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Marketing and Pricing Woodturning Skills

Part 1

Marketing turnery

1. The importance of marketing

Many prospective professional turners may think, that once they have become proficient and can work quickly and accurately, they are well on their way to making the transition from hobbyist to full-time professional. But it is not quite as easy as that. Some twenty-odd years ago when I first set out to sell my woodturning a fellow exhibitor at a trade show said to me "any fool can make things, it's selling them that’s the problem". I was a somewhat offended by that at the time but over the years I have come to realise that, in essence, the man was right. Marketing is the primary problem. So, if you to want to embark on a career as a woodturner, or even if you just want to sell a few pieces from time to time, you need to give this some hard thought.

Marketing is a problem not just to a budding woodturner but also to the biggest companies in the world. Because of such widespread concern "marketing" has become a discipline in its own right with its own knowledge base and professional practitioners. Unfortunately, the marketing literature is full of marketing-speak and jargon. It abounds with phrases such as: SWOT analysis, the USP, the marketing mix, market offerings, marketing strategies, marketing plans and so on. This can be somewhat daunting but in fact, once the thicket of jargon is penetrated, it begins to look more helpful.

Marketing principles apply equally to firms of all sizes but the way they are interpreted in particular instances may be somewhat different. It is important to recognise that small businesses, such as those of self-employed crafts people, have very limited amounts of time at their disposal. As a consequence their marketing activities have to be inexpensive and simple.

However, compared with large firms they have certain advantages. They are in close contact with their customers and they should be able to spot changes in the market and in their customer's needs without delay. Because they are not hamstrung by bureaucratic structures, and have flexible production methods, they should be capable of a rapid response to such changes. Furthermore they can experiment and handle non-standard orders with ease. It must be said that whilst these factors provide real benefits they do have a downside. Such small firms can easily fall into the trap of indulging in too many activities and trying to satisfy the requirements of too many types of customers. To avoid this trap small firms need to concentrate their marketing efforts.

It may be thought that hard work and common sense are the chief ingredients for a successful career as a woodturner. It is true that these will take one a long way. Nevertheless less, the combination of these attributes with a disciplined marketing approach should lead to more successful solutions to selling problems.

2. The marketing process

Marketing is often seen just as advertising and promotion. These activities may well be part of the marketing process but they are not necessarily the most important elements. The essence of a marketing approach is that it involves a continual matching process between the maker’s resources and the customer’s requirements. Diagram 1 illustrates the process. If you are thinking about becoming a full-time turner you (The Maker) need to take a really hard look at yourself, and your skills. You need to look at the opportunities available to you and at the obstacles that may stand in your way. And, you will have to think about the type of the type of turnings you will make and relate these to the customers to whom you hope to sell (The Market).

Diagram 1: The marketing process

There are a number of other things you must do to get your customers interested in your products. These form a group of activities that I have called “The Package”. In marketing terminology this is often referred to as “the total offer” or “the marketing mix”. These activities can be summed up as the four P’s: product, place (the distribution channels), promotion, and pricing. It is very easy to underestimate the amount of time and money these functions take to implement. If you are going to be successful you must look at this very carefully. You can start with a SWOT analysis of your situation as a maker. SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Having done that we can consider the components of "the package".

3. The maker - strengths and weaknesses

Before going any further with your plans you need to ask yourself some searching questions relating to your strengths and weaknesses. These might well include the following.
  • Are you sure you have the necessary woodturning and design skills?
  • Are you properly prepared?
  • Have you a suitable workshop and the equipment you will require?
  • Have you space for materials and work in progress?
  • If you intend to work from home have you checked with the planning laws?
  • What support do you have?
    Are your family willing to help and encourage you?
    Have you friends you might call on for advice and assistance?
  • Have you the right personal characteristics?
    Are you a self-starter, do you have any trouble motivating yourself?
    Are you totally committed?
    Are you good at planning your time?
    Are you prepared to work hard?
  • Do you think you will be able to acquire some business acumen and selling skills?
  • Are you clear about why you want to do this and what you hope to achieve?
  • Is your health good?
Think about these questions. Ask yourself: where am I strong and where am I weak? What can you do about your weak areas? Is there any remedial action you can take? If not, can you work around them?

When considering these factors you should recognise that being self-employed and your own boss can bring many rewards but for a turner it can be a lonely business. It requires self-confidence, an element of risk taking and a considerable amount of self-discipline. You can expect to have to work long hours for a modest income. The plus side is that working as a professional woodturner can provide a very satisfying life-style.

