April 19, 2011

Materials & Supplies: In-person on Online? How about alternatives?

For the crafter, jewelry designer, artist, or any other artisan in the handmade marketplace--where you obtain raw materials is significant.  Whether you're looking to support your local economy, or towards the resources of the global market, whether price drives your business decisions or uniqueness, your source for supplies has important consequences.

In this article, I categorize supply sources as either in-person or online, and I am framing my examples from the vantage point of a jewelry and accessory designer, because that is what I am! There are advantages and disadvantages to both, which you as a crafter or artisan must weigh with your needs.  Theese needs may be different if you are frafting for pleasure or business.  You business needs will even change over time--issues such as turnaround, cost, and cash flow, and being able to establish reliable personal  contacts with suppliers will be factors at different stages of your handmade business.

If you've always done what you currently do, there may be pros & cons you haven't even thought about.  If you're just starting out and have to watch every penny pent on supplies, these considerations may help you get the most bang for your buck.  As a long-time personal crafter transitioning to the handmade market business, I have, and still do, struggle with the limitations of a fledgling small business and its baby budget.  I've experimented.  sometimes things worded out, sometimes I've been screwed.  All in a days work!

Advantages of Buying In-Person
  • Being able to see, feel, & smell
    • Your craft relies on appealing to the senses of your consumer to be sold, right?  If you sell handmade soap--your soap must have a great smell;  if you make jewelry, those beads must  look and feel just so for the piece you have in mind.  Different finishes change as you move them in the light, escaping even the best online photographs. 
    • Certain materials have predictable qualities such as heft.  If it doesn't feel like what it says it is, you (and your customer) may infer a lack of quality or feel the item was misrepresented.  For example, if I see a strand of metallic-looking beads, and upon picking them up, feel they are as light as plastic, I know they aren't solid metal.  If the packaging says "metal-plated," even if I saw them online and knew they were plated, I could not tell just how cheap they felt in-person.  
    • You know what you are getting--you can inspect the packaging, read all the fine print, see where the item was manufactured, see what the exact contents are (may be important for allergy considerations) and make sure that all the pieces are in-tact and tarnish-free before cashing out. While you can work with online retailers to fix problems such as broken parts, it is still time and effort consuming, not to mention disappointing, particularly if you were ready to start your project.
    • You can check size, color shade, texture, and other factors next to pieces you've already selected to see how they will go together.  The caveat on online retailers that your computer resolution may affect the color representation you see is there for a reason.  If you need THAT EXACT shade of blue for your work, you can not be certain until you see the potential material for yourself.
  • Having a direct person to go to face-to-face to right wrongs.  
    • Nothing is more frustrating than going in circles trying to resolve a consumer problem to no avail.  Even if you get a run around in a store, you are still dealing with a person, right in front of you, who will have to be willing to go toe to toe with you and refuse to help fix something.  It's far easier to give an e-blowoff!

Disadvantages of Buying In-Person 
  • Cost
    • With retail stores you get retail pricing, which you will have to pass along to your customers in order to remain financially afloat.  This can affect both your competitiveness on the market, and the quantities and types of material you can buy at one time.
    • You may get less available quality for the same price due to the overhead of the retailer.
  • Selection
    • Retail suppliers offer a limited selection by the very nature of their space.  Not only is the selection limited, but it has been seen by the general public.  Big box retailers may have even featured their supplies in national ads, making them seem redundant to the consumer.  While this doesn't matter much if you are in the market for acrylic paint or essential oils, it does matter if you need beads or fabric.
    • The store may not have or be able (or willing) to get enough to meet a project need.
    • You may wind up settling for what is available rather than what is perfect.

