April 3, 2017
By Nancy Sanders
Selling art supplies might be a given for fine art museum shops, but all sorts of museum shops should consider adding this product category to their sales plan assortments. People of all ages can use some extra creativity in their lives, and activities that encourage drawing, painting and photography can fill an important need.
When I first started buying for the Gallery Shops’ children’s department in 2002, our store didn’t have a huge number of SKUs or art supply vendors. Our products could be found in mainstream stores, and we struggled to compete on retail pricing. In addition, I was pretty particular about what quality I expected. Children need good-quality supplies; otherwise, their frustration when markers lose ink too quickly or when pencil points break at the slightest pressure might be discouraging. And what about all of the young adults and adults who came into our galleries and left feeling inspired to create art—what did we offer them in the way of art supplies beyond student-grade media?
These were areas I addressed when I evaluated my options for business growth, and over the years, the category of art supplies has increased from 20 percent to 50 percent of our department’s overall sales. Here are some of my recommendations for how you can achieve similar growth.
Focus on Subject
The most important task is to find art supply products with a subject matter that is important to your mission. For example, shops in zoos or natural history museums can offer coloring books that feature mammals, invertebrates or reptiles. Add in coloring pencils and blank sketchbooks, and you have a multi-unit sale. Botanical garden shops could sell en plein air (outdoor) sketching kits, small portable watercolor paint sets or Sunprint® kits, which give users a fun way to preserve botanical specimens collected at home while learning about cyanotypes.
Art museums can target their products, too. If your museum’s permanent collection contains a lot of portraits, for example, consider art sets that have pencils or pastels in a broad range of skin tone colors and layer in art technique books teaching portraiture.
Pick and Choose
One thing to remember is that you need not have every kind of art supply from every vendor. I strive to have at least three price points in the most popular media: Good, Better and Best. For example, in sketching pencils, we offer a portable student-grade set in a plastic case for storage at the $10.95 to $12.95 retail price point range; a metal boxed set of 12 in the next level up, say at $24; and then a 24- or 36-unit set at $35 to $40 and up, depending on the vendor and level of quality. (You might want to have only one type of each media for the littlest ones—one set of crayons, one type of watercolor set, one brush set, one type of pencil sharpener, etc.)
I found that certain types of media, such as oil paints, weren’t good sellers, since the entry skill level is higher and the price points are more expensive. For all media, I never buy open stock; rather, I always select the kits that are self-contained in unique packaging or permanent storage tins.
Think about Function
When you evaluate products, sample the different types. Sharpen the pencils to make sure the wood doesn’t splinter, the pencil points don’t break or the pigment doesn’t fall right out. Play around with the water-soluble coloring pencils (which are fun and sell very well). Make sure you have sketch pads with paper of the appropriate weight for various media. The size of the packaging or kit does matter when your customers are traveling, so consider having a sign that mentions that you offer shipping near the display of any larger-sized items.
One note about product development and branding: When it comes to art supplies, think long and hard about the quality of the supplies going into that kit with your name on it. Not many of us can afford to invest in huge amounts of the best-quality kits from the oldest established art-supply manufacturers, but be wary of branding poor-quality supplies. Many vendors offer customizable art supplies with relatively low minimums and good quality, so test, compare and contrast before you make the leap.
Partner with Vendors
Take advantage of your vendors’ expertise and partner with your sales reps. Our reps have conducted educational sessions with our store staff during which everyone gets hands-on learning that will help them sell more product. I’ve negotiated good discounts based on increased volumes and kept to the MSRPs, even in light of the online discounting so prevalent in the marketplace. Your visitors will pay full price because they are in your store and know that they are supporting your organization.
You can easily achieve margins of 58 percent to 60 percent if you plan your buys to coincide with the seasons. Many art supply vendors have back-to-school, winter, spring and summer promotions that will give you an additional 10 percent to 20 percent off wholesale prices. Start small—perhaps with 15 to 20 carefully selected SKUs. Try attending the NAMTA art materials trade show if it is in a city near you or if your travel budget allows. You will be amazed at what is out there.
Nancy Sanders is a Buyer at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.