Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Smile and Be Grateful

When I was growing up, if you were a kid and you were feeling whiny or just being cantankerous, an adult would usually tell you to "count your blessings." My mother tells me that I would often greet these people with a look of utter disdain, even as a baby.

I've never really liked being told to do something that was against my nature and inclinations at the time. While I'm perfectly willing and able to count, and I do recognize that in many ways I have more blessings and advantages than most people in the world, I dislike being told to do either as an antidote for a good sulk. It's the comparison that gets to me. When you're told to count your blessings, what you're really doing is comparing yourself to some other poor schmoe who doesn't have it as good as you.

"Oh, your foot was run over and then eaten by a rabid badger? Well, count your blessings! There's them as don't have feet!"

Okay, so I'm going a little silly there, but you get the idea.

So I don't count my blessings. I prefer to take a slightly different path, and more in keeping with what "count your blessings" really means to me, and that is a philosophy to smile and be grateful. Not grateful to anyone in particular, but just in general gratefulness.

For those of you reading this blog who have known me a long time, you know what a change this is from my usual bitter, cynical snarkiness. I'm still cynical and snarky, but I also want to appreciate things and not let the bad things outweigh the good.

So far, it's been a success. Even on crappy days, I find something to be thankful for. It could be that on a day when I'm dead broke and hungry that someone gives me a tasty free sandwich lunch. It could be that the sun is shining and the sky is blue and I'm happy to be standing outside enjoying it (though not today, geezohpete it's hot), it could be that it's a dreary, rainy day that reminds me of another dreary rainy day where I stayed home all day watching movies with Joey. I like dreary rainy days, especially in the fall, when it's really dark outside. They just make me happy.

And really, couldn't we all use a little more happy in life? So I smile and resolve to be grateful that I'm still here to enjoy it.

Monday, July 11, 2011

How low can you go?

"Every limbo boy and girl
All around the limbo world
Gonna do the limbo rock
All around the limbo clock
Jack be limbo, Jack be quick
Jack go unda limbo stick
All around the limbo clock
Hey, let's do the limbo rock

Limbo lower now
Limbo lower now
How low can you go?"

Limbo Rock - Chubby Checker

My mother is a consummate horse trader. She's a tiny woman of four-foot-something and I have seen her strike terror in the hearts of large, fully grown men trying to sell her a car. She loves the challenge of the deal, the give-and-take of negotiations and the final victory of getting what she wants at the price she wants. If she doesn't get it, she can and will walk away, leading at least one salesman to chase after her in the parking lot, begging her to come back inside.

Me, on the other hand? Well, let's just say when Saturn introduced their "no haggle" pricing policy I was a happy girl. Still, I have learned with time to appreciate my mother's wheeling and dealing approach. She helped my husband negotiate the purchase of my last car - I was home sick from a viral-something-or-other I picked up in the hospital after being treated for the wreck that totalled my car before this one. (A wreck that was not my fault, I'll hasten to add!) She walked out of the car salesman's office with a price that was well below the current book value of the car we were buying and a year's additional warranty coverage. I ended up with a very reliable car that I've been driving for the last seven or so years.

My father is a conniseur of flea market shopping. Growing up, nearly every Saturday in the summer, my sister and I would go with him to a local flea market held in a nearby town. He'd always tell us that if we wanted something, no matter how badly we wanted it, to look at it once on the table and move on. If you still wanted it when you'd walked through all the booths, then go back to it. Chances were good, he'd say, that the seller would cut you a deal. I tried to follow his advice, but patience has never been my strongest virtue and at the age of ten it was practically non-existant.

So, I appreciate the fine art of negotiations in the pricing of an item. I appreciate that sometimes, if you ask nicely, you can get a lower price for an item, or if you're intent on buying a lot of one particular item, the seller can cut you a deal for the larger quantity purchase. I take advantage of this all the time as a buyer of supplies, and have made it a habit to develop relationships with the sellers I deal with often, regardless of whether or not I get an additional discount from them. As a seller of items, I also understand their position on pricing and appreciate it when they do offer me a lower price.

But, that being said, as much as you may love the "high" of striking the deal, there are some times when a seller won't, or simply can't offer you a lower price. Is it worth it to you to alienate a seller and create a bad relationship by continuing to push for a lower price? Maybe yes, and maybe no.

In my case, when it comes to my suppliers, the answer is "no." I see many of these sellers several times a year at the shows we attend, and I want it to be as pleasant for them to see me as it is for me to see them. If they've seen me enough times to recognize me and I recognize them, then having a negative relationship isn't good for either of us. They have something I want - supplies, and I have something they want - money! When we deal together to get to a bargain that satisfies both of our needs at a price we both think is fair, it's the best possible outcome.

