Selling Wholesale: A Longtime Store Owner Shares What Makes Artists Stand Out

Jack Harris and Mitzi Curi
Jack Harris and Mitzi Curi

Jack Harris of Naples, Florida is a fountain of knowledge about the gift and art market. He started a successful chain of gift shops called The Mole Hole, named after the popular children’s book "The Wind in the Willows," back in the 1970s. At the height of their popularity and booming economy, there were more than 50 Mole Holes in the U.S.

Now retired, Jack, who has donated millions of dollars worth of art and sculptures to the campus of North Central Michigan College in Petoskey, Michigan, agreed to answer my questions about what he looked for as a wholesale buyer of art and handcrafted items.

Widen Your Work's Appeal

Jack has definitely noted how the downturn in the economy has affected the art world. A painter might consider the wisdom of creating smaller works that might sell at two a month at about $500, as opposed to one every six months for $5,000. Working in different media to diversify might be something to consider, too. Jack recommends having products that appeal to both men and women, even if the artist primarily produces feminine or masculine art. This
way, the artist will have a greater appeal and less narrow focus.

According to Jack, an artist needs to observe the work of others. Not to copy, but to refresh themselves. It’s nice if an artist can open his or her gallery to the public on occasion during a “studio tour” of some sort, but if that’s not possible due to time constraints or other issues, having one's art in a gallery is a good idea.

Stop By a Shop — But Not Every Shop in Town

Many artists, jewelry makers, and crafters used to stop by Jack's shop to market their products. Occasionally Jack found good sources this way. But keep in mind that store owners don’t want to sell a line that’s also being sold right down the street at another shop. In fact, the more the store sells of your items, the more exclusive you and that store should become.

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Have Great Displays and Well-Made Products

I asked Jack what he looked for in a jewelry line, to use a common product example. He liked the designer who provided a ready-made display that could be popped right into a space in his stores. When looking for a new line, Jack considered the material, color, price, and comfort. Because some of his stores were in college towns and other stores had a more mature customer base, he considered the age of the customer in each location. Comfort is often more important to older women, for example.

Jack also appreciated meticulous craftsmanship and attention to detail. If adhesives are used, make sure they aren’t showing. If knots are used, make sure they are neat. Caps, fittings, and other components must be seamless and fit together properly. Last but not least, remember to sign and date your pieces. It makes them more special for the customer.

Jack Harris Paintings    Jack Harris' glass

Consider Trade Shows or Acquiring a Rep

Besides making cold calls, which many are reluctant to do, the obvious route to acquiring wholesale buyers is the trade show. Jack favored the American Made Show in Philadelphia, a place where he always discovered many unique items for his stores. At the trade show, be sure to show potential buyers the product display (if you have one) that comes with your line to make it easy for them to order your items. Jack really likes the idea of the buyer “just supplying the space,” and you providing the items and display piece. Display ideas for jewelry might involve vintage picture frames with chicken wire or burlap inside; a vertical display like a turned post with multiple hooks; or commercially made displays. A nice box or bag, such as a small burlap
bag with each necklace or bracelet, will make the jewelry more appealing to potential buyers too.

As a craftsperson, you may want to acquire a “rep” or agent for yourself and your work. The trade show is a good place to make contacts with other artists and crafters who have reps and might generate leads for you. Be sure to take copies of a personal written letter with pictures of your work with you to hand out when the need arises, recommends Jack. Many artists acquire a rep by another artist’s recommendation, so get out there and network!

If you would like to see the sculptures Jack has donated to North Central Michigan College, you can view them here.

Visit IndieMade's Wholesale and Consignment resource article section for more information on selling to store owners!

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Bobbi Whitlow

Recently, I opened a small shop in a competitive tourist town in Iowa.  My shop, "The Gypsy Junk Market" is a combination of upcycling/recyling and indie art.  I am new to owning a business and so far, I have been doing all of the art myself.  I am looking for a couple of new artists (with skills) to complement my own work, while consigning their products in my shop.  I am inerested in "starting small and seeing how things go."  I am more interested in filling my shop and presenting "variety" to my customers, than in making a profit off of consignment artists.  If you have any recommendations, please message me.  Thanks.

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