Ceramic Art Trends, Tools, and Techniques for Potters Worldwide

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Marketing & Business

Assembling a Display Booth

Before putting together the elements of a successful display booth, it's important to do some thoughtful planning. First, you'll need to define how your structure will be used. Do you intend to set it up outside? If so, it's especially important to consider the weather conditions where you wish to set up your display. Wind can be the worst enemy of a potter who's set up at an outdoor fair, where strong gusts can seemingly pop up out of nowhere to uproot entire canopies and send them flying past the neighbor's booths. Depending on how well your booth is secured, you may find yourself gasping in horror as your canopy sails away and your pots tumble to the ground!

You can reduce the likelihood of wind damage by obtaining (or building) a canopy which can be staked securely into the ground. Most canopies designed for commercial use can be staked through holes in the feet of the corner poles, with narrow metal stakes (widely available from stores like Wal Mart). Each "foot" offers four holes for staking. It's advisable to use at least two stakes per foot, pounded into the ground at a 45 degree angle in opposing directions.

If you're setting up on concrete or pavement, however, the stakes obviously won't do you any good! Many professional vendors protect their displays from wind at such locations by setting the feet of the canopies into large coffee cans which are then filled with sand. Others obtain even more protection by permanently setting the detachable feet of the display poles in large coffee cans filled with concrete. Additional ways to weigh down the canopy include suspending sand- or concrete-filled plastic milk jugs from the high corners of the display booth, or attaching concrete-filled cross-bars between the corner posts at a 180 degree level slightly above the ground. However you choose to secure your canopy, it's good to know that you can sometimes keep your display up and avoid wind damage by removing the tarp (which can act as a sort of uplifting kite) from the display poles.

For summer shows in areas where the weather is sunny and hot, it's important to obtain a display which remains as cool as possible. Some canopies come with a reflective silver tarp which keeps the tent cooler than most others. (Not only will you be happier working in a cool tent, but your customers are likely to spend more time there, admiring your pots.) This type of canopy is designed with a gap of a few inches between the tarp and side bars, to allow for a roof-venting effect which further enhances cooling.

If the weather in your area tends to be cool or rainy, consider the E-Z Up Canopy, available with optional zip-down sides that can be fully enclosed during bad weather or for overnight security during 2- and 3-day shows. An added advantage of the E-Z Up canopy is evident in its name: the one-piece fold-up design is easily set up by one person in just a few minutes. Although much less expensive, canopies designed for pole-by-pole assembly can take one or two people as long as 20 or 30 minutes.

What size booth do you need? The standard display space is usually 10' x 10', and canopies are usually available in this size. Even if you enter a show with 10' x 12' space, the smaller canopy can be used. A larger canopy would prevent you from entering shows offering 10' x 10' display spaces.

A network of interior furnishings are a must for exhibiting your work at fairs and trade shows. The most economical way to do this is to use various household furnishings, combined so they'll set off your work.

Wooden crates (such as fruit and vegetable crates or crates used for storage) offer an excellent way to display your work at various eye-catching levels. Two or three folding card tables covered with plain white sheets can serve as your main furniture base, arranged in an L-shape, U-shape, or whatever works best for you. (You may wish to use matching colored sheets in lieu of the white table covers, but be careful not to choose loud colors or prints which might interfere with the designs of your pots.)

Stack and angle the crates on top of the tables at various levels to capture the attention of passers-by. Then arrange your pots on the crates so that they complement each other. Some people group their work by color; others group like pieces together by purpose or function. There are advantages and disadvantages to each. While a "blue" grouping might attract a buyer with a blue decorating scheme, that same buyer could overlook the useful colander she's been looking for simply because it's brown, and vice versa.

As you arrange your pots, consider the height, depth, width, and weight of each work. Wide, heavy pieces, particularly large platters and bowls which are decorated on the inside, usually display better at lower levels. As a matter of fact, any type of tableware or dinnerware is usually best displayed on the table, as during normal use.

