Surviving An Art Sales Slump

2017 has been a great year for sales so far. We had a record spring, and sales have stayed strong even into June, despite the Arizona heat. I’ve been in the art business since the early 1990’s, however, and I’ve learned that one should never get too comfortable in the art market. Just when things seem to be going your way, along comes a slow-down, and if you’re  not prepared, a drop in sales can cause real problems.

If you’ve been in the art business for any length of time, you’ve probably experienced a slump yourself. I’m not talking about an overall drop in the market (like the one we experienced during the years following the Great Recession), nor am I talking about a general lack of exposure and sales opportunities. Those are different issues altogether. What I’m talking about is a sudden decline (or disappearance!) of sales when things had been humming along and sales had been coming at a steady pace. No matter how you try, or how hard you work, you can’t seem to get the next sale to happen.

Two or three days without sales are to be  expected in a gallery setting, but longer periods, especially during a busy season, are more unusual. That said, they do happen from time to time.

By the simple law of averages and the random nature of business, you are unlikely to have a 100% consistent stream of customers and sales. Some days are busy, others are not. The law of averages also means that from time to time, the slow days are going to pile up together and give you the dreaded slump.

During the first few years that I had the gallery, sales slumps  nearly killed me. I would wake up in a cold sweat at night. I would lose my appetite. I would pace. I would panic.

“IS ANYTHING EVER GOING TO SELL AGAIN!?” I would want to shout.

If you’ve experienced a slump, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Over the years, I like to think that I have become more rational about sales slumps. Experience has taught me that if we stay on course with our marketing and sales efforts, every slump ends. I’ve also learned some tricks that have helped us navigate slow periods.

Keep Working

It’s amazing how quickly you can become accustomed to a lack of sales. You start to think of it as the norm. Pretty soon you start to feel like you might as well not bother trying because nothing is working anyway. Resist this feeling with all your power. A vicious cycle begins when you start believing that you’re never going to sell anything again. When you believe it, you stop trying as hard, and so you are less likely to make sales, which reinforces your feeling that it’s not worth trying. Keep following up, keep working!

Think Back to Previous Slump-Ending Sales

Knowing that sales slump happen, that they are a normal part of the business cycle can help alleviate the panic. I’ve create a mental catalog of sales that happened at the end of previous slumps. I find that thinking back to these sales serves as a great reminder that “this too shall pass.”

Heat up the Cash Register

If we can just get the cash register to ring, even in a small way, the slump feeling disappears

I’m not a mystic, and I’m not superstitious, but I’ve found that sometimes, if we can just get the cash register to ring, even in a small way, the slump feeling disappears, and the cycle is broken. Sometimes even running a $150 sale can help make it feel like the spell has been broken. Alright, maybe I am a little bit superstitious . . .

Don’t do Something Desperate

While it is important to get the cash register ringing, I would discourage you from taking drastic measures to restart your sales. While you do want to continue doing a good follow-up job with potential customers, you don’t want to become a pest. I also discourage the use of fire sales to try and revive business. A sale may indeed get the cash register ringing, but you run the risk of training your buyers not to buy your work at regular prices, but instead to wait for the next big sale. In a way, you are encouraging the next slump!

Build a Rainy Day Fund

Once you’ve had some experience, the psychological impact of a slump can be greatly reduced, but if you don’t have a savings reserve, the financial impact on your cash flow can cause very real problems. I know it’s a challenge when sales aren’t at a level that you would like to see, but try to set aside a regular percentage of your sales to put in savings.

Artist Slumps can be Even More Discouraging

As a gallery owner I have the advantage of having a high volume of traffic and sales. This means that my business cycles are probably shorter than yours.  As an artist, your typical time between sales may be significantly longer, which also means that a slump for you may drag on for more than just a few weeks, it may last for months. You are going to have to be even more vigilant in your efforts to fight the effects and overcome a sales slump. The same principles still apply though. Keep producing; keep marketing. Instead of giving into the urge to give up, use a slump as an opportunity to build your inventory and to redouble your marketing efforts.

Is it a Slump or a Lack of Marketing?

As I mentioned before, a slump is an unusual drought in an otherwise fertile sales cycle. If you aren’t having consistent sales, or if the slumps start outnumbering the booms, you need to be focused on increasing your marketing efforts and boosting your exposure. If this is the case, it may be time to sign up for more shows or approach more galleries (may I humbly recommend a great book on that topic . . . )

 The Flip Side of Slumps

While the law of averages says that you are going to have slumps, the flip side to this is that you are also going to have booms. Just as there will be times when no one is buying, there are also going to be times when everyone is buying. As I mentioned before, be sure to set aside reserves during the booms. It’s also important to remember that if the slumps aren’t your fault, the booms probably aren’t either. Don’t let yourself get cocky!

How do you End Sales Slumps?

What have you done to break sales slumps? How do you get through them? What would you tell a fellow-artists who is in a slump? Share your thoughts and experience in the comments below.

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