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Wednesday, 19 December 2012 04:49

Art >> The Gradual Cheapening of Handmade Goods and Products Made by Artists

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Don’t products that are “handmade” or “made by artists” sound like people should pay more for them? But, too often, people don’t. In fact, a lot of the time the pricing bar for artists is set dangerously low…by artists. It’s one thing for an artist to make something lower-priced than an oil painting, so that more people can afford it. It’s another to sell it at a bargain price. Let me tell you about what I’ve been seeing lately.

When you go shopping on Etsy and other online markets for handmade goods, do you look for the lowest price? If you do, you won’t be disappointed by your options. Sadly, now you can get prices on handmade pieces and high-quality reproductions of original art (such as giclees) that rival the prices for mass-market goods. As the handmade market grows—on Etsy, Artfire, Zibbet, and other online forums, as well as in weekend marketplaces where you can go in person to buy directly from the artist—the artist can set his or her price without having to worry about wholesale vs. retail, because they are selling directly to the customer and there is no “middle man.” And when there is no wholesale pricing to worry about, the artist can charge the public what amounts to wholesale if he/she chooses to, and make the same profit and he/she would selling to a store. Thus the handmade market is fast becoming one in which wholesale is available to the retail buyer.

This enables the artist to sell the same type of item as a competitor for less—and, believe me, it’s tempting to price this way to get more sales. An artist can even compete with places like Target. After all, why would a customer buy mass market when they can get “artisanal” for a similar price?

“We eliminate the middle man” is a slogan used by a popular California grocery chain that claims to save customers money, and it makes us feel like we’ve eliminated “the Man,” doesn’t it? Power to the individual! And now goods are more affordable to the public! It’s tempting to think that this is a good thing for people generally, especially since we’re in a recession; we need to make sales and sell things that are affordable. Trouble is, if people can buy “wholesale” from an artist the way a store can, stores will find it harder to compete. Eventually, they might not be able to keep their doors open. We see more and more storefronts shutting down. Secretly our mean side might come out and we might feel glad—another overcharging boutique has bitten the dust. On the other hand, that overcharging boutique employed people and brought customers closer to other businesses in the same neighborhood—restaurants, gas stations, dry cleaners, coffee houses, tailors. If it was a nice establishment among other nice establishments, it might even have helped increase the property value of our own homes.

But come on: Why should, say, a T-shirt ever cost more than $20? They’re cheap, right? (I use a T-shirt as an example because it’s one of the products I have my own designs printed on.) To begin with, most artists I know who put their own designs on shirts use higher-end blank shirts or have their own made. These nicer shirts, plus the cost of screen printing and label making, can easily cost upwards of $10 apiece, sometimes even more, unless the shirt is produced in enormous volumes. It’s no great secret (all you have to do is look on to find out) that a retail price is usually at least four times the cost of making the product, ideally allowing the artist to make 100% profit over the cost (this would make the wholesale price $20 if a shirt cost $10 to make) and the retailer to make 100% profit over the wholesale he or she is paying (that would make the retail price $40).

“Wait!” you cry indignantly. “Why should I pay $40 for a shirt that only cost $10 to make? What would Robin Hood have said about artists and sellers making 100% profit?” Well, in addition to paying themselves back for just the materials and labor, the artists need to pay themselves for the weeks it might have taken them to create the picture on the front, design the label, buy several samples in order to choose the right blank shirt, ship boxes to the screen printer, let the printer mess up a few shirts in the sample-making process, create promotional material, call stores to see if they can carry the shirts (or, if they have a sales rep, pay the rep to do it), and compensate themselves a little for not actually selling all the shirts they make. If they don’t pay themselves a fair price for this process, they might not eat, their homes might go into foreclosure, and their kids might not go to college. Seriously—it’s only fair to assume that it’s a job, not a hobby. Same goes for retail stores: They have to rent their store space from a landlord, pay themselves and their employees a salary, compensate themselves a little for merchandise that they gambled on but couldn’t sell, and advertise their store so people will go there to buy stuff.

