The Art of Selling Art Supplies
The Art of Selling Art Supplies

Creating a fine art section can bring in repeat customers

For craft stores looking to expand their clientele, creating a fine art section can mean opening up the doors to serious, repeat customers.

But when it comes to art supplies, knowledgeable customers look for good tools and often consider their purchases as investments. To meet the needs of both hobby artists and be considered a contender in the art world, it's important to think through what to offer and the best ways to feature art products.

Fine art is really a different industry, says Stacey Smith, buyer with Binders Art Supplies and Frame based in Atlanta. Smith was lead panelist at last year's International Art Materials Association (NAMTA) conference, where she talked about effective buying.

She says the most important things to consider are quality and making sure you are not oversaturating the new department. "Crafters are looking for price points," says Smith. "But when it comes to art supplies, you get what you pay for."

Pleasing the palette

A good place to start is with painting supplies, says Jason Horejs, owner of Xanadu Gallery in Scottsdale, Ariz. He runs the popular Red Dot Blog, where he advises artists about the industry and provides resources.

"The broadest part of the art market is really the painter portion, so stores can start there with brushes, canvases and paints," he says. "If just those are all the store can fit, it's going to be able to reach 80 to 85 percent of the art market," he says.

Quality canvases are a must-have item, says Bryan Waugaman, art supplies buyer for Darice, based in Strongsville, Ohio, because they are the starting point for a wide variety of projects. "They can be used in so many applications, not just for painters," he says. "They're good for home decor applications and craft applications, too."

Paints are also a necessity. Many lines offer a student level, a mid-level for hobby painters and a professional level, each coming with increasing price tags. For stores looking to offer value, the best quality paints mix well, so customers won't need a huge selection of colors. And acrylic paints are the No. 1 selling paints, says Waugaman.

"Stores can easily experiment with acrylics, and brands like Liquitex and Golden are good to start with," Smith says. "They add dimension, texture, light — there's so much they can do, and they're great for someone just beginning."

However, she warns craft retailers against stocking really inexpensive brands, which don't mix well. Instead, stores should look for a good starter set and display it with a basic color wheel and drawdowns that show the mixing versatility of the paints. "Think primary colors, but a premium brand," Smith says.

This offers the best value, because with good ingredients, you don't need as much paint. And because paint and brushes go hand in hand, adding some "good, better and best" brushes will provide a one-stop shopping experience for your customers. A big brush selection will offer items for new and experienced artists, who like to feel and touch each brush, because they know what they want, Waugaman says.

A better base

Still, good tools help even those just starting out - novices and hobby artists who are looking to take their interest to the next level. Smith encourages stores to offer classes and a wide range of books. She suggests the Walter Foster series, which features books for all levels and covers both painting and drawing.

For dry media artists, Smith suggests offering a wide array of pads and avoiding the cheapest sketchbooks. Quality is important even for practice, because it's hard to see how media work on the lowest-quality paper. Stocking great pens, pencils and charcoal is a futile if those new to sketching are experimenting with low-grade paper that doesn't support the media, she says.

And although there are places where stores can make compromises, Smith warns against really cheap materials and allowing an art section to become too packed. "Think about the customer - who do you want to attract in the fine arts arena?" she says.

Talking the talk

Artists can become very loyal to their local store, Smith says, so it's important to consider how to attract a new brand of customer to a store that hasn't featured art supplies in the past. Training staff members to speak the language can be essential.

Artists can become very loyal to their local store, Smith says, so it's important to consider how to attract a new brand of customer to a store that hasn't featured art supplies in the past. Training staff members to speak the language can be essential.

So is outreach in the form of workshops and events, classes and programs. Teaming with national vendors can make this easier, and attending trade shows, following social media trends and reading industry magazines can legitimatize a new art section and help staff members further communicate with artists. And becoming part of the local arts community by attending events and contributing a presence can help store owners connect with artists in a world where word-of-mouth is incredibly powerful.

"No advertising or marketing is going to be as important as another artist's recommendation," says Horejs. "Stores looking to feature art supplies are entering a competitive marketplace. Any small supplier is at a bit of a disadvantage with the large stores out there and people moving to ordering online. But they can make up for that with personalization.

"The reason that many artists are willing to pay a little more to shop locally is because of personal relationships, so smaller stores need to cultivate that."

The law of attraction

Because it's more difficult to draw in new customers, it's important to focus on giving existing customers a new experience, too, says Smith, another reason why making a new section interactive with classes, interesting displays, samples and places to experiment with the materials is so valuable.

To attract attention to the new department, Waugman suggests taking advantage of end caps and maximizing the biggest art supply buying seasons - Christmas and back-to-school time. Offering sets during the holiday season is especially helpful because many nonartists might be making gift purchases, he says.

Ultimately, both Smith and Waugaman recommend that craft retailers start simple and focus on quality. "A small store should offers the basics, with maybe a few good periphery items," says Waugaman. "You can't always have something for everyone, so it's really smart to focus on what appeals to the masses."

The right mix

Looking to stock a winning selection of fine art supplies? Stacey Smith, a buyer with Binders Art Supplies in Atlanta, offers the following tips.

  • Focus on quality above quantity.
  • Start with the basics - canvas, paints, brushes, drawing pads and art books.
  • Display paints with a color wheel and drawdowns.
  • Become part of the International Art Materials Association (NAMTA).
  • Follow social media trends.
  • Read trade magazines.
  • Join trade associations and attend trade shows.
  • Meet vendors and establish relationships within the industry.
  • Focus on "good, better, best" art supplies.
  • Offer classes, literature, demos and samples.
  • Become a part of the local art community.


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