4. The maker - opportunities and threats

If you are thinking about taking up woodturning on a full-time basis you may have sold some pieces already. This will have given you some idea of the opportunities available to you. But there may be others you have not considered. Are there any other kinds of turning you might undertake? The number of different objects that you could produce is considerable so it is clear that you must specialise to some degree. Some turners are highly specialised and concentrate on a very narrow range of products. Others, whilst producing a wider range of objects, may give more prominence to particular products. It is desirable to specialise as much as possible because this leads to the refinement of designs and greater speed of execution. Possible markets should be examined with care to see where effort should be concentrated. What threats might you face? You will need to think about the nature of the competition in your prospective markets. Your competitors will not necessarily be other woodturners. There are likely to be many alternative products for people to spend their money on.

Foreign competition is a major problem. Imports of giftware and craft products from third world countries come in to the UK at absurdly low prices. Another threat will come from swings in the state of the economy; these have an exaggerated effect on discretionary expenditure.

One problem, as perceived by many turners, is the public’s attitude to wood and how much or, rather, how little, people are prepared to pay for it. Many people say they love wood but, only too often, they do not value it. Many fail to appreciate how labour intensive woodturning is and how much time is put into the work.

You must continually keep a watchful eye for such threats, and any others that you may identify, so that you can counter them, if at all possible. The assessment of your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, should be ongoing.

5. The market

The term "the market" can be used to refer to a particular physical location where people congregate to buy and sell products. It can also be used as an abstract collective term, which is concerned with the activity of buying and selling wherever, or however, that activity may be performed. Thus when any two or more people negotiate a transaction by any means, such as the telephone or the Internet, that action takes place within the market.

People enter markets because they have a need, or needs, they wish to satisfy. For a seller the primary need will often be money but satisfaction can also be taken from other aspects of the transaction. For example, if I sell a turned bowl the money I get for it may well be of great importance but I may also get pleasure from the belief that it confirms my status as a particular type of craftsman. I have met people at craft markets who have been thrilled to make a sale because it is confirmation that their work has reached a certain standard: "somebody has paid money for it so it cannot be too bad".

When people make purchases it is not necessarily because they have to, as when they acquire those things we call "basic necessities", such as a minimum amount of food. When we buy leisure clothes, for example, our budgets will probably allow us to choose from a wide range of items. What we choose will be determined not just by "good value" but also by a range of personal considerations, which determine the amount of satisfaction we derive from our purchases. What satisfaction are people looking for in your turnings?

Since people will not enter the market unless they have some expectation of a degree of satisfaction we can widen our definition of the market. We can say that a market is composed of people who wish to satisfy a need. Before they enter the market that need does not necessarily have to be a conscious need, nor does it have to be rational. Sometimes, for example, people have to be persuaded that they need something and others may not be aware they have the need until they are confronted with it.

At its widest the market would embrace the whole world and all the people in it. However, this concept of the market is too broad to be of any use to any but the very largest of international companies. So it is necessary to break the market down into relevant manageable parts, or segments, according to the nature of the business. Geographically we can do this in terms of smaller divisions of the world such as: international, national, regional, and local. Within these localities we can consider people in terms of, say: language; age; sex; social status; spending power; where, how and why they buy; their attitudes; and tastes.

However, besides those general characteristics listed above there will be many more specific considerations, which will depend on the nature of the products being exchanged. Woodturnery can have a number of uses: architectural; domestic furniture and furnishings; decoration: kitchen and table ware; garden furniture; jewellery; toys and games; and tools of various kinds. Such items may be purchased to satisfy a variety of personal needs. When considering specific products it is desirable to try to identify the type of people who might buy them and the satisfaction they hope to achieve from the purchase. Consideration of such factors should help us to identify the 'position' we should occupy in the market. That is to say: what we should produce, what type of customer we should be aiming at, where and how to sell it and what price to sell it at. All these factors are closely inter-linked.

6. The package - the product

In a marketing context ‘the product’ can mean different things to different people. As the maker you should look at the product not just as a piece of woodturning but as all the things you have to do to make a sale. These include sourceing materials, making the goods, finding a sales outlet, and ensuring that they meet the customers’ requirements. If you fail to consider all these things then you may be concentrating all your attention on making objects that, on the one hand, you cannot produce in quantity or, on the other, that you cannot sell.

