Let’s begin with a grand statement.
There are only three types of customer in the world.
The first type are people who are actively looking to buy the kind of thing you make. There’s no need for an elaborate courtship with this kind of customer because they’re already sold. They know they want your type of product and the only question is where they’re going to get it from.
The second type are people who are interested in buying your work but for whatever reason aren’t yet ready to do so. Maybe they’re waiting until you have a sale. Maybe they’re hoping you’ll make your lovely thing in a different size or colour. The point is that you’ve captured their attention but they aren’t currently prepared to hand over their cash.
The third type are people who will never, ever buy from you.
They’re not on the fence – they’re way over on the other side of the field.
Why won’t they buy?
That’s a hard question to answer. It could simply be because they’re not interested in your kind of lovely thing. If your style is rustic and floral and their taste leans towards sharp edges, dramatic up-lighting and carefully positioned objets, they’re not going to give your decorative spoon holders a second glance.
Or maybe they do like spoon holders but somehow your work doesn’t speak to them. It just doesn’t give them that “You will be mine” feeling.
And that’s okay.
Whatever the reason, it’s important to know that this third category of customer, the non-buyers, exists. When you’re first starting out, it’s easy to imagine that your pool of potential customers is “everyone on the planet” and that success is simply a matter of reaching out to them in the right way.
But that’s not the case.
No-one, not even the biggest companies, can sell their work to everyone.
This fact fuels the great business rivalries of our time.
Android or iPhone. Coca Cola or Pepsi. PC or Mac. If it were possible to sell to everyone, don’t you think one of those guys would have wiped out their competition by now?
So there are people who just won’t buy what you sell, no matter what. That doesn’t make them bad people, any more than the active buyers are good people.
It simply means you don’t need to waste one nanosecond of your time trying to get them to buy your stuff.
So with this in mind, let’s start thinking about your wholesale buyers. The first thing to note is that unlike ordinary customers, retailers are almost always looking to buy. That’s because we constantly need stuff to put on our shelves.
No stuff, no sales. No sales, no shop.
As a general rule, you’ll find less spending resistance among your wholesale customers than your retail customers. That’s because we’re used to spending large sums of money all in one go and there’s a particular kind of urgency driving us forward.
Here’s another important point.
Retailers don’t cool off like other customers do.
Let’s say someone buys an expensive piece of your personalised jewellery for his wife and she loves it. Unless he owns an oil well or has just retired from merchant banking, it’s unlikely that he’ll be back for another piece within the week.
He’ll hold off till her birthday or the next time he puts her cashmere jumpers in the wash along with the dog’s blanket.
If a retailer’s customers love your work, however, and it sells well in her store, she might be back for more very quickly.
Clearly she’s onto a good thing by stocking your stuff, and she doesn’t want disappointed customers and an empty till because she didn’t buy enough to meet demand.
So let’s see what happens when we apply our three customer types to wholesale buyers.
Type #1 – Retailers who are actively looking to buy your kind of product
Shopkeepers can be in this group for a couple of reasons. There could be a gap in their range that they need to fill and they’ve already decided that your sort of product is what they need.
They could be looking for items to compliment something that’s already selling well in their store. If notebooks with a koala motif are going well there’s a good chance that koala key-rings will too.
Or maybe your sort of product is just hot right now. If the retailer has hordes of customers asking for robin earrings and they don’t have any in stock, you can be damn sure the next thing they’re going to search for on Faire is “robin earrings.”
Here’s the essential thing to remember about this type of retailer: they’ve already decided to buy the kind of item you make. The only question is where they’re going to get it.
Type #2 – Retailers who are open to buying but haven’t yet decided to do so
Buyers fall into this group when they’ve just used up their budget for the month and must sell some stuff before they order anything else. Or it might be that what you make is similar to something they already stock, so they’re waiting to see if you produce another item that doesn’t conflict so much with their current range.
The key word for this type of wholesale buyer is motivation. They need a good reason to get off the fence and actually put their money on the table.
Type #3 – Retailers who will never, ever buy what you make
This group of retailers is unlikely to cross your path at all – at least, not if they can help it.
The non-buyers among your regular customers, however, can be quite troublesome. They’re the type who send long emails asking incredibly detailed questions about your products, but once you reply you never hear from them again.
Or they get in touch on a Sunday in December to say “I’m definitely going to make an order – I just need to be sure you can get my delivery to me by 9am on Tuesday.” You spend a hour mucking about with express courier options, only for them to DM you with “It’s okay, I got what I wanted in Tesco. Merry Christmas!”
The non-buyers in your pool of potential retailers will tend not to do this kind of thing. Indie shopkeepers are constantly pushed for time so we don’t usually make contact with a supplier unless there’s a strong possibility that we’ll make an order at some point.
It’s much more likely that you’ll contact them.
This will definitely, repeatedly happen to you.
It’s extremely easy to pitch your work to your third type of wholesale customer. That is, people who are never, ever going to buy your stuff.
In the time that I’ve been writing this, I’ve received three pitch emails from suppliers whose products we wouldn’t stock in a million years.
That’s not because their work isn’t good enough – we’re just non-buyers for these particular artists. What they make simply isn’t our thing.
But because most indie retailers aren’t ogres, we usually don’t reply by saying “Sorry, we’re never going to place an order with you.”
Instead we respond with phrases like “We’ll keep your details on file,” or “We’re not looking for new suppliers at the moment.” Or we might not reply at all.
Your second type of wholesale buyer may do this too, of course, which makes it even harder to know where you stand. But as time goes on and no order arrives, two things can happen.
Your initial spark of hope is slowly crushed, or you immediately interpret their response as shopkeeper code for “You suck.”
This is something I hear a lot in Advice Calls. Has it ever happened to you?
In that case, I want you to know three things.
First, apart from accidentally pitching your work to non-buyers, you didn’t do anything wrong. It was just never going to work out. There was nothing you could have done differently to get the result you wanted.
Second, you don’t suck. There are stockists out there who are going to hug themselves with glee when they find you.
Third, this is why it’s a good idea to learn how to sell your work to shops.
I can’t guarantee that you’ll never be disappointed again, but there’s less drama, heartache and impulsive decisions to chug that ancient bottle of crème de menthe when you know what you’re doing.
So how do you sell to your two types of wholesale buyers? Find out next time.
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