Don’t Give the Milk (Soap) Away for Free

GreedThe March/April 2014 edition of Saponifier Magazine focuses on business advice. I cannot claim to have a lot to offer on this front because in many ways, I’m the wrong person to ask. I enjoy making soap, and I sell it on Etsy mainly so I can get it out of the house (and into the hands of people who will like it) so I can make more. I have no great plans to build a huge soaping business and quit my day job. I actually love my day job (which is teaching English, by the way). However, I do have one bit of advice I would like to offer new soapmakers or those wishing to break into the soaping business: Don’t give your soap away for free.

I don’t mean don’t give your soap as gifts. One of the best perks of being a soapmaker is that you have ready-made gifts on hand that people actually really love because they are handmade, by you, and are also great to use, a real indulgence.

I’m also not talking about donating your soap to a good cause, such as Clean the World or auctions. If you believe in the cause and don’t mind donating your soap, then donating your soap is a positive way to support the cause. However, in such cases, you are not exchanging your soap for promises of “exposure” which might lead to future sales, and there is a difference between supporting a cause and giving your soap away to an organization that plans to make money from selling it without compensating you.

What I mean when I say don’t give your soap away for free is be wary of accepting offers to donate your soap for the purposes of “exposure.” Such schemes might work, but if they don’t, you have given away a lot of your time and hard work, not to mention the money the materials cost. If people truly value the time, work, and money you put into your soap, they will compensate you for it with something less nebulous than “exposure.”

I have been approached on a few occasions to donate my soap to companies that sell bath and beauty baskets. These baskets are either given away or sold to subscribers, but those who contribute will see their products get into the hands of people who might otherwise not have seen them. The thought is that those people will then go on to buy your products. I’m not convinced that giving your soap away to companies like this will lead to large amounts of sales, but I do find other methods of exposure do seem to work.

Social networking sites, such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram do seem to allow soapmakers to share their soap with a wider audience. Etsy is a little bit glutted with soapmakers, but I think selling on a site like Etsy might generate a little more exposure than a standalone website, unless you are also quite active in social networking and work a circuit of farmers’ markets and craft fairs. Etsy also allows you to purchase ads for a reasonable fee, which will increase the chances your items will appear at the forefront in search results.

If companies truly want to help you grow your business and offer you exposure, they will negotiate a fair wholesale price for your soap. That way, you are are compensated for your time, work, and costs, and they are still able to make a profit. Otherwise, they are looking to take advantage of you and keep all the profits.

Image credit: Liz West

Christmas Soaps

Last Christmas was my first experience selling handcrafted items. I learned that quite a few people really do go out of their way to support artisans. There is something special about receiving something handmade as a gift.

This year, I attempted to prepare for the season a little better. I learned some lessons. First, all of my holiday-themed soaps sold out. The two quickest sellers were Cranberry Blood Orange and Candy Cane.

Cranberry Blood Orange
Cranberry Blood Orange
Candy Cane
Candy Cane

I made a note to make more batches of each next year. One thing people who don’t make soap have a hard time understanding is that cold process soap must cure for at least four weeks, which means soapmakers need to figure out what is likely to sell at least a month in advance of the major selling period. For Christmas, that means soapmakers really need to have soaps ready by mid-November in order to capitalize on early shoppers. My biggest sales day was Small Business Saturday, which happened right after Thanksgiving and Black Friday, but I continued to sell right up until a few days ago.

The big question is, how many batches of each would sell? It’s hard to determine what will sell in early to mid-October when the soaps must be made. It’s a risk to make too much because there is a chance I might have leftover Christmas products. However, if I make too little, I might miss out on sales opportunities. It’s a tough call.

Some other lessons I learned are that I move more soaps more quickly offline through purchases made by family, friends, and craft fairs. I haven’t been able to do many craft fairs yet, but I am definitely interested in participating in more. I would be remiss if I did not mention I’ll be selling my soap at the Alchemy Fair in Holyoke, MA, on April 26 and 27, 2014. I’m very much looking forward to that fair.

Speaking of craft fairs, another thing I learned from selling at craft fairs this season is that my Lavender Dream and Lemongrass Sage soaps sell much more quickly offline when people have a chance to smell them.

