The Business of Beadwork: Know Your Market

Nov 8, 2011

Before you start selling your beadwork, it helps to understand who your customer is.
We've all seen them: you go to a craft fair, a farmer's market, or a fine-art show. There are loads of people selling their jewelry, and there's usually at least one vendor selling handmade seed bead jewelry. So you walk over to their booth and take a look around. And you discover that they are selling a beautiful, intricately beaded necklace or bracelet for . . . twenty five dollars? Is that a mistake? You put the piece down and walk away, wondering how on earth someone can expect to make a living as a jewelry artist . . .

Probably one of the biggest challenges bead-jewelry artists face when selling their seed bead jewelry is how to price their beaded jewelry. It was something that I struggled with as a new craft artist, fresh from my experiences as a first-time bead shop and fine-craft gallery owner. One of the better choices I made was to enroll in a free program aimed at teaching marketing skills to independent artists and professional crafters in my area of upstate New York. It was a six-month marketing class, and the only thing they wanted from the participants was a commitment of time. It was an experience I want to share with you.

My first night in class, the instructor went around the room and asked us about ourselves: our names, what our business name was, and what we created. Then she asked us to write down who our principal competitors were. At the time, I was a little skeptical that I would be able to sell my bead-embroidered and beadwoven jewelry, so I was focusing instead on my handmade lampwork beads and beaded jewelry made with those.

Of course, my first thought was that my competitors were big-box craft stores. Why would someone shell out $30, $40, or even $65 for ONE of my handmade lampwork beads when they could buy a whole bag of them for $1 at one of these other stores?

The instructor shook her head. No, Jennifer, she said. You got it wrong.

But, I insisted, why would someone pay these crazy prices for a glass bead?

No, Jennifer, she said. You got it wrong.

I didn't understand what she was talking about until several weeks later when I took my first trip out west to Los Angeles to see a close friend. My friend, a fine-arts artist who works at a major art museum, took me to some of the wonderful galleries at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica and to some of the wearable-art galleries in the area. When we stopped in at one particular gallery that focused entirely on jewelry, I suddenly had that light bulb moment. Ah-ha! My instructor was right, after all!

Do your homework before venturing out.

What my instructor was telling me finally sunk in during that trip to Los Angeles. I realized that I was not in competition with the big box stores or department stores. The customer who was going to purchase a piece of my handcrafted beaded jewelry was a very specific person, and I had to learn as much about her as possible before I was going to make any sales. If you need help doing market research to find out who your customer is, check with your local chamber of commerce to find out if they offer this kind of service for small businesses.

Then, once you have your information, you can seek out the types of fine art and fine craft shows where you will find people who are interested in purchasing high-end handmade beaded jewelry.

How to choose a craft show.

Know Your Market. That's what it all comes down to. If you are making gorgeous lampwork beads or intricate chain maille jewelry or detailed bead-embroidered cuff bracelets and necklaces, you can't sell them at your church bazaar and expect to earn any money. You need to target your market: there are plenty of high-end shows out there, as well as places to sell your beaded jewelry at a fair price. Don't expect to make a lot of sales if you are trying to sell high-end beaded jewelry at a school craft bazaar or at a flea market. In fact, you should avoid flea markets at all costs, since the shoppers who attend those types of markets are generally looking for a bargain, not for a piece of quality handmade beaded jewelry.

Go as a Buyer First. Find a few high-end craft shows and markets in your area and go to them as a buyer. Look at what is being sold and what is being bought. Talk to sellers and buyers to get their impressions of the show before you actually shell out the big bucks for a booth. There are several places online where you can find listings for these types of craft and art shows:

The Crafts Report

Traditional Folk Art

American Craft Council

Niche Magazine

Craftlister

Festivalnet

Don't be shy about asking questions of the show organizers before you make the decision to buy a booth space at any art or craft market. Some good questions to ask are things like:

  • Is it free admission or is there a fee for shoppers to enter the show?
  • How many jewelry artists will be there?
  • How many years has the show been in business?
  • Is the show held in conjunction with another activity, like a folk festival or music festival?
  • Is there plenty of customer parking?
  • What is the show policy towards merchandise that is not handcrafted?
  • How and where is the show advertised?

Do you have tips for someone who wants to start selling their beadwork? How did you find your ideal market? Leave a comment and share your advice and experiences here on the blog!

Bead Happy,

Jennifer


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