Setting prices: Why lowering them doesn’t work and how to resist the urge

by | Oct 8, 2009

A few years back (okay, 20, but who’s counting?), I participated in a three-day studio tour on beautiful, art-friendly Bainbridge Island. I was insecure about setting prices, so I spent most of the weekend scurrying around, pricing and re-pricing every scarf, sweater, and hats, certain that if only I chose the right price my work would fly off the walls. It didn’t.

That weekend came vividly to mind as I read the following letter from artist Julie Sadler.

I was recently in an outdoor art show and had to give prices to people as they asked for the original works that I have done. Even tho I have gotten a fair price for some of my larger works on the internet, I found that if I asked for my price at the show, people walked. When I went down 50%, items sold.

Does this mean, I am pricing things too high to begin with? Is it better to sell only a few things…at a larger price, or many things at a smaller price??

The simple answer to this question is that you can expect to sell for less when you sell your work on the street, where you cannot control the context, where you are not in charge of the guest list, and where you don’t even choose what your neighbor will be selling.

What to do? It’s not enough to say, “Don’t lower your prices.” Nor is it enough to say, “Stay off the street.” You and others, whether artists or architects, who struggle with what to charge, need three things to master setting prices and get off the price roller coaster.

  1. A platform.
  2. A path.
  3. A practice.

Setting prices begins with a solid platform

Your platform is your “come from,” the context that encompasses the unspoken (but palpable) values that you and your just right customers hold in common. In many respects, it’s your niche. (Did you know that “niche” comes from the Latin for “nest”? How cool is that?)

Your platform (and I’m not entirely satisfied with this word, so if you have ideas, please send them my way) is what makes you visible to your audience and what tells them where you are coming from.

To grasp the significance of platform, consider the difference between Disneyworld and the Louvre, between an Aveda spa and a remote, rustic hot springs.

With all due respect to sidewalk art shows—and my first venue was the local farmer’s market—when you sell art on the street you have left the cathedral for the carnival. It’s no surprise that folks expected to pay less.

Your prospective clients need a path to ongoing relationship

In order to reach your platform, your audience steps onto a path. The nature of that path determines not only the initial exchange, but also the future of the relationship as well as your own sanity and sense of direction and connection. Knowing the path makes setting prices a lot easier.

You see, there is always a path, but until you take charge of the landscaping and maintenance, the path is likely to lead your customers into the wilderness instead of into an ongoing relationship with your work.

The other thing about a path is that it tells you where you (and your work) are headed. Knowing and taking care of your path keeps you on track, reminds you what you are up to, reinforces your choices, and gives you a map and a rationale for setting prices and other key parts of selling your work to the just right audience.

There are a couple of clues in your email, Julie, that tell me your path wants your loving attention.

I was recently in an outdoor art show and had to give prices to people as they asked for the original works that I have done. Even tho I have gotten a fair price for some of my larger works on the internet, I found that if I asked for my price at the show, people walked. When I went down 50%, items sold.

Setting prices doesn’t mean everyone will buy

When you have a path, you know what your prices are and they are not a moving target. If people approach your work, express interest, and don’t care to pay the price that is right for your path, that’s okay. A path is not for just anyone; it exists for the pilgrim, also known as your just-right customer (or customer in training).

Does this mean you have to be rigid about where you show? Not at all. From the hours I spent immersing myself in your work, your blog, your Web site, I got the impression that engaging with people feeds you. If that’s so, by all means take your work to the streets.
But here’s the deal. Make the street fairs a way to get onto the path, not the end of the path. Print greeting cards, mat color reproductions that you can sell for street prices. When people buy these low-end representations of your work (steppingstones along the path), invite them to get on your email list, then talk to them from time to time, inviting them to make pilgrimages (to gallery shows, your Web sites…).

Practice keeps you on the path

Finally, without a practice, you’re bound to fall off the path. In other words, fear, the desire for appreciation and approval, and even your creative nature will distract you from your path without a practice to keep you focused.

I could write a book on practice (in fact, I did—see The Way of the Accidental Entrepreneur). For the sake of this article, here’s a simple practice to support sane pricing.

  • Set prices in advance and take a vow of abstinence from lowering them. Your price is your price is your price. You owe it to the people who have paid full price to honor the value that you and they have already established. Prices go up, not down, unless you are selling a commodity.
  • Use the buddy system to seal your vow. Wherever two or more artists (or architects or bod workers) gather together and agree to hold the line, there is light…
  • In lieu of selling, share yourself with people who are interested in your work. Talk to folks. Ask them questions. Answer their questions. (Tip: listen literally and answer the question they ask, not the question your fears hear. For example, “Why is this so expensive?” is not the same as “How dare you charge so much?”)
  • Work on your platform and path. If you are busy designing and building your dream, you are less likely to be distracted by the nightmare.