If you intend to sell your work through a retailer you need to make a distinction between the customer and the consumer or end-user. Your customer, the person you sell to, is the retailer; but the retailer will require a product that satisfies both her own and her customers’ needs. She has to identify her market and attract the right type of clientele into her shop. So the retailer will only be interested in products that are compatible with her other stock and her position in the market place. To the retailer the product is more than a piece of woodturning. She may need other things from you that are equally important to her such as suitable packaging, quick delivery and continuity of supply.

The goods you make will probably be easier to sell if they have some distinctive features, which add to their attraction. In marketing speak this is “a unique selling proposition” (USP). Generally, differentiation means looking at design. With the exception of bespoke turnery, design is important in all types of markets but, it is such a big subject, it is not possible to deal with it in any detail here. However, it does not necessarily take a brilliant designer to obtain a USP. Sometimes a bit of lateral thinking will do the trick. Take the humble light pull. I know of one turner who makes his much larger than normal in highly polished exotic woods, and another who stains his bright colours. Or think of pepper and salt mills; most of us make them in common designs, which will take standard mechanisms; but there is a turner who makes very tall mills. He has made a profitable niche market by targeting restaurants.

For a turner working to commission or providing bespoke turnery, e.g. architectural work, it should not be very difficult to pinpoint the customer and to determine the customer’s needs. It should be noted, however, that from the customer's point of view the product is not just the item they commission but also a satisfactory relationship with the maker.

How do turners compete if they specialise in bespoke turnery? They cannot compete on design or differentiate the product, because those elements are controlled by the customer, and they may not wish to compete on price. But they can differentiate in the service they provide. Such a turner can, for instance, try to get a reputation for reliability as one who can be trusted to get jobs done in an acceptable amount of time. Or he might provide an emergency service and, let it be known that he his prepared to work all night if necessary.

7. The package - place

We can think of the 'place' as the distribution channels through which goods are sold. For woodturnings these include craft markets, gift shops, galleries, turners’ own shops, craft centers, craft co-operatives (running their own shops or craft markets) and trade shows. Then there are various ways of selling direct to the public such as hosting woodturning parties in friends or relatives houses, taking commissions, and the Internet.

Craft markets vary enormously. They range from those held in the local village hall to the Chelsea Show. Some markets will last just for a few hours, others may take up several days. The more up-market the show the more difficult it will be to be accepted as an exhibitor. The spending power of the visitors will be greater but the fees will be higher. However, higher fees do not necessarily correlate that closely with the exhibitor's return. So you need to choose the markets which are most suitable for you.

As far as the UK is concerned there is little doubt that the geographical location of a market affects the level of sales and the prices that can be charged. Not only are some regions of the country more affluent that others but, even within regions, it will be found that some towns and, possibly, some venues are better for the exhibitor than others. Some organisers, too, are more successful than others. There are a number of possible reasons for this. Sometimes it is the result of more, or more effective, advertising, sometimes it is because of careful selection of exhibitors and sometimes it is a combination of these. Usually it also takes time to develop a really successful market.

Many of the exhibitors at run of the mill craft markets are hobbyists. Some are there basically to show off their work to the public and are quite content it they cover their stall fees. Others are a little more ambitious and will be hoping to take enough to help cover the costs of their equipment and materials. These are perfectly reasonable attitudes and but for such makers many craft markets would not take place. Nevertheless, the fact that neither of these groups charge for their time means that the general level of prices tends to be very low. The advantage of this is that it attracts people to these markets. The disadvantage is that it makes life very difficult for the budding professional because of the difficulty of competing with low prices. When I attended markets I expected to find a number of other woodturners there but I did not look upon them as the competition. Most often his was because we all had different stock that attracted different customers. Basically the competition was all the other exhibitors. As a general rule, though, the higher the fees for exhibiting the fewer the number of hobbyists. Most of the customers at run of the mill markets are women with families possibly on a somewhat limited budget. What kind of products will they be looking for? Bear in mind that a visit to a market is often a form entertainment so to some extent many purchases will be impulse buys. Even if people are hoping to buy gifts, as for Christmas, it is unlikely that they will be looking for something specific. In fact, when visiting a market, it is very difficult to know what will be found there, so it is difficult to plan on buying specific items.

When planning what goods to take to a market all of the above considerations must be taken into account. There is a finite limit to what can be transported and to what can be displayed. At any fair, even one, which has been attended before, it is difficult to know which lines will sell best, so multiple examples of each will have to be taken. When I went to markets I took a range of relatively inexpensive items ranging from light pulls to wall clocks plus a selection of bowls. The number and type of bowls I took varied according to the nature of the market. I found that even at the most up-market fairs I attended the inexpensive items formed a large proportion of my sales.

