Think Outside the Shop

I made a couple of sales calls in the Upper Haight today and got the same response everywhere I went: “We’re not buying anything right now because it’s slow. Come back again in April and we’ll see.”

On the way home I lamented to my fiancé about how I wish there were stores in the Lower Haight that could sell Sweet Meats. After all, that’s the neighborhood we live in, and it would be really nice to have my products so close to home. There are no toy stores in the Lower Haight, however, no pet stores, no home accessories stores and only a couple of gift stores that do not have a decidedly ethnic slant. I sent an e-mail to the owner of Doe, my personal favorite neighborhood shop, but if I’m going to be honest with myself and with her, Sweet Meats are not really a good fit with her woodsy collection.

Then, as we were passing Costumes on Haight, my fiancé said: “Maybe you could sell them in some other random store, like a record store, or clothing store, or Costumes on Haight.”

“Costumes on Haight? But how are plush meats a costume? You can’t wear them.”

As the words left my mouth I saw the strangest, most wonderful thing. Taped over the crotch of one of the costumed mannequins was a paper t-bone steak, the exact size, shape and color of the plush one I happened to be carrying. I walked into the store and approached the register.

“Excuse me,” I told the man behind the counter. “I live in the neighborhood and was just walking past when I noticed your paper steak in the window. I think you can do a lot better.” And I plopped my plush t-bone on the counter.

“Oh. My. God.” said the clerk quietly, “How much is it? I’ll buy it from you right now.”

“Well, these are just samples,” I said (I still needed to show them to two more stores this afternoon).  “I’ve been showing them around for months and they’re a little ratty. But here’s my info in case you want a fresh one or the store wants some for display or prop purposes.”

The clerk took my info and I offered to come back in a couple of hours and drop off a sample that the store could keep for a while.  He said that would be fine and that he would show my info to the owner in the meantime.  Just then, I was spotted by my friend Christine, looking more natural in a hot pink bob wig than anyone I’ve ever seen.  We chatted for a minute, and when I turned back to the counter, the owner was standing in front of me, ready to order his first set of  meats for the front window.

Needless to say, I felt luckier than ever to have such a smart, problem-solving, future husband.  It just goes to show you, there are many unexpected, potential outlets for your stuff, especially if you’re a local. I thought I had enough to work with already, but beyond the usual suspects of gift stores and food establishments is a whole world of unexplored options.  So if you’re feeling frustrated that the well has run dry in your area, try hitting up those costume shops, video stores and record stores. Because anything on earth can be a display, and if it can be displayed, it can be sold.

Finding Stores to Sell Your Stuff

Okay, so you’ve got a brilliant, well-designed product. You’ve gotten the ball rolling on getting it made, and you’ve done all of your promotional work. After all this, you have a dozen orders to show for it. So what do you do now?

All of the press you get and marketing you do will only cover half of your sales — the half in which stores come to you. Despite all work that goes into creating marketing materials, sending press kits and exhibiting at trade shows, this is the easy half of selling, because any buyer who approaches you is 10 times more likely (in my personal experience) to place an order than a buyer you approach yourself. On the other hand, there are at least 10 times more buyers out there who don’t know you exist than those who do.

So how do you find good sales leads? You don’t just want to look names up in the phone book. Casting that wide a net will surely not be worth the time. Here are a few tips for finding stores that really fit your style:

