I recently put out a call on my Instagram asking for topic suggestions for here on Designing an MBA, and I got a lot of requests to talk more about selling one of a kind products.
Since I’ve shifted more of my business to one of a kinds after launching my Contra Collection in 2015, this is definitely a topic I’m excited to tackle.
One of the questions that came up was what to do one of a kind pieces that haven’t sold? At what point should you give up and take them apart for new work?
While I totally get that question, I think there are lots of steps in between having a one of a kind piece not sell and deciding it’s time to take it apart. So today, I want to share six things you can do with one of a kind work that hasn’t sold.
And truthfully, you can actually apply these strategies to any work that you have sitting around your studio, whether that work is one of a kind or production. Really, my goal is to get you to think of unsold work as an asset you can use to market your business, rather than a burden that’s just sitting around your studio!
1. Have a sample sale.
This is my favorite thing to do with unsold work because, when done right, it has two benefits – giving your business a much needed boost of cash, and growing your email list.
I actually keep a box in my studio of work that I can use for the sample sale – this includes everything from pieces that have been returned or exchanged, designs I’ve retired, and yes, one of a kind pieces that haven’t sold. Once the box is full, I know it’s time to have a sample sale. (I usually aim for once a year.)
Sample sales work to encourage purchasing because they increase scarcity. I don’t put sample sale items in my online store until they sell out, rather the sale lasts for 24 hours, and then the items go away. (If they don’t sell during the sale, they just go back into the box for the next one.)
But I also use samples sales as a way to grow my email list, because I let my mailing list members shop an hour early. Since most pieces in the sale are one of a kinds or limited quantity (and everything is discounted), people want to shop the sale as soon as possible. I then spend the week leading up to the sale promoting it on social media and encouraging my audience to join my mailing list.
When done right, a sample sale is a great way to move work that’s been sitting around your studio for months or even years!
2. Send it to an influencer.
One of the best ways to market your work is to get someone else to share it. That’s why influencer marketing has become such a hot topic lately.
But as makers (especially when you make one of a kind work), it can be hard to part with a piece for free when you’re holding out hope that it will sell and bring you some money.
Which is why mining your unsold pieces and sending them to an influencer can be a two birds with one stone approach – get unsold work out of the studio while also expanding your marketing reach.
Now, when you hear the term influencer, it’s easy to assume I’m talking about those twenty-something fashionistas on Instagram who are always flaunting their latest looks. But unless that’s your ideal customer, sending work to that kind of influencer is just a waste of time and product.
Instead, I define influencer as anyone who might be interested in your product and willing to share it with their audience. This could mean a fashion blogger, but it could also be an interior designer, a thought leader or teacher, a creative business owner, or maybe even another artist. The most important thing is that they love your work and want to talk about it.
For example, in the early days of my business, I gained a lot of fans because my friend, business expert Tara Gentile, wore my work. And my friend Tia Keobounpheng of Silvercocoon got a lot of exposure after gifting a pair of earrings to author Cheryl Strayed at a book signing.
My point is that what defines an influence can actually be really broad. Look around your network. Who could you send a piece to that could help promote your work to their audience?
Every influencer relationship is different, and comes with different levels of risk and reward. (I knew that when I gave Tara my work, she would wear it to her various speaking and teaching gigs, whereas giving your work cold to someone you admire comes with no guarantee that they’ll actually use or promote it.) But if you’ve got some old work sitting around, sending it out in the world to someone with a bigger (or different) audience than you can be a good option to help market your business.
3. Use or wear it yourself.
One of the biggest pieces of advice I always give is that you should be your own biggest fan – meaning no one should wear or use your work more than you. (If you make wearable products, this is easy to do, but if you make products for the home, you should surround yourself with them as well.)
There’s a few benefits to the be your own biggest fan strategy, but one of the reasons I’m so fond of it is that it can be a great way of generating sales. I remember learning feltmaking from an old Danish woman who told us that she used to wear her felted hats out and would just sit at the end of a bar, wearing them and drinking. Then, when someone would compliment her hat, she’d take them out to her car and sell them one from her trunk!
While you don’t have to get quite so extreme with your sales tactics, wearing or using your unsold work can be a great way to generate excitement. And this can extend beyond real life, as social media makes it even easier to use the be your own biggest fan strategy as a way to market your work.
For example, I had a one of a kind necklace that had been sitting in my shop unnoticed for months. Then, I took an image of myself wearing it with a holiday part outfit (this was back in December) and posted it on Instagram. Suddenly, I had a flurry of interest in the necklace, and once it sold, one woman even referred to it as “the one that got away.”
It can be easy to assume that, if a piece hasn’t sold yet, it never will. But choosing to showcase it in your own life (whether that’s real or virtual) may be all the marketing boost it needs to finally find a buyer.
4. Donate it to charity.
I don’t know about you, but every so often, I get requests from organizations asking for donations for a charity even or auction. And if the event or cause is one that’s dear to your heart, this can be a great place to send unsold pieces.
And you don’t have to wait for an organization to reach out to you. If there’s a cause you’re passionate about, contact them and see if there’s an event you can donate to.
One thing to keep in mind with this strategy is that I don’t recommend approaching it as marketing, but rather as good karma. There are just too many variables and no way to know for sure that you work is getting presented in a way that’s consistent with your brand.
But if you’ve got a cause you want to support and some old work hanging around, this can be a good thing to do.
5. Keep it for your archives.
When you’re focused on making money in the short term, it can be hard to think about the future legacy your art and business is leaving behind. But I firmly believe that you should always keep a few pieces of your old work around (especially if you change styles or discontinue a line) for posterity.
I know that may seem a little presumptuous or pompous, but hear me out. You have no idea how your art or business will develop in the years and decades to come. You might achieve a level of fame that seems unimaginable now. And even if you don’t, there’s still something nice about keeping a few old physical pieces around to go through later.
Just like I recommend keeping a box in the studio for your sample sale, you should also have a place in your studio for your archives. It’s not possible to keep every one of a kind piece you make (you are running a business after all), but if you have a piece that hasn’t sold, ask yourself if the best thing you can do with it is simply to hang on to it for future posterity.
6. Repurpose it.
There’s nothing wrong with repurposing a one of a kind piece – whether that’s taking apart jewelry and using the components for something else, cutting apart a painting to use for a collage, or sewing a scarf that didn’t sell into a set of pillows.
But I like to think of that repurposing as a last resort, rather than a first step. That’s because, especially if you sell online, you have no idea if someone has their eye on something. You might have a future customer who’s been saving up for years to make a purchase. So before you take apart something that’s previously been for sale, I recommend dropping it in a sample sale or two, or experimenting with different ways to share or promote it (such as wearing a necklace yourself or loaning a painting to an interior designer for a show house) to ensure that it’s really not catching someone’s eye.
But if it’s been years, and a piece hasn’t sold (and you see the creative potential in it as something else) then by all means, repurpose or reconfigure away!