Smaller pieces such as miniature bud vases often do best when placed at a higher level, where they won't be missed. Tall vases usually do well at a medium display height, so they'll be noticeably tall compared with the rest of the works, but not so tall that the viewer must look upward to evaluate the full piece.

While dinner plates do well in traditional table settings, decorative plates are best displayed in plate stands. If you don't have any at home, borrow some from a friend or relative until you can locate them at yard sales. If you require many of these plate stands, consider the inexpensive varieties available from MJ Designs, or from Aftosa or Axner. Along with all sorts of pottery accessories, these catalogs feature display aids such as adjustable easels, light boxes, mirror risers, 2- and 3-level stair displays, plus various other pottery & display accessories.

Another type of display furniture, effective for potters who make hanging items such as clocks, mirrors, wall vases, and night lights, is the modified shutter or lattice panel, available from your local hardware store. With a couple dollars' worth of hinges, screws, and a little elbow grease, these items can be modified to hang from your canopy frame or a few panels can be hinged together for self-supporting display of various hanging pottery items on hooks. At outdoor fairs, however, use these panels with caution, making sure they're extra secure (i.e., tie down with rope or bungees, or stake in place) to withstand sudden gusts of wind.

Other types of display furniture useful for the potter include multi-tier plant stands, step-up plant stands, and collapsible shelves. If using a canopy, it's also nice to enhance your display with hanging items such as bird feeders, bird houses, and hanging planters suspended from the canopy frame.

Last but not least, don't forget to highlight your work with lighting, if electricity is available. Halogen floor lamps and clamp-on directional spotlights can be combined fairly inexpensively to offer various pleasing effects. Look for these items at your local discount store (i.e., Wal Mart, etc.).

Marketing Your Claywork

Congratulations! You've finally gotten to the point where you think your pots are good enough to sell. But now what? Do you hang a shingle outside your front door, or take out an ad in the local yellow pages? Should you start signing up for craft fairs? Or do you simply hold an open house and invite all your friends over to buy gifts for their friends and relatives?

The answer could be all or none of the above, depending on the type of pottery you're making, the amount of time and money you plan to invest in your business, and more importantly, your personal preferences. If you wish to spend most of your time at your home studio, for example, you may wish to do strictly custom orders - a scenario where advertising is very important for maintaining regular business. If you enjoy being around crowds of people, however, you may prefer to sell finished wares directly to the public at arts and crafts fairs. At such events, show producers are generally responsible for most or all of the advertising.

Devise a Marketing Plan

Probably the most important thing you should do when you first start out is to write down your marketing ideas. Begin by listing what type of pottery you wish to market: Is it dinnerware? Wheel-thrown electric or oil lamps? Musical clay instruments? Defining the types of products you intend to sell will help you define your potential market.

Next, determine whether or not there is a market for what you wish to make. Is your product unique? If so, who would be likely to purchase it? Your plans to make and sell ceramic wind chimes aren't likely to go over well in, let's say, your small hometown if another talented, well-known potter has already cornered the market.

Your best bet is to come up with a product that is either extremely unique, ingeniously useful, or outrageously beautiful. Previously popular examples of these kinds of items have been the dragon-shaped incense smoker, the terra cotta garlic baker, or the painstakingly crafted 4' tall raku vase so awesome, anyone with $400 would gladly spend their money on it.

Consider your locality when deciding how you wish to conduct your business. Do you live in a touristy area, like a beach resort? Various ocean-themed collectibles ranging from mugs to kitchen magnets could be an excellent source of income, if that's what you like to make.

Consign Your Work Locally

A pretty safe way to market your pottery is to make consignment arrangements with a few of your local gift shop owners, farm markets, or other retailers. If you choose this route, be sure to put your agreement in writing, each of you sign and retain copies of the agreement, and check on your pieces every week or two.

