Market research for small workshops

Written by David Savage

Originally published as A BIT ON THE SIDE – PART ONE in Good woodworking magazine / 2001

O.K. so you’re a woodworker. You enjoy doing it, you’ve got a small workshop – you’ve been doing it for a fair while and now you want a bit on the side. You want to be able to turn whatever you make into a little bit of money. In the coming three months I’ll be talking about how you might go about it. This month in the first article I’ll be talking about your market. Where you’re going to sell the things, how you’re going to sell them. Next month I’m going to be talking about costing, how you adjust or change your product to suit your market and suit the cost factors that are involved. In the last month I will be talking about production, how you modify or change your existing production set up to suite small batches, so bringing down your costs. All of these subjects in many ways are affected by each other. The market is price sensitive and the price of the object is determined by your production costs the cost of marketing and the volume of sales affect price which in turn affects sales. Apart from that its all quite simple. By breaking this subject down into three smaller sections it will at least give you some idea of where to start and how to understand it. Hopefully by the end of the series I might have inspired one or two of you to take to the road and have a go at selling your widgets to the great unwashed British Public.

You can ask your son-in-law, well maybe he would tell you what he really thinks, but you might not want to listen to what that so-and-so is going to tell you. It all gets very personal and confusing.

When we start out with this idea of getting a bit on the side, we’re starting from the wrong end of the question because we already have a workshop, we already are interested in making and it’s because of that, that we want to extend our hobby into a part-time business. When really we should be looking at how are we going to sell this stuff. Who are we going to sell it to. What might they pay for whatever it is that we want to sell. We should start by looking at the market and alright, you might do a nifty line in turned candlesticks and you’ve practised so hard that you’ve got a pile of turned candlesticks in the corner of your workshop that you can’t find homes for. Every relative that you know has got a turned candlestick, or maybe a pair of turned candlesticks. They may even have turned candlesticks in every room of their house, but that really doesn’t constitute a market. You can ask your friends and relatives who have seen your wonderful turned candlesticks what they think of them but they are not really going to tell you truly what they think of them. You can ask your son-in-law, well maybe he would tell you what he really thinks, but you might not want to listen to what that so-and-so is going to tell you. It all gets very personal and confusing. Also you’ve made these turned candlesticks and you’re very proud of them. They are a bit of you. What you have to do is to separate the emotions, from the objects, from the market. You might try and sell these wonderful turned candlesticks to a total stranger who turns round and says ‘Ah, don’t like the look of them’ rather than being hurt and offended the attitude is to understand that this total stranger may not be looking for turned candlesticks he may be looking instead for a dining room table and at least he’s objective, being a total stranger he’s in a position to tell you something interesting. For what in a way that you have to do is find what this total stranger thinks about your turned candlesticks. Not only him you have to find out what a whole load of total strangers think about your turned candlesticks.

If you are in the meat pie business and you already have a shop selling meat pies you could introduce a new line of meat pies very easily by test marketing them in your shop and in this way you could approach your existing customers and say ‘have you tried our new meat pies, there’s a free sample over there, tell us what you think.’ That way you might find out that some of your customers don’t like flaky pastry and some of your customers think there’s not enough meat in the pie and some of your customers might think it’s really nice and should be left exactly as they are but brought down in price a little bit. Now if you can adjust your product to suit a large proportion of that test market and bring the price down a bit, put a bit more meat in and change the pastry and still make a profit, you’ve got a winner.

But what you do at home with your garden shed and your candlesticks, where do you go to get some idea what the great unwashed think about it. Well the answer really is to put yourself and your work in front of the public, which brings me smoothly on to my next point.

Now if you can adjust your product to suit a large proportion of that test market and bring the price down a bit, put a bit more meat in and change the pastry and still make a profit, you’ve got a winner.

If you are to get a bit on the side, the best and easiest way to do it is to sell the candlesticks to them direct. If you go through a gallery or another form of retail outlet the chances are they are going to charge what is called a commission or a mark-up. Now you may well be horrified to find that if you were selling these lovely candlesticks at Ten Quid each, that nice young man at WiZZo Gallery will want to take half of that. They may well also want you to supply them at no cost to themselves, that is on “Sale or Return”, deliver them to the gallery at your expense and collect any damaged or dud candlesticks, again at your expense. They have to maintain there swish retail establishment, and they are taking a risk that your product may or may not sell. So it’s reasonable that they should expect a return and 50% isn’t far off standard these days. If however you can sell the stuff direct to the public then you can keep all that lovely beer money for yourself. You may have a few costs involved in doing so but there will be nowhere near the 50% you might have incurred by selling them through WIZZOs prime retail establishment and you may if you follow my advice have a good deal of fun in the process.

