Saturday, May 29, 2010

Find a Niche -- and Fill It!

I keep reading on the Bonanzle forums posts from people who have anywhere from 3 to 25
items in their booths, complaining they "can't sell anything". Those of us who are successful
TRY to explain to them how it works: to be seen you MUST have more than a hand full of items
to sell, you MUST promote it everywhere in FaceBook and MySpace and Kaboodle and
Twitter and all the rest, and most importantly you MUST sell what people are buying. If you sell
something that everyone else in the world is selling, competing with big sellers with thousands
of items, what makes you think anyone is even going to FIND your hand full of items? And then
there are the ones we encourage to branch out, sell other things as well, who whine (and it
really is whining) "but I only want to sell..." whatever single item they want to specialize in.

No matter what you are selling, buyers are not going to magically come to you. You gotta take it
to THEM. And you have to sell what people want and/or need, especially in a bad economy, but
really any time. My mom taught me to be successful at anything you have to toot your own horn,
cos nobody else will. And she taught me that to make your way in the world you have to find a
niche (ie what people need) and fill it.

I like to make stained glass. Alas I am a perfectionist and it is slow work: to make a living at
that I would have to charge way more than most people would spend, and likely only sell a few
pieces a year. Good for the artist in me, but won't pay the rent. My nursing job (again
something people need) pays the rent. For now. And for my online selling, again I'd love to just
sell stained glass, and maybe even some pretty depression glass. But that's not realistic.
There are THOUSANDS of sellers out there making and selling little stained glass baubles,
and selling collectible glassware from the 40's and 50's. So I sell a bit of everything,
anything I can basically get that looks new-ish that is either free or very cheaply had,
I will try to resell at a profit. And I do and it works. But it don't pay the rent.
And then momma says in my head "find a niche and fill it". And was born!
Time only will tell but I think I found it. But I digress.

"Find a niche and Fill It"

My mom was a smart lady. She was also an artist and eventually was marginally famous in her
way for her seascapes and floral paintings which she sold WORLDWIDE by the time she died in 1996.
She did NOT start out that way.

In the late 60's and early 70's, we were struggling. Dad was a carpenter, and had another of MANY
layoffs as that industry is known for. Mom was just a housewife who loved to do crafts,
gardening. Anything to do with color and design, she had an eye for it: God-given talent (cos it
comes from nowhere else, never doubt it).

What she LIKED to paint was alas not what people wanted to buy and hang in their homes. You'd
admire them in a gallery, but not hang it over your sofa.
Her favorite thing to paint was scenes from her childhood home in New England, things like an
old covered wooden bridge, or a stream in winter or fall, or a farmhouse and barn surrounded by
wild flowers and a broken down fence. She also loved the sea, and so she painted ships and docks,
and my favorite was a pair of 24-inch tall paintings of gondolas in the waterways of Venice.
Her favorite two were a painting of a child she saw in a magazine ad, one of those pitiful-looking
Save-the-Children ads with the half-naked child with the huge belly and sad expression
that she made into a portrait, and a copy of St. George and the Dragon, which she was incredibly
proud to demonstrate was identical to the real one except that it was exactly 1 inch taller and
wider overall. She wanted to show that she, blind in her left eye since age 14 and without even
a High School education, and never an art class in her life, could do what the 'masters' did.
And she did.

What people WANTED in their homes was HUGE flowers in whatever the color fashion of the day
dictated, so a 4 foot by two foot painting would have one huge flower in the middle and two
more smaller ones for balance, exactly three leaves and the background would be whatever the
interior designers that year were telling people to use. She would "puff up" her flowers to make
them three dimensional and her well-kept secret that all her competitors wanted to have, now that
she has been dead these 14 years, was Elmer's glue. Nothing more. She painted a lot of seascapes,
nothing more than rolling surf and a few rocks and seagulls, maybe some sea oats in the
foreground. And the "orientals" which consisted of a pair of paintings usually, of a single woman
in Japanese kimono with full makeup and fan, a little tree or pagoda in the background. Common
stuff, everyone was painting the same thing, but it was what people wanted.
So much for pure art. But, that was later.

