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Questions You Don't Have to Answer: Why is Your Work so Expensive?

by Luann Udell on 12/8/2011 8:59:12 AM

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews.  Luann also writes a column ("Craft Matters") for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explores the funnier side of her life in craft.  She's a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry).  Her work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.  She's blogged since 2002 about the business side--and the spiritual inside--of art.  She says, "I share my experiences so you won't have to make ALL the same mistakes I did...."You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.

 

I’m lucky.  When a customer asks me this question, I have a great general answer.  The techniques I use to create my jewelry and fiber art pieces are complex and time-consuming. 

 

My favorite example is the time a young kid came in my booth, which was packed with browsers.  He looked at my work, saw a price tag and said in a very loud voice, “WOW!  THIS STUFF SURE IS EXPENSIVE!” 

 

The other customers in my booth, including the child’s parents, collectively gasped and held their breath.  All eyes were upon me—how would I react??

 

What an opportunity!  I swiftly picked up the necklace he was looking at and placed it in his hand.  I told him the story behind the artifact, and told him all the steps it took to make it look ancient and worn.  I explained how it was finished to feel smooth and warm to the touch.  I’ve gotten very good at telling this story, in a quiet, intimate voice, encouraging the person to look more closely at the piece.  I also keep it pretty short, considering. 

 

When I was finished, he said in an equally loud voice, “WOW, THAT’S A LOT OF WORK.  IT’S NOT EXPENSIVE AT ALL!  AND IT’S BEAUTIFUL!”

 

I achieved several things in this little conversation.  First, the child was my newest fan!  His parents were grateful I’d handled the question with grace. 

 

And I got to tell a booth full of people what a value my work was for the price.

 

There are many reasons why someone would ask us about our prices.  Some are unsure if the price really reflects the value.  For example, how many times do we see newly emerging artists price their work by what they see more established artists charge?  Some people really don’t understand the work that’s involved bringing a work of art all the way from idea to fruition.  Sometimes (but not usually), it’s a deliberate challenge.  And sometimes, it simply reflects their dismay that they can’t afford to buy the piece they’ve fallen in love with.

 

But you don’t always have to respond to this question as I did.  Maybe it really doesn’t take you all that long to make it.   Maybe you really have over-priced your work.  You are the only person who knows if your pricing is fair, or at least based on supply-and-demand.  Maybe it really doesn’t matter how long it takes you to make something.  After all, I’m not going to pay someone by the hour to cut my grass with a pair of cuticle scissors, no matter how great it looks when he’s done.

 

In any case, it helps to think ahead of time on where you want to go with this question. 

 

A ‘Good Response’—Educating the person on the time spent learning and perfecting your techniques, the time spent producing, the expensive materials you use, etc.  This was the approach I used with the young child. 

 

A ‘Better Response’—Ask them questions.  Which piece are they referring to?  Show a similar piece that’s more affordable, perhaps smaller in size, or unframed, or less labor-intensive.  Maybe there are factors not easily recognized that makes one piece more expensive that another.

 

The ‘Best Response’—What is the REAL objection?  Address it, then make it (the sale) happen. 

 

If the objection really is about the price, there are ways around that.  I personally don’t like to discount my work (though I’ve done it once or twice.)  I don’t mind adding something to sweeten the pot.  (I think we discussed this.  Such incentives could be a private invitation to your studio, or a copy of the exhibition catalog your work appeared in, or a copy of your book, etc.  Anything with perceived value to the customer, that doesn’t set you back too much.)

 

My favorite response to the “I can’t afford it” situation is a unique layaway plan a fellow craftsperson shared with me years ago. 

 

Ask the customer what they feel they can afford to pay.  They may say something like, “I only have $400 of discretional income a month.”  Great!  What you can do is set up a payment plan for…oh, let’s say $200 a month, so they can still go out to dinner and a movie.  Decide how many months of $200 payments will get them the artwork.  You can even offer to take payments every two months or whatever.  Add in a shipping charge for when the final balance is paid off.