If you sell shirts, you could do your own printing and not pay yourself for the work, and say that’s the reason you are charging stores and online customers a lot less. But let’s be honest: If you do that, it means you’re not paying yourself for your job as the printer. And if that precedent is set, it means all artists with printing skills will end up not getting paid for the hand printing they do. The reason an original painting is so expensive is that the artist has to pay herself to execute it. A hand-pulled print should also have a price substantial enough to pay the artist for her work, even if it’s on a T-shirt.

While we’re on the subject of printing, let’s talk about art prints too. Underpriced giclee prints are flooding online marketplaces, even though a giclee is one of the highest-end prints you can get, usually made on heavy watercolor paper with special archival inks that are supposed to resist fading for many decades. The detail of a giclee print can be uncanny; the texture of a painting and the vividness of its colors are so closely captured that it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between the giclee and the original. And even though they are more widely available than they used to be, they’re still not cheap to make except in very large quantities, and you still can’t go to your local copy place and get them to knock one out. I own a giclee of a favorite painting; the price of the original painting was $5,000, which I couldn’t afford, so I bought the giclee from the gallery for $125. It measures about 16 x 20”. By comparison, some of the giclees on Etsy and Artfire are priced like posters. What on earth is going on?

You could ask, “Is your $125 giclee print a limited edition?” Yes, it is. And that should allow the artist to price significantly higher, because she is committed to not making more than a fixed number of the prints. On the other hand, even if a giclee is not specifically limited edition, the artist is probably not planning to disseminate thousands of them because they are expensive to make up front; they are hardly like postcards. In other words, manufacture cost probably limits most giclee prints to being sort of “limited edition,” and this should permit the artist to ask for a good price.

At this point you might ask, “What about artists who overcharge?” I think only famous artists have the option of doing that. The rest of us have to worry about what will happen to our sales and our reputations if we overcharge and people figure it out. In fact, many of us mark probably price our items a little lower than what will give us 100% profit, precisely because we understand the buyer’s mindset. People are more accustomed to buying mass-market items than handmade items or items made in smaller quantities; so if the difference between mass-market and handmade is too great, they might not go for it. It’s understandable that an artist would be afraid of this. But when artists deliberately sell retail at wholesale to the public, it can set a dangerous precedent that other artists will feel pressured to follow in order to make sales.

When I see a $15-20 T-shirt printed on Alternative Apparel for sale on Etsy, I know the artist is at least making wholesale. But what about when he or she sells to a store? In that case, the artist is only breaking even, or making $2 or $3 per shirt. The argument could be made that by selling more cheap shirts, the artist will make more through volume of sales. But I have a better idea: What if the artist realized that a handmade shirt is a work of art and priced accordingly? And what if ALL artists banded together and followed the same practice? Such a scenario would mean that a customer would learn the higher value of handmade, and either make a bigger investment or go to a store that sells mass-market goods. Maybe that means artists will make fewer sales…but maybe each sale will be more profitable, especially if the public realizes how special handmade is and eventually warms to paying what it is worth. After all, there are options in the marketplace; no one who doesn’t buy a hand-printed shirt will have to face going naked as an alternative. They can always go to Target or Old Navy or Walmart. Original art and handmade goods should be considered “high end.” When artists do the kind of work that doesn’t usually come with paid vacation time or even medical insurance, the last thing we want is for handmade to be cheap.

Read 5296 times Last modified on Wednesday, 19 December 2012 04:52
Thea Saks

Thea Saks is an artist based in Los Angeles. Her company, The Mighty Squirm (, specializes in apparel and art prints with designs inspired by folklore and historical periods of interest, especially the 19th century. Thea's work has appeared in local galleries including Cella Gallery, Cannibal Flower, and La Luz de Jesus, as well as Modern Eden Gallery in San Francisco and District VII in Detroit. The Mighty Squirm has participated in markets for highly original merchandise such as Unique LA, Bats Day Black Market, Bazaar Bizarre, Comikaze Los Angeles, and Son of Monsterpalooza.

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