Retail vs. Wholesale

Have you been selling your work retail but looking for a better way? Wholesaling has a lot going for it.


Shopping at a wholesale show
Wholesaling as a business model makes a lot of sense for a lot of artists. Especially if you have a collection or line that can be made in production, the efficiency of wholesaling has a lot to offer.

Even though your prices on individual items are lower, the benefit to you may be higher:

1. Artists who wholesale have increased time in their studios, because they simply don’t have to travel and exhibit at retail shows. Have you been traveling the retail circuit? Spending days on the road, setting up, selling, breaking down and returning home take a lot out of every week. You may end up with only 2-3 studio days before you are back out again. During the busy selling season, that isn’t much. And it doesn’t include a lot of time to relax or have a life, either.

2. With travel comes expenses. Staying off the road and in the studio producing work saves the cost of gas, hotel, meals, and paying your assistants, not to mention booth fees. These savings alone can reduce your bottom line costs significantly.

3. Unpredictability. Retail shows can be wonderful. They can also be disasters. We can’t control weather, or how many people show up at any given fair or festival. Of course, artists will use their best judgment and experience to choose retail shows that will provide the best return. But a bad weather season can affect revenue for the whole year.

4. More unpredictability. You may choose shows to apply to, but you can’t control the jury. Most shows are juried (including probably all of the ones you want to do) but if you don’t get in, your chance to sell is gone. Wholesale trade shows may offer guaranteed acceptance after the initial jurying. They may limit number of exhibitors per category, though, so if you plan ahead and apply on time, you don’t have the worry about being rejected and losing your opportunity to sell.

5. Potential. When you retail, you must make inventory to do the show. That means stocking up and hoping that you have enough prepared. Creating new designs? You spend time, energy and money designing and making stock. If a design sells out, you lose potential sales at that point. If the design is a bust, you may be stuck with poor sellers to mark down. In the wholesale world, you don’t have to stock up to do a show. You make one sample of each piece. One. And you will take orders during the entire show on that one sample. No chance of selling out and losing sales; you will always realize your potential on every piece in your line. If it doesn’t sell, you have only made one. Your time, energy and money invested in that sample is far less than the inventory of new designs that didn’t work out.

The beauty of selling in both the retail and wholesale worlds is that they work so well together. They are complementary, and can create a wonderful balance for an art business. You needn’t give up one for the other. Sell at retail and wholesale, and enjoy two streams of income from your art.


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  1. I have a question about wholesaling original, one-of-a-kind paintings. I recently did an art fair and was approached by a shop owner in the city about wholesaling my art. I wasn’t prepared at all and most probably didn’t handle everything as I should have. For one thing, I had marked some of my art down that morning by 15%-20% because I really needed to make more sales that weekend. Another thing, I really wasn’t expecting someone to approach me about selling original art wholesale and hadn’t priced accordingly. I did explain to the shop owner that I had marked some items down just for the festival and gave her an idea of what the original prices would be. She seemed fine with that. I also mentioned that my art was not priced with a 50% wholesale discount in mind and she said she didn’t expect artists to offer her that much of a discount. In the end, she still was interested and is waiting for me to contact her this week. I have done the numbers and I am comfortable with 35% along with a minimum order. However, if my art is well received, I am thinking about raising my prices slightly after the first of the year and also offering her a 40% discount. Does this sound reasonable? Should I have gone about it differently? Thank you for all the information you share. I really appreciate it!

    • Lana, You did the right thing by being honest with the shop owner, and I give her credit for asking to purchase wholesale rather than consign (which is the usual). Since she is happy to get a 35% discount, and if you are profitable at that price, why not set an appointment to meet with her? Since she is local, it gives you the potential to have an artist appearance at the shop, and continue building a relationship. Being an entrepreneur, you can handle your business the way that you see fit, so there is no particular “right” or “wrong” here … think in terms of Win/Win and if that is the case, you have done well!

  2. One of the other truly important “savings” in doing wholesale, is being able to sell one-of-a-kinds.
    My jewelry line is 95% not repeatable. My designs that will vary greatly from item to item since I work with found objects.

    A ceramist I know just complete 70 objects to get 12 that “matched” for a commission. Pulling out a ruler every few minutes while throwing on a wheel is NOT needed with wholesale! having a glaze variation is normal in ceramics and that makes 12 “matching” objects nearly impossible.

    In wholesale, small variations are not only accepted, but expected and add credibility for American Hand Craft Galleries who enjoy educating their buyers about the quality of hand-made.

    They Celebrate the small variations! They don’t want cookie-cutter template creations with most mediums. They love that 6 of my pendants will be totally different in color or shape! PLUS: It adds to their ability to close sales, too with that extra urgency. “This artist may never send us another with this coloring again.” Smart retailers LOVE that advantage over factory mass produced lines that can be bought on Amazon.

    Wholesaling SAVED me from being a starving artist! And keeps me from taking a photo of every single item I create just to get a single sale (one-time sale, right?) on some website. In my price points – that is crucial time lost for very little return.

    I agree that having a retail side to one’s business is a good idea, too. But the emphasis for retailing should be for market-testing new work, not a serious income stream.

    • Excellent point, Mckenna! Not only are you dealing with knowledgeable buyers who will be able to present your one-of-a-kind work to their customers as highly desirable and unique, but you have the opportunity to build long-term relationships with them.

  3. Hi,
    I am a clothing designer that only sells retail. While I was aware of some of the reasons for selling wholesale, in reading your article there were a few that I hadn’t thought of. I was wondering if anyone knows of boutiques that focus on buying from local artisans and one of a kind garments. I live in upstate New York and most of my local stores won’t even give you an appointment if you are not a known name brand.

    • If you are planning to wholesale your collection and are finding it difficult to get appointments, why not try alternative ways – advertising in trade journals, or exhibiting at a trade show where the buyers come to you, with money and plans to buy?

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