Buying Handmade: 6 Ways to Not Be a Jerk

I’ve been making stuff all my life. When I was ten, I made those woven plasticy keychains and sold them at a neighbor’s garage sale. When I was 17 I started an etsy business selling altered T-shirts. When I was 18 I started working seriously in clay, and at 22 I transitioned to working full-time as a ceramic artist. I sell some on etsy and I have a couple of local consignment accounts, but the majority of my income comes from craft shows: weekend events where you schlep all your work to a designated venue, set up a canopy tent, and then spend one or two or three days selling before tearing everything down and heading home again.

The first thing I should say is that I love doing shows. The mad rush to get everything finished in time, the packing and loading the car, the temporary city of white tents erected in a few hours on a Friday afternoon, the excitement of the first sale, and the freedom, empowerment, and autonomy that comes from being able to hit the road, be my own boss, and make a living doing it. Furthermore, the vast majority- probably 90%- of interactions I have with customers are lovely. People, for the most part, are kind and funny and polite and excited to talk with me about my work.

And then there are those other interactions. The ones that make me grind my teeth, and force a smile, and make me wonder why I do this. The ones that make me want to throw up my hands and become a dental hygienist. The thing is, most of the frustrating interactions I have with customers don’t seem to come out of any kind of meanness or ill intent: instead, they often seem like a result of a lack of social awareness. Conversations with other artists confirm that there are a number of behaviors that are considered universally obnoxious to engage in as a craft fair shopper. So in an attempt to educate the general public, I’ve created a list of the six behaviors to avoid while buying handmade at a craft fair. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Don’t take photos without asking. I actually don’t mind if people take photos of my work. You probably couldn’t recreate the glazes I’m making even if I handed you the recipe, and I’ve worked for years to be able to create the shapes that I’m getting on the wheel. But many artists who have work that can be recreated (especially 2-D artists) will have copycats if their work is popular. Either someone will take a photo and paint something similar (one artist friend says, “it got so bad at one point that I would create a painting with a green triangle, and then [the woman copying my work] would create a painting with a green triangle.”) or they’ll actually use the photo to create prints of the work and sell them without permission or credit. That’s some seriously shady behavior, and it’s probably not what you’re doing when you take a phone snapshot of that cow painting, but as an artist, it’s hard to tell the difference. Instead of reaching for your camera, check in with the artist about it first. Usually (but not always) you’ll get a “yes” if you explain why you want the photo, e.g: “Do you mind if I take a picture of this? I think it would look great in my living room, but I need to see what my wife thinks of it.”

2. Don’t hit on the artist. This is a sub-header under the more general principle “don’t hit on women (or anyone, but women are on the receiving end of the vast majority of this behavior) you don’t know in public. If you’re confused about this principle, or it seems difficult or you think I’m sitting a little too high on my feminist horse, check out this article: When I’m selling at a craft show, I’m working, even though it doesn’t look like what we typically think of as “work”. I don’t come to your office and loiter around your cubicle asking annoying questions while you’re sending company e-mails, because that would be inappropriate. If you’re talking to me because you want my number and not my work, you’re getting in the way of my interacting with other people who are interested in buying from me. Which is why I’m there. On a related note:

3. Don’t waste my time if you’re not going to buy. This is not the same as “don’t talk to me if you’re not going to buy.” I’m happy to chat with you a little bit about the festival or listen to you talk about the ceramics that you’ve done or tell you more about my work with the knowledge that you’re just interested and you’re not going to make a purchase. But when you monopolize me in conversation for an extended period of time, either to try to convince me that I should make ceramic covers for tissue boxes to sell at Walmart or to try to sell something to me or to just ask me a series of pointless questions, once again, you’re getting in the way of my interacting with other people who are interested in buying from me. In addition, keep in mind that many artists, including me, are introverts, and at the end of an eight or ten hour day of making conversation and trying to be cute and charming in front of a bunch of strangers and answering the same five questions over and over again without really much of a break, we’re exhausted.

4. Don’t feel awkward about not buying something. The vast majority of people who come through my booth don’t buy anything from me. That’s totally fine and expected! My work is interesting to look at, and often people haven’t seen work like it before, and they want to check it out and hear about how I make it. Then they say thanks and leave, which is no problem. But there are some people who seem to feel really uncomfortable about leaving, like they’ve “led me on” by talking to me- the equivalent of being a “pottery tease” or something- so they resort to doing weird things like making excuses for why they can’t buy “my cat would break it!” “I’m about to move and I don’t want to buy anything before then!” or saying that they’ll be back later (some people do circle back around, but often it’s a disengagement strategy) or taking a business card to throw away later (The number of orders I’ve ever received from people who have taken a card from me at a show is really, really small). Really, all you need to do is say thanks or wave as you walk out. You won’t hurt my feelings, I promise.

