Mark and David Stepper are twin brothers who have been designing and selling handcrafted metal sculptures and jewelry for the past fourteen years, and have participated in the Arts Business Institute program. Part of their strategy is selling corporate gifts. They spoke with us about wholesaling at trade shows and thriving in a tough market.
ABI: What inspired you to design for the corporate gift market?
Mark: David & I both worked full time in corporate marketing jobs before launching Sculptures by Stepper. We experienced firsthand the challenges companies face trying to source out innovative high quality gifts for their employees & customers.
Many corporate gift buyers have grown tired of conventional gift offerings and are looking for something extraordinary that better reflects the qualities of their organization and will make a positive lasting impression on the gift recipient. Realizing this need, we made it a priority to seek out corporate gift opportunities. We have created custom pieces for a variety of organizations in the medical, entertainment, food, liquor and education industries.
ABI: You recently came out with a line of wall sculpture. What has the response been? Do you plan to develop this line further?
David: The response has been fantastic. For years, gallery owners and collectors have asked us to create larger versions of our bestselling sculpture designs to display on their walls. Mark and I decided to start with our Climbing Frog and Smiling Frog, two of our best-selling sculptures. We use marine grade brushed aluminum to create these pieces. Based off of the initial success, we’re excited to add new designs in the near future.
ABI: What mistakes did you make when first getting into wholesale?
Mark: One time, we charged shipping on a backorder. The gallery owner nicely explained why we should absorb the shipping charge, which we did. Lesson learned … from that point on if we needed to backorder items, they shipped for free.
Our booth at our very first Buyers Market show was under lit and the quality of our lighting was lacking. Fellow artists and gallery owners suggested better quality lights to highlight our work and more accurately mimic lighting conditions found in most galleries. We immediately made a switch to top of the line bulbs that produce a clean white natural light and it’s made a huge difference.
Also, about a year ago we introduced two brand new pewter business card holders. The price of lead-free pewter at the time, as with all quality metals, was extremely high. Instead of re-working the designs to make them lighter and more cost effective to produce, we decided to stick to our original more weighty designs because we loved the way they looked.
Even though our gallery owners embraced these new designs, in the end we were unable to produce and offer them at a reasonable wholesale price. On a positive note, we did eventually borrow key design elements from these card holders and turn them into sterling silver jewelry pieces!
ABI: The market is challenging today. What are some strategies you have used to increase your sales and stay in business?
David: Here are four ways we’ve stayed competitive:
- The first inclination in a challenging economy is to pull back, to stop creating. We decided it was important to keep innovating and diversifying our line, which has led to an increase in sales.
- Increasing our communications in between trade shows with our accounts through e-mails and phone calls. This lets gallery owners know we’re still around and have exciting new pieces for them to offer.
- Having a breadth of products and price points ranging from our lower end enameled pewter sculptures & jewelry to our higher end Limited Edition Color sculptures and brushed aluminum wall art.
- Pursuing the corporate gift market. Like the stock market, diversifying into different segments of the marketplace typically leads to increased stability. There are a ton of companies surviving and even excelling in this economy, and no matter how tough it is out there, companies still need to buy and give gifts to their employees, suppliers and clients. Offering an innovative gift of art, that can be personalized to meet the needs of each company, has helped us to capture part of the corporate gift market.