Advantages of the Online Wholesaler
  • The advantages are avoiding the disadvantages of retail:  cost & selection
    • You can tap into a virtual infinity of potential--for materials such as beads, pendants, fabrics, paper goods and more, a quick perusal of eBay can elucidate more different types of "stuff" than you could imaging.  If you can think of it, you can probably buy it. 
    • You can buy at wholesale prices and avoid the retail overhead markup
  • Electronic tracking
    • You can usually order as much as you need, and your purchases are electronically coded so if you need some more of those periwinkle lampwork beads with the swirlies, you can go to your previous orders and the SKU info is still right there. 
    • There is an electronic "paper" trail of your supply costs, which may be more easy for you to maintain for business tax purposes than remembering to keep your paper receipts (and keeping them away from light & moisture).  
Disadvantages of Online Wholesale
  • Playing the Tax & Tariff Evading Game
    • Getting super cheap product from overseas may involve hidden expenses--such as inflated shipping charges, or import taxes or tariffs depending on where you reside.  A favorite method on eBay is for wholesalers to charge you a few cents for the item, then put the real cost of the item into the shipping charge.  This is a tacit understanding between the buyer and shipper that they will reduce their tax liability (they are only exporting something with a marked value of 99-cents) and you may also take advantage of this false valuation if your state/nation charges import tax.  However, you may run into a plethora of problems later on, especially if you ever get audited.  There is a limit to how much shipping and handling charges you can declare as business losses, and those are refunded at a different rate than raw materials.  Even more problematic, I've received numerous packages from online wholesalers in Hong Kong, China, and Japan which are marked & invoiced as  "gift," also to elude taxes both outgoing and incoming.  But could you be putting yourself in a pickle by claiming all these "gifts" are really business expenses?  Maybe, maybe not.  Depends on who is looking over your return.  

  • Sketchy or misrepresented product descriptions or shop policies
    • Product descriptions may have language or (worse) auto-translation problems.  You may not be able to get satisfactory answers to specific questions due to a language barrier (which may also be the excuse later for why you can't get your money back.)
    • You may make your own erroneous assumptions based on photographs
    • You may run into problems making returns (if you even can) or find yourself chalking unsuccessful orders as business losses.  
  • Time
    • International orders may take a long time. Most eBay wholesalers tell you to wait at least 30 days before they'll even begin to address issues of non-receipt, and then usually tell you to wait some more.  Even at best, you're looking at a couple  weeks to receive what you've ordered, and that is assuming everything was alright with the order.  
The Alternatives

Fortunately, it doesn't have to be black or white.  You can make both online and in-person supply purchases depending on your project needs, budget, and risk tolerance.  If you score some cheap deals online, it may not matter if once in awhile you get screwed out of a minimal investment.  If you need something specific which you only feel comfortable seeing and touching, you can head to the store.

But there are even more options. 
The Handmade Market!

 If you are a hand-crafter, you are already part of a whole community of artisans who can fill just about any need.  Handmade marketplaces like Etsy and ArtFire have sections devoted to artisans who make things you need: from beads, pendants, cabochons, and any number of different jewelry making supplies,  to raw materials that can supply artisans of other domains.  Independent artisans are almost always happy to build for you whatever you need in a timeframe you can work with.  Building relationships with suppliers in the handmade market can not only show support for the community in which you also belong but the possibilities for networking, cross-promotion, and special partnerships are numerous.  For example:
  • Can you cross-promote?  Can you post on your online site how these stunning feature beads came from a fellow hand-crafter and can she post an image of the must-have necklace you made with them on her site?  How about Facebook Fan Pages?  Blogs? 
  • Can you work out special arrangements?  You'll buy X amount from her, guaranteed over Y amount of time, and she'll cut you a Z% discount?
Check out Etsy suppliers here: http://www.etsy.com/category/supplies?ref=fp_ln_supplies
on ArtFire: http://www.artfire.com/supplies

Learn a New Craft

The last alternative to conventional suppliers I will touch on here is...to learn how to make what you need!  You are a creative and innovative person or you wouldn't be interested in arts & crafts.  Even if it's not your thing...yet...you can delve into manufacturing your own raw materials.  If you are a jeweler, you can explore the many things you can do with polymer clay:  liquid polymer clay, waterslide transfers, foils, tints, powders, stamps, texturizers and more are available and affordable to the novice.  The internet has closed the gap between those who know how and those who want to.  You can find instructional videos, online tutorials, help forums, and more to support your new creative endeavor.  Then there's always the library, where you can stock up on books that cover numerous styles, techniques, and methods..for FREE!  

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