In the beginning there was the housewife, who 'borrowed' $40 from her grocery money to buy some
paints and brushes and 'turps' and a couple of mounted canvasses. She made a few paintings to
take to a local craft show in front of the local strip mall, "Shoppers Haven" as I recall. I
think I was maybe 11 or 12. She had a card table and a couple of those wire easels you see at
funerals, and a few canvasses with her painted angels and still-life flowers and a reproduction
or two of famous paintings she was practicing on, and some jewelry pins we made from tissue paper
and colored mucilage glue. There were also a set of used kitchen cannisters she painted flowers
on, a wooden spoon with butterflies painted on, little stuff. She WANTED to sell the canvas
paintings of course, they would make the most money and it's what she loved to do. She KNEW
however that the LITTLE things, what my husband would now call "kaserai" was what would draw the
customers and may, in a bad economy, be the only things to sell.

She was right. We sold EVERY piece of the tissue-and-mucilage jewelry (we're talking 25 cent
items), as well as the wooden spoon and the cannisters, and not one painting. BUT she had lots of
lookers and they all took business cards (which she had painted and printed by hand). This was
1970 or so. There was no internet, no computers or home printers. Mom promoted herself like mad.
She made friends with someone at the local throw-out paper, not the Sentinel, the little free
community thing you pick up at the grocery store. He took photos of her stuff, and ran a little
story. She kept going to craft shows, and she kept painting. And she kept promoting. And every
penny she made went back into the business itself, not into our household. Whatever supplies,
entry fees, gas money, etc she needed for this venture had to come from what she sold, if

For 2 years we made tissue-and-mucilage flowers, pins, floral arrangements, any little thing that
would sell. She made wooden plaques and little signs for bedroom doors with frogs and butterflies
on them, and whatever people wanted them to say. She hand-painted greeting cards. Any little
crafty nickel and dime item that she could make to sell.
And mom LISTENED to what her customers were saying about colors and designs, what they liked and
what they didn't.

Most Artists paint what THEY want to paint. Mom wisely decided to paint what people wanted to
buy. Mom painted on anything and everything. And finally sold one canvas painting. And by 1973
was selling several per show: and she went EVERY weekend to a show all weekend, 12-16 hour days
with set up Friday afternoons and sitting there in the mall with hundreds of other artists trying
to sell their wares, all day Saturday and Sunday and tear down on Sunday to come home. She worked
HARD at this, and in between painted and painted. She started going to ART shows, instead of
outdoor "craft" shows, having earned her way up to this. And shows all over the state, so that
literally every weekend of the year was booked at some art show or other. And longer shows, 4-5
days instead of just weekends. And finally by the mid-80's she was making a living at it and my
dad officially retired and joined her in the business, making her picture frames and stretching
her canvasses, which she was now selling 10 or more in a week (large 48" paintings too).

Moral is: it takes TIME and it takes persistance and it takes LISTENING to what your potential
customers are telling you they want, and being willing to sell what they want and need at any
given time, even if it isn't what you want to be selling or doing. Mom didn't especially like
yellow and orange, but when style dictated that was how people were decorating their homes,
that's what she painted that year. The next year if it was purple and green, that's what she did
too. That's what people wanted.
And her competitors? They made fun of her, told her she wasn't a "real artist", waving their
diplomas and snooty attitudes in her face, all the while speculating about what she used to
puff up those big flowers because they couldn't get theirs to do that, and complaining that sales
were bad. But guess what: she was the one selling, making a living at it, and they weren't.
And she would quote Liberace, who laughed all the way to the bank!

I know my mom's paintings are in homes (and probably more than a few attics by now) all over the
world. You can't, alas, Google M.Lent Florida artist today and find her. But I know how many
paintings she sold. She's out there. I have a small stash of her paintings I may even sell one
day. But not yet.

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