Working in retail has been an invaluable experience for me, and I truly believe that working in such a concentrated environment would benefit many artists who want to sell their work. It may not be in a gallery or boutique—many aspects of retail like customer service, sales, conflict resolution, etc., carry across all areas. After working in customer service most of my life, and a more focused retail environment for almost 4 years, here is my take…
I should say, if you never have the desire to sell your work directly to the public, then this may not apply to you. This is generally for artists who want to sell direct to the public at art shows and sales, and may apply to selling to retailers in many aspects. Read on!
From a Retail Perspective, Ep. 11
Ten Reasons Why Every Artist Should Work Retail (If You Want to Sell Your Work):
1. Body Language: you learn how to read peoples body language, as well as the effect of your own body language. Some customers will arrive with questions and are open to conversation right away; others will be guarded and may even shy away if approached too quickly. Many are simply browsing and appreciating beautiful work. Working in a daily environment where you come into contact with a variety of people keys you into little clues. You learn how to greet, give space, and then approach a customer. You also learn how to see when someone may be looking to steal (hint: always keep your eyes on people who are talking on the phone, have headphones in, are in groups, or come in separately but may be working as a team—one distracts, the other steals). That may sound jaded, but it’s part of retail.
2. Greeting Customers: there are many ways to approach greeting customers. I find it’s best to switch it up consistently. Customers should always be acknowledged, though, even if you are in the middle of helping someone else. When someone walks in, always give a quick hello and acknowledge their presence. There are different ideas on how to greet people to elicit conversation or sales, such as asking, “What brings you in today?” or, “Is this your first time in the store?” Opening up conversation can make people feel more relaxed and valued; alternately, you will be able to tell pretty quickly if someone is not open to conversation and can give them the space they need.
3. Closing Sales: closing a sale can be just as easy as it can be difficult. I love it when a customer comes in and knows exactly what they want—they find it, and they buy it. Easy as pie. But just as often, people are waiting for something to strike them, to pull at their emotions, or they are just unsure and are looking to you for expertise. Multiple factors may help assist closing those sales: finding the right price point, the style, or even the story behind the jewelry (remember: jewelry is a personal, emotional object--stories and information help sell it!) Other times, it takes a prompt when you are nearing the end of the decision: “Shall I wrap this up for you?” “Shall we go ahead with this?” “Just think of the look on her face when she opens this!” or, “She’s going to love this!”
4. Keeping your finger on the pulse: working in retail gives you an inside look into what people are currently attracted to or interested in. It also gives you an idea of where the industry is headed. I’m not necessarily saying you should change your work to fit the ever-changing trends, but it does help to know when people are looking for bigger jewelry, smaller jewelry, silver, gold, simple everyday pieces, or big showcase pieces. This will also differ depending on what market you’re in! If you are lucky enough to have your own work in the shop where you are working, you can also listen to feedback customers say about your jewelry and take that into consideration.
5. Pricing: for all of the formulas out there that help with pricing, many people will also acknowledge that there is an intuitive aspect to pricing. It’s called perceived value. This is another reason why it’s great to interact with your customers to see what they perceive as valuable. This perception will also change based on location! Pricing is tricky. Using your formulas to build a base price is great, but do listen to feedback about those prices. Could something be altered—if your prices are high, do customers need more information about how the object is made? If prices are too low, what is the threshold to continue to make sales without putting people off? It also helps to see how other artists price their work, and where the perceived value may be in it.
6. Customer Service: this is key in any sales environment. The customer may not always be right, but they are always right. Or, you have to let them be most of the time. Unfortunately, we have built a society where many people expect unlimited returns, to never have to pay for repairs or shipping, and any other number of expectations. Luckily, as an independent artist, you can educate customers on just what it takes to make your product, as well as define your own standards. Customer service can be a delicate dance, but learning the intricacies of it while in the trenches will deepen your abilities out in the world when working one-on-one with customers. While working retail, depending on the size of store, you can see first-hand how customers behave when they are being treated well, just what it takes to keep them coming back (relationships are key), how to handle conflict, etc.
7. Handling Conflict: Following up on the customer service aspect—not all customers are right. When you have conflict with a customer, you have to weigh a number of factors. Who is in the wrong? Is it worth having conflict over? Will this conflict affect me monetarily (i.e. if a piece is being returned, can it be sold again)? How would I feel if I were this customer? Is my reputation at risk (oh, these days of yelp and online reviews)? Is this customer’s relationship important to me? Do I want to deal with this person ever again? (I have had at least one customer who I acquiesced to simply because I didn’t want them to ever come back into our store.) Most of the time, the customer gets their way, but you should always be ready to stand your ground and defend your policies.
8. Standing Up for Yourself: this is a tricky part of customer service and sales. There are absolutely people who will try to be manipulative, or even threatening, etc. It’s rare, but it does happen. The thing I try to remind myself and my co-workers is this: You do not owe customers anything. You are not forcing them to purchase something—they are here of their own choosing. There is a delicate balance at work when it comes to this situation, but I, personally, do not tolerate anyone being abusive to my employees or myself. I will gladly hand them their money back and show them the door. We live in a society where people tend to feel far more entitled than they should, and it is a valuable thing to learn how to stand up for yourself and say “NO.” Also: just because you are in customer service does not mean you are a servant!
9. The Inside Details: getting away from the darker aspects….working in retail means you get to see the behind-the-scenes workings of a retail establishment—it is far more than simply customer service. You will see just what it takes to run a successful business—the overhead, payroll, ordering, working with vendors, correcting mistakes, supplies, markups and pricing, etc. All of these things come together to create the whole machine. Even if you have no designs on owning a brick & mortar store, it is so valuable to see how shop owners make decisions, and just what goes into a successful business. So much of that knowledge can be converted to help you in your own business. It can also give you valuable insight into how you do or do not want to run your own practice or business. Are you content being a small business? Do you want to become an enterprise?
10. Last But Not Least…Connections! While working in retail, you’ll make connections. Whether it’s local shops, customers, vendors, or other artists, connections are abundant. Build relationships; get to know other artists and professionals. Whether you are working for a season, or longer term, those connections are valuable. I should note that I’m not encouraging you to take customers with you when you leave retail—simply build your knowledge base. You may even be working retail in a different industry, but there is still value to be had. It is absolutely worth it.
Note: The above is the opinion of the author, built from years of experience and discussions with customers, shop/gallery owners, and fellow artists. This is not meant to be a formal guide into how to run a business--there are plenty of people with degrees and successful business who have written those books.