Brick + Mortar: Stationery Matters. It’s time to create.

If you care about words, and how they’re used, this has been a challenging year. If you care about sentiments, and kindness and how to get back to a place where we value kind sentiments, this has been an excruciating week (months, year). In the stationery world, where we all mingle, we can feel removed from tangible ways to enact positive political change, but I’m here to tell you, we’re in the quiet center of it. Stationery matters. We can shift the discourse by creating new opportunities for conversation. Let’s use our power for good ~ Emily at Clementine

Ladyfingers Letterpress: It's Going to be OK

Ladyfingers Letterpress, it’s going to be ok.

I am not a political commentator and this is not the place, but it doesn’t take an expert to know we are unsettled by recent political events. As creatives and small business owners, many of us have been stunned into silence, unsure of how our daily offerings can actually help. I want this post to remind you that creativity has power because it radiates. I see your work touch lives everyday. The most poignant moments I share with customers are over their card purchases. People write when they can’t pick up the phone; when they know the right card will lift a friend’s mood; when their own joy overflows and they want to share it; when they don’t know what to say to ease someone’s pain, but they know they have to say something; when they ache for connection. As makers of cards, creators of sentiments, you are creating new avenues for connection. So what should you do today? What you do best:

1. Create the cards that are missing from the market place. Create them now. Say the things you want to say (design them well) and print them. Are you afraid they won’t sell? Be afraid. Create them anyway. We need fresh love. With Leonard Cohen’s passing, his words reverberate this week:

Ring the bells that still can ring/
Forget your perfect offering/
There is a crack in everything/
That’s how the light gets in.

 

2. Write. Write to give thanks, write because appreciation lifts spirits, write to offer support, write to lift the darkness. Write to people you don’t know, who are scared because they are being threatened, find a teacher or a place of worship where students or members of a congregation have been targeted. Write letters to the editor, or small notes to any member of your community who is struggling. Write to your high school friends and current neighbors. Write to your family members who you disagree with, write to your family members who you love. Flood the world with actual, tangible good words.

Here is a sample of the cards and prints that remind me that simple, fresh sentiments can create a zing of hope, humor, and possibility. I’m sending some and framing others. I hope you’ll join me – share the new designs you create and the cards you’re sending out. I’d love it if you’d also add #osbpsendlove so we can see and share hope within this community. Move mountains with your words. Make love big. xo Emily Ghost Academy: Bad Bitches Run This ShitGhost Academy, bad bitches run this shit

La Familia Green: I'm Here for Anything You Need

La Familia Green, I’m here for anything you need.

People I've Loved: Shit Doesn't Have to Make Sense

People I’ve Loved, shit doesn’t have to make sense

Yellow Owl Workshop: Friends Come in All Colors and Shapes Print

Yellow Owl Workshop, friends come in all shapes and colors

Ink Meets Paper: Together We Can Get Through Anything

Ink Meets Paper, together we can get through anything

Emily McDowell: Broken Objects

Emily McDowell, broken objects

Daydream Prints: Find Your Tribe, Love Them Hard

Daydream Prints, find your tribe, love them hard

Brick + Mortar: How to Get Feedback From Retailers

My last post, How to Take Feedback Like a Multi-vitamin, gave you some tips to use feedback to help grow your business. Once the post aired, however, I realized that many of you were really looking for something a little more basic: how to get feedback from retailers. So let’s hop from one metaphor to another, today I want you to think back to the middle school notes you sent and received…yes, no, maybe? –Emily of Clementine

Hello Brick + Mortar: How to Take Feedback

Illustration by Emily McDowell for Oh So Beautiful Paper

Many of my posts touch on the interaction between wholesale lines and your interaction with retail shops. I started this column off (3 years ago!) by telling you how to get a retailer’s attention, then followed up with how to stay in contact and how to submit your line by email and snail mail. I also talked about why retailers might be rejecting your line, and specifically talked about how you can ask for feedback when a retailer says no to your line. But I know this is one of the biggest challenges to putting yourself out there as a wholesale line, so let’s tackle the two best ways to get feedback: you can ask, or you can ask and offer.