 

Now for the brilliant part.  Rather than them sending you a check every month, have them make out the checks, or the credit card slips, right then and there.  They can determine when the checks are to be deposited, or the charge slip run, by dating and signing each one.

 

If they need to go slower, they can simply call you and ask you to hold a payment for an extra week or a month.  If they decide they want it sooner, they call and tell you to deposit the checks or run the slips sooner.

 

When the final payment is made, you wrap the piece and ship it to them.

 

I have sold several large pieces this way.  I keep the checks/slips in an envelope on my bulletin board, with the dates I need to process each one. 

 

I’ve purchased major pieces for myself this way.  It makes collecting big pieces affordable and manageable. 

 

The beauty of this system?  About half the time, partway through writing out the checks or charge slips, the person realizes they can just put the full amount on their credit card, take the artwork home with them NOW—and make their own monthly payments.

 

It’s important to determine if price really is the major obstacle for your potential collector.  Once woman agonized over buying a big piece from me.  I referred her to a smaller piece, and I offered to do the layaway plan.  She demurred.  I didn’t know what to do next.  I knew it wasn’t about the price, but I was stuck.

 

We stood together in front of the piece.  In desperation, I asked her, quietly and gently, “What’s holding you back?”

 

It was the color.

 

She loved it, absolutely loved it.  But the room she wanted to hang it in was dominated by an antique oriental rug.  She was afraid the colors would clash.

 

I pointed out that the colors in my work were aged and softened and would probably blend well.  But it wasn’t enough.

 

Then I offered to let her take it home.  For free.

 

I simply told her if it didn’t work, to bring it back before the end of the show (a week later.)

 

This is a huge risk for most of us, I know.  In this case, it was someone who’d been following my work for years, at a fair with a longstanding, loyal audience.  I did secure the loan with her credit card, although I know some artists who even forego that.

 

But it’s a powerful move.  People are often gob-smacked that you would trust them with your beautiful work.  That kind of trust totally offsets any doubts about your pricing, your authenticity, your integrity.

 

As I wrapped the piece for her to carry home, she leaned towards me smiling shyly and whispered, “I don’t think it will be coming back!”

 

And it didn’t.



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Related Posts:

Questions You Don't Have to Answer: How Long Did That Take You to Make?

Questions You Don't Have to Answer: Do You Have a Website?


Topics: advice for artists | art collectors | art marketing | FineArtViews | Luann Udell | pricing artwork | sell art 

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 25 Comments

Fiona Purdy
via faso.com
Great article Luann, I've used a few of these ideas, but not all of them. I have one question. So many people these days do not carry their checkbooks around with them, they use debit cards instead (I am one of them). What would you do next if you got that response?

Rosemarie Adcock
via faso.com
What delightful article, Luann. I sometimes get the same comments. In one situation, I pulled out a very costly 35mm tube of Cobalt Violet and let my client know what the paint sells for. He then stared at a very large area of a painting filled with the color and I could see him computing how quickly one of these tubes disappear into a canvas. Soon he was curious about why certain pigments are so costly and soon the conversation became a teaching situation. Much later, I actually overheard the same man speaking to another person in a conversation with a lot of excitement about his knowledge of artists' pigments and why they are so pricey. It was fun to see him enjoying himself and know that I had answered his question.

Karen
via faso.com
I've done layaway successfully on several occasions - it makes everyone happy. Most recently a customer put two on layaway, then notified me yesterday she had come into a sudden disbursement of funds related to her employment and she wants to pay off the pieces early and take them before Christmas. If I had not been flexible, I would have lost the sale - a lose/lose situation for all.

I love the multiple checks written ahead of time idea!

Tuva Stephens
via faso.com
I too have allowed people I know to take the painting in question home. I did make a sale most of the time. Just this week an ex-art student in the area contacted me that he still was interested in purchasing a painting. I did not offer him any options for payment. He said it was on his "wish list." I did invited him to come look at my gallery of artwork in my home. That will be a good opportunity of offer him an option you have proposed above! Thank you!

