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

  1. Clapping…clapping!!! Can you hear me? Your post was RIGHT ON sister. As an artist, this is so refreshing and honest. Thank you! As a graphic designer with heavy production experience, it just blows my mind what people get away with selling. Ugh. As someone who has considered dipping the toe in the water, these are many of the reasons I haven’t! It’s a package deal. Well designed, produced, polished and tied with a pretty bow. Well said!

  2. YASSSSSSSS.
    As an artist, I would have loved this many years ago when I was submitting to shops (and now I’m cringing) and as a retailer, this is 100% exactly spot-on. You have done it again my friend.

  3. This is a really spot-on description of the many ways in which cards lines are being evaluated. It IS hard to have these conversations, and I confess I typically decline lines by saying I run a small shop and am currently at capacity with the lines I carry, but it always makes me cringe because the truth is I would leap out of my seat and make room for a new line that I fall in love with. I trust, though, that those lines will find their audience (or learn some good lessons along the way) and that it is okay for my shop to have its own cohesive aesthetic.

    One thing I do take issue with in our current climate is that the resurgence of interest in handlettering has spawned a preponderance of greeting cards sporting subpar lettering. There is a rough-hewn aesthetic that is aware of itself that I find charming, but there’s also just a lot of design that uses handlettering because it’s popular without basic training in calligraphy or lettering design. I think designers do need to be rigorous with themselves about details like this, and you’re right — it can mean an investment in classes and more time spent skill-building before letting products hit the shelves.

    Thank you for generating this conversation. It’s important to have! Kudos!

    • Laura – thank you for the thoughtful reply – I say the exact same thing (or, increasingly my auto responder says it for me), but you better believe the truly striking lines get an immediate reply.
      AND – yes yes yes to the handlettering comment. That is my number one sigh-worthy submission experiences lately. xx

      • This is such a helpful article, Emily. I’m so sad to hear that you and others have received nasty responses to honesty. I’d much rather hear the brutal truth in a private exchange so that I can improve my work. I’d like to think that that’s much better than finding out publicly that the “at capacity” response was just a polite way of saying you’re not interested. It’s a shame that this kind of anger has to ruin the opportunity for the rest of us to hear some helpful truths!

  4. Thank you again, Emily, for sharing your very thoughtful perspective. It’s interesting being on both sides of this now that we have opened a little store. I remember the missteps I made in the beginning of our wholesaling days and the very helpful feedback we received from some stores that helped us grow and make our products more polished. I am so thankful for that. On the other side now, we receive lots of submissions – some without pricing / minimums or great packaging, others are great but just not a good fit for our particular store. We have chosen to have a very narrow focus for the products in our store – I would add a 5.b to the bullet point above – make sure your products fit with the store you are reaching out to. Not all products are a good fit for all stores and that doesn’t mean anything about the quality of your design and packaging.

    • Rosanna – yes, such a great addition. I have really appreciated the few times that makers of all kinds have said they’re not quite sure if they’re a fit – in each case, the product was really wonderful product and their uncertainty came from a “fit” issue, not a lack of confidence in their product. Having some perspective as a designer to match your brand with shops that fit rather than simply pitching your “dream shops” is a real show of professionalism to me.

  5. I Emily,

    This is an amazing article and so well said! I can’t express how appreciated it is that you are so willing to take the time and energy to actually help people in the industry! I started my company a little more than a year ago and indeed learned many lessons along the way. After moving my studio over the winter I took a look at what were the most important things to me as a business (and my customers) and have a bunch of new items that we’ll be debuting soon. I’m super excited about sharing the new items with retailers, but one lesson I took away after last year was the ambiguity of the follow up. For instance, after sending out material to shops I would often get a response along the lines of “interested, great line, now is not a good time but please follow up!” I always follow up at least once (usually a few months later and with some new designs) but I’m wondering how much of this their polite way of saying “not for me”, or if it is genuine, how many times should I really follow up before it crosses a line to too much or seems aggressive?

    Thanks so much for your time and help!

