Shaping Sales of Clay and Modeling Materials
by Kari Anderson
“Working with clay is a psychological remedy for stress,” says Bruner Barrie, owner of Sculpture House, a manufacturer of ceramic and sculpting tools and materials. “Sitting at a potter’s wheel and throwing a pot is similar to Karate. You have to focus all of your attention on what you’re doing, and you can’t talk to people while you’re doing it.” Bruner’s passion for clay is obvious. “It’s so much fun!” he adds.
Bruner explains that clay breaks down into three main categories: oil-based, water-based and self-hardening. “Oil-based clay is used mainly for sculpting while water-based clays are for pottery. Self-hardening clays are great for kids because they don’t require firing.
“If you’re selling clay to schools and it has to be fired, I recommend that the cone be ‘06.’ An ‘06’ cone means that the clay can be fired within the timeframe of a school day. This is important because teachers are obviously limited as to the amount of time they can devote to firing their students’ works.
“The basic colors of clay are red and white. Sometimes you’ll see buff or brown clay, but white is by far the most popular color because it takes every glaze that is put on it,” says Bruner.
Clays that don’t require firing are becoming hot sellers. “We move tons of self-hardening clays,” Bruner states. “The reason these are so popular is because you don’t have to know how to fire them, so a novice can do it. The thing to be aware of is that unless a clay is fired, it won’t vitrify, meaning it won’t hold water, so objects made with self-hardening clays are generally used for decorative purposes rather than functional.”
Cross-selling is key to any area within an art materials store, including clay and modeling. Bruner points out that trimming tools, modeling tools, armatures, armature wire, and pottery glazes are all possibilities for add-on sales. “Glazes almost fall into a category in and of themselves,” says Bruner. “Shopping for glazes is similar to being in a paint store because there are so many choices out there.”
Ceramics vs. sculpture
Bruner directed me to Marc Fields, owner of the Compleat Sculptor, a retail store in New York City, for some expert advice on selling clay. As the name indicates, Marc’s store is devoted to meeting the needs of sculptors from beginning to end. “I don’t delve into the ceramics side in my business. Instead I focus totally on sculpture and provide my customers with complete one-stop shopping. If I got into ceramics, it would mean adding potter’s wheels, different tools, glazes, and kilns. I don’t have room for all of that in my store, and if I can’t give my customers everything they’d need, then I don’t want to branch into it at all.”
Marc explains that to him, the difference between sculpture and ceramics is the purpose of the finished product. “Ceramics is functional. You’re producing a pot, a bowl, a vase – something you can use. Sculpture is something you do just for the hell of it.”
More modeling materials
While clay is an obvious modeling material, other substances are often used. Plaster, epoxy-based clay, high-particulate-matter wax (such as Castilene), and other waxes such as beeswax, paraffin, and microcrystalline waxes all fall under the category of modeling materials. “Microcrystalline waxes are often used in foundry work and Castilene is great for making toy prototypes because of the detail that can be used,” he comments.
Because most modeling materials do not produce a durable finished product, the need for reproduction materials creates cross-selling opportunities. Marc explains, “Modeling materials may shrink or crack over time. Because they’re not that durable, artists will often create a mould of their finished sculpture using rubber compounds and use it many times to make durable versions of the original piece.” When making a prototype, for example, the initial sculpture is only intended to be a stepping stone to the finished product. In other cases, casting is done to preserve an artist’s original creation by making a non-degradable version of it.
Books and tools are obvious cross-selling options. “We sell books on materials, methods and sculptors,” says Marc, who calls himself a “tool junkie.” “There are so many tools here that my customers call this the ‘candy store.’”
Customers at the Compleat Sculptor range from beginning users to seasoned professionals. Kids, graduate students, prototype makers, interior designers, architects, and theatrical special effects artists make up his clientele. “Every three months, the police department buys clay to use in target practice. I’ve also gotten a lot of business from the restoration industry. I’m located 10 blocks from Ground Zero, and there’s been a tremendous amount of restoration taking place within the city. I’ve seen more sales of kids’ products, as parents spend more time with their children. Another customer trend has been an increase in what I call ‘quality of life sculptors.’ These are people who may have been laid off or are just seeking a more relaxed lifestyle.”
While Marc says his store resembles a warehouse, he admits that having a smart-looking display can boost his sales. “I rely on manufacturer displays. If they show the products well, give easy access to the merchandise and look pretty, the sales do well. My theory is that anything you’re paying attention to is going to move,” he says. While he recently added display cases near his checkout area, Marc notes that impulse buying is better on products that customers have easier access to.
Grabbing their attention
Jane Marzano, manager of Dick Blick’s in Schaumburg, Illinois, says that the attention-grabbers in her store are the potter’s wheels. She has two of them for sale, positioned near her clay section. Plans for pottery demonstrations are in the works and will take place right in the front of her store.
Jane carries an extensive array of clay and modeling materials. “A big selection of tools help us,” she says. “If a customer has to go to more than one place to get what they want, then they’ll be less likely to come back. I order what’s requested and focus on what my customers want. Even though we’re part of a chain, the clientele varies from store to store, so we don’t necessarily offer the exact same product mix at every location.”
The trend that she’s seeing in her store is large-quantity purchases. “People are buying clay in bulk. I sell 100 pounds to just about each person who buys from me,” she notes.
Mat boards are a popular cross-selling item for Jane. “A customer will create a design and then put it on a mat board to dry,” she explains.
Jane displays her clay and modeling tools so that they are easily accessible. A description of each tool on a corresponding shelf tag helps keep the display organized and her customers informed.
A small piece of the pie
Ellen Schiff, marketing director for H. R. Meininger Company in Denver, says that their store stocks a basic amount of clay and modeling products. “Most professionals are going to go to businesses that focus on clay only,” she says. “In the clay and modeling category, our customers are mainly hobbyists, teachers and students.”
Meininger’s offers numerous classes for kids using self-hardening clay products. Sculpture demonstrations are also given to engage customers’ interest. “Manufacturer reps will come to our store and show techniques,”Ellen comments. “They also make themselves available for any questions that customers might have about these products.”
Compared to brushes, paints and paper, Ellen says clay makes up a very small segment within the art materials industry. “There are a lot of art supply stores that don’t even carry any of these materials,” she says. “It’s a relatively small part of our overall business.”