A great way to become a better seller of artwork is to go through a challenging purchase in full consciousness, so I like to assign my students the hypothetical challenge of selecting a domestic product that they have never owned and know nothing about. The point of the assignment is to make my students hyper-aware of how they buy; what criteria they use to make their selection; what triggers their purchase; what they are seeking when they make their decision.
In many cases, my students will realize that what they want from their purchase is an emotion—often, that emotion is confidence or fulfillment. They want to feel happy with their decision; that they paid a fair price and that their product will last.
It is very rewarding when my students reveal a certain joy/surprise in the revelation that what appears to be a search for a product is actually a search for a positive emotional experience. Whether you have to buy something essential or something optional, it is valuable for us to understand what we are truly seeking when we shop. By becoming a conscious buyer, we can be much better sellers because we can address the emotional needs of our buyers when we are talking with them.
Many of us know this to be true when we think about it. If you have used the term “retail therapy,” whether you realize it or not, you have referenced the emotional drive behind many purchases. “Retail therapy” refers to the action of shopping as a methodology for feeling better emotionally, and whereas feeling better is part of many purchases, it is of vital importance when we make non-essential purchases like art.
Art is bought for many reasons: to add beauty to an environment, to create an impression of sophistication, to create atmosphere, as an investment, to match a sofa, to fill blank space, as a gift, etcetera. But behind a desire to create a lovely environment, is a desire for pride; behind a desire to impress is often a feeling of insecurity and a desire for recognition. When we understand these things, we can subtly address them when we are talking about our art.
When my furnace broke down. I used the magazine Consumer Reports to help me choose what furnace to buy. By buying a furnace that they recommended as a result of the objective testing and evaluation of both the product and its warranties, I gained confidence in my decision. When I bought a car, I did the same thing, plus I asked my friends who know a lot about cars for advice.
A car is a good example because it delivers the other desirable better than a furnace: satisfaction. A car is an object from which we can easily derive satisfaction because we are often in it ,or with it, when our friends first see it. And when they do, they either politely or enthusiastically express their admiration for your new car. Other people are our richest resource for satisfaction; the compliments and approval of our friends are a very fulfilling part of life. When people purchase art, they are taking a huge risk so the approval of friends is very important.
Buying art is risky for people because they cannot do research like we can when we buy a furnace or a car. That is why they are often so insecure when purchasing art. They do not know what is “good,” and they do not know what criteria to use to give them the confidence they need to buy your art. That is why they want to know what it is “about;” they want a narrative, something they understand about your work so that they can get satisfaction from their purchase.
The art they buy will go in their homes and all the people who see it will like it because they have to. Because they are friends or polite strangers, and because they have been invited into a home, their compliments do not bring the art buyer satisfaction because he or she knows that the guests must be polite. It is only when someone objective loves a purchased work that the owner gets satisfaction; and were a respected curator to see and highly praise the work, the owner would get immense satisfaction.
For most of your buyers, the confidence they need to purchase your work comes from you—your sales history, your reviews, your testimonials—or it comes from their friends who shop with them and share a love of your work. But the satisfaction sought by most of our buyers comes from the narrative attached to your artwork.
Because they know their friends have to be polite, they get their fulfillment from being knowledgeable about the work and you and sharing that knowledge with their guests. That is why narrative beyond the formality and distance of an artist statement is so important; you must give your buyers the anecdotes they need to achieve their fulfillment. That is why I advocate that artist blogs should be very focused on the customer and their needs. If you make posts titled with the names of your work that reveal your inspirations, motivations, perspiration, etc. in making the work, your buyers will derive all the narrative they need from it.
You have to give your customers confidence and satisfaction. That is what they really want. When you are talking to them, when you are blogging, on your websites, in your advertising and in your newsletters remember this: give your customers the stories they need; be generous of thought. It's the stories about your work, its inspiration, process, techniques and the stories of your life that owners want. By repeating your stories to their friends and guests, they appear knowledgeable and sophisticated and that gives them pride.