    • Johanna, I completely understand this uncertainty and I think it’s find to be direct and say to a store – after you receive a reply like that: “I would love to continue to keep you updated on my line, would you like me to continue to send updates as we have new products?” If they say yes, I think following up with a line 2-4 times a year, by email, is appropriate and often welcome. I have lines that do this with me, and even though I don’t carry their work, I like seeing what’s new in the industry and there may come a time that something does strike me and I order. Thank you, also for the kind words and thoughtful reply – xo Emily

  6. Emily – Thank you so much for writing yet another thoughtful, insightful and helpful blog post. You’re saying all the things that are SO hard to say, but must be said! Your last and second-to-last points really stand out to me. As a maker, I find that the biggest challenge is to create designs that are unique and stand out from the crowd. We all know that this industry is deeply over saturated and honestly I’m tired of seeing the same style/trend all over the place. I know firsthand how hard it is to put blinders on and try to stay original, when I could easily just “copy” someone else (even if it’s subconsciously). It’s difficult but at the same time, it’s the most important aspect of our creative process. I feel lucky to have gained as many stores as we’ve had so far, and I hope it’s at least partly because shop owners are finding something different in our designs. Thanks again for this post, it’s tough love but we all need to be reminded sometimes!

    • Jen – Yes, I think now more than ever, the issue of “copying” is complicated. Through instagram and pinterest especially, so many of us are seeing the same images, patterns, colors, trends and a lot of it is seeping in subconsciously. I’m seeing this with repeated sentiments in particular. The fact that you’re carried in stores already means you’ve jumped the first hurdle (hooray!), now your job, as you note, is pushing your own creative process. Putting blinders on is necessary also, asking yourself the question – what could I do to make this different, even if you don’t go down that road, just exploring different options: “how would this look if it were letterpress printed, or printed on a higher quality paper, what if I took out the sentiment and just had the image” these are the kind of questions that can move you in new directions, rather than simply roaming around the same venues and recycling ideas. Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment! xo Emily

      • Yes, thank you! Before finalizing any of our designs, we really put it through the ringer and ask a lot of critical questions to ourselves — mainly, is it the best we can do? But I love your suggestion of exploring different options, even if we don’t necessarily do it. Keeps our creative minds in check! Thanks again!

  7. Thanks so much for the post Emily – It’s good to hear some frankness about the process and I think this is probably a perfect venue to do so. I don’t envy a shop owner having to deal with the multitude of submissions on a daily basis and how to handle them.
    As someone who submits to retailers, I do wish there was a little more dialogue, yes. I don’t necessarily need minute detail of why an order wasn’t placed or why they took a pass on my line, but at least some acknowledgement that the effort was made to reach out. I do think it goes both ways as the retailer is tugged in so many directions at once and we’re just one of many things tugging at them. Equally so is the small business who most of the time doesn’t have a staff to handle these things and is wearing just as many hats. I’m sure there are a number of folks who’ll read this that never hear a peep out of a retailer after they take a chance and I don’t suppose that really helps anyone in the end. I think the dialogue between the two would ultimately lead to better products available to retailers and better products being produced by the maker…

    • Joe – I really appreciate this comment and the frustration that you touch on from the submitter’s side. I can assure you, as a small retalier who has a staff of 1/2 person, and knows several retailers in the same boat, I can assure you: one of the biggest pieces of guilt we feel is not responding to submissions. It’s why I started a submissions email, because I was just losing submissions that came in to my [email protected] email. I think there are two things that you can do as a vendor to solicit responses – first, you should always follow up – if you send by mail, follow up by email two weeks later. If you submit by email, follow up by email two weeks later. It’s often the second touch that reminds me to reply. Then, if you truly want feedback, ask for it. It is rare that a vendor asks me for feedback other than making an order (and as I indicate in the post, when I do it on my own, it’s not always well received), so if you get a vague reply, you really should (if you want to hear it) reply “I’d love to continue growing my line and I really value your feedback, if there are one or two things you think could improve my line, even if it wouldn’t mean being carried in your shop, I’d love to hear it.” – Thank you for continuing the dialogue here! xo Emily

      • I feel like the fact that you have a dedicated email address just for submissions means a great deal because you’re acknowledging the process and making it accessible to vendors. Which of course means you have seen a big increase in the number probably! But still, I really appreciate that effort from a vendor standpoint. It’s not always easy to find the best avenue for making contact and I feel like I don’t reach out when it seems like the best I could do is say, “Attn: Buyer” I do like being able to direct my submission to someone…