George De Chiara
via faso.com
This is more for internet sales, but it's kind of like the take it home for free tip. I offer a complete refund up to 14 days after the sale. I think this helps put peoples mind at rest since they can't see the work in person first. So far no one has taken me up on it:)

The lay-a-way plan idea is a great one!

Judie McEwen
via faso.com
Many years ago, there was a cartoon that spoke directly to the question of cost. The caption read: "For myself, money means nothing, but as custodian of my genius, I must demand these prices." I use that quote quite a bit, and it always gets a laugh, and sometimes a sale!!

Linda Mae Olszanski
via faso.com
Luann,
Thanks for that great article. I have a little experience showing and selling directly, and now I'll be ready for those situations if the opportunity presents itself.

Linda

P.S. I bought a copy of your “Carving Rubber Stamp” book.

Donald Fox
via faso.com
Nicely written. The underlying message, as in many of your posts, is about establishing relationship with the customer (finding out their need or concern and then addressing that). Flexibility is important.

Bob Ragland
via faso.com
Good Article Luann,
I have used payment plans for years.
I have developed a formula called 12/52.
It goes like this- If the art is say 500 dollars
I have the person divide by 12 months or 52 weekends.
I just do this to give the potential buyer some idea, of what the cost to their budget would be.
I know people spend money every month and weekend,
and don't know what they bought.
I only use the 12/52 as a point of explanation.

Marian Fortunati
via faso.com
I love your great instructive stories that are so based on personal experiences. We can all learn from them.
I myself love the lay-away plan ... as a buyer of art!!! Most of the paintings I have purchased from other artists were on lay-away. It's easier for me to manage that way and I don't have to worry about accumulating interest. I just wait and anticipate the day that I will own a wonderful piece of art that I love.

Jo Allebach
via faso.com
All these ideas are great as a seller and buyer. Thanks ever so much.

Margie Guyot
via faso.com
Thank you for a most helpful article!


Casey Craig
via faso.com
Great advice Luann! I don't answer this question either but gloss over it with some of your suggestions.

Here is what is interesting though. Let's say your paintings are $1,000. You'd have to sell roughly 2 paintings a month to gross $24,000 a year. Remember this is gross.... now out of that we have paints, canvas or clay and then the bjillion little overhead expenses (websites, postcards, shipping, advertising, costs associated with running a studio, booth/entry fees, etc, etc, etc.) and if you are selling from a gallery a commission.

Now the $1,000 painting doesn't seem so expensive anymore.

Luann Udell
via faso.com
Casey, your response will work with some people. But it can also open a door you don't want to go through. Many people will think (or ask), "So why don't you sell it to ME for the same price a gallery gives you??"

Also, when we reply to an emotional question with a 'just the facts, ma'am' response, we run the chance of losing the good connection that made the customer ask in the first place. Instead of seeing us as a passionate artist, they see us as a savvy business person. Maybe we ARE savvy, but that's not how they want to see us.

Conversely, if we look totally clueless about finances--for example, willing to work for less than $12,000 a year--that can create doubt that we are an artist worth investing in, who will be around for the long haul. My first major collector (who spent an hour in my booth and asked dozens of questions the first time she saw my work) actually said, "I think you're going to be big. What's your best piece here?" (And she bought it!)

Something I've done that works: When asked why my work is pricey, I say, "A better way to look at my pricing is, 'how many of these can I make in a year?' And these are so labor-intensive and costly to make, most years, I can only create x number." The answer is enough to make an honest living (hopefully!) but not enough to gouge people or to appear clueless. :^)

I hope this helps. I don't have all the answers, I just give different ways to think about the questions.

Casey Craig
via faso.com
Thanks for your reply Luann, but I guess I need to clarify. I stated "I don't answer this question either but gloss over it with some of your suggestions."

I would never launch into the above math description with a potential collector. I just stated it, to show that what may be perceived as "expensive" is somewhat necessary when you are trying to make a living wage from your art. I'm willing to bet a large percentage of people looking to buy original art make more than $24,000 a year. You would have to sell 160 paintings a year for $150 to make the same amount. Just puts things in perspective.

I totally agree that we should engage the person in a postive emotional dialogue and find solutions to help collectors purchase our work.

