I had a nice, juicy apple for my lunch today. It was bought from a supermarket and it had the word “juicy” written on the bag. And it was a juicy apple, but not actually the sweetest apple I have ever tasted. Still, it was a nice apple, all the same.
I’m old enough to remember a time when there wasn’t yet a supermarket in my home town. Buying apples involved going to one of three or four local fruiterers, who knew you on sight, by name. In those days, the fruiterers woke early, bought their stock at the wholesale markets, and then brought their goods to their stores, to put out on display. The food was very fresh. There was no refrigeration. Considering how recently it had been harvested, there wasn’t really the time to refrigerate it. Most of the good stuff would be sold by midday.
If you wanted a nice, juicy apple, you went to the fruiterer you had come to trust, over the course of many small purchases, and simply asked for one. He didn’t have to read the bag, to find the word “juicy” on it. He knew which apples were like that. If he didn’t, he’d cut a few open, with you sampling a wedge of each, until you were satisfied with the apple you were going to choose. That seems like a cost, but in fact it built trust – something you can’t as easily do by writing “juicy”, in attractive letters, on a fancy, printed bag. As a cost of sale, it was miniscule, when averaged over all his sales. The fruiterer knew you would be back for more and were on your way to being a loyal and valued customer.
I find this with so many things, today. If you go into a chain store art supplies barn and ask which green dries up fastest in the tube, the assistant (if you can find one) will either look at you blankly, as if what you had just asked isn’t even a question, or glibly state. “These are the greens we have”. As a piece of information, it is both true and of no relevance or use to you, whatsoever.
Occasionally, one will point you toward the web site of the paint manufacturer, where various grandiose claims of shelf life will be made, without a shred of corroborative evidence. A question like, “what does this green look like, when mixed with that yellow?”, or, “which yellow has the greatest covering power, when thinned with a medium?”, will once again draw a blank, a panicked shuffling toward somewhere else they really need to go, an instruction to consult the web site, a lie or the information that these are the greens and yellows they have for sale.
One of the most popular blog posts I ever wrote is about how to blend acrylic paint. That post regularly gets a handful of readers per day. I wrote it because that was one of those questions I wanted to answer for myself. I wanted to know how to blend acrylic paint and so I had performed some experiments with various brushes and paint manufacturers’ products and wanted to report what I had found. I was pleased to learn that you could blend acrylic paint, but you had to time things more tightly than with oils. I swear I am still going to do a demonstration video on this subject, one of these days.
What people who read that post are, in effect, asking is: “what works?” Spare me the experimentation. Please point me in the direction of success with acrylic paint blending, so that I can attempt it, with a modicum of confidence. Some people become so afraid of wrecking their painting or of getting into a right old mess, that they fear doing the experimentation, I suppose. Others probably want to compare notes and chuckle to themselves about all the tricks I missed, which they already know. In any case, what people come to find is information, which is little different, in character, to asking for a recommendation for a nice, juicy apple, from somebody who might reliably know.
I think this is the danger, when artists’ materials and tools are sold by people who never use them, or when the data you need simply isn’t made available. You can probably think of a thousand situations where you are left in the dark, as a consumer, with nobody to ask, because anybody close would not know. It is inconceivable to believe that the minimum wage salesman on the shop floor would know the difference between USB1 and USB2, or be able to tell you what incompatibility issues might arise. We have been dumbed down.
Once upon a time, you could go into a tool store and ask for a hammer and be presented with half a dozen options. If you wanted to know what the difference was, the assistant could tell you and you could make your choice. This hammer is cheapest, but it’s likely to break, this hammer isn’t weighted very cleverly for swinging all day with (you’ll do your shoulder in), this one puts too much shock back into your hand, but this hammer can be used all day and feels like a Stradivarius, in use and can be passed down to your grandchildren as a working heirloom, in a hundred years’ time. They could tell you, because they knew, because they used the stock, or at least tried them all, or else they were in constant contact with customers, many of which were serious, professional users of tools, that shared their feedback on each one.
Now that nobody knows the answers to the questions, nobody asks them and so you are left to buy one of each and see what happens, or else there is no longer any differentiation and justification for the higher-priced item, because nobody understands what that is, so everybody buys on price. This is why the makers of the best hammer go under.
It seems to me that if you sell anything and you care about it, you ought to be knowledgeable about the products you represent. After all, what you endorse says a lot about you. You are lending your reputation to it. Your information, freely shared with a customer, is a cheap and easy way to build trust and loyalty with your own customers and your good reputation will spread, by word of mouth. As a marketing technique, this remains the Holy Grail. Being able to guide your customers to what will definitely work for them, rather than leaving them to do the guesswork on their own, adds genuine value and enhances your personal brand with them.
You ought to be able to go into an art supply store and ask for the easiest-to-clean brush for oil painting, whose bristles will wear slowly and whose ferrule will not loosen due to wetting of the handle. The assistant should be able to give you the green that mixes best with the particular yellow to make the colour of larch leaves.
When asked, “Which apple is the juiciest?” it pays to know.