Consignment agreements are an excellent way for the beginning business potter to break into the market. Consigning allows you to test each of your pieces in the market without having to part with a lot of money up front for booth fees, canopy cost, display furniture, advertising, etc. Remember, however, that you'll probably receive somewhere from 20%-40% less for each piece sold through consignment. After all, the shop owner needs to earn a profit on your work, too.

Exhibit at Arts & Crafts Fairs

If you're one of those people who loves to socialize and enjoys the fair scene, the craft fair circuit could serve as another important avenue for offering your products to the public.

Initially, the fairs you enter may be of the "granny goose" variety. These are the low-cost, hometown-type events sponsored by local civic organizations for fund-raising purposes. At such events, your booth space (although affordable) might be located in the midst of a sea of acrylic afghans, bird feeders made of plastic liter soda bottles, and mass-produced wooden cut-outs with cutesy stencils on them. In other words, the last thing on the minds of the show's organizers is whether or not the crafts being sold there are artistic, handmade, or even useful!

If your work is attractive and of fine quality, however, you can bypass this route and proceed directly to the higher-caliber craft shows. These can include events like Renaissance fairs, wine festivals, colonial fairs, authentic arts & crafts festivals, and the like. Usually, the better of these events are the ones which 'jury" or hand-pick their participants, and are therefore more difficult to get into. You are often asked to submit 3 to 5 color 35mm slides of your work, including at least one slide of your typical display set-up. You are also requested to fill out an application on which you describe how your work is made and what makes it special. In addition, you may be asked to list any shows where your work has been previously exhibited.

As a general rule, the more established (and profitable) craft fairs ask for much higher entry fees: i.e., $350 or more for the weekend as opposed to $25 for a 2-day "granny goose" show. The best of these shows often receive hundreds of entries from quality artists. In an effort to discourage application by crafters with less experience, many shows require a non-refundable $25 to $50 fee before they'll even look at your application.

But considering that such shows can bring 2-day returns of $2,000 and upward, it's easy to see why professional potters rarely complain about the high entry fees. (A few hundred dollars earned at a small, local fair is often considered a "good weekend.")

Most places around the United States offer at least one or two good craft shows each year. Many potters make it their business to exhibit strictly at the most successful craft fairs, whether they're held close to home or half-way across the nation. Be aware, however, that you should spend some time learning the ups and downs of selling at local craft fairs before you gamble on the additional expenses of transportation, room & board, food, etc. that usually go along with out-of-town shows.

You can usually obtain a list of upcoming fairs and festivals from your local chamber of commerce, visitor's bureau, or newspaper. Your state department of tourism can also serve as a valuable resource in providing this information.

Some small publishers in various regions of the United States now offer yearly guides to upcoming craft fairs & festivals, sold specifically to potential craft exhibitors. These guides often cover large regions or tri-state areas. Watch for them being sold booth-to-booth at upcoming craft shows in your area.

Because almost any type of craft fair requires planning months ahead of schedule, it's a good idea to request your application from show organizers at least 6 months in advance of the actual event. For larger fairs, don't be surprised if the application deadlines are closer to a year prior!

Pricing, Displaying, and Wholesaling Your Work

No matter how beautiful or useful a potter's work might be, one needs to find a market for that work and establish a customer base if s/he expects to earn a living at the business of pottery making.

Wholesaling

Marketing of pottery on a wholesale level has its advantages and disadvantages. It is particularly beneficial for production potters who can manage the demand for large numbers of pots on a regular basis. Because wholesale prices are generally only 50% of retail, however, the potter needs to produce twice as much, or become twice as efficient, to achieve the same returns direct retail sales can bring.

There are various ways in which you can wholesale your pottery. You could begin by knocking on doors of shops and galleries, armed with your portfolio or slide sheets depicting your best work, a few sample pots, business card, price list, and promotional brochure. For some artists, the sheer thought of making these "cold calls" is frightening. If you're one of these people, maybe you should hire an art agent to do the selling for you. If so, you'll need to be extra productive, however, because that "middleman" will also require a commission on the sale, leaving you with even less than the aforementioned 50/50 take.

