.
If you sell three nosewarmers to your postman, that’s retail.
If you sell seven nosewarmers on Etsy, that’s retail.
If you sell me twenty-four nosewarmers so I can resell them in my shop, that’s wholesale.
Retail means selling small quantities of goods to members of the public for their own use. Wholesale means selling large quantities of goods to merchants for the purpose of resale.
So now we’ve got our heads around the definition, let’s get down to the really important stuff.
How does wholesale make you money?
I like the way you’re thinking.
Art is all very well, but you can’t retire to Bora Bora, pay your council tax or buy a box of Frubes with a carefully crafted objet. Seriously, try that in the ten-items-or-less queue at Tesco and see what happens.
But we’ve stumbled across rule one of Indie Retail Academy, which is:
Artists deserve to get paid.
It’s not original but as principles go it’s admirably succinct. And if it isn’t already, I’d urge you to make this your number one rule too.
As an artist you create value by conjuring up magnificent things from the ether and using your skill, experience, energy, unique perspective and training to make them a reality. That’s a noble pursuit and I hope you see it as such.
One of the reasons Indie Retail Academy exists is to help you make money from your art. If that idea makes you uncomfortable, here’s what I want you to know.
Being interested in money and wanting to get paid for what you do isn’t grasping, selling out, forgetting your roots or ANY OTHER CRAZY THING that might be flitting across your mind.
You’re an artist. You create value. You deserve to get paid. That is all.
So where’s the money in wholesale?
If you want to understand how selling your stuff to a shopkeeper leads to a happy feeling when you look at your bank account, the key word is VOLUME.
We’ll go into this in depth, but here’s the short version:
To make money in retail you sell small quantities of products at a higher price.
To make money in wholesale you sell large quantities of products at a lower price.
Yep, you read that right.
If you want to do wholesale, you’ll have to sell your work to shopkeepers for significantly less than the retail price. Usually about half, in fact.
Before you throw your computer out of the window and become the subject of a class action lawsuit by injured pedestrians, let me point out where things get good for you.
Yes, wholesale means selling your work for less per item, but it also means selling much larger quantities of items.
The money is in the volume. You make less on each widget, but your stockists are buying loads of widgets at once. Get it?
Looks like you might be able to buy those Frubes after all. But don’t start spending all your money on yoghurt just yet. Before we can go hunting for the big bucks, let’s work out whether your product is retail-ready.
I know. Yikes. But it’s going to be okay.
Oh alright, let’s have one Frube each just now. Just to keep us going.
This is weird but do it anyway.
Let’s imagine your product is on the table in front of you. Or on the wall. Or warming the nose of a small child who’s sitting in your lap. We’re going to take a really close look at it – and only it.
Let go of any worries about its price, your production schedule, or who nicked your egg and cress sandwich from the communal fridge even though it was very clearly labelled.
All that stuff is floating up into the sky or down into the earth.
It’s leaving your mind and your body because you don’t need it right now.
Bye, tension headache.
See you in hell, sandwich thief.
Now that stuff has gone, we’re going to think about your eyes.
Give your eyelids a flutter.
Man, you’ve got pretty eyelashes.
So you’re breathing in and out smoothly. You’re noticing where your body connects to the floor or your chair. You’re feeling the touch of your clothes against your skin.
Your eyes are beginning to feel really clear and open. Energy is flowing up from the earth, tingling all the way up your spine and into your eyes.
It feels like you can see better than you’ve been able to for ages.
And it’s taking no effort. You’re just breathing and seeing. And noticing the sensation.
So let’s look at your product. The whole thing, including any packaging, labels or tags.
Not as an artist.
Not as an entrepreneur.
You’re just looking. Perhaps in a way you haven’t looked at it before.
Look at the details. Take your time.
When you’re ready, answer these questions.
1. What colour is your product?
Is there a name for the exact shade you’re looking at? If not, invent one. Maybe it’s forest green, milk bottle white or the colour of wet sand. Be as descriptive as you can. If there are lots of colours, name them all.
