Thursday, January 28, 2010

The wholesale show: a totally different animal

My wholesale booth after set-up (minus the coats, bag, and my purse which of course were put away during the show)

It's been 2 days since the end of the 2010 Beckman's Handcrafted Gift Show and I think I'm still trying to regain my energy to work in the office again. I really should have scheduled a day off, but you know - hindsight ;) We set up the booth all day Thursday, then the show ran from Saturday-Tuesday. Long hours, little sleep, recycled air, and fluorescent lighting really makes for an exhausting (but valuable) experience.

It was my 3rd year exhibiting at the January show (they also have a July show that I can't make due to my summer art fair schedule), and my 3rd wholesale show, period. So I'm still kind of a novice, even though I've been in business for over 10 years and dealt with wholesale here and there. Actually doing a wholesale show and diving into that world is a completely different story.

Being a retail show (art fair) veteran, I can really say that the 2 are completely different in many ways (in almost every way, as a matter of fact). For those of you who aren't really familiar with the difference, I'll explain why.

For retail, before the show your goal is to make as much inventory as you can, because you'll be making sales on the spot, and doing volume, point of sale. For wholesale, you just need to make sure you have only one of every style (samples) because store buyers will come and decide which items they want to order for future delivery. You also must display your samples in an "easy to read" fashion, with item numbers and prices easily displayed. Store owners are often in a rush and most of the time won't even want to bother touching anything to see a price or to view things any closer, and you won't have the time to either.

Another big difference is the PACE of the show. Retail shows (if they are good!) are bustling and busy, often there really is no significant amount of time for breaks between sales and customer service - at least not for several hours, so it really can be a constant whirlwind of activity. A lot of time at a wholesale show is spent pacing the floor (but trying not to look like you're pacing the floor, ha ha) waiting for just the right buyer to come into your booth who will like your work, think it will sell well in their store, is the right price-point, etc, and then place an order. There could be hours between orders, and you really have to try and stay awake, focused, and on your game to sell your line to a buyer when they walk in. I personally struggle with this, having grown up as a painfully shy person. Sales are not necessarily my forte, but I'm getting better and better as I learn and my business grows.

Also, you can't let yourself fall into the trap of sitting down for too long and looking disinterested. All successful wholesalers will say to NEVER sit down in your booth. I completely agree and understand the reasoning for this, but I don't always practice it, as much as I try. Sometimes I just gotta take a load off, especially due to my chronic hip/back trouble. But I try not to let that be an excuse too often ;) It can also be discouraging when you're not doing business, or hearing critical feedback from buyers (most aren't shy about telling you what is "wrong" with your work!), but it's something you have to stay positive about.

Another thing I've heard from wholesale veterans - you should never really expect to make a profit or break even the first time you do a new wholesale show. You might not really see success until you have gone back several times. Buyers sometimes need to see you at a show year after year before they decide to take a chance on your product. Establishing a good working relationship with store owners and getting lots of re-orders are your bread and butter. This year, I got 9 re-orders and 3 new accounts. Although I wanted more new accounts, it made me feel great to have so many stores come back to see me. Without them, the show would not have been profitable.

You also have to have different materials and preparations for the wholesale show. When I was packing, I put away my credit card machine, my sales books, bags, packaging materials, etc. You may have people asking to buy your samples at the end of the show (a good way to make some extra cash if you want!), but you really won't be making sales on the spot much for "cash and carry." I had to add to my packing list my 3-part purchase order forms (larger for wholesale, and more information fields for the buyer to fill out), wholesale marketing materials, clipboards (you will need to fill out orders while you are standing), and other small items.

And then of course there are the logistics of the orders, and new terms to learn - wholesale jargon. "Net 30," "keystone," "as ready," etc. You should be prepared with how you will accept payment, and make sure you get that information from the buyer. Will you accept check and pre-paid only? Will you accept credit card, and if so - do you get the number now or call them when the order is ready to ship? Will you accept Net 30 (terms)? Some artists flat out do not accept Net 30 (that means stores have 30 days to pay after receiving the merchandise), and some stores refuse to do anything except Net 30, so this can be a point of contention and business can be lost. You must be smart about accepting Net 30 (it is typical to request credit references) because stores can be notorious for not paying on time, or not paying at all (god forbid). This is when networking with fellow exhibitors can be a great thing - word of mouth about the ease of dealing with certain buyers over others, etc.