What I am going to suggest is that you go on the road. You are of course making a unique and wonderful product and that the chances are that you may saturate a local market by selling for example turned candlesticks to everybody who can possible want a turned candlestick in your local village. By going to the next town or the next county will open up a new untapped market. If you can find a suitable event where stalls are set up, goods are brought in and beer money is gathered, then here you have a direct marketing opportunity. I know a friend of mine who combines this pastime of visiting a whole range of different crafts fairs throughout the summer with a second passion of caravanning

If you can find a suitable event where stalls are set up, goods are brought in and beer money is gathered, then here you have a direct marketing opportunity.

He fills the caravan up with, in his case walking sticks, hand carved walking sticks made during the winter evenings. He trundles off to a weekend craft fair, sets the car and caravan up at the rear of the show tent, sets up two trestle tables and a few other wigwams, puts on his bubble hat and sandals so he looks the part, takes out a carving knife, so he looks purposeful and away he goes. This combined with one or two Christmas shows is all of the marketing he does to turn over a tidy £10,000 a year. In his case it’s not a living but it’s a pretty good supplementary to a dwindling pension and keeps him from molesting women and making a nuisance of himself down at the local youth club. Sorry Bob I’m just joking.

The key to doing this is to never attend a craft show or fair or Christmas event without having been there as a visitor beforehand. That usually means starting your market research, for that’s what they call it, right now as a visitor not as a participant. Go round the craft fairs local to you, those that you have already heard of. See who’s there, see what they’re selling, see what kind of prices they are charging and see if there’s a gap to sell something different. Because if there’s already a wooden candlestick maker that’s charging less than you and selling nicer candlesticks then there’s no point you going to that show. Be straight up with one or two of the participants and ask what does it cost to do a stand. Say you’re thinking of doing something similar next year. When you attend a show like this, your neighbouring stand holders can become firm friends and good allies. They can put you on to other shows that are really good, they can tell you those that are really bad. They can keep your spirits up when its raining and give you cups of coffee when your thermos flask has broken and they may even lend you a spare bobbly hat. If you can set up a series of these events that follow one another with suitable gaps in between for you to either recover or get back on the candlestick making bench, you have the basis of a marketing campaign. You will have expenses and those will have to be played against your potential sales which you don’t know yet. So it’s as well to start off very gently and do it in a reasonably inexpensive way. If your products are suitable, a local Christmas fair is a good one. Treat your first couple of shows as test marketing rather than any thing serious. Don’t expect to sell anything very much from those first couple of shows. Many people dip their toe into this craft fair experience and find the water pretty chilly just because they have done something completely wrong. They have got their pricing wrong, they’ve got their products wrong, they’ve got their stand wrong, yet they don’t know what it is they’ve got wrong because they haven’t given themselves a chance to adjust the product and the presentation and the prices to the market. Treat your first couple of shows as test marketing where you’re just seeing what people like. You’re there to listen to what people are telling you. You’re there to engage the great and wonderful unwashed in conversation and find out what they think. Maybe just by adding a twiddle here and a slight price reduction there you’ll be able to turn a product that’s not sold at any craft show anywhere, into a market winner. I know of a director of a very famous fabric supply firm who unless she puts herself directly in front of the public at least once or twice a year feels she’s getting out of touch with her customers. She does this by doing exactly what we are talking about now. Setting up a stand, standing around and talking to the great unwashed. Try to have a range of products on your stand, some will sell and some won’t. Keep changing them but don’t confuse your market image but trying to sell exquisitely crafted, very expensive things, alongside cheap imported tat. In that way you’ll be confusing your potential audience and sending out a message that you don’t know who you are. The public are going to buy something very likely because they like you. They enjoy chatting to you and they quite like the twiddly candlestick.

The key to doing this is to never attend a craft show or fair or Christmas event without having been there as a visitor beforehand.

You may not regard yourself as a salesman. You don’t have to be a salesman. What you do have to be is enthusiastic about what you’re doing. People will come up and say what wood is that and you will then launch into a story about what wood it is, where you got it, what kind of tree it was, “Oh”, she’ll say “did you make this”. “Yes, madam”. Don’t be confused by the great unwashed. Unless you explain to them very carefully that you are indeed the artesan who is responsible for fabricating said object they will think you are just a salesman. See, told you it was easy to be a salesman. Really all you have to be to sell these things is a wood worker and you’ve already knocked that nail on the head.

I know a lot of people who spend their winters building up a bank of products, filling their spare rooms with toys, candlesticks, God knows what else, that in the summer go into the back of the caravan and off to market. They are not going to set the design world on fire, and they are not going to set the wood working world on fire. But they are going to make a bit on the side and they are going to meet an awful lot of very interesting people and have a jolly interesting summer and in Bobs case it keeps him away from his unnatural practices. So that can’t be a bad thing can it?

David Savage
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