Selling Art Is Like Selling Potato Chips


I come from the business world. In over thirty years of business planning and marketing I have had the opportunity to work with many successful (as well as my share of not so successful) startups to some of the world’s biggest and best known brands. These successful companies had a lot more in common than you might think. What they had in common was a grasp for the basics of marketing, consumer behavior and a good plan of action with the management to execute it.

art-potatochipsWhen I was first asked to develop and teach the course Artrepreneurship at the Center for Innovation I was excited but a bit apprehensive – I went to business and economics school not art school! So here is my premise – selling art (or anything for that matter) is like selling potato chips, you do the basic things, you do them right and you have a chance to succeed. Don’t do them and you are set for failure.

In preparing for my first Artrepreneurship class I knew I needed to get immersed in the art world and learn from successful artists, gallery owners, collectors and others in this realm. As I told them about my Artrepreneurship course they all were excited and said that this was something that was desperately needed.

To a person, each one asked what my philosophy on selling art was. It went something like this, “I don’t mean to be rude or offensive but to me selling art is like selling potato chips….” With the first few people I tried this on I made sure that I was far enough away from them and rocking on my back foot just in case I had to get out of the way of a punch – it never happened. All agreed that people in the arts need business skills to succeed!

Ok, let’s look at a few of the ways selling art is like selling potato chip and a few ways where the similarity is a bit less obvious.

  • You have to understand your market and your consumer (art collector, investor, gallery…). Why they buy, how they buy and what funds do they have to buy.
  • Your product fulfills a need. That need could be to make a home or office a better space, a gamble that the purchase will become more valuable in the future or they “just like it”. People buy potato chips because they like to eat them with their meals, just have a snack, they taste good, or eating them makes them feel good.
  • In market research we have a term called “incidence”. It goes something like this, x % of the US population eats potato chips, y % of the population buys art. You should be able to figure out that the incidence of people eating potato chips is probably a lot larger than those buying art.
  • There is a lot of competition in the potato chip market. Just look down the potato chip aisle in the supermarket to see all of the different brands, some national, some local, and probably some that are only available in your local area. And there are plenty of choices: plain, salted, unsalted, fried, baked, flavored, big bags, small bags, organic and the list goes on and on. Your art is no different; your consumer has a lot of choices as well.
  • Let’s go back to the potato chip aisle at the supermarket; actually it is called the “Snack Food” aisle. Not only can you get potato chips but you have the choice of pretzels, tortilla chips, vegetable chips and other salty snacks. Potato chips are competing for your snack dollar every time you walk down that aisle.  Your art is no different. Depending on why your customer buys your art they probably have many choices available to them. It could be a sculpture, a flower arrangement, another type of investment, or even a new coat of paint or a large screen TV for a wall.
  • The money consumers have to spend can be divided into two groups, necessary spending and discretionary spending. Necessary spending is for food, clothing and shelter, taxes and what is left over is called discretionary. We can use our discretionary funds for things like vacations, luxury items, entertainment or even choose not spend them and save. For most consumers I would not put potato chips in the realm of discretionary spending, for many they are a necessity to go along with their sandwich. For most consumers I would put art in the discretionary spending category. The problem with discretionary spending is that in an economic slump there is less of it.

Whether you are selling art or potato chips you need to develop strategies for:

  • Targeting your market – Who should you concentrate your art marketing efforts on?
  • Understanding your customers – Have you painted a picture of what your customers look like?
  • Understanding your competition – Who is your competition and what can you learn from them?
  • Developing effective strategies for:
    • Products Offered – What products do you sell and what are the benefits you offer?
    • Advertising – Are your advertising efforts reaching your target market and are they effective?
    • Public Relations – Is the word out about you and your art?
    • Pricing – Does your pricing allow you to make a fair profit and fund your business?
    • Distribution – Are you selling your art in the proper venues or channels?
    • Promotions – Do you have special promotions which can help increase awareness or help sell slow moving items?
    • Merchandising & Packaging – Do you package your art in a way that attracts customers and builds your brand?

The bottom line(s)…

There are many things that an art business has in common with all businesses in general. Make it a point to study other businesses to discover what makes them successful and see if you can apply these ideas to your art or creative business.  There is a lot you can learn from selling potato chips.  Good Luck!

By Neil McKenzie

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