08 Mar 10

The Keys to the Store: Selling Handmade to Retailers and Wholesalers

Those coiled copper earrings and plush octopi in your neighborhood boutique? They didn’t just magically appear there after coming off an assembly line—they were conceptualized from start to finish by a creative professional like yourself, potentially in a home-based studio.

But how did those items get the opportunity to take up residence in a brick-and-mortar store?

Consignment and retail opportunities seem elusive—we know they’re out there, but may not know how to secure them. How should you approach a shop, online or off, that you think would be a good fit for your items? Are there formal applications? And is it all worth it, after the shop gets a chunk (often 50 per cent) of the price tag?

In general, the best approach is to research first, rather than contacting a lot of stores without knowing their products, mission and overall feel. If it’s a physical shop, and you’re nearby, browse as a regular customer; if it's online, and/or too far away, sift through every page of the website. Finally, know what you want to get out of it. Retail opportunities with either brick-and-mortar or well-known online shops are perfect for promoting. They tend to be on the PR up-and-up when it comes to magazine articles and gift guides, and they’re spotlighted in popular email newsletters like Daily Candy. If you believe in your product and you find the right shop(s), think of it as an investment in promotion and advertising, not to mention the fact that you are making a connection with a retailer who is familiar with running a business, in general. But make sure you’re still seeing a net profit, even if it's a small one.

The Clear-Cut Consignment Opportunities

My first consignment opportunity came from Brooklyn’s Artez’n, a shop filled with goods from New York designers and artists, exclusively. These range from Brooklyn Bridge pillows to spicy pickles, Jimi Hendrix onesies to grass wrapping paper. The clear-cut part about this particular shop? There are artist/vendor applications front-and-center when you walk in (as well as on the website) asking for basic information, links, artwork descriptions and approximate wholesale costs.

Abby Kelly of Abby Valentine currently sells quilted felt coasters at Artez’n, where payment is received once an item is sold. In the past, Abby had items on Elsewares, a well-established online destination for unique design items. Despite Elsewhere's high position on the online designer goods totem pole, their “application” is simple: email, website, photos and any additional info about the goods. Additionally, those coasters caught the attention of Pixelgirl Shop, now called Shana Logic, as well as NapaStyle, the home furnishings and entertaining site of Food Network’s Michael Chiarello. In all these cases, the opportunities came to her by way of Etsy and/or Elsewares.

So where did these retail opportunities lead? “Being on Elsewares was definitely great publicity since it’s such a well-regarded shop," Abby says. "My coasters were included in a Design*Sponge holiday gift guide a few years back.” Right now, Abby Valentine is a side project for her, as her Etsy shop remains empty due to time constraints. She doesn’t mind the monetary downsides to doing consignment, saying, "I’m at a point where my time is valuable enough to me that I’d rather give up a little extra potential income and let someone else put in the legwork to do the actual sales."

Wholesale Opportunities

If you have a more full-time investment in your creative retail business, you may be able to pursue wholesale opportunities where all payment is given up front. This is how it works for the WoollyHoodwinks. The what?? You may have seen the WoollyHoodwinks, which are plush woodland critters, at one of 100 shops or in their namesake book, The WoollyHoodwinks vs. The Dark Patch. The San Francisco-based business is run by Jeff Root and Scott Runcorn.

Originally, Scott says, the plush characters were sold on their own site: “We made a few direct retail sales, but mostly we received wholesale inquiries from shop owners that were interested in carrying our line. So we shifted our focus to wholesale marketing.” One book and many wholesale sales later, and we find ourselves in different economic times. Since the economic slow-down and subsequent closing of many shops that would carry the plush pals, Jeff and Scott are now focusing on both the wholesale program as well as the retail end of their site.

Consignment AND Retail AND Wholesale

Sometimes you have to dabble in retail sites like Etsy or your own personal site, wholesale ventures and consignment opportunities to see what works for you, time-wise and money-wise. Alyssa Zygmunt of BROOKLYNrehab runs the gamut, combining handmade, vintage and reclaimed found objects in her Etsy shop (like the key necklace in the main photo and the garden gnome below). She also sells in a vendor stall within a larger retail store, on a consignment basis elsewhere and dabbles in wholesale.

For the vendor stall, Alyssa doles out a monthly amount to the store and they take a small percentage of the sales. But because she can’t be there on a daily basis and doesn’t know exactly what products need to be replenished, it can be difficult, especially "when I have a large wholesale order at the same time. One is a risk, the other is a given." While many of her opportunities came through Etsy inquiries, Alyssa has since started working with a PR person to help with the store-contacting process. But make sure you are ready for the wholesale inquiries: "The tricky thing is that you need to make sure your Etsy prices are high enough so that you can offer up to 50 per cent less for your wholesale price."

She also recommends the Poppytalk Handmade Marketplace, which lists and displays handmade goods, but when browsers click "buy", they are redirected to the vendor's own shop. "Etsy is sooo big now that people get lost. I think the consumer appreciates a well-edited shopping experience and bloggers like a nice grouping, so the Poppytalk Handmade Mart is great for both reasons." She saw her sales increase after this, blog features followed and that is when wholesale inquiries began.

Have you ventured into the bricks-and-mortar retail or wholesale worlds? Tell us about your experiences!

Alicia Kachmar sells handmade whimsical crochet creatures and foods, ranging from the orange safety cones to black and white cookies to silver-lined clouds. She blogs at her site, writes for Brooklyn Based and contributes to many crafty communities as well as to the planning of crafty events in New York City.

Main image courtesy of Shutterstock.com.

Posted by: Alicia Kachmar

Posted in: selling

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1 Tracy Czech commented on 02/10/2012

I see this post is almost a year old, but thought a comment worthwhile nonetheless. I just launched a business aimed to help handmade artisans gain entry into brick-and-mortar boutiques. It is http://www.sourcinghandmade.com. It is a revolutionary new approach that your readers may like to pursue. Thank you.

2 Mallory Moore commented on 03/28/2013

Thank you so much for the helpful information! I have had an online store and been in a couple local retail stores for the past couple of years but would like to find my jewelry boxes in a bigger market!

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