Discussion: Are Promotional Sales Appropriate in the Art World?

Recently, I received an email from an artist announcing her “End of the Year Holiday Sale.” According to the email, this is the fifth consecutive year she has held the sale. All of the available work would be marked down by 30% to her email subscribers and social media followers.

My initial reaction to this kind of promotion is usually negative – I feel the art business is not one that lends itself well to this kind of effort. I never have sales of this kind for inventory in the gallery, and I discourage this approach whenever the discussion comes up in my frequent conversations with artists.

This artist’s email brought the topic to mind again, and I am one who always likes to question my own perceptions and assumptions. Is my position sound? Have I formed my position reasonably, or have I overlooked important factors? I’m hoping you’ll help me decide.

Here’s my position on the topic in a nutshell – I can think of three main reasons why I don’t hold sales.

1. Promotional sales often don’t lead to more sales activity.

I don’t believe promotional sales are effective in the art business. Part of this is theory, and part from observation. Let’s start with my theory: I find that art is a unique product in that it simply is not a commodity item. Each piece of art is unique – there will never be another – and often relatively costly.

When a potential buyer is considering whether or not to buy a piece of art they have to decide first if they love the work, and second if they feel it is worth the asking price. If the client loves the work, the second part of that question is usually pretty easy to answer. If you truly love the art and trust the artist you will feel the work is worth the asking price (whether or not you can afford the asking price is another question entirely) .

If the client doesn’t love the art, then the discussion is over and it’s not as if your promotional sale price reduction is going to entice the potential buyer to fall in love – love doesn’t work that way!

Your job is to get the artwork in front of the client in order to give them that opportunity to fall in love. Your marketing efforts should be centered around this, rather than around a gimmick to get your client to act now.

That’s my theory on the effectiveness of promotional sales, but I have also had conversations with artists who have tried sales events with very little positive effect. None of the artists I have spoken to on this subject report that promotional sales are a big part of their overall, long-term success.

2. There is a very real risk that you will devalue your artwork by offering it at this kind of discount.

Because the value of art is somewhat of a mystery (the real value of art is in the eye of the beholder, and the price is therefore somewhat arbitrary) you can very easily undermine the value of your art by offering it in a discount sale. If you discount the art a buyer may simply wonder if the original price was too high in the first place.

Also, how likely is that buyer to ever want to buy something from you at full price again? Not very  Once they have tasted this forbidden fruit, I can’t imagine you ever getting them ever coming back to buy at full price. Worse, they might say to themselves “If I can get this artist’s work at 30% off, perhaps I can get it for even less.”

[Please note that this is a different issue than whether or not it is ever appropriate to negotiate the price when trying to close a sale.]

3. Sales can train buyers to delay their purchasing impulse.

Similarly, once a potential buyer knows you are open to the concept of sales, they now have a strong incentive to put off their buying decision.

“I like this painting,” our potential buyer might say to herself, “but it’s October, and I know this artist always holds an end of the year sale; maybe I should wait to buy it until then.”

This would be especially true if the sale is a regular event for you and you are good at getting the word out to your buyers.

This is just a glimpse into my thought process on the matter, but I would love to hear from you, especially those of you who look at the issue differently than I do. Have you ever held a promotional sale to boost your sales activity? If so, how effective was it, and how did you successfully conduct the sale? Do you feel adamant that an artist should never hold this kind of sale?

Share your input, experience, opinion and wisdom in the comments below.

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