“Dear Design Doctor
I’m a jewellery designer who has previously specialised in making one-off and limited edition precious jewellery. I am in the process of making some major changes to my business, with a focus away from galleries towards larger retailers. I have become frustrated by the Sale or Return culture of galleries, and I am expecting a baby in the summer so I need to work in a way that allows me to continue my business.
I will continue to approach key trade clients myself, but want extra help from a representative. But I have no idea where to start with the process of how to find the right one with the right contacts, commission rates, business terms etc.
Can you offer any help or advice?”
Patricia van den Akker, Director of The Design Trust, answered this question as The Design Doctor in Crafts Magazine July/August 2012:
“Really great to see how you are trying to adapt your business to the changes in your life and taking into account real business experience. It is essential to keep tweaking your business to make your business work for you.
This question I get asked a lot. In my experience as a business adviser most creatives don’t like selling and prefer to give this job to somebody else. However, I believe that you are the best person to sell your work. Customers like to talk and deal directly with the person who created the work, to hear the story behind the work, to be in touch directly. It is much more personal, and consumers love direct contact with makers, especially in today’s retail environment.
Before you start looking around for an agent, the first hurdle to overcome is that most representatives are very unlikely to take on a start up. They are much more likely to take you on if you can provide some commercial success with retailers. They want to ensure they are dealing with a business that is professional and can deliver larger trade orders in time, as they don’t want to damage their reputation.
Working with an agent or distributor can be costly (often 15 – 20% commission fees), although they should be recouped through larger trade orders. Note that you probably owe them commission for any sales in their ‘territory’, even if you sell directly. Be aware of potential additional charges such as trade fair and marketing expenses, petrol charges, and providing stock for free.
However, the main thing is that working with larger retailers requires a very different business model, which will have a major impact. You will need to design a new collection twice a year, competitively priced. You will need far more stock (and therefore more finances!), which you probably won’t be able to produce by yourself. Your job changes from being a maker to becoming a designer, marketeer and project manager, who works closely with sub-contractors. This is the more extreme end, but it is good to check if this is indeed the route you want to take.
Obviously the biggest advantage of working with a representative is that they have existing relationships with retailers and can open doors for you, often in the UK and abroad. There are lots of different types of representatives, each with their own responsibilities:
- individual agents who travel to shops around the country,
- freelancers you can hire on a temporary basis to help you at trade shows (especially useful if abroad)
- distributors who have permanent showrooms and do trade shows
My big questions to you would be: What do you really want help with? What kind of business do you want to run (think about in 5 years time)? What role do you want in your business?
If you are ready to look for a representative start with writing down a very specific list of what you want them to do, and who their retailers are. Make sure you talk to lots of people to find a good fit, both commercially and personally, so you enjoy working together and they represent you well. Your collection should fit with others they represent, without competing directly. Check out who their clients are, who else they represent, which trade shows they go to.
The better you know what you are looking for the easier it is to find them, and to get recommendations from others. Ask around at trade shows, research the internet and trade magazines, post on forums, put a note on your website and trade fair stand.
Once you have found a representative you will need to negotiate a contract. Agree how much they will get paid, when they will get paid, and how to terminate the contract. Set some targets how much you expect them to sell, how many shows to do.
And if you have realised that actually you are not after a representative after all, then there are other opportunities to do it yourself. Approach jewellery brands directly to design a commercial collection for them, so that they do the manufacturing and selling on your behalf and you get a design fee and royalties. Or look at ways to sell your items directly (to get a higher profit margin) either at craft and jewellery fairs, online shops and boutiques, your own website, or focus more on working with smaller retailers and shops who will buy your work instead of Sale Or Return. Good luck, whatever route you take.”
Do you work with an agent or are you an agent? What are your recommendations on this topic? If you are struggling to market or promote yourself you might like to look at this blogpost about How to start marketing on a limited budget or have a look at The Design Trust Guide to Start & Run a Successful Craft Business, which takes you through marketing and selling in great practical detail.