Why They Buy

Artists, do you know what makes your customers tick? Understanding the hidden reasons behind making a purchase will help you plan, market and sell more of your work.

Before addressing why people buy your art, let’s take a look at who is doing the buying. So many of us think we’re selling to the masses, but that’s hardly true. It may look that way at most local art and craft fairs, but in reality functional crafts sell to only about 5% of the public at large, and fine art and sculpture sell to about 2%. Let’s look into the minds of this small slice of humanity:

The Dream, the Myth. People who pursue and buy art actually envy the lifestyle of an artist – or at least what they perceive your lifestyle is like. They are up at 6 a.m., dressed in heels or a suit, off to fight traffic and put in 8-10 hours in at an office.  Your life and career seem like a fantasy they can’t begin to touch. Owning a piece of your work is like possessing a tiny bit of your creative spirit and soul. That’s heady stuff.

It’s Real and Authentic. In a society that’s rife with plastic, faux this and that, and “Made in China” stamped on everything, your work stands out as one of the most authentic things left. You have a skill – one that someday may be lost. You design and follow each piece lovingly and carefully through the creative process.  And that’s why you must tell your story, on each hangtag and brochure and by word of mouth to every buyer.

It’s Local. What’s growing in importance to shoppers today? Spending and supporting local businesses. As our world grows more and more global, we all need that connection to home. A huge shift is taking place in society as citizens tie themselves, their loyalty and their money to neighbors, hometowns, local stores and people, and local artists.

It’s Different. Visit any mall in America, and your will see the same thing. Over and over. The same brands, the same buttons, the same colors, the same, same. What you, as an artist, offer is beyond the mall and the narrow imagination expressed there.

It’s Luxury. True, nobody really needs to buy luxury products, but it’s a common perception (and an advertising slogan) that we deserve it. Luxury is no longer restricted to the affluent class. The concept is greater than the product itself – it’s the “experience.” And making a purchase of a piece of art or fine craft is a blissful experience to many consumers who consider it a reward for themselves or a guilty pleasure.

The Message.  Since only 5% of the world buys crafts, and  2% of that buys art, let’s double that audience. Add words to any piece of art, whether it’s on the surface, or a tag, brochure, in the packaging or on a mat, and you have effectively multiplied your customers. The “left-brained” shopper can now understand and embrace what you offer. You’ve provided an anchor of comfort, a translation of your visual language.

Is it Price? High or low, it’s never about price. Instead look at it as “value.” What is your piece worth, standing alone? What is it worth when infused with and accompanied by your story, your process, your signature, your fingerprints? Can the customer hold your  talent and soul in their hands? Why, yes. Yes, they can.

Function or Non-Function?  All art, whether it’s a ceramic teapot or an oil painting, is functional. No one reaches into their wallet if they don’t have a purpose or use for their purchase. It’s more than love or adoration. Your artwork fills a void, brightens a space in their home or their heart. The more you discover about the “function or purpose” you add to a customer’s life, the more you will sell.


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  1. Could you cite the survey that came up with the 5% and 2% numbers? I’m curious as to how it was derived. Also, I’d be interested to read on the scientific survey of the 8 reasons that these customers buy. I’d be interested the size of the group surveyed, when it was done, etc. Thanks.

    • Diane,
      There is not a single survey you can point to, that’s why I put a range in this blog. The biggest mistake most entrepreneurs make when they start out is to think they can sell to just anyone. The higher your price, the more narrative your content, the more non-funtional you work… the narrower your audience. If you’d like to study the
      topic of audience development in the USA… there are many great studies and sources. Sometimes it’s also helpful to look at non-art audience studies… like luxury goods for comparison. If you aren’t a member of Americans for the Arts… it’s a great organization to join. The National Arts Marketing Conference is spectacular!

      Here are the best sources in the arts:

      Cultural Policy & The Arts National Data Archive

      Arts & Economic Prosperity

      Americans for the Arts http://www.artsusa.org/action_areas/research.asp

  2. I have just printed this out and it will go on my wall above my worktable, so I can read every day I create.

  3. This was very interesting. I make many useful items, but it is interesting how many people will pick up my sweaters or other items and comment on how nice or pretty or well made they are and then put them back and keep walking. I do sell quite a few – but there’s always many more lookers thatn buyers.

  4. It really doesn’t matter to me what percentage of people are buying in general – it matters what percentage are buying specifically where my work is represented. For those numbers to get bigger and the sales to be higher, I need to market to the target that likes my offerings. I have some locations that are selling a range of prices of my jewelry several times a week and others that barely get but a few sales all month. Our hang-tags or other support materials and our communication those who represent us is clearly really important. Using this article to encourage our retailers to “rethink” their positions (bad economy, too expensive, not functional,) and create sales instead of excuses for why things are not selling is high on my list of things to do.

    Thanks for giving me this tool. I will link to it in a future email!

    PS: Susansweaters…there may be more lookers than buyers of your sweaters, but you can inch towards more buyers with a few words of encouragement: Anyone who appreciates the quality of what you are doing will respond to being reminded of the “value” of owning quality. Re-read just the Bold Words in the posting and try to connect your sweaters with each of those benefits and then work all that into your communication with “lookers”. I think you will see much better sales.

  5. I found this artical very helpful. discussing the tag is so true. I go to shows as a buye. I always find reading a tag with information about the artist, who they are and what moves them when they create, makes their artwork so much more personal, that really helps me connect with them. Also, and real important, their contact info. I have used contact info to find that person and when and where their next show is, and have gone to see them again to buy more of their work.
    I go to other booths that are selling my kind of art, if there are any there, I look at what people are intrested in,and I listen to what they are saying. Listening to them helps me to see what it is about the other persons work they are attracted to, colors, patterns, cost, ect.
    If you don’t sell something that customers want, as beautiful as is, at a price they are willing to pay, they won’t buy. Thank you for this artical, it gives very good advice.

  6. Fantastic article, thank you so much for sharing these thoughts in such an understandable way!

  7. Recently I was inched (or maybe I should say launched) towards buying a handmade scarf when the shop owner said “oh yes, that’s the last one. I can’t get those anymore.” My credit card engaged faster than my critical thinking did!

    • Barbra, Congratulations on getting that scarf! And you just witnessed a great sales technique and how effective it is. Think of how value and scarcity spur action. How can you use these concepts in your own business?

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