If you find selling your work daunting or unexciting, you are not alone. Not everyone is a natural salesperson, and those who seem so at ease get to that point after years of practice and patience. While you may feel that your personality puts you at an advantage or disadvantage, extroverts, introverts and ambiverts can all acquire the sales skills needed to sell art.
To increase art sales, you have to do more than create interesting and marketable work; you have to get better at actually selling the work itself, whether at an art or craft fair, pop-up gallery or shop, festival, market or other venue. Luckily, in developing sales skills, the first step is to know your product, which, as its artist or maker, you know very well. Knowledge and love of your own work, combined with several sales techniques, can turn an interested viewer to a customer, or even a repeat and loyal customer.
Set the Tone for a Positive Experience
1. Reduce Barriers and Create Opportunities
Potential buyers engage with you, the artist-seller, in the hopes of learning more about your work. At the risk of oversimplifying the complex art of buyer engagement, your interaction with potential buyers should accomplish two things: reduce barriers, and create opportunities.
When selling art in-person, whether at an art fair, handmade market or pop-up event, reducing barriers means you want to decrease the chances of a potential buyer feeling uncomfortable. You want them to feel that you and your art are approachable. Barriers are created by, for example, hiding in the corner and not standing by your work, not making eye contact or conversation, or not acknowledging the customer.
2. Break the Ice and Build Rapport
Saying “Hello” or “Good Morning” with a smile to people browsing your work can prevent them from feeling that they don’t belong in your space. You’ll be surprised at how much it breaks the ice and makes people feel at ease. However, while your greeting is a positive start, saying “Hi” alone doesn’t tell the customer much about you, and doesn’t tell you much about them either. The goal of these interactions is to nurture a friendly environment and generate conversation. By getting customers to open up and talk, you can establish a rapport, and understand what they want and how you can help them. Pay special attention when the prospective buyer says things that you may be able to use later when the sale can be closed or completed.
If starting conversations does not come naturally to you, try practicing in front of a mirror at home, or with a friend, until you get more comfortable. You could, for instance, ask a prospective buyer if they are familiar with your work’s process or subject matter. Or you could simply introduce yourself. Or, share something you love about the work that they are looking at. Whatever you choose, keep it light and friendly, as this is your first step in reducing barriers.
Here are three opening lines to get you started.
- “Hello. You seem drawn to that piece. Are you familiar with this printmaking process?”
- “The painting in front of you is one of my favorites. Can I tell you a little bit about it?”
- “Hi, I’m the artist, and I just want to thank you for coming. How are you enjoying the art fair?”
3. Use Both Open and Closed Questions
Note that the last question, “How are you enjoying the art fair?”, is open-ended. As opposed to yes/no questions, which are more likely to get you one-word answers, open-ended questions compel people to give longer responses, giving you a bigger window of opportunity to connect with them. Asking “Are you enjoying the art fair?”, for instance, will probably lead them to say yes, then the conversation will cease.
4. Identify Different Buyer Personalities
Not every customer wants to be approached or will be responsive to your icebreakers. After all, when you’re looking to buy something at a store or fair, you may be the same way. Don’t take it personally. But don’t let it stop you from engaging potential customers that are more reserved. Read their body language and be perceptive. Don’t hover over them, but be within reach when they have a question. There’s a balance, and with practice, you will be more receptive to different social cues and various styles of buying behaviors and personalities.
You’ll soon recognize who’s into talking, who’s just browsing, who’s intent on buying, and who wants to be left alone. But note, just because someone says that they are “not looking to buy,” or are “just browsing,” it does not mean that they never will buy, or won’t circle back to your booth later. No matter what customer personality you come across, maintain a friendly and welcoming attitude and be genuinely interested in learning about how they respond to your work. Leave everyone with a positive impression.
5. Probe for More Information
Customers appreciate your tactful honesty and expertise. For example, if someone tells you that they are hoping to buy an artwork as a gift for their spouse, ask questions and probe the customer to learn more to help you make the sale. You can ask, “What is the occasion of this gift? What type of art does the spouse typically like?” As an artist, you have an “eye” for what fits; use this to recommend what you think best suits them given their interests and taste. Do this with confidence and hear out the customer’s reaction to it. You want to make buyers feel good about themselves and their potential purchases.
6. Counter Buyer Concerns and Doubts
Some customers will react to your work instantly like a magnet. Others will be harder to read. In conversing with them, you may get tripped up or surprised with a question. When this happens, don’t get defensive. Give the best response you can and start with, “Wow, that’s a good question.” A delayed response is a hundred times better than no response at all. Make sure to take note of any tough questions or any concerns that you are not able to answer. Later on, think about why that customer had that thought, and how you can respond effectively to alleviate their concern in the future. Practice these answers for the next time you need them.
