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Online sales help keep local artists afloat

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Posted on December 20, 2012 |
By Xian Chiang-Waren



stockings3136.jpg
WENDY MCINTOSH KNITS stockings in the basement of her Lincoln home Monday afternoon. McIntosh, who sells her creations exclusively online, hopes to organize with other local artists and craftspeople to develop a support network for Internet sales. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

ADDISON COUNTY — If you ask Reed Prescott, surviving the recession has been simple — you just have to be an artist.

“We’re the only ones that could handle it, because we were used to not having money,” Prescott said.

Prescott’s joke is misleading, though. The Lincoln-based painter and owner of the Verde Mountain artists cooperative on Main Street in Bristol, is actually on a financial upswing thanks to sales from a calendar product featuring his landscape paintings. The attractive, easy-to-ship calendar sells well through online e-commerce platforms like Etsy.com, and is easily advertised on his Facebook page and personal website.

Prescott is just one of a growing number of artists and craftspeople around Addison County using online sales to generate income from out-of-the-area patrons. Many pride themselves on then deliberately keeping those outside dollars local — spending them close to home for their own personal shopping and for whatever supplies they might need to develop their products. For example, Prescott’s calendars are printed right next door to Verde Mountain at Kimball’s stationery store.

Jewelry maker Bruce Baker, who ran a storefront business in Middlebury for 17 years before closing it to work more on his retail consulting business, only recently re-launched his jewelry venture through the online wholesale site wholesalecrafts.com. For Baker the Internet is necessary for sales because, he said, Vermonters don’t make the best customer base for fine jewelry.

“Vermont is a bubble,” he said. “It’s the best place in the world to live, but people here aren’t very material. There’s not a huge reliance on jewelry.

“When people go out they aren’t bejeweling themselves — well, maybe for New Years,” he added with a chuckle.

When Baker had his Middlebury store in the 1980s, the climate for the whole retail supply chain was different, he said.

“You could pick up a phone and someone would answer your call,” he said.

Now, websites seem to be the best way to get wholesale orders out to retailers. His choice to do online wholesaling came from his ability, honed over decades, to make his product at a high speed without compromising the quality.

“Time wise, you spend more time on one retail customer than an entire wholesales order,” he said.

Wendy McIntosh, a Lincoln craftswoman who knits Christmas stockings and sells them through the online crafts boutique Etsy.com, has relied on her online store for several years. She originally began making her product for the clothing company Garnet Hill, but never had creative control over the designs, and did not get to keep much of the profit. A few years ago she began selling online, and her customer base, including a few loyal customers from her Garnet days, expanded.

Like many in her business, McIntosh prefers being her own boss.

“I have a lot of freedom and flexibility,” she said. “I feel more like an artist and less like a manufacturer.”

BANDING TOGETHER

After the holidays, when McIntosh has a moment to catch her breath after a flood of Christmas orders, she plans to launch a support group for local artists and craftspeople. She envisions the group offering support during busy times of year, and sharing tips and advice for the increasing number that sell online. A webpage or platform that unites these Addison County artisans is also a possibility; she notes that her customers are seasonal, but they often include people who might purchase other Vermont craft products if they knew about them.

She also sees a distinct community advantage to area artists ramping up online sales.

“When I sell online, I’m getting resources from other zip codes,” she said. “My mission is to spend locally. I’m looking for ways to make my business meaningful, and part of that is making my lifestyle beneficial to this community.”

Prescott echoed that sentiment.

“A hundred dollars spent on Amazon is a hundred dollars that’s left this area,” he said. “A hundred dollars spent here results in thousands of dollars in (local) economic activity as it goes from one hand to the next.”

Another advantage to online sales is the rapid-fire way that a product can attract interest. Prescott, for example, launched his calendar product the weekend after Thanksgiving. He had been experimenting with the design, and had wandered next door to Kimball’s stationery store to see what it looked like as a high-quality printout.

“I looked at it and said, ‘Well, that’s pretty slick,’” Prescott recalled. “So I put it on my Facebook page.”

By the end of the next week, Prescott was inundated with orders. He had to pop over to Kimball’s several times, upping his printing order by the hundreds.

Over the course of Prescott’s career, he has made countless products that incorporate his landscape paintings: books, duck stamps, calendars, cards, and many others.

“If I sold a hundred between Thanksgiving and Christmas I’d call that a success, because most of that would be walk-in traffic,” he said. “But this is totally off the charts from everything I’ve ever done in my career,”

“Facebook is basically relational marketing,” Prescott said. “A friend of mine, a local writer, once told me years ago that 80 percent of all artwork purchased, of any artist, is purchased by friends or family. Facebook changes that, because your friend group expands.”

Etsy.com is also a critical tool, he said, because it allows people outside of the area to view the calendars and easily pay online through the website’s secure connection with PayPal.

By Prescott’s count, just under 500 online orders had come in as of early this week. That number doesn’t include the walk-in sales at Verde Mountain and other area stores that feature his products. At $14 a pop, that’s several thousand dollars from other zip codes that otherwise wouldn’t have come into the local economy.

Once it does, it stays here. Prescott prides himself on spending locally.

For Prescott, technology — like art — is about connecting people and experiences. In that vein, he uses his online platforms to cultivate relationships between patrons and his product in more ways than advertising.

A particularly innovative strategy — one that the self-proclaimed “exhibitionist painter,” who often paints standing in the window of the Verde Mountain storefront, imagines that some artists might be shy about pursuing — was to post on Facebook photographs of his paintings at different stages of their development. Upon the painting’s completion, a potential or existing patron could view a painting’s evolution as a slideshow, all stages melding together into the final product. Then, he uploads the slideshow to YouTube, so that anyone can view the progressions of his recent work.

REACHING A NEW GENERATION

Prescott believes that many of his out-of-state orders come from people who have memories associated with the Vermont landscape. He can think of several examples of people from younger generations now living out-of-state who have expressed interest in his work. It’s a demographic that also stays abreast of online updates.

“Those are the people who are quickly buying the calendars, because it reminds them of home,” Prescott said. “But if I were here without Facebook, they wouldn’t know that I was doing these calendars. They wouldn’t know I had a painting of Main Street in Bristol.”

Marketing for Prescott is “just another creative outlet,” and the Internet gives him a whole new canvas on which to play. He said his online marketing, like painting in the storefront window, “helps people connect.” Time and time again, he has seen that the people that come into the storefront are drawn to things by association, their taste in his landscape paintings shaped by their own life experiences.

“People who spend time on the coast go straight to the Cape Cod paintings, and totally don’t see the Vermont paintings. And then other people come in, and maybe they hike the Long Trail so they go right to the Mount Abe painting. Like a magnet, the paintings attract people that have those connections. What Facebook and Twitter and (others) do is allow you, on a daily basis, to create and generate those connections.”

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