When I started hand-painting holiday ornaments 30 years ago, it was just a fun side business that helped support my young, growing family. But when the radio station where I worked was sold and my job “downsized,” my husband encouraged me to turn my hobby into a full-time business.
It was make-or-break time. We had two young sons and a mortgage, so I rolled up my sleeves. It turned out that painting and selling ornaments wasn’t the hard part. The hard part was turning my singular seasonal product business—ornaments—into year-round cash flow.
I read every marketing book I could get my hands on and started thinking outside the box. Here are best practices I’ve learned along the way about building a successful year-round business around a seasonal product:
Develop multiple income streams
Craft fairs weren’t going to generate enough income to support my family, so a friend took me to my first wholesale show in Philadelphia in 1995. I brought 12 ornaments in six different colors with six different designs. I told retail buyers they could get any design in any color they wanted.
The buyers hesitated to work with me at first because they thought I was giving away the farm by providing free boxes for every ornament. However, my name was on every box—which was great branding for me—and I bought the boxes at a really great bulk price. I also had little cards printed up that retailers could set up in their store displays that introduced me to their customers.
As a big incentive, though, I told them that they could send back whatever they didn’t sell that year and receive a credit for the next season’s orders. That return policy has kept them coming back every year.
In 1998, I went to a wholesale show in Atlanta, and that’s when I got my first catalog placement. Pretty soon I had orders coming in from all over the country, and I got into more and bigger catalogs. That’s when my business really started to take off.
Branching out during the off-season
If you want to run a year-round “seasonal” business, you have to think outside the box about how to apply your craft to other areas. For example, one of my first ventures beyond craft shows was to focus on gift shops along the Eastern Seaboard because these businesses tend to ramp up in the spring, just when my business hits the doldrums.
To figure out how to engage this market, I drove to the Jersey Shore and just sat on the beach for a day. Watching the ocean gave me inspiration for my designs, and watching the people helped me understand who my customers would be, and what they would buy. From there I developed a line of coastal designs for my ornaments and built relationships with shop owners, who have become incredibly loyal customers.
Spring and summer are also when I take customized orders. People will want an ornament with their new house or cottage painted on it. I work with a nearby town painting an annual series of ornaments featuring a different building every year. Custom work is more time consuming, but it commands a higher price.
I also started working on more “evergreen” designs featuring wedding or baby shower themes. Those have become some of my biggest sellers because I can customize them by adding names just before shipping them out.
I also work very hard at marketing to train my customers to shop early and to appreciate that my items are hand-painted. This means they take longer to create, so they need to order early to ensure that they won’t be disappointed. I collect emails from almost every sale and use Mailchimp to regularly keep in contact with my customers.
Selling through online marketplaces
I had my own website for a long time, but when Amazon launched its Handmade at Amazon site to compete with Etsy, I shifted my focus to selling through these marketplaces. It was slow-going at first, but I joined some Facebook user groups and learned tips on how to climb to the top of the page when people are searching for your product.
First, I learned to think about the words I use to describe my products. When I started on Etsy, I used technical descriptions of my products. For example, “3-inch, round glass ornaments.” But now I think about the words customers actually use in their searches, such as “Christmas ornaments” or “wedding gifts.” Second, I pay to have professional images taken of my products because I know they stand out amid all the low-quality product shots on these marketplaces.
I’ve also worked to understand my online customers’ expectations. Buyers on online marketplaces expect service to be on par with what they receive from major online retailers. If an order comes in before 2 p.m., I have to ship that day—so I only offer products that I have in stock through the marketplaces. I answer all of my calls and emails for my online sales personally. This enhances a customer’s experience by creating a connection between them and the creator of their family memory.
Of course, all of these additional sales avenues don’t mean that I have the same amount of work year-round. I work seven days a week in November and December. On the bright side, though, I love what I do, and I get to celebrate Christmas every day of the year.
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