2. What shape is it?
Is it a regular shape like a rectangle or a circle? If not, invent a name for the overall shape of your product.
3. What texture is it?
Smooth, rough, woolly? Where else have you felt a texture like that? Write down what it reminds you of – as many different things as you can.
4. Does your product have a particular smell or make a sound?
Describe it. If not, make one up. Maybe your painting smells like wet grass, or your birthday cards sound like pennies dropping into a pool. It’s okay to feel this is dumb. Do it anyway.
5. Imagine you’ve shrunk to the size of a pinpoint.
You’ve just landed somewhere on the surface of your product. What does the landscape look like to you? Is it dark and overpowering? Smooth and open? Write it down.
6. Now imagine that you’ve actually gone inside the fabric of your product.
You’re jostling up against its atoms. What’s the mood like in there? Are those atoms ready to party? Are they calm and serene? Write it down.
Gosh, that was intense.
You might feel it was intensely stupid, but here’s my point.
You know stuff that you don’t know that you know.
This little exercise might seem rather ridiculous to you, but I’m an actor. I once spent four hours pretending to be a tree frog. This is actually pretty tame for me.
The reason we did it is because sometimes when artists try to assess their work, a lot of things get in the way.
Fear, for one.
And a misplaced sense that it’s time to put your Grown-Up Serious Business Person hat on, and become someone who’s all about the spreadsheets.
That’s really not the case.
By playing that looking game, you just downloaded a boatload of valuable information about your lovely thing. You always knew it, but now it’s in the front of your mind.
So now, we’re going to look at your product again, but this time with your business eye.
But there will be no donning of terrifying hats. We’re simply going to observe whether the outward aspects of your product match up with its essence. Retail-ready products have inner and outer aspects that compliment each other. There’s no discord.
I’ll show you what I mean in a moment, but first let’s kit ourselves out with some examples. We’ll be referring to these throughout the next section.
Now let’s zip through the seven qualities of a retail-ready product.
1. It’s high quality.
Retail-ready products are of the highest possible quality. It doesn’t necessarily follow that they’re made of the fanciest materials on the planet, however.
It simply means the fabric of the object is stable and not about to fall apart, it has intrinsic value and the finish is perfect.
These things are all true of the products made by Bonbi Forest and I Am Acrylic. Take a look – the quality shines out of them.
Unfortunately, I can’t help you achieve this. As an artist, you must hold yourself to the highest professional and personal standards and produce work that you’re entirely proud of.
If you don’t, can’t or won’t, your work isn’t good enough to sell in a shop.
2. It does what it’s supposed to.
If it’s a piece of jewellery, the clasp works. If it’s a bath bomb, it fizzes when dropped into water. If it’s a printed scarf the dye won’t run in the rain. You get the idea.
Obviously, this can be subjective. The purpose of a painting might be to stir the emotions of the viewer, but clearly there’s no guarantee that will happen to everyone who casts an eye over it.
Nevertheless, the painting shouldn’t crack or fade if you say it won’t. Your stuff has to do what it says on the tin, not only when it’s first bought, but also over time.
3. It meets legal requirements.
As a producer of goods, you have legal responsibilities towards those who come into contact with them. It’s your job to know what these requirements are, to comply with the law and to ensure your lovely thing is not a hazard to others.
This could mean your product has to carry a warning – that it contains small parts which represent a choking hazard to small children, for example. It could also mean that you’re required to have your product tested or certified in some way before it can be sold.
So go looking for this information, be certain your work exceeds the minimum standards in your part of the world and investigate product liability insurance.
Retailers can’t risk their customers getting injured, or even disappointed, by the products they sell. We want to see that you’ve ticked every box.
4. It comes in robust packaging.
As a shopkeeper, there’s nothing worse than getting some lovely new product in stock, putting it out on the shelves then having to write it off a week later because the packaging rips or gets marked at the slightest provocation.
That’s a complete waste of money.
