The Art Biz ep. 167: How to Have a Sale of Your Art and Feel Good About It

Having a sale of your art might be unpalatable.

It feels as if you are cheapening the work you put so much effort into, and I get it.

In just the last episode of The Art Biz, I talked with Bri Larson about the mindset around raising prices and why it was important to do so.

Laura Stack ink painting collage installation
©Laura Stack, Life Form 10. Ink painting collage on paper, 51 x 63 inches. (left) ©Laura Stack, Life Form 12. Vinyl reproduction of original ink painting collage, 65 x 160 inches. (right)

There are, however, reasons for having a sale.

In this article and episode of The Art Biz I discuss the psychology and process around having a sale of your art or any products that you might sell. Products such as calendars, pillows, books, or reproductions.

I’ll share 6 options for having a sale, although, as you’ll see, promotion is probably a better word because not all of the options are about offering a discount.

You will have to decide which is best for original work and which is okay for other items—what feels right so that you don't regret taking the action.

I’m also going to give you additional steps to take around your sale.

Stick with me to the end and I'll share 3 mistakes you don’t want to make when having a sale of your art.

Listen

Before you do anything …

Count Your Inventory

Conduct a detailed account of what you have in stock or inventory. This is easy if you are using an inventory management system like Artwork Archive.

Don’t include everything! Limit what is available during this short window of time.

How many pieces of art do you have to sell? Or how many products?


Then, add up the retail sales prices of the inventory you want to find homes for. What is the total value of what you have available?

You want to know this number so that your expectations are realistic. If it feels right for you, set a goal for how much you would like to sell. 

After you have done this, consider whether your promotion will be a discount or bonus.

Anna Afshar watercolor
©Anna Afshar, Skyscape. Watercolor on paper, 12 x 16 inches.

I PREFER

that original art isn't discounted, however ...

Why [Infrequent] Discounts on Art Are Okay

I prefer that you use discounts for items other than original art, but there are a few reasons why I’m okay with offering infrequent discounts.

  • We must acknowledge that there is a lot of art in the world that needs to find homes. It's not doing you any good taking up space. Even if you don’t need to make money from the sale of your art, it’s not fun to watch inventory pile up. If you’re lucky, you have space for that inventory, but, even if that’s the case, the energy of unsold art haunts many artists.
  • Gallerists offer discounts all of the time to their top collectors. Why shouldn’t you have this same option?
  • If you sell through another venue, they would be earning a commission, which eats into your profit margin. If your prices are proper, you won’t lose money.
    [ See How to Price Your Art ]

Here are two options for discounts, whether it’s for originals or products …

2 Options for Discounts

1. Flat Discount

When you want to keep things simple, offering a flat discount is the way to go.

Marketers say that 30% off is a good motivator. Anything less doesn't move people to act as quickly.

Figure out the costs that were involved in making any products and see that you recoup as much of your investment as possible, but also find new homes for as much as you can.

2. Declining Discount

I haven’t seen this done in a while, so maybe it’s time to bring it back. A declining discount looks like something like this: 50% off the first day, 40% off the second day, and so forth.

Declining discounts encourage early buying and require frequent communication because the discounts are getting smaller.

Denise Ramsay watercolor
©Denise Ramsay, Stained Glass. Watercolor on paper, 16 x 23 inches.

Now let’s look at another option for promotions, bonuses.

4 Options for Bonuses

1. Bonus Add-ons

Buy 1 and get these bonuses …

This works great when you have digital products that can be downloaded, such as special reports, audio interviews, or a video lesson.

It could also work if you have reproductions or note cards that you could include with purchase of the original.

Buy 2 for the price of one …

Buy 2 for the price of 1 sounds like quite a bargain, but it has to be something that people want two of.

You must make the case that they can use or want 2 of something. If not, a two-fer isn't a motivator.

2. Bonus for Early Action

For the first <e.g. 5, 10, 15> buyers …

This promotion encourages fast action and rewards those who take it.

I've noticed my favorite baseball team does this but with much bigger numbers. “The first 15,000 fans receive …” It never dawned on me before why they did this, but I'm pretty sure it's so that people come to the stadium earlier and buy lots of food and beverages.

3. Free Shipping

Free shipping anywhere in the U.S. …

This seems to be a good incentive for many buyers, regardless of what you sell. Be clear on any parameters about where you will ship.

4. Free Frame

Free frame or pedestal included …

To make this cost-effective for you, you'd better buy in bulk. Specify whether or not assembly is required.

Betty Mallorca digital painting
©Betty Mallorca, Contemplating the Sky. Original digital painting, inkjet print on paper, 16 x 19.5 inches.

Get Clear On Your Offer

There are many variables within the options for discounts or bonuses—keeping in mind that what might work for products like pillows or reproductions might not be the best idea for a sale of your original work.

Of course, you can combine the options.

For example, merge the bonuses for early action with free shipping and your promotion looks like this: The first 10 buyers get free shipping.

Whatever direction you take, I urge you to keep it simple. 

Keep it

SIMPLE

The worst sale results I've had were when I offered 3 different packages for buying my book.

Those bad results might also have been due to unclear messaging.

