Difficult, Rare, and Sexy

I was flipping through marketing books in the business section at Borders tonight and I noticed that the conventional wisdom being thrown around concerning selling things on the internet is that you should make it as easy as possible for your customer to buy your product. For conventional products, I think that's true. If you sell dog food, you'll want to offer bulk discounts, free shipping, 18 ways to pay, and a lifetime guarantee. But if you make handmade goods, you're not selling dog food, and "ease" is not necessarily going to be the right marketing plan in every case.

It reminded me of a story from a book called The Piano Shop on the Left Bank. It's a great little book about all kinds of things having to do with pianos, but the central story revolves around the author's return to the instrument after a long hiatus. He becomes interested in the piano again because every day he passes an atelier while walking his kid to school. After weeks of passing the store, he musters the courage to step inside. There is a small counter with a curtained doorway behind it. Through the curtain he sees dozens of beautiful pianos in various states of disrepair. When the man in charge asks him if he may be of assistance and our protagonist expresses his wish to buy a piano, he is told "Oh, I'm sorry Monsieur, we do not have any pianos".Now, you could easily attribute the business owner's attitude to the French reputation for being difficult, but I think there's a big lesson to be learned here about finding your audience, rarity, and the dramatic effect that being denied can have on a person.

We don't sell pianos...

There is a lot of talk in the blogosphere about finding your audience. Lots of advice about discovering what your niche is and mining it. The shop owner in this story has developed the perfect way to do this for his business. It's obvious to anyone that walks in his shop that he sells pianos. By denying that he does so, he probably loses customers quite often, but these customers are unimportant. If they are too weak to challenge his flimsy assertion, they will probably be a headache to deal with in the future. They don't "get" it. They are not members of the piano tribe and they never will be. By only doing business with the "right people", he's not losing customers, he's selecting them. He's not finding buyers but, rather, stewards who will care for, understand, and respect a piano for what it is. He is finding his audience.

Scarcity is sexy...

As craftspeople, we deal in fetish items. The people that like to buy handmade, like it because the items available to them are unique. They are not available at WalMart or anywhere else that the general public shops. When people buy crafted items, they want to feel special. They want to feel the rush that comes from owning something that's different, rare, or one-of-a-kind. So, when people look at an Etsy shop that is filled with 50 purses that all look similar, the rarity factor takes a dive. It's just not that special anymore. The piano dealer knows how seductive scarcity can be. By only putting out one or two pianos at a time, his shop becomes more of an art gallery than a clearing house.

Tell a story...

The other thing that people really want from handmade is a story. It doesn't have to be a long story and you don't have to be a great writer to put it across, it just has to be true. The crafters that I know that blog about their process (and their creative lives, for that matter) are the ones who are most interesting to me as a potential customer. Even though I don't really "know" them, I feel like I do, and owning one of their pieces becomes a million times more attractive to me. Later on in The Piano Shop, the two men become friends and the atelier spends hour upon hour regaling the author with stories of the piano and the individual histories of the instruments he has in his shop. Each has a story and each is more attractive from the telling.

Don't shoot!

What I'm seeing a lot of these days is a sort of scattershot approach to the marketing of crafts. Lots of folks polluting Twitter, Facebook, email, and any other social media tool with hundreds upon hundreds of shop announcements, adding to the cacophony of an already noisy marketplace. If you can use all the same tools to tell a story, I think there's an opportunity for the person that chooses to deal in the rare and, perhaps, difficult to attain.


  1. AMEN, Paul. Well-said indeed, especially regarding the importance of story. It's really the most crucial aspect of reaching people in the online space, IMO. In such a crowded and noisy marketplace, how else can an artisan be memorable?

    This is one way I think Artfire has trumped Etsy - when you list an item on Artfire, there's actually a space in the form for you to tell the story of the piece. I'd love to see Etsy add this functionality.

  2. Thanks D! I agree about Etsy adding a place for story.

    I think there may be a play for those who choose to ignore the online marketplaces altogether and find their own way too. I mean, if someone's blog said something like:
    "Most pieces you see on this site are either commissions or have already been spoken for. However, if you see a piece that strikes your fancy, please email me and I'd be happy to discuss a purchase with you."
    That's sending a pretty clear message, no? "If you want my stuff, your going to have to work a little to get it."

    I don't know about you, but that kind of stuff just makes me want the item that much more.

