We know about companies and artists that compromise their work, hoping to pass off the degraded item as the real thing, because they feel their customers cannot afford to pay full price. While this can be somewhat dishonest, if deception lies at the heart of their enterprise, we know they mostly do it because they think it’s the right thing to do. They assume that customers can’t or won’t pay for a high quality product, so cut corners, make terrible compromises, rush the making and generally don’t finish or polish their work, so that a lower price can be charged. It’s just simple economics, right?
They might be right about that. Customers might be finding it difficult to prioritise spending on your art, especially with disposable incomes being squeezed and real wages stagnant. When discretionary spending must be curtailed, can there be any spending more discretionary than buying a piece of art?
Is the answer to the problem to risk your reputation and your work’s quality, to meet their price point? Is it your job to make your art cheap and cheesy enough that it can be made into a purchase priority? What if in trying to meet a commodity price, your art loses its distinctiveness and is denuded of any purpose or meaning for you, its maker? Are you a factory worker, making identical widgets, as if by machine, or an artist exploring the frontiers of your own creative powers?
We’re changing, biologically speaking. Read this: http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/etsy-economy-biological-event-purpose
The article claims that we’re on the cusp of a great change in society and the economy, because people are increasingly seeking purpose in their working lives. Purpose is becoming the motivation for innovation and growth. In other words, we shouldn’t be trying to ape machine-made goods, by hand-making them badly, we should be preserving the integrity and artistic merit of what we make. Why? Because in the long run, this will prove to be good business. It is the direction the world is going in.
In the short term, however, we’re not there yet. What are some transitional strategies that both preserve your purpose and artistic integrity, while ensuring you don’t starve to death in the mean time?
Surely a better answer than cheapening your output is to make your art worth the price. If your art represents good value at the price charged, whatever that price happens to be, then the bottom line is that it is good value. Granted, it may be more difficult for customers to find the funds to buy your art in the first place, but if it represents good value, as defined by the high quality of your work relative to the price charged, then it’s going to maintain its residual value over a longer period of time. It isn’t going to instantly depreciate like so much that is made and sold in our throwaway society, as if it were some disposable piece of commodity junk.
Another strategy could be for you, as an artist, to enable more of your potential clients to earn enough to afford your product, so that your high quality output easily becomes a purchase priority. If what you make helps people make their own art, then to the extent that your product enables your customers to make their own art more valuable, you succeed. You might need to make your art stay valuable, by its quality and desirability, so that a secondary market is created for your work, enabling people to minimise their depreciation or even make money by selling your work on. Your work needs to be primarily about creating value, not cutting costs.
Wal-Mart and Amazon are both out of time and will soon, I fear, be out of favour. Both would sell more and make more profit if they used the money they’ve already earned (and don’t know how to spend) on simply raising the salaries of their employees. It would be enlightened self interest. Henry Ford knew that enabling his own employees to buy his company’s products was the key to success. An assembly line populated exclusively by robots is not the same as having a workforce comprised of people that are also customers and consumers, as well as being production workers.
I know that when I worked for Amazon and had the benefit of a staff discount, I bought very little from the company I worked for, because I couldn’t afford to do so. Amazonians might not like to hear that, but for me, it was true. Not on the pay I was taking home. Interestingly, some of the people in my chain of management were originally from Wal-Mart, so there is definitely an affinity there. Both companies behave in similar ways.
A quick look at my Amazon purchase history shows that I demonstrably bought more from Amazon when I didn’t actually work for Amazon, both before and after. This is hard data. Amazon loves hard data. They claim to make all their biggest decisions based on hard data. I predict that one day, Amazon and Wal-Mart’s adherence to their current pay policies will be seen as the biggest business strategy blunder ever made. They’re currently not counting the cost to their reputation or people’s willingness to continue to support them, when the zeitgeist is clearly heading toward the purposefulness goal and no longer as strongly toward the profit maximisation motive alone.
Another way that you can support your potential customers’ desire to pay for your art is to offer flexible payment terms. If they can spread the payment over a period of, say, six months, then it may represent less of a blow to their monthly outgoings and move a purchase decision about your work from “out of the question”, to “bearable”. If you are in a position to allow payments to be made in instalments, then you will probably find more buyers willing to sign up.
Sometimes, if your customers are struggling entrepreneurs or start up businesses, then helping the entrepreneur raise enough funding to buy your services, technology, art, creative contribution (or whatever it is) can be a “no brainer” decision. As long as you are assured of payment, then making your work available to them up front, as a means of attracting the funding they need for their larger enterprise can benefit you, as a contributor, too. Just be sure that there is a clear understanding of expectations and of what everybody should get out of the arrangement. This isn’t working for free, but it is taking a risk. It can go wrong, so be warned.
There will always be those deluded enough to believe that the best things should always come to them for free (or nearly free). These people are an obstacle to be avoided. Others know that good value is what they really want, not something for free. Seek these people out and offer them good value.
The race to the bottom is not a race you can win, because somebody will always go lower. Even if it were possible to be the winner of a race to the bottom, is that where you really want to be?