It hard to explain complicated options clearly enough that people can discern the value in each. When people have to make a decision based on too many variables, many of them will abandon the idea. 

Make it easy for them to decide: Yes or No. Do they want it or not?

Trust me. Simple is best.

Linda Richichi pastel
©Linda Richichi, Taos Colors. Pastel on paper, 12 x 16 inches.

Stick to a Schedule

Decide on beginning and ending dates for your sale and stick with them. Long sales get tiresome and people (especially you) lose interest.

People need a reason to

BUY NOW

People need a compelling reason to buy NOW, so the sale has to end within a relatively short period of time.

Make it no longer than 1 week and end it on a weekday when people are more likely to be checking email. With that time frame, you can concentrate your promotions and then get back to work when it ends.

Create a schedule for sending emails and posting to social media. You’ll need multiple emails and social posts that each convey a unique message about your offer.

I provide training for strategies around email marketing in my Art Biz Accelerator coaching group.

If you could benefit from support, accountability, and strategies while surrounding yourself with artists who seek the same, I invite you to join us. 

Gerard Pefung acrylic painting
©Gerard Pefung, In Motion. Acrylics and ink on stretched cotton canvas, 36 x 36 inches.

Avoid These 3 Mistakes

I can't let you have a sale of your art without first cautioning you to avoid these three mistakes.

Don't. Do. This.

1. Not informing your gallerist.

In order to maintain your strong relationship, be forthright. Discuss how the sale will be handled with your gallerist.

2. Ignoring previous buyers.

Extend your offer to previous buyers first, perhaps even giving them a little bit extra (of something) because they purchased at a higher price.

Always keep in mind those who have been supporting you and make sure they get VIP treatment.

3. Having sales too frequently.

If you are discounting regularly, people will wait for the sale and there is nothing special about it.

Of course, much more goes into a sale, including email strategies, a page on your website, and marketing messaging.

If you need support for your marketing strategy, please join me and the other fabulous members of the Art Biz Accelerator coaching group.
We’re waiting for you.

This post was originally published in a very different form on January 21, 2013, and updated on June 27, 2019. It has been updated significantly with the addition of a podcast episode, but with all original comments intact.

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26 thoughts on “The Art Biz ep. 167: How to Have a Sale of Your Art and Feel Good About It”

  1. I have tried 30% off and free shipping, both in my Etsy shop, but neither of these has worked. Perhaps I tried them at the wrong times or for the wrong products?
    I like the idea of 8. Send me money and I’ll send something terrific back. LOL! That would take curiosity and bravery on the buyer’s part if they’ve never dealt with the artist before, though.

  2. This is great and has been on my mind. In fact I was waiting to post a comment in hopes that there would be more comments and ideas to add that I could use.
    I was thinking of having a sale or more specifically of sending coupons to people who purchased paintings from me in the last year as a thank you and incentive to purchase another work. Any thoughts on that? I was only thinking 10-20% though, that seems to be too little according to this post.
    Any time I’ve offered sales to my email list, I’ve never once had a bite and afterwards didn’t really feel good about having offered it.
    I’ve really been thinking about free shipping on small and medium sized works and am in the process of redoing my pricing structure to include this.
    I’ve decided to do this becasue as a consumer I often times do not complete a purchase when I see how much shipping is, I no longer feel excited about getting a “deal”, it just somehow psycologically pushes me to the “I’m paying too much” edge.
    I’d love to hear more thoughts and creative sale ideas that people have had.
    Thanks for these idea Alyson, they’re very valuable!

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Kelly: I don’t think people buy art because it’s on sale – especially at 10-20% off. I think there has to be a BIG brouhaha around the sale – a really big deal. So I wouldn’t mess with coupons.

    2. Natalie VonRaven

      I agree! My flash sales are 50% off and they are usually quite successful however I feel like I’m undermining my work and maybe causing my customers to question it’s value. It’s a tough call… but I agree the discount has to be significant in order for anyone to bother.

  3. Thanks for the feedback Alyson, just what I was looking for.
    Maybe to reward or thank collectors I can give them something as a bonus instead of a discount on their next purchase. I’ll be working in this, thanks again.

  4. Every november or early december , I do a “Make me an offer.” on my paintings. This is usually pretty successful. I tell them to make me an offer on their favorite paintings, and if it’s not too ‘silly’ i’ll probably go for it. Sometimes they buy two or three….sometimes I counter offer. It’s fun and I usually sell quite a few paintings that would otherwise be sitting around in my studio.

    1. Natalie VonRaven

      I really like this idea but for myself personally (and therefore I assume my potential customers feel the same), I would feel uncomfortable spitting out a random offer without having any sense of what was “reasonable”. I’m always afraid I’ll insult the artist if my offer is too “silly” or low. If you’ve had success with it maybe I should blow past my self-consciousness, assume my customers will do the same and give it a try!

  5. Last year I decided to switch to an every other year model for my open studio. I also decided I needed to move some older inventory so I offered a 20% discount to all my VIP’s during my annual pre-open studio VIP-only brunch. It was a wild success! People went nuts and my sales exceeded any open studio I’ve ever had. I am still not sure what did it — the 20% discount or the fact that I wasn’t having another open studio until 2020? I was so hesitant to offer a discount but wow! I may do that every open studio from now on.