5. Don’t say that the work is “too expensive”. This is a major pet peeve for me. It doesn’t happen to my face very often, but when it does I’m immediately driven to headbutt the offender and order them out of my booth. First, the term “too expensive” is virtually meaningless. Does that mean you can’t afford it? Does it mean you’ve seen similar work at a lower price point? Does that mean you wouldn’t pay the retail price, or you perceive that the piece isn’t “worth” the retail price? To me, the term “too expensive” means that the work is priced so high that it’s not selling at the rate that I want. By that definition, the work is not too expensive. Furthermore, you don’t know what it costs for me to produce my work, so you shouldn’t make any assumptions about what the cost of the work “should” be.

I once had a family come into my booth looking for a set of mugs. The woman asked for a discount, and I offered her my standard spiel: normally mugs are $28, but if you’re buying multiples you get them for $25 each*. The family spent fifteen minutes picking out four mugs, at which point the mom approached me and said “will you take $80 instead of $100?” I gave her a curt smile and declined, at which point she made a face and the selection process began again as they attempted to narrow the four mugs down to two.

Later, the dad popped his head back into my booth. “I was just wondering…how long does it take you to produce these?” Obviously they had spent lunchtime having a conversation about the price and value of handmade work. I was a bit flustered (talking about money makes me uncomfortable, and crystalline glazing is a 12 step process, so that’s a difficult question to answer) and did a poor job of advocating for the value of my work in the moment, but what I wanted to say was that it’s not just about how much time it takes me to produce a particular piece that determines the price point. The cost of supplies (clay, glaze materials) has to be taken into account, as well as the cost of studio supplies (kiln elements that need replacing, grinding wheels, silicon carbide discs, bats, etc.). Next you have to consider the cost of the show (Typically $100-$400 for the outdoor shows that I participate in) plus the cost of utilities/space to produce the work in. FINALLY, after all that, you have to pay yourself for your labor. The fact that it takes me thirty minutes, or three hours, to produce a particular piece is only one in a large number of factors that determines the price point.

6. For goodness sake, don’t haggle. A woman and her daughter stood outside of my booth last weekend admiring a canister set I had on display, priced at $250. The daughter turned to her mom and said “Oh, this would look amazing with the tile in the remodeled kitchen!” They spent a few more minutes talking and looking around before the mom approached me and said “Would you take $200 for the canister set?” I imagined putting her in a rocket ship and blasting her off into outer space, barely managing to smile through gritted teeth and offer a “sorry, I can’t.” They turned around and flounced out.

This is the big one, people. Just because craft shows take place outdoors doesn’t mean you can act like you’re at a garage sale or a used car lot. Would you walk into a Papa Johns and say “I mean, I like the look of this pizza, but I don’t $18 like it, so if you’re willing to come down then we can talk.”? No, you wouldn’t, because that would be rude and because the prices at Papa John’s are set. Similarly, the prices in my booth are set, and when you walk in and act like I should give you a 20% discount for no reason and then bow and thank you for deigning to purchase my work, you insult me and the business I’ve worked hard to build. (Also, the complete tone-deafness implied by the “remodeled kitchen” exchange followed immediately by the request for a steep discount irritated me so much that I’m not sure I would have sold the thing to them if they’d turned around and offered me full price.)

In closing, I realize that I’m probably preaching to the choir with the majority of this blog post. Many of these tips probably seem like common sense for those of you who possess some modicum of social awareness or have ever worked a job where you have to interact with the public. Then again, I’m sometimes surprised by the seemingly socially aware people who turn out to be offenders in one or more of the above categories. Above all, just remember to be a nice person and have fun out there. Maybe we’ll run into each other someday. Just don’t expect me to give you a discount.

*Some artists are really annoyed by the “what if I buy two?” question, and don’t offer discounts for buyers interested in multiples. To me, it’s worth it to cut buyers a (small) deal if I can close a larger sale, but it’s a set policy; you’re not going to walk into my booth and successfully ask for a 20% discount.

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