        My standard practice closely follows your suggestions – 2 weeks for a follow up after sending either physical or digital. And the responses have ranges from crickets, to “It’s not in the budget”, “we don’t have room on our shelves right now” to the most helpful (if not brief) ” I don’t think you’re a good fit” to my least favorite “Not interested.” I always make sure to thank anyone who takes the time to give some sort of response as long as it’s polite 🙂 And I actually prefer to send physical mail or email – phonecalls are just inconsiderate of the retailer’s time in my experience…

        • Well, I love the fact that you don’t call! Also smart that you’re not reaching out unless you find a person. This is the one time that I think you can make a phone call. The only phone calls I don’t mind are the ones that simply say “I have a line I’d love to submit, how do you best like to receive submissions and who do I direct them to.” My one suggestion for you looking at your line – which you must know – is that you’re not going to be for everyone – you’re intentionally walking the racier/raunchier side of this industry. That can be a great advantage, but it also means you should be tailoring your submissions a bit more carefully than others – reach out to stores because they carry cards that are willing to be more adventurous (that will at least help with the “not interested” replies.) Otherwise, if you really want the feedback, I think you can ask for it and get it!

          • YES! – we are not for everyone which has advantages and disadvantages. But that goes for everyone I suppose with their particular styles. I will submit to stores I really like, even if it seems like it may be a longshot simply because I love the shop and think they may possibly carry us BECAUSE they don’t have anything like us. And certainly finding a retailer who does carry more adventurous products doesn’t always guarantee anything for the reason you’ve mentioned before; if they consider your products too much like others they carry. So, to me, it really comes down to taking a chance and not getting your feelings hurt if they say no but I think having folks like you on the other end makes the process much more rewarding when the retailer is open to the dialogue. Thanks again for chatting back and forth! J

      • Emily+Joe, fantastic dialogue! Love the article Emily and appreciate your feedback Joe! This is not an easy topic, but it’s wonderful to see the productive, professional dialogue happening in hopes that the courting process can continue to be more seamless for all! There’s no doubt that much like opening the doors to a new retail store (will the customers come?? Did I differentiate myself enough??), that putting your work in front of retailers is nerve wrecking (is my work good enough??). It’s one of those things that all small business must experience, however having these forums proves to be invaluable, especially for those just starting. Of course when we first started out, we took a lot more to heart, but quickly learned not to let a retailer’s feedback, or lack of, deter us from continuing to put ourselves out there. We learned to cherish that dialogue and use those times to reflect, revisit and refine our approach and product lines. Some of the best advice we received early on was from seasoned retailers that were able to/comfortable enough taking the time providing feedback. Since then we’ve worked hard to invite/open the dialogue with our stockists to hear the juicy constructive feedback. I equate it to staring at yourself in the mirror for too long; the harder you look, the funnier your hair looks, yet miss the most obvious thing – there’s a piece of lettuce in your teeth! So, thank you Emily for opening the dialogue and for another enlightening post! It was a refreshing read and equates to any small business that’s trying to “make it”, even outside of paper! Cheers to continuing the dialogue between both sides!! Nick

  8. Thanks Emily for the great post. So much important info we need to know. There is something I am curious about that I have been researching to figure out how retailers feel about digital catalogs vs. printed. How do you feel about being sent samples with a link to a digital catalog and private wholesale shopping site. Again, thanks for sharing your time and experience.

      • Looks like you found it, but it’s a good question, so I”ll answer! I’m split and I think as long as you have a quality one that clearly shows your product, either is fine. I used to hate paper catalogs (so heavy, so wasteful!) but now I really like them. I find issuu hard to really get a good look at things on if I don’t already know the line. I think if you don’t want to do a paper catalog, you should just invest in your website and a wholesale portal over there. Or investing in a high quality PDF catalog that can be sent via email is great too.

  9. I have missed your informative columns Emily. This one just ‘re-emphasized ‘ the true importance of a catalog…. Which has been drilled into my head a lot lately! So much so, my deadline is looming!! I know my products are worthy of one + it will only help promote them + tell more of our Story. Thanks again.

  10. Thanks for such an informative post and yes, I would be interested in a forum for a discussion on this topic. My cards and art prints are in several stores now but the majority of these shop owners have contacted me. I have pretty lousy results when I approach shops myself! It’s hard to know exactly what I’m missing. I’ve been considering the services you offer thru You’re So Golden and maybe that is the next best step for to get some clarity moving forward. Thanks as always for being so generous in your guidance!