You will sometimes encounter enthusiastic customers who seem eager to buy but, moments later, change their minds or become hesitant. When it comes to buying art or other goods at a higher price point, it is common for customers to feel conflicted, resulting in second thoughts, or changes of opinion after they consider more factors. After all, the more expensive the item (and the larger the object), the bigger of a commitment it is for them, and the more they have to weigh any possible downsides of the purchase.
View buyer concerns or objections as expressions of their way of weighing the pros and cons of the purchase out loud. They are often rooted in these four concerns:
- Budget. The customer may think that your price is out of their range.
Example: “That is more expensive than I thought it would be.”
- Needs. The customer may be unsure if your work will fulfill their need.
Example: “I’m not sure this would look good in my living room, though.”
- Value. The customer may be undecided on how much they like the work itself.
Example: “I think I like how it looks, but I still don’t get what it means.”
- Authority. The customer may not feel confident to make a decision on their own.
Example: “I love it but I’m not sure my partner will. I need to consult with her.”
Practice handling objections by making a list of ones that come up, or ones that you have already encountered. They will likely fall into the four main concerns that are mentioned above.
Handling Customer Objections
Objections are reasons why a customer does not want to buy. An effective way to handle them is to follow these steps, also known as “ARC”: Acknowledge, Respond and Check for Agreement
1. Acknowledge by repeating that you understand the customer’s concern.
Customer: “Your work is lovely, but it’s much too expensive for me.”
Seller: “I understand your concern. You want to be able to afford the work that you enjoy.”
2. Respond by providing information that mitigates, eases, or addresses their concern.
Customer: “Your prices are really out of my budget.
Seller: “One of the reasons why I price my work this way is that I hand-dye these fabrics with pressed vegetables. That takes many hours, but it makes my work more personal and process-oriented.”
You can talk about the time and effort involved in your creative process, the quality and value of your materials, the rarity of your work, or your critical recognition.
Read your response out loud and think about how it sounds. If it comes off defensive, emotional or pushy, make edits and do it again. Here’s an example of a buyer concern and a response that sounds defensive, even though the seller may not intend to be:
A What Not to Do Example:
Customer: “I think this kind of art is not right for me. I don’t think I understand it.”
Seller: “Actually, a lot of people love my work, so I’m surprised to hear that you don’t.”
While what the customer says can be hurtful, don’t take it personally or respond rashly. You don’t want to question the customer and make them feel bad A more productive approach can look like this:
Customer: “To be honest, I don’t think I like any of these.”
Seller: “You know, I don’t like everything I see at these shows all the time either. What type of art do you like?”
3. Check for Agreement
Now that you’ve acknowledged the customer’s concern or objection and responded, the last step is checking for agreement. This step is your key to understanding if you have properly addressed or resolved the customer’s objection, or if they still have more objections.
Seller: “I have several pieces that are less expensive, would it be helpful to see those?”
Seller: “This work is rather heavy to bring home, especially if you’re flying out tomorrow. I have some shipping options that make delivery convenient. Would you like to review these options?”
Closing the Sale
Your promotion and buyer engagement efforts will ideally culminate in a close to sell your work. “Closing a sale” refers to the moment when you ask the customer if they are ready to make a purchase, or when the customer indicates that they want to make a purchase. Many artists may not feel comfortable pushing people to buy, but often, customers need the nudge to make a move. If the thought of pressuring customers makes you feel awkward, know that there are good ways and bad ways to apply pressure. You may immediately think of an aggressive approach, like when you walk into a car dealership and the salesperson says, “So, which car are we buying today?” This example is high-pressure, too forward without an established rapport, and may make you walk right out the door.
Instead, think of closing a sale this way: unless you ask them, how do you know the customer doesn’t want to buy your work? Sure, you could wait for them to say something, but you’re looking to earn a livelihood, so it behooves you to ask. Closing a sale is not always about pressuring a customer; it’s about guiding them to make a decision and making the best use of your time.
There are a lot of different closing techniques out there for a variety of circumstances. Over time, you will find your favorites and stick to them. Start with testing a few, though, so you know what works for you and what produces results. Here are a few common ways to close a sale:
The question close
Earlier on you might have identified the customer’s aesthetic preferences, or a specific need that your work would be able to fulfill. With that knowledge, carefully phrase a question that urges them to move forward to meet that need. The question close can be an effective tool when dealing with customers who seem conflicted about the purchase, even though they have not expressed any actual concerns to you. Your strategically-phrased question can have two different desired outcomes: the customer may decide to buy, or they may give you useful insights into their doubts about the purchase.
