I just got back from the New York Gift Show. While there, I watched a few beginners struggle nervously through the first few days. It really brought me back. When I did my first wholesale show I'd sold my art for years at shows and at Pike Place Market, but I had no idea what to say to a buyer. Realizing it was a whole new world, I hired someone with experience to do my first show with me and stood back and watched her for the first two days before I felt comfortable interacting with buyers.
Here's what I learned: You simply can't talk to wholesale buyers the way you do to retail shoppers. It's not effective and it doesn't answer the important questions they need answered about your work and about doing business with you.
Wholesale sales technique and retail sales technique are very different. When you speak to retail customers you’re selling your product. When you sell to wholesale buyers you’re selling that your product sells. Although it is still important, less time is spent romancing your work, explaining technique, the medium and the story of each piece. Instead, it’s your job to help the buyer feel secure that they are making a smart and profitable decision for their business.
Retail customers are often out to have fun. They don’t need to buy anything. ‘Just looking’ is great entertainment. When you talk to a retail shopper you’re measuring if they're really interested, how they react to colors, styles and prices. It’s important to talk to them on a personal level and keep it light. If the customer needs help choosing a clock as a gift I might ask what the recipient's favorite colors are, or if they have cats or a dog, or hobbies that relate to my designs. If they are buying one to take home I might ask “What colors make you happy?” It’s helpful to make suggestions or help guide them towards a decision they’ll feel good about but at the same time I want to also be sure they don't feel pressured.
On the other hand when you do a wholesale show, buyers are never ‘just looking’. Unlike retail shoppers, wholesale buyers come to a show because they need to shop. It's their job. They have a budget, and they need to spend it in order to make a living. They rely on you to help them decide if your work is right for their store and their customers as well as to give them the information and tools they need to sell it. This means listening to their needs, giving display suggestions, and helping them choose the right items for their clientele.
When a retail customer buys a piece that’s been sitting around for months you’re happy to get rid of it. When they walk away from your booth, you probably do a little happy dance of relief. (It’s gone! Finally!) But it’s bad business to sell a wholesale buyer an item that is a slow seller. If it’s likely they’ll end up stuck with it forever you risk losing their trust. They probably won’t believe your recommendations again and you may very well lose the account altogether.
When you think a buyer is making a bad decision, even if it benefits you in the short run to make the sale, letting them know it may not be the best choice benefits both of you. You’re there to make sure both of you profit from the relationship in the long run - you’re a team. You can’t take the point of view that once you sell your work to a store the deal is over. Your wholesale buyers are your link between you and your end customer. If they don’t sell your work well, you both lose.
Wholesale relationships are long term, and it’s important to treat them that way. Establish a trust by being honest and put the buyer’s needs first. By doing this you’ll forge a solid relationship that’s beneficial to both of you.