Even from the early days of her business, Julia Kelleher, M.Photog.M.Artist.Cr., CPP, saw the shift to a digital-only model looming. Ten to 15 years ago, clients would order prints online but usually not large ones. Increasingly, they asked for digital files, and there were plenty of upstart photographers willing to oblige. When Kelleher opened her studio a decade ago, it seemed like the shoot-and-burn model was the way to go. After all, it was what clients wanted—or at least what they thought they wanted.
Offering digital files as a final product is a result of ever-evolving consumer buying habits. As e-commerce became more accessible for small businesses, many photographers adopted online sales. That, in turn, shifted how consumers began to purchase photography as well as what they bought.
“Consumers will only buy what they know,” explains Kelleher. “Especially when buying online, they will only buy what’s safe, what they understand. So selling a large wall portrait online, when you’re not there to explain it, is difficult. Selling small prints or a set of digital files is much easier.”
Consumers want to play it safe. However, playing it safe may not be so safe. Most consumers aren’t aware of the impermanence of digital files, which aren’t archival, are subject to becoming unreadable due to evolving technology, and eventually become corrupt. Furthermore, simply delivering a set of digital files leaves the artistic process unfinished and prevents the photographer from offering a full-service experience.
For these reasons and more, Kelleher switched to in-person sales early on. Almost immediately, the change resulted in her sales average growing from $350 to $1,800. Perhaps more important, it allowed her to build the upscale, boutique-style studio she wanted.
Over the ensuing decade, she has fine-tuned her systems as well as her recommendations for adopting in-person sales. She’ll be speaking on this topic in detail at Imaging USA 2018 in Nashville. Here, she’s shared a primer on successfully ditching the digital-only model and stepping up to the big leagues with an upscale in-person sales process.
Offer a tangible product line. To transform yourself into an upscale studio, you need to sell high-quality, tangible products: prints, canvas, wall art, specialty media, custom framing, albums, etc. There are many good labs providing these products. Try to settle on one or two labs you can partner with to get your full product line.
Start off simple. Offer a narrow product line so you don’t overwhelm clients. Pick one or two wall art options, a couple albums, and one or two specialty items. You don’t need to offer everything under the sun. In fact, in a high-end model, simplicity equates to value. Think about the menu at a five-star restaurant. It’s limited to a just a few choices in each category that are fresh and in season. Compare that to inexpensive chain restaurants that offer an endless array of choices in every possible combination. If you want to be the five-star option, trim down the options to what you can do really well.
Carry products that match your brand. Providing a vast selection of products not only confuses clients by making decisions more complicated, but some items will inevitably seem out of place. Zero in on products that match your brand, complement your photography, and appeal to your target client.
Let them touch the merchandise. Or at least look at it closely. This means you must have samples. Remember that clients buy on emotion, and they won’t fall in love with products they can’t hold. Show what you want to sell.
Price the products for profit. This is always tricky, but there are plenty of resources available. Refer to the PPA Financial Benchmark Survey. Calculate your cost of sales, and design strategic packages. You want to show clients the inherent value of your products and incentivize them to purchase more. When you build packages that get you to where your average sale needs to be (and you should always know what your average sale needs to be), then all you do is go through your sales process. When strategically priced packages get you to that target sale, you’re much more likely to be consistently and reliably profitable.
Create a system of selling in your studio. Develop a process that starts with a presession consultation. Ask clients why they want the photographs. Ask how they envision enjoying the images five to 10 years from now. Ask how they value photography. Take those answers and formulate a plan for the images you’ll need to create for the client’s desired products. Photograph each session with the end goal in mind. Then by the time you have your sales session, there isn’t actually any sales involved; it’s just an ordering appointment because the client already knows what they want, and you’ve already created images for those specific purposes.
Set up a sales area. This doesn’t have to be in your studio. Plenty of successful photographers conduct sales sessions in their clients’ homes. In fact, you can turn this into an advantage by presenting it as a customized service. You’re making it convenient for the client, and you’re also showing the work in the space where it will be displayed. The key to this process is the act of meeting in person and going over the specifics of the sale. It’s not about fancy equipment or software; it’s about personal connection.
Establish policies and stick to them. No one likes uncertainty, so it’s important for clients to understand what they’re getting and what’s expected of them. Always use a contract, which is nothing more than a clearly listed set of policies that offers guidance and creates comfort. Vague arrangements make people nervous. Present your clients with a contract, and then go over it verbally. Tell them you’re agreeing to provide certain things and explain that they’re agreeing to abide by the way you run your business. That way there are no misunderstandings along the way.
Is the switch to in-person sales scary and difficult? It can be, but the rewards will come if you follow the road map.
“In-person sales offers you the opportunity to generate higher-dollar sales as well as an enormous satisfaction that what you’re doing as an artist means something,” says Kelleher. “When you provide printed, archival products, you are giving your clients something that will move them every single day for years to come. Family, emotions, legacy—they are all tied up in those tangible products. If you want all of those things to be part of your journey as an artist, then there is no other choice than in-person sales.”
Jeff Kent is editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.