Lavender Dream
Lavender Dream

Lavender Dream is a newer soap. I used to combine the lavender essential oil with a spearmint fragrance, but I found the spearmint didn’t come through with the lavender (it was fine on its own, but the lavender overpowered it). I renamed it, and folks who love lavender adored it. I also toned down one of the purple shades a bit.

Lemongrass Sage is one of my oldest recipes and has been a favorite among family and friends.

Lemongrass Sage
Lemongrass Sage

It smells very bright and clean, and for a citrus scent, lemongrass really sticks well. I’m not sure why these soaps do not sell as well on Etsy as they do in person. I have some theories, but as the first thing most people do when they’re buying soap at a craft fair is sniff it, I think the scent has a great deal to do with it. On Etsy, buyers might rely more on the look of the soap, though I’m not certain that’s the case.

Another soap that sold really well at craft fairs was White Tea & Ginger.

White Tea & Ginger
White Tea & Ginger

It has a very nice spicy scent. One of my friends thinks that perhaps the plainer look of the soap might be a reason it does not sell as well on Etsy as it does in person. I like the look of it and don’t really want to change it, but it may be that I will make it only in advance of craft fairs rather than keep it on Etsy.

One soap sold very slowly, and I was disappointed because I knew it was a lovely soap.

Anise & Peppermint
Anise & Peppermint

If you are not familiar with anise essential oil, it smells like licorice. I realize licorice is a candy people either love or hate, but even though I’m not a fan of the taste, I love the smell. Of course, I associate it with my grandmother, who loves licorice candy (she received a bar of this soap for Christmas). I thought the black and white was striking and pretty, but I have learned that buyers do not necessarily associate black with soap, or at least the sellers I have encountered do not. My soaps with a large amount of black colorant do not seem to do as well as others. I am not sure why because I think it’s striking and different. I really think this soap turned out well, and I loved it, but it sold very slowly for Christmas.

I also made a soap I called Winter Wonderland.

Winter Wonderland
Winter Wonderland

I used the scent in this soap in a previous soap, and I couldn’t sell it! I have to believe it sold well in this soap for two reasons: 1) the look of this soap was more appealing than the look of the other soap in which I used the same fragrance, and 2) it was the holidays, so soap naturally sold more quickly. I love the scent. It’s a gorgeous watery/ozone type scent that is perfect to evoke snow. I think if people could have smelled my other soap, it would have sold better. Smell seems to make such a huge difference.

One lesson I am going to take away is to pull back on what I sell on Etsy. I am charged fees for each listing, and while it’s not a huge amount, it’s too much to post soaps that just don’t sell. I will be more judicious about new offerings in the future. It is my hope that I can start doing more craft fairs or farmer’s markets as I would hate to cut back on making soap. I love it, and I’m addicted now!

I wish everyone happy holidays. I hope you find a little bar of handmade goodness in your stocking!

Choices, Choices

Tilted heart made of lots of jigsaw puzzle piecesI was recently advised—quietly, and, I think, with helpful intentions—that I make a lot of different kinds of soap, and my customers might have a hard time choosing—perhaps it might be a good idea to pare down my offerings to some hardy best sellers?

I have no doubt that the person who gave me this advice means well, even though I’m not sure the evidence he provided (reference to an unnamed e-book written by a successful, and also unnamed, soaper) is necessarily a good source.

The advice, I should add also, was completely unsolicited.

It bothered me. I worried about it for a while. Then I came to the conclusion that I don’t have any idea what my customers will like. I haven’t been selling long enough to observe trends like that really, with the exception that I did note they will buy practically any of my soaps at Christmas.

I thought about it and thought about it, and finally I decided that what bothered me about the advice was that it failed to take into account that soap is art. Sure, it is a practical art you can use. No one would dare tell an artist that she makes too many different kinds of paintings or sculptures, or a musician that he makes too many different kinds of songs and he should limit himself to 10 or 20 that sort of sound alike. Though some consumers do like that kind of art, I would argue that it’s not good for any artist to stagnate and put limits on his or her imagination.

I could not articulate these thoughts to the person who offered me the advice, and to be fair, he did not push it further. And no one else has suggested to me that I need to pare it down. Most family, friends, and other supporters have been nothing but encouraging.

Will my soaps sell? Time will tell. I have a lot to learn about that aspect of soap making. But I also think I make high quality soaps that are good for your skin, and I believe there is a market out there for the kind of variety I offer, even if it causes a little bit of decision paralysis.