Dear Design Doctor
I am a ceramicist and I sell through a lot of galleries and can’t keep up with demand, but I don’t make much money because my work is so very labour intensive.
I have been gradually increasing my prices and have worked out what I ‘should’ charge (around £40 for a mug), but I actually charge £20 – £22 (retail price).
This means I get less than the minimum wage. I don’t expect to make a lot of money as a potter, but I would love to earn a bit more than this!
The answer to this real life question is provided by Patricia van den Akker, Director of The Design Trust:
‘Thanks so much for your question, and great to hear you are selling well, but as you probably had already worked out yourself: you can’t continue like this! It’s not sustainable, and financially and creatively very draining.
So, what can you do?
There are plenty of options for you, and it’s time you make some (big) strategic decisions for yourself.
Option 1: Get quicker & become more efficient
If you have calculated your cost price correctly, then check how your production methods can become more efficient. Have a critical look at your creative and making processes and evaluate if you can decrease the time spend on each task.
- Can you group certain tasks together?
- Can you outsource or delegate tasks to somebody who charges less than you (might be tricky below the minimum wage!)
- Are you spending a lot of time to get your ceramics ‘perfect’? Are you overworking them?
- Could you make more products per hour? Or simplify the designs so you can make more?
Although you might not get your cost price down that much, these efficiency savings will help. Especially as any gallery commission will double or triple your retail price any savings on your cost price can have a big impact.
I am asking these efficiency questions first, but I wonder:
Why you are trying to compete on price with manufactured goods?
Because that’s what you seem to be doing.
There is something very interesting about pricing functional crafts like ceramic mugs, handmade cards, printed cushions and wooden salad bowls:
There is much more pressure on their prices as the consumer has a psychological price that they will pay for such items. Also there is a lot more competition in this area from far cheaper mass manufacturers.
The added problem with functional ceramics is also that consumers like to buy them in series: 4 of the same mugs, 6 dinner plates. That puts even more pressure on keeping the single item prices low.
In my opinion it will be very hard for you to compete in this product area. It will be an ongoing battle (that you are likely to lose). I doubt you will ever be so efficient that you can sell to galleries at £10 with a profit (unless you become a robot!).
And I doubt that that’s the kind of creative business that you want to run.
Sorry, but this option might not be so great after all …
Option 2: Add value to increase your price
There are plenty of ceramicists who sell mugs for £40 or more.
So, what’s going on?
These mugs might be classic vintage, have historic value, are elaborately decorated (think English beer steins!) or created by well known potters.
How can you add value to your work without adding costs?
Can you add some special decoration or a glaze that people are prepared to pay extra for?
In my talks I regularly give this example about cushions:
I see many fairly similar, printed, small square cushions out there that cost £40 – £60 retail. To be honest that is pretty expensive for many customers, especially as fairly similar cushions can be bought on the high street for about half that price.
Why copy what’s already out there in the mass market?
If a cushion designer would make a big round or square cushion (say 1m x 1m) then the additional costs aren’t that much higher (as it doesn’t cost a lot more to produce a large cushion than a small one).
But this larger cushion will be worth much more in the eyes of a consumer!
It’s not a cushion, it’s a piece of furniture!
And you can easily charge £100 – £120 for that!
So how can you add value to your ceramics?
Can you add decoration, beautiful glazes, personalise them, create very specialist or unique mugs, add ‘keep sake’ packaging, or increase your own profile?
Option 3: Stop underselling yourself
Are you communicating the value of your skills and talents to your clients and galleries, or are you underselling yourself?
Have you lowered your price because the gallery asked you to, or did you do that because you were worried they wouldn’t buy from you?
Good professional galleries know the value of high quality handmade products, the training and skills required. They will know their clients well and can advice you on what sells and what doesn’t, and what you can charge.
Many creatives worry about the affordability of their work, and lower their prices very quickly if they don’t sell. It’s much more useful to you in the long term if you start communicating that your work is worth every penny!