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ASK: It seems simple, but sometimes simply asking is the best way to gather feedback from retailers. Retailers don’t reply to emails because: we are incredibly busy and we don’t want to say no/you didn’t give us the invitation to say maybe. But sometimes, we really do have quick, relevant feedback that could help grow your line.

Who to ask

Retailers who don’t yet carry your line, those who expressed an interest but never followed up, or those who haven’t ordered for a long time.

When to ask

At the close of your follow up email, or any correspondence after the initial outreach. Most retailers make a gut YES, NO, MAYBE determination within 30 seconds of opening your email/mailer. You’ll hear from the YESES. It’s the NO and MAYBES that will drive you crazy, because you won’t hear from either of them.

What to ask

There are really only two questions you’re asking and you should keep it short and simple, like a middle school note:

  • Would my work ever be right for your shop: yes, no, maybe?
  • If maybe, is there something I could do to to sway you to a yes?

How to ask

Make it clear that you actually want feedback. Craft your own version of: “I hope to keep you updated on my line as it grows, but I don’t want to bother you. If you would like to continue to follow my line, please answer yes, no, or maybe. If your answer is maybe, I would really value any quick thoughts or hesitations you have about my line.”

What’s to love about this type of feedback? You get a better sense of who your people are. If you craft your question well, the MAYBES might say more which could lead to more yeses. And if you’re ready for the sting, it will get you some nopes, that will help you stop wasting your time on the shops that aren’t right, so you can go after the ones that are (Oh, and it’s a great cure for the dreaded radio silence.)

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ASK + OFFER: You understand the ask. The offer is what makes a retailer actually stop, sit down, and reply thoughtfully.

Who to ask

Retailers who currently carry, or have carried your line in the past.

When to ask

Anytime you’re hungry for substantial feedback, considering a change in your line, or want to increase your wholesale outreach.

What to ask

You are asking retailers who have sold your work to give you thoughtful feedback about how to improve your line. You are asking specific questions, (probably in the form of an online survey) that will help you get real answers to what they perceive as your strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities. Craft your questions so that you do not get generic responses.

What to offer

Something they would appreciate, that you can easily give: free product, a discount code to your shop, or free shipping. How much? Consider what would make you stop and fill out a survey. I would generally figure an offer of $25-$50 for every 15 minutes.

How to ask

Make it clear that you would love to have their insight as a retailer who sells their work, that you’re looking for specific feedback to help grow your line and that you value their time so you want to offer them something if they take the time to help your line grow.

What’s to love about this type of feedback? You get real answers, often a suggestion that can strengthen you relationships with stores to get you feedback (and friendship?) that’s ongoing!

Clementine Card Wall / Oh So Beautiful Paper

Clementine‘s current card wall, feedback welcome.

I will be honest, I could spend all day talking to creative product lines about how to edit and expand your lines. It’s why I love writing this column and why I started consulting. But before I began offering feedback like it was my (actual) job, I honestly felt awkward, I thought I was intruding. I bet most of your retailers feel the same way, so give them an easy way to say: yes, or maybe and then come back and share your middle school note folding skills. xo ~Emily

Brick + Mortar: How to take feedback like a multi-vitamin

Here’s the thing about feedback: Everyone will tell you it’s important. And you’ll agree. You know that it’s good for you. You know you need it to grow a healthy business. But let’s be honest, without good direction, feedback is unwieldy and overwhelming. I call it the multi-vitamin of business, because, no matter how beneficial you imagine it can be, you will spend a lot of time choking on it if you don’t prepare. – Emily of Clementine

