For the past 16 years, Bruce Baker has been a premier crafts business teacher, having taught over 500 workshops throughout the United States and Canada.
Bruce lives with his wife, Nancie, in rural Middlebury, Vermont. They opened their first retail store, Sweet Cecily, in 1987. The store sells handcrafted items with a focus on folk art and is a favorite for tourists in the area. They also sell nationwide in their online retail store.
Two years later, they opened Great Falls Collection, a jewelry and nature store that features items for the home and garden with a focus on the environment.
Bruce served on the board of directors for the American Craft Council for three years and was a founding member and vice chairman of the American Craft Association (a division of the American Craft Council, a membership organization to provide services and benefits to craftspeople).
Bruce is the past president of the Downtown Middlebury Business Bureau, and currently serves on its board and has also served on the board of directors of the Addison County Chamber of Commerce and the Vermont State Craft Center at Frog Hollow.
Bruce teaches workshops on marketing, sales, customer service, booth construction, jewelry displays, slide presentations, visual merchandising, and trends that affect the craft and gift business.
Part 1: Setting the Stage for Success
I was once asked, “What do artists need to do in order to secure a better future for themselves and the future of the craft business?” The question took me by surprise, and I don’t recall how I answered it at the time. Later, however, I could not get it out of my mind. What is the primary thing artists need to do to ensure a bright future?
Having thought it over for some time, the answer became quite clear. Artists need to tell themselves and their customers a different story. The story I hear when I visit shows and conduct workshops is that business is dwindling. Some artists are questioning how much longer the craft business will survive. I meet so many people who are discouraged with their business, wishing the ’70s or ’80s would return. I hate to be the one to break the news, but the buying habits of those two decades are not going to see a revival anytime soon. Many of the difficulties we experience are self-fulfilling prophecy; that is, they are the result of telling each other and the world how bad the economy is. Propagating the myth of the “starving artist” or “the artist as a dinosaur” will not help your business, improve your mental health, or lead to sales.
On the other hand, I meet a lot of people who are doing quite well with their art/craft businesses, with many reporting the best sales of their career. What’s the difference between those who are experiencing success and those who aren’t? The artists who are successful exude attributes that are missing from those who are struggling, with the most significant attribute being a positive attitude.
Too many artists tell themselves and others a story of gloom and doom and receive more gloom and doom in return. The universal law of attraction dictates, “What you dwell on, you get more of.” You’ll have a brighter future if you train yourself to think more optimistically. This is known as the power of positive thinking. I admit that the craft business isn’t as easy as it used to be. However, the best strategy to change your business will cost you nothing. It simply requires you to change the way you think.
It’s not just artists who are facing changes: bookstores, travel agents, and music stores have also endured enormous changes. The industries that continued conducting business the same way they did in the ’90s are struggling or are already out of business. But the ones that have reinvented their business are generally experiencing growth. The art and craft business has gone through several changes in the past decade, but it doesn’t mean business is over. The same transformation that’s working for other industries can be applied to our industry as well.
If you’re doing the same things over and over again, chances are you’re struggling. Certain crafts aren’t as popular as they used to be. If you’re making art in a style or genre that’s no longer desirable to customers, you can’t blame them for not buying it, but you can reinvent yourself. There’s so much opportunity for those who allow themselves to think differently about the future. I am not saying this is easy, but anything is possible if you believe you can do it.
Artists often tell me that the middle class is disappearing. In America this certainly seems to be true. But China and India (thanks to our spending) are building a middle and upper class in numbers that make the United States’ middle class pale in comparison. I don’t expect everyone who reads this to start selling their art to the new millionaires of India, but I guarantee the first artists who do so will be highly rewarded. I present this as an example of how artists are going to have to think creatively about where, what, and how they market to buyers.
What’s New is Hot: Pay attention to emerging trends
It’s amazing how few artists pay attention to current and future trends while making design and marketing decisions and material choices. Trends drive the marketplace, and if something is selling, it’s generally on-trend. All too often, artists stumble onto a trend, meaning it happens by accident and not by design. In my consulting work with artists, I find that those who pay attention to trends have better businesses as a result. If you don’t use the market forces available — which dictate customer desires and buying habits — you’re squandering a valuable resource.
Trends determine what various groups of people buy and, as a result, are born out of events in world culture. Magazines, mail-order catalogues, websites, and other media show customers a style with which they can identify. Then the desire to buy, own, and display that style is set in motion. If your work and display don’t project this style, customers won’t buy from you. This is true of wearable art and fashion as well as home décor.
Paying attention to trends will yield a big payoff. Trends are the friend of creative people, not the enemy, as so many artists think. Everyone who designs and creates merchandise needs to stay informed about current and future trends by subscribing to several magazines that speak to their customer base. Get on the mailing list of mail-order catalogues and attend national gift shows. Pay careful attention to the colors and style trends that reveal themselves to you from these venues. There is so much information available to be used for creative innovation that it amazes me that everyone doesn’t use these tools.
Don’t be intimidated by the fact that most of the merchandise in these publications and at gift shows is mass-produced and low priced. Just because the retail price of an item is less than what you could buy your materials for doesn’t mean valuable information can’t be gleaned from it. Paying attention to advertisements in print and on television will also expose you to information, helping you to make design decisions and to talk about your work in a way that will increase your sales.
