Occasionally we are asked what is our advice on how to find some success as a print seller. A print seller can entail anything from an artist selling on Etsy to a web based art gallery with an online store. One thing that they have in common if they come to FinerWorks is they are usually working hard to increase the number of prints they sell. I would love to tell them how to wave a magick wand which will create immediate sales. But most successful businesses get to where they are by engaging in tactics that are slow and steady. In the case of print sales I would like to discuss 5 business essentials which will improve the chances of success in the long term. They are having a clear vision of how you are going to scale your business, keep a positive outlook as the challenges increase, stay in communication with your customer base, know what you are selling, and don't overstate and under-deliver.
1. Having a Clear Vision of How You are Going to Scale Your Business
The first thing you should do is make sure you have a clear vision of how you are going to scale your art based business as it grows. Don't be short sighted when selling your prints and how you go about fulfilling those orders. For the new seller, it's easy to fall into the trap of going overboard, doing things they might not normally be able to do when sales start to take off. There is a feeling of excitement with those first few print sales and so you go to great lengths are gone to to make sure the order arrives perfectly. Tracking is checked and double checked a few times a day and you send lengthy thank you e-mails. With the order you may have even include a nice little thank you card and spend minutes to hours making sure the print is packaged just perfectly. By the time you get the print shipped out you may have not even made a profit if you were to calucate the time and effort you put in the process of fulfilling that order. But that is okay. The high of that first sale makes it worth it. I can tell you from experience that this will get old real fast. I know that describes a lot of our own customers at some point. If that describes you how are you going to do all these things when you go from one order a week to 5 or 10 orders a day. You will be a nervous wreck. We have a customer who orders a small inventory of prints every couple weeks. When she started she got in over her head when her illustration business started to grow. She had done everything right with her shoe string budget marketing. She started with family, friends and eventually friends of those friends and so on. Much of her illustrations were getting sold to people by word of mouth, sites like Pinterest and Facebook. Where she got into trouble was she was also including a lot of extra things as part of the business. This included unadvertised extras like matting, gift box packaging she designed, and certificates of authenticity and even a special hand written note on a card. While those were all great things to do some of it was not sustainable at the prices she was charging once her business grew to a certain point. All the things she had done was a very labor intensive processes. Hiring someone was also out of the question since she could not pay the person enough so she had to raise her prices which impacted her sales. Her sales dropped like a rock so she ended up regrouping by charging what she had been charging but with out all the extras. Her problem was not that she was offering all these extras but that she had been offering all these extras without any plan on how to scale up as her business volume grew.
2. Keep a Positive Outlook as the Challenges Increase
Increased challenges are a given for any growing business. Stay positive as your business grows and it become more complex to operate. Don't be discouraged if you have had to scale up your art business and find your profits seem less. I can testify to this from personal experience. When the predecessor of FinerWorks was first starting we were only printing on canvas. Actually I should say "I" because I was doing it mostly myself out of the garage. I was doing the printing, stretching and mounting (by hand), packaging, making shipping labels while also maintaining a small website for people to order through. Because I had little overhead beyond what it cost me in materials and shipping I netted a higher percent in profits than most businesses ever will. This changed dramatically once I outgrew my garage and had to employee people. The aside from payroll, there was now also rent for a production facility and bills for equipment that was leased or purchased needed to be paid monthly. Suddenly my above average income went to below average. After a few months I started to wonder if I had made a big mistake. But rather than get down and depressed I chose to look at it as a challenge. Being the creative type probably helped because I focused that creative drive into coming up with new systems that would allow me to automate things so we could start to regain some of those lost profits.
3. Stay in Communication with Your Customer Base
Buyer seller relations are incredibly important especially if you as an individual are doing the selling. We have had people tell us that they want to start a website to sell their print but have someone else handle everything so they don't have to deal with the customers and the business aspect. The truth is I am unaware of any instances in which this has worked unless they were to have an assistant to handle these things for them. For the person just starting it is even more important to followup with your buyers to see if they have any questions or concerns with their orders. Sometimes there might be issues you are not aware of that might have occurred. This could range from the way the package was delivered to how the print appears in comparison to what they saw on your website.