Seller: “You mentioned you need a present for your cousin’s wedding and want to get them something really special. What about this piece right here?”
If they aren’t ready to buy and you can’t close the sale, probe and ARC: Acknowledge, Respond and Check for Agreement. Ask an open-ended question for their reason. For instance, “What’s holding you back?” or “Okay, not that one. I really want to help you find a present for your cousin’s wedding. Which piece really stands out to you as something special given your price range?”
Any information you can gain from the customer about their hesitation informs your next step. You may have to try to close the sale more than once, so don’t give up just yet.
The “Now or Never” Close
This type of close creates a sense of urgency for the customer. When used effectively, it tells the customer that if they don’t buy now, the opportunity may be gone. Try using this technique on customers whom you can sense really want the piece but cannot seem to shake off their doubts. Making it a “now or never” situation can shift their attention so they are focused on the purchase as an opportunity, rather than on their objections.
Example: “Since it’s the beginning of this show, I can’t guarantee that this piece will still be available tomorrow. It’s one of my best sellers.” Or, “I don’t usually offer such a low price, but I am phasing out this design.”
The Option Close
Instead of just waiting for the customer to say, “Yes, I want to buy this,” or “No, I don’t want to buy,” help them reach that point by making them choose between two options. This way, your emphasis is not on pressuring them, but rather on understanding their needs and interests. This approach works best when you interact with indecisive customers who value your input.
Example: “After our conversation, I think that this design or this image would work best for your needs. Which one of them do you want to proceed with today?”
If neither option sounds good to them, try to uncover their concern by preparing a counter – a response to contradict their doubt. Modify one of the two options or add a third option.
Example: “I have customized this design for a few customers before to incorporate their favorite color. I think that might work better for you. Let me tell you how this would work.”
If you successfully close a sale, congratulations! But don’t stop there. Reassure the customer that they are making a good decision. Reinforce positive feelings and again, limit any doubt or buyer’s remorse they may already start to feel.
Seller: “I think your sister is going to love this vase in her new home,” or “When this piece arrives and you hang it up, it’s going to look beautiful on your bedroom wall.”
Next, coordinate the final steps of the purchase by having an easy way to make a payment, like SquareSpace. The more quickly you can complete this process, the more likely it will go through without any last-minute change of mind. After the transaction, be sure to ask if you can add them to your mailing list, so you can keep in touch and notify them of your next sale. When possible, capitalize on the positivity of the sale by asking for an online review or even referrals.
If a sale is just not going to happen, don’t fret. Proceed with leaving them with a positive impression. Thank them for stopping by. Wish them good luck on their buying journey. Ask if you can add them to your mailing list, tell them where you will be selling next, given them your business card and encourage them to take a look at your website or online shop if you have one.
Build Your Sales Stamina
Learning how to sell art effectively takes time and energy. You will have to get out of your comfort zone, try new things, and find creative ways to improve. Whenever you encounter a skilled seller, analyze what they do well, and adopt their techniques if you see fit. Remember, though, that forcing a style of selling that does not feel right to you, just because other people do it well, is not productive. Certainly try different things to let your style evolve, but there shouldn’t be a need to compromise your authentic self.
If you are unsure of your progress, invite a mentor or a trusted friend to observe and give you honest feedback. It’s essential to also take a moment to reflect on your growth from time to time. You can do this on your own, or with a mentor to guide your review. Ask yourself questions such as:
- What is my sales style, and how has it changed over time?
- What have been my go-to sales techniques? Are they effective?
- Which customer objections make me most uncomfortable, and why?
- What are some of my biggest closing successes and failures? What can I learn from them?
- Are my customers returning or giving referrals? Why or why not?
There are endless resources to acquire knowledge on sales out there: free webinars and online courses, books, podcasts, to name just a few. With diligent study and practice, you will gradually become more articulate and persuasive, more confident, and more efficient in selling your art. Some aspects of sales will take longer to get used to than others, and some other aspects you may never master completely. But if you persevere and continue to find motivation, you will see your art sales increase. You may even have fun doing it! At the end of the day, your extra effort is what will set you apart, so keep at it, and you may just see a big growth in your business.
What are your experiences selling art in person? What has been helpful and what tips can you share? How did you transition from maker to seller? Tell us in the comments below!
Pauline is an arts administrator and management association professional in NY. She ran an arts and culture program at a municipal government in Illinois, coordinating various development initiatives for nonprofits.