Your packaging concept has to stand up to life in a shop and look fabulous no matter how many people have touched it. Where necessary, it also has to properly protect what’s inside. Cellophane wrapping that tears easily looks shoddy and means your lovely thing could get damaged. That’s just not good enough.
Again, hold yourself up to the highest standards. Look at how other artists and big companies who make similar products package their work.
If you make jewellery, also think about providing gift bags or boxes, which is something both Bonbi Forest and I Am Acrylic offer. That’s really handy for both retailers and customers and it makes your work look and feel even more special.
5. Your branding is in good shape.
If you read the word “branding” and suddenly start hearing a high pitched whistling that blocks out all rational thought, that’s okay.
I SAID THAT’S OKAY. Just sit quietly for a while until the bad noise stops. We’re going to look at branding in detail in the next section.
For now, let’s start slowly by taking a closer look at the Lee May’s work. And let’s crack open a case of describing words while we’re at it.
Here’s how I might describe the physical objects she creates:
Jewel tones, floral, natural, feminine, tactile, friendly, relaxed, environmentally-friendly, fair-trade.
Now let’s look at some features of Bonbi Forest’s branding. Here’s another example of her logo, one of her products and its care label
I can see:
- Natural forms.
- Relaxed, slightly undone feel.
- Hand-drawn and hand-coloured lettering.
- “Ghost prints” sounds pretty special.
- Warm, friendly and useful note on the label.
- The label and tag are printed on high-quality card.
So there’s a big overlap here between the physical reality of Lee May’s product and the ideas she’s purposefully attached to the product, right?
Everything’s pulling the same way. There’s no conflict between the messages her branding is giving out and the work itself.
Polished, cohesive branding like this is what retailers want to see. Products with good branding are easier to sell because it’s obvious who they’re for – not only to the shopkeeper, but to the customer too.
From what we’ve noted down above, what kind of person do you think this scarf would appeal to? How about:
- Aged from about 16 upwards.
- Who’ve been known to get chilly.
- Who enjoy natural forms and patterns.
- Who have a feminine and sophisticated sense of style.
- Who like the fact it was made by an artist, not in a factory.
- Who care whether the items they buy have been ethically produced.
- Who like relaxed and playful accessories.
This is only scratching the surface and there are lots of other things we could add, but just look at what’s happened.
We’ve gone from having a target customer of women, which is roughly 3 billion people, and refined it down into a much more manageable group. Lee May’s branding waves a big hello to this collection of people. It helps them to find her.
As a side note, it’s also worth mentioning that retail-ready branding is unobtrusive. Don’t slap a massive label on the front of your product. Most shopkeepers will just peel it off and that’s rough on the fingernails.
It’s fine to have a tag or sticker with your name, details and website address somewhere on your lovely thing. Just make sure it doesn’t draw attention away from the lovely thing itself.
6. It’s photogenic.
If you can’t take a great photo of your product it’s not ready to sell to shops. This isn’t about your photography skills. If you suck at taking pictures it’s easy enough to learn or to find someone who knows what they’re doing. It’s about the product itself.
Let me tell you a story. In the early days of my store, Merry + Bright, we stocked a small collection of ceramic cups. They were kind of off-white with smooth, tactile surfaces and no handle. If you picked one up it felt great in your hand – pleasingly round and comforting, with no unnecessary details.
If you held one and stared moodily out of the window, you could easily pretend you were a Swedish detective trying to solve a series of grisly murders.
So the cups were great in person. The trouble started when we tried to take a picture of them for our website. Have you ever tried to take a photo of a featureless off-white cup against a white background? The result is so desperately boring that after the twenty-ninth try I was ready to commit a grisly murder of my own.
A bit of arterial spatter would’ve really livened it up, to be honest.
We tried coloured backgrounds and so on, but that meant it looked weird beside the other items on the page. Fab product, awful pictures.
You need to be able to take great photos of your work in order to sell it to retailers. They need great photos in order to sell it to their customers. Photos are a big deal now. Yours have to be of the highest standard, and the product itself must be photogenic.