I don't have all of the the answers either Luann, but I always enjoy your posts. :)

Thanks!

Donna Robillard
via faso.com
Wonderful article. Thanks,

Rick Rotante
via faso.com
This is one question that make me bristle (inside, of course) I generally avoid the answer with a question of my own. For instance, how much would you be willing to spend for a painting like this?
This cuts through the BS and you know if they are really willing to buy or just 'shopping'. If their reply with a ridiculous amount, I tell them that maybe they would appreciate this smaller one at that price.
The main point is to determine the genuineness of the request and develop a relationship of trust and cooperation. I have lowered my price but only after considerable discussion and realization of true interest.
One thing I've started doing is removing all prices from the works. This 'forces' a dialogue between us. They have to ask me. From there it becomes a negotiation to get my price.
When they ask how long did the painting take to paint (thinking if it took three hours how can I ask the selling price) my usual answer is 65 years and two days.

Rick Rotante
via faso.com
One thing I might like to add is Artists are not always the best salespeople of their own works.
In many cases, this should be left to others.

Bob Ragland
via faso.com
People who complain about prices, are the same ones who spend $2000.00 on latte and bottled water.
Not all, but many.

Linda Mae Olszanski
via faso.com
Very interesting that you brought that up Bob. It reminds me of a time very early in my career that someone expressed an interest in one of my pieces but chose to spend the money on a vacation instead.

Not the same thing as bottled water but sad either way.

Bob Ragland
via faso.com
Too bad that some people can't figure out how to have art and vacations too.

jack white
via faso.com
Luanna,

Early in my career no one ever quibbled about my prices. I was cheaper than dirt. I sold jillions of piece under a $100. In time the prices grew to the point of being near insane. (smile)

It's been my experience folks are not really asking why so high...they are trying to make conversation. Remember the average Joe and Jane know little about art. They just need a starting point. I tend to do like a politician in a debate, change the subject. I start talking about their favorite person, themselves. For instance I quickly look for evidence of wealth.

I would reach out my hand and say, with my long slow Texas drawl, tipping my cowboy hat back then say, "Howdy, I'm Jack White. What's your name? After they told me I'd say, " Joe That's a great pair of alligator boots. Or, I love your Rolex watch. Maybe the woman has big diamond ring. I made sure and compliment her on the ring. This let them know I knew money was not the issue. If I felt they had real interest I would proceed with closing the sale. If they were just out for a stroll, I would excuse myself and go to the next client. I judge very fast if they were buyers or tire kickers. I still do at Mikki's events.

There is no written rule in selling we are obligated to answer all questions. I don't mind telling my age, but I don't give family, personal information. If I don't want to answer their question I change the subject. I set the rules. They are in my house, (tent, booth or gallery)

I love your story telling skills. That's why you can sell your product. You give life to your work. People are really more interested in WHY than HOW. They are attracted to our passion not boring hours of labor.

Rick,
I've never known anyone who could sell my work better than me. Now that I've taught Mikki, my mate, to read body language and listen to what folks are asking, she is a killer at shows. When I say shows I'm actually talking about one big gallery event a year in Santa Fe.

I also don't give the years in art as an answer. If really pushed I answer, "I paint fast." I let them determine what is fast.

Again we are not obliged to answer any question. Instead get to the core on selling. Talk about them and ask editorial questions.

I'm not a great painter, but I do know how to sell and sell very well. Selling has been the reason I survived during the Jimmy Carter years and long gas lines.

Jack

Jack

Bob Ragland
via faso.com
Jack White you are a voluable guy.
I survived the Jimmy Carter years also.
Did it by art.

Tom Weinkle
via faso.com
Thanks Luann. Good thinking, and suggestions. Your stories demonstrate great confidence in what you do A lesson for all of us.



Esther J. Williams
via faso.com
This is all very interesting for me to read. I am going to try the layaway option more often. I have some art collectors coming to my studio today. I have no problem yacking up a storm with people, but it is what we say that is important and how we observe and listen to the buyers.
Thanks Luann! Thanks Jack too!










 

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