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The woman in the booth seemed fascinated with a bracelet I’d made. It was made of tiny silver rings and lapis beads. She has spent a lot of time trying it on, checking her wrist in the mirror, playing with it. So her question surprised me.
“Do you have any barrettes?” she asked.
“No,” I said, wondering why she would ask, as every single thing in the booth was jewelry: necklaces, bracelets, and earrings, then added, “I do only jewelry.”
“I love this look, but I want it as a barrette,” she said.
“A silver and lapis barrette that size would be quite heavy, but I could do it as a custom piece,” I said, always willing to please.
“Well, but if you designed barrettes, you’d get a lot more sales,” she said.
She handed me the bracelet, “Call me if you start doing barrettes,” she said, signing the guestbook. Then she left.
As the afternoon wore on, she returned with a friend. Both of them looked at the bracelet, tried it on, discussed it, and both assured me that I would make more sales if I added barrettes, made in the style of my jewelry, to the mix.
“I’d buy a bunch,” one said.
“So would I, great gifts,” said the other.

On the way home, I wondered about the women. Maybe there was something to it—make something less expensive that had jewelry appeal. I purchased some barrette blanks–the part that hold onto the hair, and began to build designs on top of them. It took longer than I wanted, meaning there was a wafer-thin profit, but they looked nice.

At the next show, I grouped them all together with a sign identifying them.
“Why would you sell barrettes?” one woman said, “with hairstyles so short?”
“These are kind of expensive for just wearing in your hair,” said another, “Now if you had them on plastic combs instead of metal clasps, I’d buy a bunch.”
“They look valuable, and I am always losing my barrettes,” said a third.
“I can buy barrettes a lot cheaper at Wal-Mart,” said the fourth, “I like the kind held in place by elastic. Now if you had those, I’d buy a bunch.”

It was another lesson in marketing. Yes, you should listen to what your clients want or need. But listening to client suggestions isn’t always good information. Often, what you are hearing is an excuse not to make a purchase. Many visitors want to spend time trying on jewelry, but then feel obligated in some way. Turning the tables, and making a lack of selection or precise product choice the artist’s fault is a great way to leave the booth without guilt. I’d rather they say, “I’m just browsing,” but that’s not my decision.
What is my decision is what to add to the product line. And I made a mistake thinking that what I was hearing was brand extension, when what I was hearing was, “I’m not buying today, I’m trying on.”

Fast forward 10 years. I’ve moved away from jewelry making and am designing and producing cards and stand-up collages. A woman is looking at a card on which I have a money-plant seed pod. She looks at it closely and says, “This pod doesn’t have the seeds in it anymore. The seeds make it look so pretty. Do you have any cards showing the seeds?”
“Sure don’t,” I say, knowing the next sentence.
“I’d like this card a lot better if it had the seeds showing. If it had that, I’d buy several boxes,” she said.
“Maybe next time I design a card. . .” I say vaguely, watching her leave, happy I’ve learned to listen to the meaning, not just the words.

–Quinn McDonald is an artist, journal-writing teacher, and writer. She owns QuinnCreative.