7. Your product has shelf appeal.
You know that thing some people have?
You know, that thing.
They might not be the most conventionally attractive person in the room, but you can’t take your eyes off them. They somehow seem to take up exactly the right amount of space. You want to keep looking at them for a tiny bit longer than normal. When they ask you for a pen you get flustered and accidentally ask them to marry you.
That’s charisma. It’s a rather mysterious quality and it’s hard to put one’s finger on exactly how it works. One explanation is that it’s a combination of personality, presence, communication and body language.
Your product could do with a bit of that.
The seventh element of being retail-ready is a sort of charisma for inanimate objects. It’s called shelf appeal. It’s not a specific requirement, as such, more a combination of the previous six elements.
It’s a glimmer of magic around a product that makes a customer drop the bag of cat litter they’ve just bought, glide over, pick it up and huskily whisper “Where have you been all my life?”
Retailers live for moments like this. Sure, it makes the till ring and to us that’s a really sexy sound. But there’s also something in there about joy. Serving a customer who’s delightedly in love with what they’re buying is a truly joyful experience.
It reminds us shopkeepers that we’re not just meat puppets who endlessly empty and fill shelves and stockrooms. We remember why we wanted to open a shop in the first place. I can’t tell you how to imbue your work with shelf appeal, other than to give yourself to the process of making and selling it.
You’re the expert on this one.
How ready is your product?
Before we decide about this one way or another, let’s take a second to check where you are.
Each line below is a continuum for one of the seven elements of retail-readiness we’ve just looked at. The line runs from not ready to very ready. Consider what we’ve talked about. Then look at your product and mark its current position on the line.
For example, if you think your product is of the highest possible quality the line would look like this:
If you think your branding could do with a bit of sprucing up, however, the line might look like this:
Okay? So get a piece of paper, draw some lines and be as honest and accurate as you can. Here we go.
3. Meets legal requirements
6. Is it photogenic?
7. Shelf appeal
Tweak it like you mean it.
One more thing then it’s time for a very large gin and tonic.
Fish out your results from the first exercise we did. You know, when we got a little crazy.
We’ve now looked at your product in two ways – inside and outside. If the outward appearance of your product is fighting with its inner essence, your product isn’t ready to sell to shops.
Your job is to bring harmony.
Throw a bucket of water over them, distract them with a tube of Smarties or sit both sides down and get them to talk about their feelings. Whichever approach you take, any trace of conflict between the inner and outer aspects of what you make must be soothed away.
Look at the scores you gave your product above. In which areas are you less than ready? Branding, functionality or packaging perhaps?
To get from “not ready” to “extremely ready,” something has to change.
You already know what that thing is. To uncover it, have this kind of conversation with yourself:
“Okay, I’ve tuned into the atoms that make up my product, and I know what kind of mood they’re in. I’d describe that mood as __________. So how can I adjust my branding so it reflects that mood?”
“Hmmm. My packaging doesn’t seem to be quite ready for retail yet. Atoms! I need your help. I’ve got a packaging problem. Any suggestions on how to bring it into line?”
You know what?
Have the gin first. It’ll make talking to your product’s atoms waaaay easier.
Are YOU ready?
Don’t worry. We’re not going to talk to your atoms, and if you want me to tweak your features you’ll have to take me out to dinner first.
But this is important.
Starting and running a wholesale business is going to have a big effect on you. Since I don’t know what your circumstances are I can’t tell you exactly what kind of effect, but rest assured that you’re going to have to work hard. Maybe harder than you’ve ever worked before. Are you up for that?
Only you can answer that question, but here are some things to think about. You’re going to need:
1. Figures that stack up.
We’re going to look at this in detail later, but it’s sufficient to say that your wholesale business stands or falls on the figures. Two things are definite: you’ll have to do some maths and sometimes things are going to get tight financially. Can you cope with that?