    • Lori – I think your experience is pretty common. If stores are approaching you, that’s great! I’d be curious to know what you’re doing right now for your approach. I”d always be happy to talk further and appreciate you finding my consulting work! But right now, you could gain some valuable feedback from the stores you’re working with – ask them what is appealing about your work, what you’re doing that they’re not seeing elsewhere (that information can help you push further in your own style) and also ask them what you’re not doing or what could improve your line. Happy to chat more if you’d like. xo Emily

  11. This contains great advice for those of us who are about to dip our feet (and baby/young companies) in wholesale waters. Much of this I’ve learned as a part of the Tradeshow Bootcamp community, an experience that I am extremely grateful for. I think that my gutteral reaction to some of this is likely mirrored in the hearts of other artists and designers; I suspect that many of us tend toward a generous helping of self criticism ala the Ira Glass piece “On Being Creative”. I’m about to exhibit at the National Stationery Show for the first time and am reading this with fresh waves of well, frankly, terror. A line can sell really well locally, direct-to-consumer. It can be well received and get oohs and ahs among the general public, but others in the design industry have very high standards. They SHOULD, but it is so hard to know what qualifies as “good” to other artists. Sometimes the only way to know is to put yourself out there and try. For instance, my line is very raw. I am not a computer designer and I employ hand lettering in my work, but it is not calligraphy or intended to stand alone. It is lighthearted and imperfect . I can’t even put into words the amount of paranoia I experience about this, though, even replacing all of the text on my cards at one point with fonts (which craft show attendees hated. I went back to my quirky hand lettering). But will that resonate with the more critical eye of design-conscious retailers and fellow designers? I don’t know. I think that there are a fair number of us who are different enough from other work to simply not know, despite our best preparations, if we’ll be regarded in the vein our work is intended, or as the somewhat ego-fluffed product of encouraging friends and family. It’s not for the faint of heart, to be sure!

    • Hi Jill, how great you are exhibiting at NSS for the first time. I would love to see what you do. Is it allowed here to ask for/ share websites or company names?

    • Jill – we feel you! We are at exhibiting at NSS for the first time as well and feel exactly the same. Best of luck to you and we will for sure stop by and check you out!

  12. Hi Nole, this is enormously helpful for artists and designers to better understand the evaluation process around what makes for sendable and saleable greeting card collections, and you’ve also done a great service to greeting card manufacturers who review thousands and thousands of art submissions for potential inclusion in their wholesale lines. There is a lot of great art and design that doesn’t make it to retail, and often not because it’s not well done, or on trend, but for many of the other reasons you share. I’m sharing the link to this blog entry with several of the art and design groups I am involved in, because I believe you have really put things in perspective from both the retailer and the manufacturer perspective on why some things are “rejected” as well as how many different things have to be considered when looking at new collections. Really well done — thanks for sharing!

  13. Oops…this whole post was by Emily…sorry about that!

    Hi Emily! Everything I said above about this post to Nole — was meant for you!

  14. Hi Emily! I echo many of the sentiments in these comments–this is so helpful. I am not a stationery designer, but all this advice is so applicable! Also, I want to say (hopefully without putting you on the spot!) that I’ve submitted my products to you and the feedback you gave me about my line was very useful and I appreciated it so much! I’ve also started adding a request for feedback in my submissions, which seems to get more responses from those who might be interested but the timing isn’t right. This has opened the dialog with several shops, some of which have become buyers (some I’m still “wooing” 🙂 ). And I have noticed that I get much more interaction in the followup. While asking for feedback feels scary, it’s something I value so much for the growth of my line. Thanks for this post!

  15. Hi Emily, thanks so much for this honest post and replying to comments.
    May I ask if you have experience with international makers? Do you see it as a hurdle, and therefore more of a reason to reject a line? Do you have tips on how to accommodate a retailer as an international maker and how to make working together across borders as pleasant and smooth as possible? Thanks so much!

  16. I enjoyed this post so much that I found all of your other posts in archive and read them all. They were really helpful. Just wanted to thank you for the great content 🙂

  17. As an aspiring stationer who’s line if far from ready for wholesale prime time, I really appreciated your generous and sincere advice! It is so helpful to me as I continue to develop and refine a line I would feel proud to submit to Clementine and other shops. Maybe in a few years when the kids go to kindergarten, haha.

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