The winter holidays are well known for being the biggest revenue-generating season for businesses large and small (think Black Friday, so named because it puts businesses “in the black”, i.e., having positive net income). Owners of small business selling handmade goods in my area report earning 30%-90% of their total yearly revenue during the holiday shopping season (roughly November through December).
For makers and creative entrepreneurs, it is an exciting, and often exhausting, time. But this budding creative entrepreneur kind of missed out.
I spent the better part of the fall designing and tweaking my products and building up a small selection of samples, so by the time holiday shopping season rolled around I really didn’t have enough inventory to do a major holiday selling campaign. I contributed a small number of things at two holiday markets (at Raleigh’s Visual Art Exchange and at Boston’s Massachusetts College of Art and Design, where I went to grad school) and decided to spend the rest of my energy on observing the holiday marketplace from a distance.
Here are the top lessons I’ve learned watching from the sidelines that I’ll be sure to apply next year:
Build up inventory early.
Honestly, this I learned more from experience than from observation. I would have loved to jump into holiday selling in a major way this year, but when November rolled around I started thinking about the holidays and realized I didn’t have nearly enough items to really set up a decent table at a craft fair or a shop on Etsy. A few weeks may seem like enough time to produce at least a small selection of colors and sizes, but my creative business is a weekend-and-evenings gig right now, and I didn’t even have adequate supplies to make and inventory (waiting for fabrics to be delivered alone takes at least a week). Next year I hope to start planning my holiday inventory in late summer and start production no later than September.
I must credit Michele Smith, owner of the Cary gift shop/co-working space Gather for this insight. During a workshop we both took at her shop this fall, she mentioned that most people coming into her store are looking for gifts, and so she made a point of stocking giftable items. The centerpiece of my fashion line is dresses, so this was an eye-opener. Many clothing items make good gifts (sweaters, tshirts), but dresses? Not so much. Next year I’ll have dresses for sale, for sure (a Sunday Shift dress with heels and a statement necklace would be an excellent holiday party outfit), but now I realize I need to think about how to offer products that are more giftable in terms of function and price point: jewelry, tanks and tunics, maybe even scarves.
Select a few key marketplaces.
I was impressed and overwhelmed by the number of local holiday markets for handmade goods, and that’s not even considering online marketplaces like Etsy. It would be tempting to try to sell at as many as possible, but for a one-person business like mine, I decided it makes more sense to select a couple of markets that make the best fit for me and my products. Staying on the sidelines this year meant I got to scout some markets, so I have a better idea of which ones I want to target next year. Some things to consider when selecting which marketplaces to participate in:
What kind of products will other people be selling, and are their audiences and price points similar to yours?
How many people usually shop at the market? Do they match your target audience?
Will you be leaving items on commission to be sold at a shop or boutique, or will you have to sell at your own booth or table?
What sort of entry fees or commission is involved?
If you sell online, will you have enough inventory for both online and in-person selling?
Be very clear about ordering deadlines.
Customer service is always important, but the holidays present a special challenge: there’s a very specific date by which people need to have their gifts, and federal mail holidays and folks travelling to visit family and friends mean deliveries need more lead time than usual. If people don’t have their gifts on time, they are not happy. Fortunately, this one is pretty easy to solve: figure out the last day you can possibly take an order and ship it to someone on time, and communicate that date to your customers early and often.
Here’s an example of how to do it right: My sister and I decided to get our craft-beer-loving dad a personalized growler for Christmas, and my favorite ones were made by Etsy seller ScissorMill. It turned out the day I first browsed their products was also the last possible day to order to get the item by Christmas - a fact they made abundantly clear by indicating it in every product description and even adding a special image to each listing advertising the order-by date. Without such clear communication, I surely would have dallied, and they would have missed a sale - or had a customer quite upset to discover a gift wouldn’t arrive in time for the present-opening festivities.
For even more advice on selling handmade for the holidays, check out these resources:
Etsy’s Holiday Crash Course
The Small Business Saturday website
How to Market Your Products at Holiday Craft Fairs and Flea Markets (U.S. Small Business Administration)