I thought this might be an interesting topic to talk about, as it’s not really something I’d thought through at the start and it turns out they have the potential to be quite different. Selling to trade, or ‘wholesale’ means selling your cards to other businesses who will mark them up and sell them on at a normal retail price in their shops. Selling retail means you’ll be cutting out the middleman and selling your cards to the end customer. You’ll make a larger profit per sale, selling retail, but the quantities per order will be smaller.
I personally found that managing both at the same time was quite tricky, and I now exclusively sell to trade, although I do have lots of friends in the industry who do both very well – maybe my little brain just can’t handle too much multi-tasking. I can see all the benefits of retail-selling though and it really just depends on your set up, your route to market and initial investment. I’ve never had a printer at home that would allow me to print onto thick board for cards or prints, and I have always gone to card or fine-art printers for production. I’m baffled, therefore, by all the amazing sellers on Not On The High Street and Etsy who can personalise prints, cards and textiles and have them in the post in a couple of days!! My suppliers would never be able to get an order turned around in less than 5 days, and certainly not in quantities of one per design!
One of the major downsides of not doing the retail, for me, has been reducing my interaction with the end customer. Social media like Instagram is there for you to display your wares to people who might be interested. I often get requests through there as to where someone might find my work online, or if I ship to the US or something, and I either just have to flatly turn them down, or go through the long-winded back and forth of finding out if I have a stockist locally to them and if they made a recent order. It’s a very peculiar feeling to basically be refusing to sell to people when they have been so kind to take an interest in my work. Especially as it’s just a card or two – can’t I just make an exception this time? The trouble is, it wouldn’t just be one time.
Community-wise, I don’t think there’s much in it. The trade shows I take part in are amazing for making friends, catching up with friends, and reassuring yourself that everyone else is winging it and dealing with difficult situations in their own shapes and forms. In the same way, communities like Etsy and local markets are a great way of surrounding yourself with like-minded creatives if you’re focused on retail.
One thing I’m really aware of with wholesale, as we’re right in the middle of it at the moment, is the capacity for it to get exponentially bigger and bigger in a very short space of time. One additional client or customer, such as a new distributor, can literally double or triple your yearly turnover in one email exchange. Whilst this is exciting, it’s also a very big responsibility, with important commercial and legal decisions to make and negotiations to take part in. Supplying orders like these are riskier, and it is a lot more expensive; but super exciting. I’m sure that there is a very similar potential to grow a retail business in this way, but possibly a way of slowing down the growth if you’re a one girl/boy band, by temporarily closing your online shop or not taking on new commissions for a period of time, or simply being out of stock of certain designs. With accounts like Paperchase or John Lewis, once you’ve committed to supplying them, the show must always go on!
One thing they both have in common though is that it’s all a matter of spinning plates. And this is what means there is endless potential, whichever you choose. You can have various products or online shops, bespoke options, commissions and freelance work alongside too. There are always a million things to think about and I think it’s this variety that keeps it interesting! I started my business because I loved drawing, but it quickly becomes very logistical and it’s important always to make time for the creative stuff too.
I’ve summarised below my main observations of each, in case you’re struggling to decide which might suit you best:
- You’re working with bigger orders so will need a bigger stock.
- Cash flow is precious because you may need to fund large print runs and won’t be paid by the customer until 30 days later.
- You need a big range so that shops have lots of choices to be able to reach minimum order quantities.
- You don’t have as much communication with the end-customer (although this is made up for by the great relationships you form with independent shops, agents and distributors.)
- Your products need to be able to be mass-produced for larger orders.
- Lots of potential for big growth in a short space of time.
- The greetings card community is amazing, friendly and supportive and leads the way for design around the world.
- Initial set-up costs might be smaller, as your order sizes will be smaller (but there will probably be more of them)
- You’ll make a larger profit per sale, which will be especially valuable if your cards/products are very intricate or have handmade elements.
- Less money is tied up in stock, particularly if you make-to-order; therefore, smaller risk.
- Possibly more manageable if you are/want to remain a one girl/boy band.
- Unless you move to out-sourcing the manufacturing/packing of orders, a lot of your time is likely to be tied up in the fulfilment aspect (packing and posting) which, as you grow, could really eat into you design-time.
There seems to be loads of amazing maker-communities through online marketplaces like Etsy and Not On The High Street.
I hope this gives a balanced view of wholesale and retail selling. I have a lot more experience now with wholesale, and I hope I don’t appear biased to this! Both are brilliant ways to earn money from your artwork, but over time I think eventually it becomes clear which one suits you best and will become your primary focus!
- Fluffy animal-drawer at Louise Mulgrew Designs. Louise loves walks on the beach, listening to Harry Potter audio-books, cuddling kittens and the full moon. Her favourite yoga posture is Happy Baby and her favourite colour is rainbow.
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