    A few VIP’s didn’t get that it was only for the two hours during the brunch so of course I extended the offer to them for the two days of the open studio. One person contacted me months later expecting the offer to still be in effect so I guess I need to make that clearer. She is a big collector and I was able to split the discount with the gallery she purchased from so it all worked out.

  6. 50% off is way too much – it hurts your integrity as an artist and other artists in your community!

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Kathy: Normally I would agree. But if you give a venue a 50% commission AND you have been sitting on those works for too long, something has to be done. I would, however, never label it as “50% off! Everything must go!” It must be done tastefully and quietly if only to your list. If to the world, it has to include only artwork that doesn’t look like your current work.

  7. Alyson Stanfield

    Heather Ernst: It depends how you do it. Maybe just 1 week prior to start date. But, as I say that, there might be reasons to start earlier.

  8. Thank you for this post. It’s such a good idea to thin out your inventory and regain storage space. Those of us who paint every day appreciate ideas to deal with this.

    I have been very successful with Studio clearance sales. Rather than a percentage discount, I lowered prices on each piece in the sale depending on how long I’ve had it, my connection to it, etc. I don’t have these sales often, otherwise buyers would wait for the sale rather than purchase though shows.

    Betsy Glassie

  9. Many years ago I had my pieces in a shop who never had a sale or offered a discount. When i asked why, she said it was because people would wait for the sale to purchase. I think of my own experiences with that mentality…i will NEVER SHOP at Kohls without a coupon! They send them out so often that if I ever needed to shop there without a coupon i would think I was being cheated. And I always wait for the 30% off coupon.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      I understand, Dani. And I acknowledge that this is the right thing for you. Some artists, however, need to unload inventory. I know that sounds crass, but I’d rather it find a home than be left in an estate for survivors to deal with.

  10. My art critique group holds a ‘Big Art Sale’ every other year. We offer work on sale as well as full priced art. We rent a lovely old house in the middle of a garden (a city park), have a cocktail party on Friday evening, then sale extends through Saturday. Some years I’ve done very well, other years were terrible.

    I have toyed with the idea of coupons, a private sale for my clients, but don’t want to give too many opportunities to get my work at a discount. It’s a real balancing act.

  11. Lot’s of good advice here-thank you Alyson. I am planning my annual small business Saturday event and will implement some of these ideas. One idea I have used in the past: I unveil a new work of art of a local imagery at the small business event that I have been posting on SM as it progresses. The unveiling of the finished piece tends to get people excited about seeing the finished piece and encourages them to attend the event. Once there I reward them with a sale of available works, typically small works that are good for gift giving.

    I’ll reread Alyson’s advice and determine if I should add some of them this year.

  12. I’d love some feed back on this idea that was inspired by the article above.

    Now, I am thinking outside the box as I try to move my inventory into someone else’s possession and am
    considering having a 2024 Sales Event: 24% off on 20 select pieces of art.
    My tentative plan is to send FOUR mailchimp campaigns to ALL my followers in January – each with five images at the 24% off.
    (A single campaign with 20 images would overload viewer, I think).
    It will last only during a determined amount of time (Jan 15-Feb 15?), and once it is done, the sale deal is done.

    I don’t mind “losing” 24% when making a direct sale – I already pay 25-40% commission fees, depending on the venues.
    And, I will not put pieces in the deal that have been in a gallery for at least six months, so I will not step on gallery owner toes.

    BTW,
    During the Covid lockdown, I hosted a “Little Porch Gallery,” inspired by NPR radio’s Little Studio recordings. I invited a hand-selected group of collectors and wanna-be’s to come view my work on the open windowed three-season porch. People were so hungry to get out that it was one of my best selling events – and I got a couple commissions from the gig. win. Win. WIN.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Linda: I can’t really give you a lot of feedback without knowing more, but my top level advice is that the sale is too long. Keep it to 7-10 days max.

  13. An Idea… My biggest challenge is that my work evolves and changes so much from year to year, series to series, I’m left with leftovers from these collections. I didn’t want to discount because previous buyers have paid full price, but I’m thinking, I can do a VIP sale of previous works at offering them my 50% my gallery cut. That way the work is not devalued. Of course I will let my gallery know. She only has two works that I will pull out and tell her I’ve a new series for her. I would do this through personalized emails and an invitation to my studio as a one day event.

    I also don’t sell anything smaller than 9×12 in a gallery, so I have full carte blanche as to how much I want to sell these. They’re often plein air sketches and I could offer a 30% off. I don’t know why, but people who generally don’t believe they can afford art or have difficulty putting money on art, even when they love it, will spend if they know they are getting a ‘deal’, Collectors (who have money for art) don’t bat an eyelash at the price, and would rather see the value of my work go up than be discounted. This I would offer on social media as a 5 day only event at the end of November.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Sounds like a great plan Elsa. Your concern in your first para is addressed in my Mistakes section. It’s got to be offered to VIP collectors first. LMK how it goes.

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