A common mistake made by newbies is that they make items which incorporate relatively expensive bought in components, such as pen holders, box lids, clock inserts and many of the other things you can see at the back of Craft Supplies catalogue. The problem with doing this is that a high proportion of one's sales revenue is going to a supplier and making money for them rather than oneself. For a long time I made the mistake of making clocks incorporating expensive dials and glass fronts with brass bezels. I eventually designed some clocks for which I only had to buy in a movement and hands.

Thought and attention should be given to the stand itself. In the UK stand space is commonly sold in units of 6 feet because this is conceived as the length of a typical table. In fact tables vary considerably in length and width so I always took my own. Display space on the surface of a table is very limited so it is desirable to use shelves to build upwards. The stands will probably have to be collapsible to fit into the vehicle. Good lighting is essential so this should also be incorporated in the assembly. A well made and attractive stand contributes to an impression of professionalism and helps to give the public the confidence to buy.

When considering craft markets as a means of selling your products you should evaluate them in terms of time and money. The time taken in loading and unloading your vehicle, erecting and manning your stand, and travelling should be assessed at your normal hourly rate. The financial costs will include the fee for the stand space, fuel and running costs for the vehicle and, possibly, food and accommodation. The cost in time and money can then be expressed as a percentage of the sales revenue from the event.

There are benefits to be gained from attending craft markets that are difficult to put a figure on. One benefit is that it provides an opportunity to meet other crafts people, to exchange experiences, and to network. Another is the opportunity to advertise training courses and a willingness to undertake commissions. Appropriate brochures should be prepared and displayed in a prominent position.

If you decide to sell through retailers there are a number of points to consider when making your choice. These include: the retailers position in the market; whether your products will fit into the retailer's range; and how this might affect your own portfolio of products. The retailer's position in the market will be determined not just by the physical location, although that may be important, but also by the price, the type and quality of the goods, the quality of the decor and the display. These are all things which we tend to notice sub-consciously when we enter a shop, but if we are hoping to sell by this means we need to make a careful, conscious, assessment.

Whether or not you think a specific retail outlet might be suitable will depend on how it fits in with those you already use and the portfolio of products you have devised for that market. If a retail outlet look particularly promising you may have to be prepared to modify that portfolio. At the end of the day, however, the final word will be with the retailer.

Continuity of supply is important to most retailers, and may be of particular concern to large companies such as departmental stores. As well as keeping the retailer happy the maintenance of a presence in outlets is also in your interests as this means that customers will know where to find your work. So some kind of check must be applied to the numbers of outlets, which you employ to prevent you becoming over-stretched. In discussion with a retailer it may be desirable to consider where and how the products will be displayed. For example, it is not a good idea for turnery to be placed in a sunny window. Nor will you want it at the back of the shop where it will not be noticed.

A clear understanding of the terms of payment is also desirable. A small supplier, such as a crafts person is in a very weak position in relation to a large store. It is not unusual for large stores to delay payment for excessive periods. By doing so the store is improving its cash flow and reducing its borrowing requirements (or earning interest as the case may be) at the expense of the supplier.

Sometimes craft people are horrified at the size of the retailer's mark-up. However, I think it should be accepted that a mark-up in the region of 100% is not unreasonable. Gift shops and galleries have many expenses to meet that are not immediately apparent. That they have problems is revealed by the fact that many of these concerns have a short life.

The costs and benefits of selling through retailers should be considered in a similar way to those of craft markets. Time will be consumed in packaging and, possibly, in transporting the goods. Financial costs will be incurred in packaging materials and transportation or carriage.

If you have suitable premises in a suitable location, and can obtain planning permission, you may think about having your own shop. First of all you will need to evaluate the time and costs of setting it up. Then you will have to think about your position in the market in the same way as any other retailer. You will also have to think about how you will man the shop. If it is adjacent to the workshop you could take time out from turning to serve customers but this will have a cost in lost production time. This must be compared with the cost of hiring staff. Very often in such circumstances the turner's partner will man the shop. In this case that person's time should be given at least a nominal evaluation - the partner could be earning money elsewhere.

In some cases turners who own shops sell goods produced by other people. This may, or may not, be restricted to turnery. But in either way time will be taken up with dealing with prospective suppliers and other tasks involved in retailing. Some turners have combined shops and retail areas in craft centres or small retail 'villages'. These are usually in tourist areas. Very often they are purpose built and have adjacent car parks. For these reasons rents and taxes (e.g. rates in the UK) will probably be high.

