by Tim Eberhardt
Shortly after "Clay Times" published my article "Developing Your Own Potter's Web site" in the March/April, 2003 issue, two people in the same day wrote asking me if I had any thoughts on how to increase sales on their existing web sites. My replies were more broadly stated and dealt with how I think I have stimulated sales of my pots in general. The more I thought about it, the more a sales strategy materialized.
I have been a potter for ten years and am currently in the enviable position of selling everything I want sell. I say "everything I want to sell," because I don't want to sell everything. And since I am offering advice in this article, I'll offer this advice up front. Keep a lot of the best. Be your own major collector. You will need the pieces down the line. If not for shows, or books, or retrospectives, you will need it for your retirement! When you do sell the best or the great pieces, have them photographed and keep a record of where they go.
Ok, on to wooing sales.
First, I know my audience. I know what they want and how they think. It is very easy for me to grasp that about my audience because for years, I collected what they collect. I know exactly how to talk to them because I know their concerns about quality, quantity, condition and value of my pots in relation to the other choices a buyer can make about a purchase. I am happy to compare my pots to any pot ever made. I remember a painting instructor putting a blank canvas in front of the class on the first day and stating, "I don't want to scare you, but every mark you make on that canvas will be compared to every mark ever made on a canvas." That stuck with me. I was a history major in another life and that comment goes round in my mind. Perhaps because of it, I know where my pots fit in the historical scheme of things. And I'll tell anybody how great my pots are and back it up with comparisons. Tickled to do it.
Don't neglect or underestimate anyone's sense of history and mortality. Even if they don't think about it, people's choices are affected by those concepts. When someone is holding your pot, point out that what they have in their hands will be around thousands of years. I tell customers that they are only custodians of the pot. It will be around longer than they. And now the kicker, when I sell them the pot, I have a magic marker on hand and I write the buyers name, the date, the circumstances of the sale and I thank the buyer in quotes and sign the bottom again. Do not underestimate the impact of this action. Collectors, by their nature, are concerned with the path of the object through history. Everyone wants to be historically significant and by doing the above, you grant the buyer a small place in history. (Ahhhh, the power of Art!) You have to believe in the significance of your work.
While this transaction is happening, ask if you can get the buyer's name, address, phone, and e-mail. Tell the buyer that you do this for a couple of reasons. First you want to stay in contact- future shows, special announcements and the like. Second, you want a record of where the pot goes. And you ask them, "Can I borrow the piece if I ever need it for a show?" Everyone wants museum pieces; show pieces. By asking this, you imply this piece is important. By them owning it, they are important. I am not offering this advice to in any way deceive the buyer. I am telling you that if you can't honestly say the above, you are not working to your full potential.
On the bottom of every pot I make, I put my name, "St. Louis", the date, and a number. I number every piece. This is burned into the pot using cobalt. Again, this is historical information and it is important to the buyer and the seller. It is literally "getting you name in circulation." That pot will be around long after buyer and seller are gone. The next buyer will love to know anything he or she can about the history of that pot. You know how maddening it is not to be able to read a signature on a painting or pot? It condemns the piece to obscurity. Neither you nor the buyer wants that. Mark your work clearly.
If you know your audience, you know where to advertise. Find what your audience likes to read and put your images in those publications. Don't know what they like to read? Simple; ask them while you are selling. I advertise whether I have anything to sell or not. I do my own ads with a digital camera and Photoshop and send off a disk to the magazine I have chosen. Six hundred dollars for a one time 1/4 page ad is a lot, but it's not if you have targeted the audience effectively. Because I do my own ad artwork, I never repeat an ad. Every ad is new. The only common thing in every ad is my web address- www.newartpottery.com. It took a few years for me to come to the conclusion that advertising doesn't cost; it pays.
Get a web site. Read my article in the March/April 2003 "Clay Times" and visit this web page: www.newartpottery.com/web/site.html. Don't expect a web site to change your life immediately. Give it a couple of years and it will. It is a very powerful tool not only to sell, but to simply convey information about your work to the world. Read that again: the WORLD!
Keep your web site fluid and engaging. People will not return to your site if they expect that there is nothing new. I advise you construct and maintain your own web site. It is not difficult. If you have to enlist the efforts of other to change and maintain your web site, you are wasting time, effort and money. If you do it personally, the intimacy of the relationship will be evident to the viewer. And buyers want to feel they know the makers.
I create my own print ads and I have the ability to print my own posters. At first they were 8.5 x 11" but now I can print 24" wide and any length. When I do a show, I put my posters up anywhere I can and they are the generally the biggest and the best around. They get noticed. So much so that people steal them. That's fine with me. There are collectors that are avid about collecting the ephemera of an artist. And I cater to them. If someone asks me for a poster, I whip out a poster and a magic marker, treat the poster just like a pot and gladly put that signed poster in their hands. How would you like to have a personalized poster from George Ohr, Hamada, Leach, Voulkos?
I give a lot of things away at shows. I always have something to put in the hands of someone I take a fancy to; I want to thank; I want to remember me. The best thing I have found to do this a ceramic necklace. You want people to come to you at a show? You put a beautiful and free ceramic necklace- that has your name on it- around the neck of fifty people at a show and you will have fifty people walking around that show advertising for you. Any piece that is a necklace could just as easily be a christmas tree ornament. They will remember your name, believe me. And they will seek you out at shows. You do that for a few years and you will notice results.
I also give away pots; not the major pieces, but minor pots I won't miss. Someone has a new baby? Whip out the magic marker!
Do you want to really endear collects to you? You make a piece especially for them. Of course, you mark the bottom as such. Sell it to them if you must or better yet give it to them as a gift. Lately, I have been making sculptures of my high-end buyers. And giving them to them as gift. Again, what would it mean if Voulkos made a little sculpture of you and GAVE it to you. What would you pay for one? Sell it if you must. They will buy it- at nearly any price- guaranteed.
I also send out gifts at christmas. This year, I literally wrote "thank you" notes for my best buyers on some pots using a squeeze bulb and cobalt. I shot a snowy white over the piece, fired it and sent it off. I got some heartfelt thank yous back! Again, what if Ohr wrote your name on the surface of a pot?
Finally, I do cultivate an image that is not only knowledgeable and generous, but also one that is a bit outrageous or "off-the-wall." On numerous occasions, I have flipped a coin for a pot double or nothing. I do make some giveaways that are a bit questionable or naughty. I often work in clay while doing a show. And what I am making at the show this year will be available same time next year and not before. This year, I made frogs holding hundred dollar bills. One frog is called "Friday Bill," another "Saturday Bill" and so on. The frogs have a text balloon above their heads saying something like "I am paying Tim's Saturday hotel, food and beer bill for Saturday, July 11th, 2002 at the Zanesville "Pottery Lovers" show." This summer I'll be selling those up in Zanesville and I guarantee that they will cost lots more than the bill and I won't have enough of them to sell.
Again, its that whole notion of time and place in history, the personal touch for the buyer and a bit of eccentric, whimsical behavior that will have those frogs hopping out the door. And customers in!