2. A production plan.
Do you actually know that you can produce a certain amount of your product within a specific timeframe? Retailers will want to know the turnaround time when they place an order, and it’s no use if you say their delivery will arrive in a week when it’s actually going to take you a month to make all those items.
Can you make that many and still fit in eating, sleeping, time with your family and all your other commitments?
3. A shipping plan.
You’re going to be sending out lots of parcels. Any idea how much that’s going to cost?
4. A packaging plan.
As we’ve talked about, whatever packaging your item is sold with needs to stand up to being posted, unpacked, merchandised and examined by customers.
Secondly, you need to know how you’re going to ship a delivery without it getting damaged. You’ll probably need things like big boxes and environmentally-friendly packing materials.
Have you got somewhere to store and use all that stuff?
5. A website and good photographs.
Retailers need to see really good photos of your work – that means well-lit, in colour, with a mix of white box and lifestyle shots. One important place to put them is on your own website. Setting up your own home on the web, with your own domain name, makes you look like a professional outfit.
It also gives you the chance to convey a more rounded picture of who you are to potential stockists. They can check out your blog, find out more about you and perhaps read some glowing reviews from previous customers. Each of these little things helps to build a bridge between you and your target retailer.
Have you got the time and skills to create and maintain a decent website? If not, are you willing to learn or can you afford to pay someone to do it for you?
6. A marketing plan.
Approaching shopkeepers about stocking your work is a huge topic.
You need to research shops, find potential stockists and know what to say when you do get in touch. To increase the number of connections you make, you might also want to consider things like exhibiting at trade shows or, eventually, employing a sales rep.
7. A good grasp of the lingo.
Shops have a whole language of their own – terms like minimum order, carriage paid and net 30 days. In order to sell to retailers you need to know how to talk like retailers.
8. A buyers’ pack.
This is a package of information – either digital or on paper – containing the nitty-gritty stuff a retailer needs to know in order to make a decision about stocking your work. It includes:
A pitch email or letter, personalised to each specific shop, which introduces your work and pitches your products.
A line sheet or catalogue which shows what you sell, your wholesale prices and all the other details retailers require. If your collection is small or you can’t stretch to a full catalogue yet, a smart-looking line sheet is almost as good.
Your terms and conditions. Do you operate on a sale or return basis, or is it strictly wholesale (do you know the difference?) Is payment pro-forma or 30 days? Do you have minimum orders or quantities? Is there a carriage paid level? Are you registered for VAT or another sales tax? What are your cancellation, damages and returns policies?
An easy-to-use order form, which helps the retailer choose and, if you wish, offers incentives.
9. Industry knowledge.
This is a bit of a no-brainer. You need to know what’s going on in your sector or you risk being left behind. Staying current means you and a potential stockist are on the same page.
In fact, if anything you should be a little bit ahead. You need to know who your competitors are and be able to express what’s different about what you do.
This means reading magazines, visiting trade shows and being informed about the world you’re working in.
10. The desire to build relationships.
Have you thought about how you’ll encourage a retailer to keep ordering your products?
Taking time to build a real relationship can mean that the orders keep coming your way even when a retailer is cutting other suppliers. For this to work, you need to regularly check in with your stockists and find out what’s happening at their end.
Can you offer exclusivity within their area, high-res photos so the retailer doesn’t have to take his own or promotional material to go on the shelves alongside your products? How can you contribute to their success?
11. An idea of what you’re getting into.
This is going to take up a lot of your time and energy.
As we saw, the driving force behind wholesale is volume. Everything you currently do gets scaled up. That can mean more money, but also more items to make, more boxes to pack, more shops to contact, more photos to edit when it’s already 3am.
Does the idea of all this make you happy? Does it light you up inside? You don’t have to answer right now, but keep checking in with how you feel.
THIS ARTICLE WAS WRITTEN BY
I help creative people like you sell their work to independent retailers, without hyperventilating into a sandwich bag. I take the EEEEK! out of wholesale and replace it with AAAAH, right up until you're making the kind of money you want to make.
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