Here are some trends you should be aware of to make the most of current buying habits:
Over the next decade, 78 million baby boomers will retire. They’re concerned about the future and the amount of stuff they own. They want to downsize and simplify and are not as likely to make frivolous purchases. They will, however, buy objects that have meaning or items that are functional.
The Shrinking Middle Class
The middle class is disappearing, and many of those individuals also belong to the boomer generation. They are concerned about their future and the future of the planet. In the past they were major buyers at art and craft shows. Like aging boomers, they are impressed by function and value. Adding value to your art and being “green” is one way to appeal to this group.
The Rise of the Upper Class
As the middle class shrinks, some of those individuals are moving into the upper class. One of the things this growing demographic has done with its wealth is acquire multiple residences. Many of these homes are rarely used, but they become a great showplace for art and craft. Selling to this demographic is possible, but it requires out-of-the-box marketing. Working in a larger scale is one way to appeal to them. Is your work large enough to be in a trophy home?
Many artists have websites, but they are not as consistent as they could be. Upgrading your website and promoting your work online can help add sales to your bottom line and bring a younger customer to your brand. Are you taking advantage of online shopping?
The New Simplicity
The clutter of the past is giving way to a simpler, more elegant look. Any magazine you pick up will show cleaner design lines. Does your merchandising reflect this trend, or does your look appear cluttered, fussy, or overdone?
Have you noticed how many celebrity chefs there are on television? The list is extensive, with more added every season. They’re creating a huge interest in food preparation, presentation, and consumption. This trend offers more opportunity for anyone willing to create functional cooking or kitchen-related items. Are you aware of what Rachael Ray, Bobby Flay, and Jamie Oliver are telling your customers they need?
Gardening is next in line to cuisine when it comes to opportunities for artist’s product development. Millions of people are gardening for many reasons, including eating organic food, getting exercise, and finding sanctuary. The garden is ripe and full of abundance, from the practical (garden tools and bird feeders) to the decorative (lawn sculpture and kinetic art). Many products can be created to fill needs for those with outdoor spaces.
This trend is for anyone who has cats, dogs, horses, or other exotic animals in their lives. As “empty nest” boomers fill their lives with pets, Generations X and Y are postponing childbearing until their late 30s or 40s. These patterns are creating explosive growth, and experts estimate that pet accessories will become a 40-billion dollar industry over the next few years. Many artists have introduced pet-related products — cat and dog toys, pet funeral vessels, etc. — into their line with amazing success.
The Green Movement
The green movement is here for the foreseeable future. Artists who incorporate green thinking in everything they do — from the materials they use to the marketing methods they employ — will find a new enthusiastic customer base.
Americans aren’t the only consumers on the planet. Our culture is creating a millionaire every day in countries like India, China, and some Middle East oil-producing nations. Many foreign nations have a respect and desire for American style. Savvy and forward-thinking artists will explore these markets, gaining an advantage over other artists who think U.S. citizens are their only customers.
The preceding trends are by no means a complete list, but offer the most obvious opportunity for artists at the moment.
Thinking Into the Future
I had an opportunity to sit in on a trends session sponsored by the Kentucky Crafts Marketing program, a division of the Kentucky Arts Council. The brilliant speaker, Keith Recker, is a guru of trend forecasting. He wowed the audience with his candid and informed presentation about trends that affect artists and designers.
During the question and answer period, someone asked, “What’s new and hot?” Keith quickly quipped, “What’s new is hot.” Since I heard those words, I’ve noticed that anything new in the marketplace does indeed receive extra customer attention. How much is new in your line? I know many artists who have had the same work in their booth for the past decade, yet so much has changed in our culture.
I was eager to get more insight from Mr. Recker, so I contacted him and asked him to elaborate. This was his reply:
What is new is hot, for three reasons. First: “What’s new?” is the big question always on the lips of a repeat buyer. They’ve shopped your line at least once, and probably purchased their first choices. If they’re back, it’s because the investment they made in you paid off. So what happens the second time around? The strongest possible answer to “What’s new?” is to show some strong new ideas that represent your artistic take, what’s beautiful and desirable right now. It will showcase your skills and give you a chance to talk about your creative process.
The second reason has a lot to do with the competitive market we live in. Even the best ideas have a life cycle of introduction, growth, maturity, and decline. And often, the faster the growth and the juicier the maturity, the faster the drop-off once your customers have enjoyed the product. Keeping yourself committed to newness means you will always have product ready to flow through the curve.
Last, but not least: One of the real advantages artisan-driven businesses have over major corporations is nimbleness. You can move from idea to final product to market introduction in a fraction of the time it takes a corporation to cover the same ground. Take advantage of your agility in translating inspiration into sales by constantly thinking about new ideas.
END OF PREVIEW
“If you only read one book on how to succeed in the handmade business, I would recommend The Ultimate Guide to Handcrafted Success. Bruce Baker really knows the business and teaches it in an easy-to-understand way.”
“I’ve gone to several Bruce Baker speaking seminars throughout the last few years. I’m so glad to see that all of his knowledge has finally been compiled into a book for everyone in the handmade business to learn from.”
“For years I’ve had people tell me that I should start making a living selling my handmade jewelry. After reading Bruce Baker’s The Ultimate Guide to Handcrafted Success, I finally know, step-by-step, where to start. This is an amazing resource!
“I can’t believe how many things I’ve been doing wrong in the way I’ve been marketing my work! Thank you, Mr. Baker, for helping me see the light!”