If you're never going to deal with that seller again, then maybe it is worth it to you to get that super-low price at the cost of a pleasant relationship. After all, the thinking goes, you're not there to make the seller feel better, you're there to get your money's worth! But the show circuit in your area is probably a small one, so if you attend a lot of sales and shows, chances are good that you'll see that seller again. I promsie you, they will remember you, and even if they are pleasant to you at the table, they are also thinking "No way am I going to let that person take me to the cleaners again." Your interaction will not be the best it could be for either of you.

As a seller, especially as a seller at an in-person show, I face the "thrill of the deal" all the time. Regardless of the show's venue, and regardless of the tone of the show, you are always going to have people who will ask you for a discount. Sometimes, I'm willing to make a deal with the buyer. Sometimes, I just can't. It used to be that the terror of losing a sale would lead me make deals that were not in my best interests. Even now, the word "yes" is on the tip of my tongue and I have to clamp down on saying it. The thing I had to learn, and what every seller has to learn is that a bad sale can be worse for you than no sale at all. Keep these things in mind when you are asked "Can you go lower on this?" Go through it in your head before you ever open your mouth to answer that question:

Your time matters
Your supplies costs matter
Your expertise matters
Your work matters


Then, and only then, do you answer yes or no on making that deal. If you can, great! If not, then be pleasant and professional about it, no matter how crabby you may feel, and no matter how many times you've been asked that day. And now I will tell you that I intend to have this blog post link bookmarked on my phone so I can pull it up and look at it when I'm at a show, to remind myself to practice what I preach!

By all means, indulge in a little horse trading. Haggle to your heart's content. But as a seller, don't sell yourself short. As a buyer, don't let the prospect of a super low price blind you to what it could be costing you in the long run.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

"I'd never pay that much"

It seems that the universe is telling me that the blog post I've been putting off for a while needs to be written today. This has been floating around my head for a little while and after reading the excellent "A Buyer's Guide To Handmade" article I posted earlier today, talking to a friend about pricing earlier this week, seeing an exchange on Facebook about an article in the Wall Street Journal about $300 jeans, and a comment made to Joey about a pair of our earrings, I guess it's time for me to finally get my fingers in gear and get typing.

This may anger some of you. It may offend you. You might not want to know what a seller is truly thinking when you make comments such as the ones I'm going to describe below. (and please know that when I say "you" I don't mean anyone in particular. It's just a way to make the narrative flow along)

"I'd never pay that much for [insert item here]." I know I've said it before. You probably have too. It's a judgement on the person who *did* pay that much for that item, and a negative one. You're smarter than that person because you didn't waste your money on whatever that thing was. Well, maybe yes and maybe no. Maybe that person knew something about that item that you didn't. Maybe they knew that by spending that money on that item, they were supporting someone in their community make money to feed their family. Maybe they just wanted the cachet of a prestige brand, and it was worth that amount of money for them to get that feeling. Whatever their reasons, they decided that the cost versus benefit analysis had more benefit than cost.

"I'd never pay that much" is heard at shows too. As a seller, it goes through me like a blade. I may be smiling at you and making pleasant conversation, but what you've just done is tell me - the person sitting in front of you, probably working on another handmade item - that you don't consider my time, effort, skills, and materials worth paying my asking price because you think the item you can buy at the local big box store is "just as good."

You have no idea how badly I want to ask you to kindly step away from my table and not come back. I would rather have one person for an entire day come to my table who appreciates my work even if they can't afford to purchase it then than a hundred people who think what I do is on the same level as the cheap goods you find in a big box store.

Sellers of things do what they do for different reasons, but the fact of the matter is that we have to make profit if we're going to continue selling things. Profit doesn't mean just getting back the materials cost used to make the item. It's what's left over after you've paid for your materials, the website hosting/listing fees, credit card processing fees, postage fees, booth rent fees, packaging costs, marketing/branding costs and finally, your time as the creator. And yet, the "I'd never pay that much" mentality basically states that you don't want there to be a profit, or sometimes even be paid for their time. After all, if the crafter wanted to make money, he or she should just go out and do what everyone else does and get a job!

Well, most crafters and creators already have full time job. Their handmade business is their second full time job. Joey and I each have full time day jobs. We couldn't afford health insurance, or our household costs otherwise. Etsy is our second full time job that starts the minute we get home at night. Don't get me wrong, we love doing it, but it's not always an easy balance to maintain, especially when Joey's in school full time too.

"I'd never pay that much" applies to sales too. Let me state for the record that as a business owner, I enjoy holding sales. As a shopper, I love taking advantage of sales. Who doesn't? I think we are all very well aware of the state of the economy, and sales make it possible for you to enjoy the little luxuries in life while still keeping a close eye on your budget. Sales also make it possible for a small business like mine to raise much-needed operating funds quickly. And, being that I'm not just a Purchasing Officer but a Staff Accountant in my day job, I've done the number crunching to know that holding a short term online sale in my business is better use of my money and time than going to an in-person show in my area has been. Sales are a win-win.