Yet a professional agent could have the skills and contacts necessary to connect you with, perhaps, a national chain of kitchen stores. It's quite possible that such a client might place a few large orders for hundreds or thousands of pieces of pottery annually. It's easy to see that this route could be very lucrative for your business.

If your work is more sculptural or highly detailed and time-intensive, art galleries are probably the most desirable places to stock your work. But getting your "foot in the door" at such establishments can often be difficult and frustrating, unless you've already achieved a high reputation in the field or already know someone with contacts. Again, a reputable art agent is probably your best way of getting established galleries to consider stocking your work.

Pricing

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of selling one's work is arriving at a selling price. Attitudes on this subject can range from, "Let's keep the price low enough for the average person to buy" to, "I'm a talented artist offering unique, desirable work, worthy of a higher price tag."

The first approach usually results in more sales, but be careful not to underprice your work to the point where you can't earn a living. Consider the various costs incurred in running a pottery business, which could include any or all of the following: studio rental · firing costs · equipment costs · depreciation of equipment · cost of throw-aways: cracked pots, contaminated clay scrap, etc.· transportation costs · exhibit application & entry fees · advertising · supplies (tools, etc.) · utilities (i.e., light, heat, water, telephone) · consumables (clay, glazes, etc.) · assistance (if you have any paid helpers or apprentices) · office supplies · postage · business publications.

Now consider how many hours of each day, each week, you can expect to devote to your business. These hours should not only include the time it takes to make, trim, decorate, glaze, and fire your pots, but also: bookkeeping · cleaning the studio · actively selling your work · shopping for supplies · attending workshops or seminars· on-going education... the list could go on & on. Once you've examined and tallied these costs (try figuring them on a monthly basis), determine how many pots you can complete and reasonably sell during the same 30-day period. Now consider, at present prices, what the income on those pots would be. Do they cover your costs plus enough of a personal monthly income to keep you in food, shelter, clothing, and extras?

If not, re-examine and re-evaluate, then take action. Perhaps you're spending too much time making pots that don't sell well. You might be better off to concentrate on making large quantities of a few good sellers rather than just a few each of many different products with less appeal.

Many potters set minimum quantities and/or costs for wholesale or custom orders. This boosts productivity and weeds out less-reliable dealers. Full pre-payment of orders, especially custom orders, is the best way to assure the deal won't fall through and leave you with heaps of unsold pots.

Display Tips

Artist Profile Sheets - These are used to create the personal image you'd like to be associated with your pottery. They help sell your pieces to both wholesalers and end-customers, and can include:

  • how you first became interested in working with clay
  • where you studied, with whom, and for how long
  • what sort of special techniques you use when making your works
  • any relevant, formal job experience or apprenticeships you've had
  • quotes about you or your work from fellow artisans or well-respected persons
  • quotes from you regarding your work and what it means to you, or what you hope it will provide for others
  • newspaper clips or photographs about you and your pots.

Care Cards - If you sell any products which require instructions for use, be sure to provide these in the form of "tent signs" or attached tags to be displayed with your pots. Point-of-sale tags, signs, and care cards can help draw people to your pots. "Dishwasher safe," "Lead-free," and "Microwave safe" are popular label catch-phrases which can help boost sales.

Display Carefully - Be sure the final display of your pots is done tastefully. This means not too many signs, avoidance of arrangements which "clash," and putting as many pots as possible at eye level, so they won't be overlooked. Rotate inventory frequently, so it doesn't appear "stale." (And if dated work doesn't sell within the year, it definitely will appear stale.) For this good reason, you might want to try an approach popular with many artists: sign your work, but don't date it.

Promoting Your Business With Custom Sales Materials

As with any business, the potter who wants to be financially successful must give careful consideration to promoting his or her business.

When just starting out, it's a good idea to tell all your friends and any acquaintances that you now offer pottery for sale.