  3. So well written, Paul.

    This post made me think of one I read some time back, that I thought was also an interesting (not necessarily related-but possibly)observation, however, somewhat controversial I imagine with many:

  4. Thanks, Cathe! And thanks for the link as well. That was a great article.

  5. Yes. yes. yes. It is the opposite of what everyone is saying about selling on the web (one click!), but with artists and craftsmen I think the scarcity/story combo is so powerful. A great example of this is Ann Wood. She creates a tiny, unified universe on her site, and she offers rarely available handmade items on her site. But she doesn't do it in a overt (or undervert) way. She has the pianos in the window ... but you have to come in.

  6. Alice - Thanks for the nice comment! I agree about Ann Wood. Her stuff is amazing. I covet that black owl she's making! And her stuff has that scarcity/rare mystique about it. Perfect example!

  7. Here here! I have to say that there are folks that I know that are starting to really appreciate the charm of handcrafted items that they can't anywhere else. I think in these times, people are tuning into the anti-commercialism that handmade represents. Could be the new trend!

  8. Heather - Thanks! Relished - Yes, I think people are tuning in for many reasons. Thanks for the comment.

  9. rock on. I agree in so many way. This gets to the heart of what I was getting at in on of my recent blog post- back in teh day whe I blogged about "HOly crap I made this discovery about bookbinding" I sold books more regularly than I do now. (lets not get intothe SEO mess or any of that on etsy) My readers were fierce and loyal to me, and I was taking them on the adventur with me. Now that I'm an establish binder how to I translate the JOY of making books to my audience, that is my cirrent question.

    Love it keep the great opinion pieces coming.

  10. Les- Thanks for that. I think it's a good question about translating the joy to your audience. For me, if I was reading about bookbinding, I would want to read 20% facts about what goes into the craft and 80% your opinions and passion about making books. The people that I really like to read are very adept at telling their story through their craft. You can learn a lot about a person by what and how they make things. That is what keeps me coming back to my favorite blogs.

    BTW, I really like your work and appreciate all the RTs and links to DudeCraft that you put out. Thanks again for the great comment!



  11. Amen, Paul. Amen. I do a little professional ass-kicking with local crafters who are in business for themselves and this is one of the hardest concepts to get across to most of them - not everyone is your customer. I will definitely refer them to this well written blog post!

  12. Really good post, Paul. A perfect example of knowing who your target customers are.

  13. Dawn - Thanks! I'm honored and buoyed to hear that the post fits with what you're trying to get across.

    Matt - Thanks!

  14. I agree with most of what you've posted here. It all makes perfect sense from a marketing perspective, but I think you're conflating rarity with difficulty. I think pricing, for example, has much more to do with conveying rarity and worth rather than making it difficult to shop from you. Turning people away may work for a brick-and-mortar luxury store, but I think it's less effective in a faceless online setting. For me, coming up against a poorly designed shopping cart does not add to the mystique of an online store. It has quite the opposite effect.

  15. bizmiss - Agreed. But a poorly designed shopping cart isn't fun for anybody. That's not what I'm talking about in terms of difficulty. I'm talking about the kind of challenges that people are generally up for (like having to wait for something to be made, or having to send a check). Not the useless challenge of just trying to just deal with something that is broken. That doesn't add mystique, it's just dumb.

    As far as price, I agree mostly. But still think having 50 high priced purses in your etsy shop makes you look too prolific and not special enough, no matter what price you put on them.

  16. No matter how much spin you put on it this is still just economics.

    Sell a lot for a little or a little for a lot. Just about any individual artist is going to have to sell a little for a lot because the ability to produce in volume is just not practical. He could charge just a little but he would soon find himself in the line at the soup kitchen.

    Sure, as an artist you are selling more than paintings let's say. You are selling the story of the painting, the experience of owning the painting, etc. But it is still a business that operates by economic principals.

  17. Thanks Tim. I agree about everything being a slave to basic economic principles. But let's get away from the left brained, hard facts for a moment. What I'm talking about is not how economics works, it's how people work. I don't think you can discount the "story" aspect of this thing. Story is quickly becoming the most important thing you can have in order to sell something. Selling a lot for a little or a little for a lot is what happens behind the curtain. The story of your relationship with the object is what happens in front. Tell a good story, produce something that people covet, collect, or rally around and you're on your way. The online world is an increasingly more complicated place for people to navigate and the people who are thriving on the "long tail" are all excellent story tellers.

  18. I don't discount the value of story or history at all. A collector baseball is still just a baseball in reality. But the events connected to that ball - the celebrity, the game winning run, etc., certainly has value to certain people. But it is still economics. Something that is rare (and desired) will still fetch a high price - selling a little for a lot.

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