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.
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.