If you worry about being too expensive and charging too much then research what other professional ceramicists are charging for similar products. Find out how they make a living.
Your own emotions and behaviour around money, selling and marketing (often ‘learned’ at a very early age!) can have a huge impact on how you run your creative business. But unless YOU start to work on that, and charge and communicate what you, your skills and products are really worth, you will continue to be a poor artist in everybody’s eyes (including your own).
Our Business Club members can watch here a webinar recording with creative business coach Pete Mosley on Money & Emotions: how your feelings and beliefs around money influence how you run your business.
Option 4: Keep good company
Getting the right price for your work is directly related to where and how you positioning yourself.
Are the galleries you are with selling other high quality, more expensive crafts? If your £20 mugs sits next to a £95 cake stand or £150 collectable tea pot then your mugs won’t look out of place at all!
If you are selling online or at an amateur craft market then your mugs will be very expensive indeed.
You say you are selling with a lot of craft galleries. I suggest you assess your current stockists critically, and find some new higher end stockists that sell higher end products and attract clients that understand the value of your work.
Option 5: Cut out the middleman
Or what about not selling through galleries all together?
They charge a lot of commission, making your retail price far too high! (for more info about why galleries charge so much commission, click here.)
Especially at the beginning of a maker’s career the pricing calculations don’t work in your favour: you are still relatively slow and learning, not well known enough, and adding the commission of the galleries or retailers will make your retail price simply too expensive.
The reality is that many new makers can’t afford to sell wholesale.
But: You don’t need to sell wholesale!
You could have a very profitable business just selling direct to consumers, via craft markets, online with your own web shop and getting commissions.
You will need to do more marketing and selling yourself than you probably do now, but your profit margins can increase and you will have direct contact with your clients, which can lead to higher value commissions and personalising your products.
Option 6: Different trade, different price
If you want to make series of tableware but your prices don’t stack up for selling wholesale, then see if you can sell through other trade businesses such as interior designers or create hotelware. They buy in large quantities like retailers, but they pay more than retailers (normally they get a 30% discount on the retail price).
Many small restaurants and boutique hotels love to have a more unique tableware range to present their food on. The shapes and colours in hotelware are much more adventurous than plain white plates that are most common in consumer tableware.
You can approach high end restaurants and hotels directly (do your research of who is interested in design and presentation), but there are also specialist agents in this field.
Or find the interior designers or branding consultants who specialise in working with these kind of boutique hotels. Tableware decisions are often part of interior decisions when a restaurant is (re-)launched.
Option 7: Create a higher value collection
As I said at the start: Functional ceramics have a very clear price point in consumer’s and wholesaler’s eyes.
You can’t change that.
But what about getting more creative with the kind of products you make?
What about products that are less functional?
Larger in scale?
Work that is worth (much!) more in your client’s eyes?
I am not trying to turn you here into a ceramic sculptor or artist, but think about larger ceramic vessels, lidded pots, vases and bowls.
These have a functional purpose, but are also decorative, and therefore worth more.
In the last year The British Bake Off has sparked big trends and sales in bakeware products. I wouldn’t recommend to you to create ramekins (too functional again!), but do think about the presentation of cup cakes and tarts.
Could you make beautiful platters, a footed cake or even a tiered cake stand? Something that’s really beautiful and a future family heirloom?
These kind of beautiful and functional items that are more unique (and less easy to produce by the mass market!) will definitely sell!
I have given you 7 very different strategic options.
It’s over to you now to decide which way is best for you and your business.
But you do need to make a decision. You do need to change direction.
If you continue on your current path then you will make very little money. Or worse: you will soon lose your passion for making.
Be creative not just with the products that come out of your hands …
get creative with your business itself.
Make your creative business work for YOU.’
Did you find this blog post useful? Did it get you thinking about your own business and pricing? Have you got other suggestions or do you feel similar like this ceramicist? Please add your comments in the comment box below.