And the last big difference is the customer you are dealing with. At retail shows, of course, you are interacting with the general public. You feel more in control, it's easier to feel confident and active (which goes along with the pace of the show), and you may get more praise and positive feedback in general. Dealing with buyers at a wholesale show is more intimidating, especially if you are just starting out and/or if it's not a regular venue for you. Buyers have their livelihoods at stake. What they decide to carry in their store is directly related to their income and their success. Therefore, there's no sugar-coating of opinions or whether they want your work or not, and it can be a much harder sell. And in this regard, the wholesale show is a much more professional atmosphere as well. No cut-off jeans and a t-shirt for your outfit - ahh, how I miss summer! ;)

So I hope that helped describe the world of wholesale - at least as seen from my eyes so far. I hope to keep gaining experience from that side of things, and expanding my exposure. Now it's time to fill the orders and ship them out in the next couple months, and get ready for the summer season!

Please post if you have anything to add to the wholesale experience. Thanks for reading!

~ Melissa


  1. Very helpful to read this first-hand experience from Beckman's. We're still toying with the idea of doing the NY gift fair next year. It's a tough call for us. We produced a complete print catalog this year. It's working with some stores. Others still say they would need to see the work first hand before placing an order.

    You're right: retailers are quick to tell you what's wrong with your product. So far, though, the feedback has been constructive and stimulated new ideas about production even if it can be a little jarring at times.

    So, what does "keystone" mean in the wholesale realm?

    Any thoughts on advertising sites like Seeking Designers and Trunkt, ones that are positioning themselves to help artisans and indie businesses market their work to retail buyers?


  2. Really nifty. Never done a wholesale event, but love your explanation & tips. I enjoy learning about different aspects of the business. It's nice to learn from fellow maillers.

  3. Ali - "keystone" means doubling the wholesale price for retail, an exact 2x mark-up. Some people do 2.1, 2.2, 2.3 or even higher. My retail price is roughly 2.2x my wholesale.

    I used to be on Seeking Designers email list, but I think I unsubscribed? Hm. I'm not really too familiar or used those types of sites as tools before. I'm hoping wholesalecrafts will be successful, but I need to advertise on there as well. They have a pretty good deal: for $15 you can be on their "featured artist" page for a week. They gave me that for free to start, and that's how my one order from there came to me. So I'll have to pay to do that on a semi-regular basis and hope it pans out again.

  4. Having been on the "buyer" side of things at wholesale gift shows, I can't stress enough the point you made about not sitting down. I know it sucks, but almost nothing will turn me off as a buyer more than walking down the aisle and seeing a seller sitting there, looking bored. Or even worse, desperate-just giving you the sad "please come into my booth" stare.

    I've also been on the "seller" side at other trade shows and totally understand how the long hours can turn the peppiest wholesaler into a grouch. I've found that it's easier to stay friendly and alert if you have another person (or two if there's room) there with you. Besides keeping each other entertained, they can talk to other people coming into the booth if you're already busy with someone. As long as you don't turn into a little clique , constantly chatting with your buddy. No buyer wants to have to break into your conversation, it's easier to just walk on by than to stand there awkwardly while you chat.

    These tips are more for the benefit of someone that maybe hasn't done a show before, it looks ike you've got the right ideas, and the booth looks great-very inviting. Here's wishing you luck with your future shows! :)

  5. Thank you for this primer. It is extremely informative and insightful. I'd keystone this post a 10x. I keep on learning from the best and I am so grateful.

  6. @Kittenteeth - thank you for the buyer-side perspective! It's good to hear that and needed reinforcing. I was definitely guilty of sitting down sometimes, but mostly it was the end of the day or the last day of the show. Otherwise I tried to stay up and alert. You are right - it is SO hard when the show is so long....but part of the game ;)
    Thanks everyone!