Many businesspeople agree that a listing in the yellow pages of your local telephone directory is essential for gaining the day-to-day type inquiries which can generate a large percentage of your overall sales. As with any type of advertising, a small, no-frills business listing is usually the most affordable. As your business grows and you find yourself with a larger advertising budget, you may want to advance to a larger, more noticeable display ad.

When deciding on what sort of information to feature in a display advertisement for telephone directory, newspaper, or any type of publication, keep the following in mind:

  • Always include your business name (preferably in logo style so that customers will learn to identify your business by sight when they see your ad), address (and physical description of location or nearby landmarks, if possible), and telephone number.
  • Include a brief description of your business specialty (such as "specializing in wheel-thrown dinnerware and custom stoneware orders").
  • Graphics are extremely helpful in capturing the reader's attention. If at all possible, include actual photographs or sketches of your work to help entice the reader into contacting you.
  • Don't list too much information in your ad. If there's a lot of type, readers will probably skip over it, as it's too time-consuming to read. A few choice words and photos are usually the most effective.
  • If you've received any high honors or awards, list those that are most prominent: i.e., "Best of Show Award Winner, 1999 Fine Arts Festival."
  • Leave some questions unanswered, so that the reader must contact you for the answers. (For example, if you offer classes, don't clutter your ad with times, fees, etc. - allow the reader to call you for details.)

Direct mailings to previous customers are very effective in marketing your business. To maintain a mailing list, begin recording the names and addresses of each customer on every sales ticket. Also make a mailing list sign-up sheet available on a clipboard with attached pen to anyone who visits your booth or pottery shop.

Then mail to the folks on your list when you've compiled your seasonal schedule of craft shows/exhibits. Prepare a 2-sided 8-1/2" x 11" flyer, one side listing your schedule of upcoming shows; the other side featuring your return address in the upper left corner of the middle third, when folded. This type of piece is most cost-effective, as it can be mailed without an envelope. All you need to do is affix mailing labels or fill in the addresses of your customers. If your list has more than 200 persons on it, consider purchasing a bulk mail permit. Such a permit allows you to mail each piece for a lesser rate. Depending on how many mailings you do each year, it may or may not be more affordable for your business.

If you obtain a bulk mail permit, you can simply print the permit insignia in the upper right corner of the mailing panel, saving you the time it would take to affix a postage stamp to each flyer. Contact your local postmaster for details on bulk mailings.

If you wish to concentrate on mail-order pottery (especially effective in the months before the holidays), you may want to prepare a complete brochure on your major products. This can be easily accomplished by using a regular 8-1/2" x 11" sheet of paper, folded into thirds.

When held horizontally, this design gives you a total of 6 vertical panels, 3 on each side of the paper. The outside flap can feature your name, logo, one or more photos or line drawings of your work or studio, and an overall description of your pottery. The inside 3 panels can be designed as separate entities (i.e., one featuring your biography and perhaps your photo at work; one featuring the type of pottery you sell; one featuring a price list). Or you can tie the three interior panels together with an overall theme, such as by featuring photos, descriptions, and prices of each piece you're offering for sale. The outside moveable flap may be used to re-cap your business name & logo, address, location description, telephone number, and any pertinent information not included on previous pages. Reserve the stationary middle panel of the brochure's exterior as a self-mailer panel, as described in the preceding show schedule flyer.

If your show schedules or brochures will be distributed to 100 people or less, it's usually most cost-effective to duplicate them at a copy shop. For more than 100, professional printing will not only save you money per piece, but usually offers results of a higher quality.

To enhance your promotional pieces, consider printing in black plus a second color of ink, on a textured or colored paper stock. Just remember, however, that anytime you add another color of ink, you nearly double the cost of printing. The higher quality stocks cost more, too, yet are often worth the extra because of the professional appearance they project.

Professionally designed and printed matching business cards, letterhead, and envelopes are essential in portraying your business as professional and established. If you have all of these designed and printed at the same time, the printer will usually offer a discount on the work. Be sure to keep a supply of business cards on hand wherever you go, so you'll always have them when you need them.

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