BUT - if I could afford to always offer my items at the sale price, that's the price I would have set originally. For a business like mine, especially operating in the very saturated market of jewelry sellers on Etsy, the sales mix has to have a certain amount of full-price sales, otherwise, I'll quickly be out of business. It's not really fair to expect a seller to give you a sales price all the time, and if you really want the business to thrive and continue to sell you items you love, you shouldn't expect it.

It's a sad fact that with so many businesses trying to keep some cash flow - ANY cash flow coming in, expecting a constant sale price has become the new normal. If Store Chain can offer luxury items on one-day deep discount, why can't Little Etsy Seller? Why should I pay that price? the thinking goes. Well, because Store Chain has deeper pockets, basically. Store Chain can afford to budget in losses on what's known as "Loss Leader" items to get you in the store in the hopes you'll purchase something else too. If you don't, well, they've gotten a little cash from you anyway, and written off the Loss Leader item's cost as an advertising expense.

Store Chain can also purchase items at a far greater discount than Little Etsy Seller. Even Established Business Etsy Seller, with a formal business plan, an operating capital fund and positive cash flow doesn't have the kind of purchasing clout that Store Chain does. Yes, most sellers who have been around a while buy in bulk, at the best wholesale rates they can get. But depending on the item and base costs of the supplies, it can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars to stock just one item at a price break quantity. That's hard to take out of an operating budget, and many sellers are dependent on loans and credit cards to fund their activities, just like you may be.

By only wanting to purchase goods when someone is holding a sale, you're telling the creator of those goods that you don't really value their time, materials costs, or efforts. If you want the business to succeed and continue being able to provide you with items you love (and we sellers hope you love our products, we really do!), then please be willing to consider what it really takes to create something, and what it's worth to you that the seller continue to stay in business.

I'm not saying that you should be willing to pay the most expensive price for everything you buy. But be willing to entertain the thought of what goes on behind the creation of that item, the people involved, and whether or not you want to support the idea of livable wages in your community and beyond. It may cost more money, but the benefits are priceless.

A Buyer's Guide to Handmade

I'm going to try to start updating this blog more often. I've never told you about Joey's surgery (which went perfectly fine), or talked about our new Gauge Gem line, or our new design challenge days, or even what we're doing these days.

For now, though, I'm going to post a link about a subject near and dear to my heart - the true costs of something handmade. A Buyer's Guide to Handmade, as posted to the Handmadeology Blog, a great resource for anyone creating handmade goods and selling them, either in person or online. I read Handmadeology every day, and I'm so thankful for the contributions of other sellers to help the online handmade community be more successful.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Picture Time

When Joey and I first started our Etsy jewelry shop in 2009, we really didn’t know much about marketing jewelry. We’d sold Harry Potter themed knit scarves from 2003 to 2006, and had always used the standard home method of "put it on a wooden TV tray in the living room" for taking photos. Those worked well enough for the scarves, though Joey was a good sport and dressed up in his movie-attending costume for a few shots. (Now, going to the movies in those costumes in July in the American South is a completely other level of "good sport" – though we’ve done it before. We came home feeling like we’d jumped into a very hot swimming pool fully clothed. Ack.)

With Etsy, though, the photo is EVERYTHING. And we were one of the very, very rare Etsy cases where we put something up on the site and it sold within a few minutes. I was so jubilant. We were a hit with no effort at all! Hah, take THAT unemployment!

Yeah, then reality set in. I showed off some photos of our creations elsewhere, and one kind soul made a few constructive criticisms, such as our photo quality. I can still remember how indignant I was when I read that this person thought we needed to improve our pictures. "What?!" I thought in high dudgeon. "I don’t need to be a professional photographer to do this! I make nice jewelry and I just sold something five minutes after I listed it with my photo! What do you know, you mean person?!"

Taking criticism has never been one of my strong suits.

But, after getting over the initial indignation, I realized that the person had a very good point. I can tell you that looking back at those first photos, they were truly awful. We used this horrible yellow utility light and no light box. Everything looked muddy and off-color. Our dinky little digital camera couldn’t cut it for the really high def close up shots. So, we spent a little dough and got a better camera. We learned to make a low cost light tent. We played with backgrounds, textures, fabrics, outside, inside, natural light, daylight bulbs, Photoshop tweaks, everything. We submitted photos to Craftgawker, then realized that whatever it was Craftgawker wanted, we weren’t it and we just tried to take the best photos we could.

These days, I can’t say that our photos are the best. They don’t conform to the "Etsy look" so we don’t get on the front page. But they do show off the jewelry in a better light (forgive the horrible pun there, will you?), and you know exactly what you’re looking at when you see one of our jewelry pictures. Our photos may not be the best, but we are always learning, always trying, and always evolving. In the end, it’s not about being the best, it’s about being your best, and that’s always a work in progress.
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