Thursday, June 4, 2015

Letter to a Woodworker Part 2

Once you are well on your way to establishing your motivations and interest, what about your clients? Understanding their desires and spending habits is just as important and potentially elusive. The purchasing public fickle and they have a lot of competition for their dollars. Establishing the value of your work relative to their money can take some mental exercise and time to develop.
Who are these people that you hope will consistently purchase your woodwork at a price that will support your business (and hopefully family)? Again, I think that the best place to start is with yourself. When did you last spend money on a product similar to the ones that you hope to produce and at the cost you hope to charge? Usually the answer for the budding woodworker is "never". 

It's important to remember that folks operate with much of the sensibilities that guide your own purchasing habits. Try putting yourself in their shoes. I'd advise looking into the buying habits and interest of your peers, friends, parents and neighbors. What would your plumber realistically pay for that? He probably has more money than you think, but how do you connect him to the value of the work? I recall a relative saying "Who would spend $1000 on a wooden chair?" and while it was crass to state, it was the right question. 

It's easy to imagine a wealthy clientele for whom the costs of your product won't be noticed while it's value is obvious. But aiming squarely at a "wealthy" clientele has some inherent risk. Only a small portion of society has such deep pockets and the competition for their dollars is high. As the maker, it’s all too easy to equate your assessment of the value of the time, skill and materials in a piece and imagine that you can think like a “rich” person “ who will have no problem dropping their cash in response. This is not a business plan that I would bet on personally.
To state it plainly, what you make is not valuable until you establish it as such in the mind of your clients.
I’ve sold chairs to library clerks and traded them, at full price for firewood. What is it that connects those folks to the work enough for them to surrender their hard won cash?

As an example, here is an approach that I've taken with my chairs. It's sort of a one act play that I've done a thousand times. 
Know it or not, we all have a deep connection to chairs. My goal is to expose folks to the choices that I’ve made in materials, construction, design and tooling and the ways that this affects the result. 
Usually, interested people see the chairs from across the room and notice the overall impact of the design. The gesture of the chair, the lightness, something different from the norm. As they approach the chair, they begin to notice the shapeliness, the subtle tool marks and the thinness of the parts. Then they touch it, contacting the smooth surfaces and the tooling, noting that not every surface has been treated the same. Upon sitting they smile, never having sat in a wooden chair that flexes and feels comfortable. While they sit I can take a moment to demonstrate the role of hand tools and split wood in the production of the chair, not as a romantic gesture but as a means of gaining strength, comfort and durability.
When they stand, I ask them to pick the chair up. It never fails that they laugh as the chair is much is so much lighter than expected. Then I demonstrate the flexibility of the spindles, which usually elicits an audible gasp, and my job is complete. I’ve replaced their previously held assumptions about wooden chairs and as such built a connection. This may not result in a sale, but their engagement is gratifying for both of us and assures me that I am on the right track. Of course this depends on some deliberate choices in the type of product that is made and the quality of the results, which I'll look at in the next post.

Testing your market and educating your community is essential to guiding your production. I spent many weekends at local Farm market craft shows building my awareness of the buying public and my reputation amongst them. After a few years, folks felt like they knew me and had watched my skills grow while they coveted the work, that's when the sales became more consistent and I started to gain a footing. Small time craft shows may not be where you envision your high end products selling, but I've sold lots of chairs there and more importantly, gained a sensitivity to how the public assigns value.


Anonymous said...

Is the local Farm market the ideal place to market high quality hand-crafted furniture? Where else might one find success in marketing the product?

Anonymous said...

I'm not a professional woodworker, but I sometimes sell my work at craft shows, and I know exactly what you mean about getting the potential customer into physical contact with the work. My work is not terribly expensive, but I estimate that somebody who handles my work is about 50% more likely to purchase it. The longer they hold it, the more likely they are to take it home and leave me with some cash.

~Steve S.

Peter Galbert said...

Local farm markets and art festivals aren't the only place to sell work, but I personally found them a good way to meet the public and assess how my efforts look to them. Over the years I sold lots of chairs at such affairs. On my best day I sold 25 chairs! And this was two booths down from the budweiser can whirlygig guy (he sold lots too). I liked these events because they were direct and cheap and while they didn't hit the designer market, the types of folks who attended turned out to be exactly the kind of folks I needed to meet. There is an entire industry around higher end craft shows that draw thousands, but I never wanted to travel or pay to participate. Placing furniture in galleries and showrooms is another option, but by the time you pay the commissions, the pricing may become to low for your needs or to high for the buyers. Plus, without your presence in a showroom, furniture tends to sit quietly and viewers don't get the education that I've found vital to connecting to the work.

Peter Galbert said...

that's exactly right, it's fascinating to watch the process as people connect with the work, thanks for the comment

Rocky said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to write this Pete.

I know this will help lots of people, not just chair makers.

Unknown said...

The other tactic that I have found works to make a connection with someone when they ask the price of a piece is to quote first the time it took, and then the price. For example, "How much is that cabinet?" "Well apart from the material cost, that took 6 days to make, so it's x dollars". In that way they usually see the time as a measure of currency and equate it with how much THEY feel is reasonable to earn for that amount of time, rather than seeing you as some 'artsy' person who has no understanding of the real world.

Thanks for the blog Pete, look forward to meeting you when you come to Australia later in the year!


Bill Palmer said...

So true Pete, you're dealing with a "thin line" of the population that will buy things at any cost. OVERHEAD is always a factor, at least at the beginning, low overhead equals more freedom to learn, experiment, and find your "niche". I've seen many a woodworker brought to his knees by either a woodwen boat or high overhead.

Brian H said...

$1000 is not at all unreasonable for a nicely designed and handmade chair.

Tiny House in the Rainforest said...

Pete, excellent post. Your points on value as seen by the creator and by the customer are excellent and took me a few years figure out with the cabinetry business. As I'm looking for my new wood venture, this post has me asking friends and family questions about buying habits, etc.

Thank you.