Hello Brick + Mortar: How to Take Feedback

Illustration by Emily McDowell for Oh So Beautiful Paper

It’s true: Good feedback is invaluable for business growth. Insights! Direction! New ideas! New perceptions! These can all help narrow and edit your line to perfection. But that’s an ideal feedback landscape. In reality, the majority of the feedback you’ll receive as a business owner is either exquisitely painful to listen to or pleasant, but essentially useless. So how to you help your business absorb all of those vitamins that feedback has to offer? Here’s my prescription:

Prepare yourself

The best advice I have about feedback is simple: invite it into your business (specifically and selectively). I used the metaphor about choking on a multi-vitamin for a reason. Most people can relate to the feeling of looking at a massive vitamin you know you should take: when you prepare, it it goes down; when you don’t, it hurts the entire way. You will have good and bad feedback. It will not always feel good. But in my experience, the simple act of taking a moment to position yourself to accept the feedback will help.

What this means in practice: 

  • Are you going to a trade show or craft fair? Launching a new collection? Posting something on social media? No matter how big or small the event is, you can always prepare by asking yourself what you want to get out of it and craft your presentation and questions to elicit those responses.
  • This is a process: Keep Trying. I have worked with enough emerging lines to know: You want to present your line and have the feedback to be: “This is Fantastic! You have a great line, just get out there!” But the truth is, the lines that I know that are truly strong, are so, because they seek out feedback, they edit, they refine: “NICE TRY” is not a door closing, it’s their jumping off point.
  • Want more? Read Pema Chedron’s Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better (yeah, get it from your local bookstore, please). Feedback and failure do not go hand, but in my experience, Chedron’s words can actually make you want to experience the facets of failure to spur your own growth. Asking for feedback, with recognition that it can feel like failure will help you truly open yourself to it.

Ask the right questions

Have you figured out what you want to know? Good, but remember, generic questions beget generic responses. How do you get specific?

  • Assess what you want to know: Do you want general feedback about whether there is an audience for your never-before-seen product? Or do you want to know if people want to buy this hat in blue or gold?
  • Ask specific questions: We are hard-wired to want positive responses, but what do you learn from 1000 likes? You learn that people like the way your photo looks. You do not learn if they will buy it, if they will buy it as a single card or a set, if they like the card or just the on-trend-plant-leaf you’ve styled it with. So, craft the question to get responses that will help guide you.

Ask the right people

Look, the right people will not always answer you (they’re busy!), but they will never answer you unless you ask them directly with the right questions. So before you start gathering feedback, ask yourself:

  • What is the problem/issue I’m trying to (re)solve/learn more about?
  • Who can help me answer this question? (Customers, retailers, peers, mentors, trendsetters?)

How can I get them to answer?

  • If you’re face to face? Trade shows are a great time for specific questions for retailers – be prepared with specific questions.
  • If you’re far away? How can you incentivize them to reply – free shipping for retailers, a discount for customers?

Listen to what they say

Solicited feedback, when thoughtfully gathered is your food pyramid. It may be a bitter pill to swallow, but it’s what helps you grow, develop + differentiate your line. Hone your ability to gather it, and use it.

Ignore

Both solicited and unsolicited feedback are important, but they should be weighted differently. Unsolicited feedback can catch us off-guard – sometimes, in a good way, calling to light the things we forget to ask. But in general, it should be the background noise, a general barometer to how you’re doing. This feedback includes:

  • Customers who make or leave comments; friends or family who comment on your work; social media followers, likes and generic “love this!” emoji comments. This noise gives a sense of “is my line resonating?” But unless this feedback causes an overwhelming financial impact (e.g. a massive influx of orders on one product, or complete silence when other parts of your line are soaring) you should not make business decisions based on unsolicited feedback.
  • Friends and family. They mean well! But they are terrified to hurt your feelings and thus, they do not usually give helpful advice. Listen to them, sometimes indulge them, but do not make business decisions based on their comments (unless they are truly part of your designated target audience.)
  • Customers who do not buy and/or strangers. If you are a fellow retailer or you sell at retail markets, you are no stranger to the person who walks in and immediately tells you what else you should sell/make. Be polite, but do not make business decisions based on these people, even if three of the same suggestion start to sound compelling. Stick to your vision.