Understand dealing with buyers is not always straight forward and the same from order to order. We know because our own customer service people seem to spend much of their work day doing answering requests for upgrading shipping, making changes to delivery addresses, modifying or even cancelling orders. Don't be surprised if you spend a portion of your day dealing with unexpected things such as those. Have a policy to be as accommodating to your own customers as possible. This may mean checking your phone or email messages frequently throughout the day to setting up a toll free phone number that forwards to your mobile phone. The bottom line is you got to be there for your customers or at minimum be able to respond in a timely fashion to their requests so they keep coming back.
4. Know What You Are Selling
This is not always easy. People selling prints of their work will experience all kinds of issues they may not have initially expected and leave them scratching their head. Once in a while we will have artists contact us because their own customers were not happy with a print. The artist had never seen an actual print of the image themselves so did not know if they needed to make some adjustments to the file before printing more or if they simply had a customer which had seen the image online on a monitor that was not very accurate. Usually it is the later so don't be too alarmed if that happens. Just be prepared in case it happens more than once in a while.
But it also might be something simpler. As a case in point, we had a customer who did photo realistic drawings of various universities around the country. He had been reasonably successful with FinerWorks handling the drop shipping for him. One day he came to us because a couple orders had been returned by his customers. It was his latest drawing and he was wondering why this had happened all of a sudden when it had not happened before. We looked at the digital file of the drawing with him and came to discover the photo of his art had not been completely in focus. This made the scale prints seemed a little blurry. It was not obvious on his screen until he zoomed in close so this detail was easily overlooked when he submitted the file for printing. Fortunately he had an open channel with his customers so was able to correct it quickly by taking a better photo. I bring this example up because all too often we find our customers expect us to know or contact them if there is a problem with an image. Don't rely on us because what is not acceptable for one person may be acceptable for another. Rely on yourself.
5. Don't Overstate and Underdeliver
For instance, don't display something you are not selling or able to sell. I have given friendly warnings on this in the past to some of our sellers about this because it simply makes them look bad in the eyes of their own buyers. A customer of ours started a website to sell his fine art photo prints. He had a nice gallery setup, a shopping cart and print options which matched our own. But he was offering sizes which did not make sense in some instances. For example he had a nice photo of the Golden Gate Bridge which was almost panoramic but was offered in a square format. In another instance he had a print offered which was way too big than what we could provide at the time. It was that big one which got him in trouble. After being unable to find an alternative printing company that carried the same fine art paper he wanted he had to go back to the customer and tell them he had made a mistake and needed to send them a slightly smaller size.
Also provide a realistic delivery schedule for yourself and your customers. This is regardless if you are making simple inkjet prints at home in your basement or ordering prints through a lab like ours. The unexpected will happen. You run out of ink and discover that the office supply store no longer carries those cartridges. The print lab you use ships the order and it gets damaged or lost while in shipment. Or your computer crashes and you lost the file you needed to print. Give yourself some sort of buffer and be careful in offering "guaranteed" delivery dates. Years ago I tried that with FinerWorks and it was a very expensive mistake. It almost seemed whenever a "guaranteed delivered by" order was placed, what could go wrong did go wrong. Of course I am exaggerating a bit but it lead to many unpleasant experiences and apologies to customers when I could not meet their deadline or something happened to the shipment while in transit.
Growing an art based business which sells prints is different than most other businesses. If you are the artist or photographer you have a personal and invested interest in the products that are sold so you want everything to be perfect. Understand that you will experience challenges as your business grows. It is easy to get caught up in your successes and challenges emotionally. I understand that since you put your heart and sole into the creation of the products you are selling. But don't allow those emotions to overrule logic and sound thinking. And finally stay in touch with your customers so you know how to improve what you offer and how you offer it.