  1. Go door to door. If you haven’t visited all the shopping districts in your area yet, this is a good place to start. You can take a good look around prospective stores and ask up front who does the buying. Usually it will be the store owner, who may be amenable to arranging an appointment to see your products. Store owners are also more likely to take a chance on a new product if it’s designed by someone local. One note, however: many stores will not want you to sell to more than one other store in the same neighborhood, so go for the big fish first (e.g. stores with additional locations in other towns).
  2. Shop online. Using links from a favorite blog or just searching for products similar to your overall aesthetic, you can find a ton of stores around the world that might be a good fit.
  3. Travel online. Starting with the cities closest to you, visit chamber of commerce or tourism web sites for links to stores in that area. AAA also has a huge online archive of articles from Via, their travel magazine, like this round-up of bookstores in the Western U.S.
  4. christopher jagminTrade! This is by far my favorite way to get info about stores. Contact an artist or designer you know in another city, or find a sympatico design buddy through a favorite web site or message board, such as Etsy or Craftster. Give them the names of stores in your area that might carry their products and receive some names in exchange. Last month in L.A., for example, I met a really nice designer named Christopher Jagmin who’s also releasing his first line. I sent him some stores to contact here in San Francisco, and he sent me some in Boston and Phoenix. Luckily, we’ve both seen each other’s products in person, so it’s easier to tell where we can really “see” those products being sold. If you and your design buddy don’t have this advantage, send each other a sample.

No matter what happens, be patient and keep at it. Many store owners are extremely busy, so it might take weeks or even months for them to place orders (or respond to your e-mail at all). That said, you should always follow up after giving them some time to look things over. It takes me an average of four to five conversations with any buyer before actually making a sale.

And what have we learned?

In case you haven’t been paying attention to the news this week, the economy has been on some kind of bizarre roller coaster ride. The stock market has made huge gains and losses from day to day, the Fed cut their short-term interest rate by a staggering 0.75%, one of Europe’s largest banks was defrauded out of billions of dollars, and the President and the House have settled on a bipartisan “economic stimulus package.” All this comes on the heels of rising unemployment and the sub-prime mortgage crisis, not to mention during the World Economic Forum in Switzerland.

So what does all this economic craziness translate to? In short, making things hard for the small wholesaler like me. I’ll go into the details of my recent sales experiences in a minute, but let me just put some general advice out there first. If you are thinking of releasing a line of design goods for wholesale:

  • Make sure you have a back-up source of income.
  • Take a bookkeeping class and price exactly how much your line will cost to produce, ship, store and market, so that you know exactly how much money you will need to raise, save or borrow to pay for your entire first shipment.
  • Start with something small. Smaller, less expensive items are easier and cheaper to ship, to store, and to find buyers for, because it means less investment in cost of goods and store space for owners.
  • Start early in the year. The whole process, from pricing manufacturers to receiving your first shipment can easily take six months and stores begin buying for the holidays in July and August. You will definitely want to ride that wave your first time around.
  • Set up a website where you can sell your goods retail, in addition to wholesaling them. You may sell fewer items at a time this way, but you’ll make a much higher profit off of each one.

These pieces of advice are ones I wish I had received before starting out on my Sweet Meats venture. It turns out that releasing a line of plush toys is a royal pain in the ass. Not that I regret doing it, or that I will give up anytime soon, but it is an expensive way to learn through trial and error.

Last week I exhibited at the California Gift Show in Los Angeles. The show ran from the 18th-21st, and while many people expressed interest in my products, none were really buying. I got the same response from everyone when asked if they would like to place an order: “Let me talk to my sister/wife/partner/boss about it and we’ll let you know.” This is exactly what buyers say here, too, when I visit their stores. I find this especially frustrating with buyers who already know my products. A few have mentioned seeing them sell out at craft fairs and one even owns a Sweet Meat already. What gives?

I have a few theories about the lack of sales to store buyers — all of them, I think, equally likely and valid:

  1. It’s after the holidays. Business is slow, and the last thing store owners want to do is buy more items that will just end up sitting around.
  2. The economy is not great and people are much more cautious in their spending in general, but specifically don’t want to invest in anything new and untested.
  3. I’m not a good salesperson yet.
  4. My price points are wrong.
  5. I’m waiting until March (when I can sell these retail, as well) to send out press releases.

I’m going to give door-to-door visits a couple of more weeks to work out. At least this way, if people don’t order from me, I can ask them why, face-to-face. Then hopefully I can fix whatever I’m doing wrong and get back on track. Either way it works out, I’ll keep you posted.