But wait. Are your longtime, ever-faithful, big spending customers or trusted confidants giving you unsolicited advice? Take the time to listen a bit more carefully when suggestions come from these unsolicited friends.

Ashkahn Nice Try Card

Nice Try card by Ashkhan

If you need a little more help tuning in or tuning out, I do some of that work for creative businesses here. But remember: This is your show. As small business owners, there will always be more feedback noise present than we can integrate. So take some time to tune in to what you know: your audience, your product, your limits. And then, tune out.

p.s. Do let me know the specifics of what’s tripping you up about feedback. I always take the time in the days after these posts air to reply as thoughtfully as I can. xo, Emily.

Brick + Mortar: How to Submit Your Line to Retailers by Mail

“How should I reach out to retailers?” is a question that looms large in both casual conversations and my professional consulting with product based designers. As a retailer, it seems obvious which approaches will work and which won’t, but through conversations with you, I realize it’s not so clear. With that in mind, I began breaking this topic down to give you real examples. My first post here discussed how to get a shop owner’s attention. More recently, I wrote about How to Submit Your Line to Retailers by Email. Today’s post will talk about when and how to submit your line to retailers by mail. Email is great, but sometimes there’s just no substitution for presenting your products by good-old-fashioned snail mail. –Emily of Clementine

OSBP-Hello-Brick-and-Mortar-Clementine-by-Emily-McDowell-Illustration

Illustration by Emily McDowell for Oh So Beautiful Paper

 

Ok, let’s dive in to reach out:

  • WHAT does it mean to submit your line via mail? Submitting your line via mail means that you send a small selection of your physical products via USPS/UPS/FEDEX to a new retail shop with the hopes that they will pick up your line. It does not mean you hand-deliver your products to a shop. It does not mean you send your catalog in the mail. It does not mean you e-mail a link to your catalog. (And yes, you should put that phone down.)
  • WHY should you send physical products and not just a catalog? Crafting emails to a large group of potential retailers is a great way to cast a broad net. But emails get lost in the shuffle and simply don’t have the same effect as seeing work in person. You should consider sending an introduction by mail if:
    • You want to pick up new wholesale accounts.
    • You want to capture a retailer’s attention/get on their radar, even if they don’t pick up your line immediately.
    • You want to gain social (or traditional) media attention.
    • You didn’t have a great response to an email mailing.
    • Your products don’t translate in 2D/online nearly as well as in person.
  • WHEN should you submit by mail? Submitting your line by mail is vulnerable and time consuming. I recommend making a plan and a timeline to hold yourself accountable. Consider timing it as part of a marketing plan or other external event to create a reference point for your work.  When is the perfect time? When some combination of the following happen:
    • You’re launching a wholesale line and want to reach out to potential retailers.
    • You are launching a new collection in your wholesale line and want to reach out to potential retailers and treat existing retailers.
    • You’ve done your homework on which retail shops would be a good fit for your line.
    • You’re skipping a trade show.
    • You have the money to invest.
    • You have a wholesale line that you are confident has depth, variety and something new to add to the wholesale marketplace.
    • You have the inventory to fulfill potential orders.
  • WHEN shouldn’t you submit by mail? Retailers all have slightly different schedules for when they’re not looking to pick up new lines, but I would generally avoid:
    • The winter holiday season (Thanksgiving – New Years), because we’re just incredibly busy.
    • Directly after a big national show, because we may have spent too much money.
    • When you don’t have the inventory in place to fulfill an order, because there’s nothing that will turn a retailer off faster than getting in touch for an order and being told many items are out of stock or it will be several weeks before the order can ship.
  • WHO should you reach out to by mail?
    • Retailers who you feel confident would carry your line at their store.
    • Retailers who have reached out to you, who you met at a creaft/gift show, or have expressed an interest in another venue (maybe even social media).
    • Retailers whose aesthetic you are so smitten with, you want to gift them with samples from your line even if you aren’t confident they’ll pick you up.