Sometimes groups of crafts people get together to run their own craft markets or their own shop. There is not a lot that needs to be said here about running such craft markets. In many cases they are relatively infrequent - perhaps twice a year. If you consider taking part in, or even initiating such a venture, you need to consider how much of your time will be taken up with helping to organise the affair.

If you participate in the setting up of a joint shop there are a number of things to consider. The group will have to confront all of the issues, which other retailers have to contend with. These include the location of the premises, rent, taxes, running the shop and overall management. A problem, which may arise, as this is a group project, is that it may be difficult to establish a clear position in the market. There may also be problems in sharing the space between members of the group and allocating display positions. Clearly, on all of these issues there is considerable room for disagreement and partners in such a project should be chosen with great care. Nevertheless, some co-operatives make a success of the venture.

Most professional turners will be approached from time to time by members of the public who need something turned that is not in the turner's normal range. Such requests may come from a number of sources. Some will be from people in general who need to replace damaged items in their homes, such as stair spindles or chair spars. Some will be from antique restorers who need replacement parts for restoration work. Some will be from builders who are renovating old buildings who need such items as replacement finials. Sometimes they will be from architects, or others, who need components, such as porch posts, for new buildings. Some will be from bespoke furniture makers who need turned parts such as table legs.

In most cases, with such work, the customer will wish to know how much it will cost before placing the order. The turner who deals with such request infrequently may find it difficult to estimate how much time it will take to source the material and to carry out the work. Because the material may not be to hand, or the techniques required are outside the turner's accustomed range, it is very easy to make the price estimate too low. I well remember a lesson from my early days: I priced a small job on the basis of how long I thought it would take me to make it. I then found that it took me all the time I had allowed just to find a suitable piece of wood. So, in effect, I did the turning for nothing!

One thing to bear in mind about such requests is that whilst the customer 'needs' the item you don't have to make it. Therefore the price estimate should be pitched at a level that ensures that the work is done for a satisfactory return. With time, of course, it should become easier to make realistic estimates and so avoid rejecting work, which might have added to one's turnover. Another aspect of this is that, as the price of such work can be raised because the customer needs it, some turner's find it a profitable area in which to specialise. In such cases it is necessary to build up the right contacts and, if necessary, to advertise in specialist publications, or send out fliers. The first port of call may be the yellow pages.

All of these methods of selling incur costs, in time or money, which should be evaluated and compared, as far as this is possible. To carry out the evaluation some research will be required. Your time is at a premium, and you must keep the cost down, so whatever you do you must do it efficiently. You have to decide what information you need and where you can find it. It might be as simple as studying the yellow pages and making a few phone calls. If you have decided to sell through craft markets, gift shops, or galleries, you might schedule a series of visits to those to see whether they would be suitable outlets for your type of work. Before you make visits or phone calls, you should be clear in your mind about what you want to see, what questions you should ask, and what information you wish to convey. When visiting shops or galleries, unless you intend to take actual products with you, photographs will be required. Bear in mind that the way in which you behave on your initial contact may be important in determining the final outcome. Be brisk and business-like. These things are all part of the way in which you promote your goods.

8. Promotion

Many people think of promotion as advertising and the type of literature that comes through our letterboxes. In marketing terms, however, promotion is the result of any form of communication about the maker and the maker’s products. This can include unintended negative messages that have the effect of clouding the image you wish to project. Presentation, both in personal terms and in those of the product, is very important, but is often neglected.

As a professional turner you should think about the image you are presenting to the world by your demeanour and the various forms of communication you have with your customers. At the very least you should have some nicely designed headed paper, business cards, and complimentary slips. In addition you should create a portfolio of photographs and biographical material. Look for a distinctive logo, which can be centred on your name. If you are going to craft markets build yourself an attractive stand. When at craft markets have your portfolio and training course details to hand. Generate a 'house' style by ensuring that all your literature has a consistent look that is commensurate with the image you are trying to project.

Remember that you need to create a name for yourself. Other activities by which you sell your skills, such as writing and demonstrating will help to get your name known. Get as much public exposure as you can. Try to get a profile in your local paper. Have a standard press release available. Network. Participate in your local and regional craft organisations.

9. Price

Pricing is an integral part of the marketing mix. The relationship between the type of turning you decide to specialise in and the prices you set for it will determine your position in the market place. To all makers there is a range of prices within which they can operate. The lowest price at which they can sell (if they wish to make a living) is set by the costs of production; the highest level is the price the ‘market will bear’. The way in which these levels are determined will be examined at length in Part 3.