Hello Brick + Mortar: How to Submit Your Line to Retailers by Mail / Emily Blistein for Oh So Beautiful Paper

The Hive Studio submission: product samples, wrapped in fabric gift wrap, catalog and note: submission perfection!

  • WHAT should you send? Introducing a wholesale line by mail can look very different from line to line. I recommend creating a budget for this mailer and a goal for the impact you want to have. Then, divide your budget by the number of stores you want to mail to and sketch out what to include. Consider including:
    • A selection of products that highlight your line, especially those that don’t translate well in photographs/online.
    • Products that are tailored to a retail shop owner’s interests, geographic area and/or other insights you have gleaned about their shop.
    • A physical catalog.
    • A handwritten note. What should you say? Something similar to what you say in your email, but in your own handwriting!
    • Details that reinforce your brand: Ribbon, wrapping, swag, and extra touches enhance the experience of meeting your line and may be the reason you are picked up.
    • Clear, easy contact information via every social and traditional channel.
    • A promise to follow up.
  • HOW should you follow up?
    • By email, one to two weeks later

I hope that’s enough to get you started. Remember: Reaching out by mail takes effort, so make it count. Please ask any follow up questions in the comment section! xo Emily

p.s. Want more on this topic?

Brick + Mortar: What retailers won’t tell you when they reject your line.

I spent the better part of this week tending to my submissions folder. This task is exhausting. I want to provide a thoughtful reply to each submission, but I can’t. I don’t have the time, and I fear that my feedback – even if well intentioned – will be taken as an insult. I’ve given feedback that has been taken as an insult. I never want to be the reason a line stops growing and I’ve used that to justify my short replies. But I always have more to say. Today, I want to share a few of the potentially tender reasons I don’t accept lines. I hope you’ll take them in the manner they’re meant: as true constructive fuel that can help a line grow. ~ Emily of Clementine.

OSBP-Hello-Brick-and-Mortar-Clementine-by-Emily-McDowell-Illustration

Illustration by Emily McDowell for Oh So Beautiful Paper

Many of you already run strong, stunning, professional lines that are carried by many shops. This post isn’t for you. You may apply to shops like mine and not get picked up and it really is because the timing isn’t right, or I admire what you do, but it’s just not a fit. However, there are other lines who are new and growing, in the early stumbling stages, getting rejected or simply hearing crickets after you apply. This post is for you. There are some concrete, fixable reasons that you may be rejected. This feedback can be awkward to give one-on-one, but I believe our creative community could use a little constructive criticism.

So here goes:

  • Your line lacks an understanding of design and/or a compelling aesthetic. Let’s be blunt, not everyone is fit to run a successful wholesale stationery line. You may love to draw. You may have always dreamed of having a card line. These things should propel you forward, but they don’t compel me to order from you. I’m overwhelmed by the number of submissions I receive that seem to lack a basic understanding of design (borders, type, color, pattern). Retailers can, and should, disagree on the aesthetics that they choose for their store, but we all want lines that meet basic standards of design. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, it’s time to invest in some course work: visual art and graphic design. There are some incredible online options these days, and continuing education courses you can take. Hone your skills, sharpen your eye. Get excited about what you don’t know.
    • Beyond good design, of course, is the overall look: the art and sentiments themselves. I have seen many early attempts that are very heartfelt, but simply not very good. This is a hard area to receive feedback on, because it hurts and it’s hard to solicit feedback on because your friends and family will lie. It’s time to explore Etsy, craft fairs, and other sales venues where you see if there’s a market for your work. In other words, send your submission to retailers after your dream of having a card line has actually taken root and begun to grow.
  • Your line doesn’t look professional. On the other hand, you may be a really talented artist, but you don’t seem to care about how to sell. You may, for example, decide to turn your [fine art, photography, doodles, etc] into cards, and you didn’t give much thought to how to present it. Major tells in this area are: poor printing quality, inconsistency in paper, poor envelope quality, and poor packaging. Bottom line: printing quality matters, packaging matters. If you’re not willing to invest in your line, I’m unlikely to invest in you. Go to the stores where you envision your line and look critically at the items that are already there. Your line should not mimic what has already been picked, but it should be able to stand along side the current lines.
  • You don’t seem to understand what wholesale is. I get it – wholesale talk can seem like a big secret society when you’re on the other side. But the truth is, there’s very little you can’t Google your way into. For that reason, if you submit your line without the basics: a catalog and line sheet and some industry standards around pricing, minimums, and policies – it’s a red flag that working with you may mean more work for me.
  • Your line isn’t extensive or cohesive enough. Early on, many talented crafters take a spaghetti-against-the-wall approach to see what sticks. Are you a designer, a potter, a seamstress? Do you want your cards to be letterpress or flat printed? Are you offering custom items? It’s ok to try out different product lines and methods, but when you present your line to retailers, it should feel cohesive and it should be extensive enough to convey that I’ll be able to rely on you for fresh products as the seasons change.
  • Your submission seems careless or spammy. I always recommend taking 5 minutes on each retailer’s site to learn their name and any submission guide lines. It takes very little time to be thoughtful and most retailers I know receive so many submissions that if it’s not addressed to us by name, we feel permission not to respond.
  • Your intro is too long, too casual, or off-color. I offered a template for email submissions here and I plan to write another about mail submissions. In short: your submission should be short, sweet and professional. It should not be seven paragraphs. It should not be too personal unless we actually know each other. You may assume I’m laid back, don’t mind a well placed curse word, and love to laugh (all true), but your submission email should still err on the side of business casual, not casual Friday. We’ll get to know each other later.
  • Your photos and collateral aren’t appealing. Assume I have 30-90 seconds to look at your submission. Good photos and collateral (business cards, and other marketing extras) are often the only reason I linger. They also give a nod to the fact that you understand that our business is visual and that I can rely on you for quality presentation going forward.
  • Your line looks too much like another line. In private conversation, this is a frequent topic. My friends and colleagues often disagree on who may be copying who. But for the purposes of picking a line, it’s not the copying that I’m focused on, it’s that your similarity to another line is either a distraction (because all I can think of is whether you’re copying someone else) or it means you don’t stand out on your own. If you want to sell professionally, you should be aware of the work of your peers and step back to critique how and when you may need to veer away from a design that seems played out. Please don’t hop on a new trend after you see it on line. The world only needs more gold foil pineapples if yours are spectacular. What retailer’s really want is to find something we’ve never seen that only you can show.
  • You don’t stand out. Lately, I’ve seen an increase in submissions from designers who really do seem to understand the format of a good card, but I flip through the catalog and it’s immediately indistinguishable from dozens of others: the designs seem safe, the colors bland, the sentiments re-hashed versions of what’s out there. It’s hard to truly trust your gut and make the cards that you’re meant to make, but there’s nothing I love more than finding lines that do. You should cringe a little at your prior efforts, and then use them as a springboard to try something new.

If you feel like maybe I’m talking directly to you, rest assured, I’m probably not. These nine bullet points represent issues that I see repeatedly in hundreds of submissions each year. But now, I’m curious to hear from you – if you don’t get an order in response to a submission, do you want to know why? Do you want details? Do you want a dialogue? What more would you want from retailers? I’ve been investigating ways (periscope? Facebook live?) that we could turn this into a discussion. I await your suggestions and promise, when asked, to give true feedback to your line, if (and only if) you request it. I would also love to hear from my fellow retailers – tell me what I might have missed.

Clementine Greeting Card Wall / Oh So Beautiful Paper

I’ll leave you with my current view at Clementine: Mother’s Day + a few other favorite cards on some shoddy shelves that I made, which are basically held together with dreams and wood glue. We all have our strenghts and weaknesses. I always welcome your constructive construction criticism and your feedback…xoxo, Emily