Selling Jewelry Through Catalogs

is your jewelry business ready
to supply a mail order catalog?

by Rena Klingenberg.
What’s involved in selling jewelry through catalogs?

Jewelry artists sometimes ask me how they can get their work into mail order catalogs like Sundance, Coldwater Creek, Red Envelope, etc.

My answer is that catalogs (especially the well-known ones) are an intense market. To sell your jewelry through catalogs successfully, you must be a reliable supplier with great products of consistent quality.

blue sandals and matching beaded necklace

Clothing catalogs like jewelry that
coordinates with their other products

You’ll need to produce large volumes of only a few designs.

Many jewelers who have items in catalogs have their own design studios, with employees or contract labor who make the quantities of jewelry the catalogs want.

You’ll need to know what supply schedule you’re capable of, what inventory levels you can maintain, and what all of your own costs are.

You’ll be operating on a thin profitability margin per piece, so it’s vital to have the business aspect of your jewelry firmly in hand.

Also, be sure to investigate the particular catalogs that interest you, to make sure they’re a good fit for your products and your jewelry business.

Understanding the Catalog Company’s Perspective

Typically, mail order catalogs operate on at least a 4x markup.

So the bracelet they sell for $36, they bought from the artist for $9 or less.

That may sound like an unreasonable markup, until you consider that catalog companies operate under constantly rising expenses.

Photographing, designing, writing, printing and shipping catalogs several times a year is expensive.

In addition, catalogs have expenses related to storing and shipping their merchandise, customer service staff, etc.

To stay in business, catalog companies need to cut to the bone the price they pay for the goods they place in their catalogs. They often pressure their suppliers to reduce prices below wholesale and make it up on volume.

A catalog needs to present its customers continually with a good selection of unusual merchandise at prices that are high enough for it to cover its expenses, pay its suppliers, and make a profit – but not too high to result the amount of sales it needs to make to stay in business.

It’s a tricky balance to maintain, and a catalog company absolutely relies on suppliers (like you?) who deliver a great product on time, with no headaches.

Catalog Sales from
the Jewelry Artist’s Perspective

Approximately two-thirds of American consumers have bought something through mail order in the last 12 months. With the right product, a home jewelry business can quickly rack up huge sales just through catalogs.

However, it can be just as easy to have an unprofitable – even costly – experience when selling your work through catalogs.

When supplying your jewelry design to a catalog, your profit margin per piece is typically very low, so that your income results from the higher volume of sales – which may or may not materialize.

In addition, you may incur a great deal of expense at the outset for supplies and possibly labor, to build up an inventory of the catalog item.

But you won’t receive payment for any of it until months later when several of the items have sold and the catalog has processed your first check.

If you decide to try selling your jewelry through a catalog, it’s important to have a thorough understanding of what you’re getting into.

The better prepared you are, the greater your chances of being one of the catalog success stories!

Advantages of Selling Jewelry Through Catalogs

  • Depending on the company, a single catalog may reach several hundred thousand customers, which can be excellent exposure for your jewelry line and your business. Successful catalogs tend to have professional quality photos and product descriptions, which can boost the sales of your item tremendously.
  • You probably don’t need an entire line of jewelry to get your work in the catalog. Most will want only one or two different designs from you at a time.
  • If you have only one or two items in the catalog, you’ll be able to order larger volumes of your supplies and receive a larger discount on them, making your cost per piece lower.
  • You’ll have an easier time with training your staff or temporary help how to make just one or two different designs, so the overall quality of your items is likely to be higher.
  • You probably won’t have to provide product packaging. The catalog company normally uses its own packaging, and handles the shipping.

Points to Consider about
Selling Jewelry Through Catalogs

  • You’ll be doing assembly-line production of one or two of your designs, instead of creating new designs. You may even be supervising a crew of people assembling your designs, without getting to do much jewelry making yourself. See Mass Production Strategies for Wholesaling Jewelry for tips on streamlining jewelry production. Also see Custom Jewelry Manufacturing to see what’s involved in having your designs mass produced by someone else.
  • Keeping up with a high volume of catalog sales may prevent you from selling your jewelry via other venues. However, if the catalog company suddenly discontinued your products for some reason, or their sales slumped, you would be left without a market, and would likely need some time to build up a new market. Be careful not to put all your eggs in one basket. Be sure you still have the time and resources to diversify your jewelry marketing methods.
  • Because catalogs work toward cutting their costs as low as possible, it can sometimes be difficult to work a deal that’s still profitable to you. Some catalogs request discounts and concessions from their suppliers before even placing their first order. This bargaining often begins when you set a price for your jewelry item, and the catalog insists on a lower price. If you agree to that, then they request a volume discount. And if you agree to that, they may hit you up with fees for freight, advertising and photographing your product, etc.Know what’s the lowest price you are willing and able to accept for your product after all discounts and fees, and don’t allow the catalog to bargain you below it. Otherwise you may find yourself slaving to fill their orders for a miniscule profit.
  • Be careful of “exclusives”. Some companies request a guarantee that their catalog will be the sole provider of one of your products for a set period of time. Sometimes this exclusivity limits your business, because it prevents you from reaching a larger market with one of your designs. So be wary of granting exclusive rights – and if you do agree to it, consider keeping the exclusivity time period as short as possible.
  • Before agreeing to shipping schedules and inventory levels for your jewelry, consider realistically what you’re capable of producing and storing. Also consider how much inventory you would be willing to be stuck with if the catalog’s sales for that item are lower than projected.
  • The other side of the coin is having too many orders and not being able to keep up with them. Before entering into any agreements with a catalog company, figure out your production capacity and availability of the supplies for each jewelry item that will be in the catalog. It’s a good idea to have plans in place for hiring additional help in making and packaging a fast-selling jewelry item – and to have a second supplier lined up for each of the elements of the jewelry.Catalog companies often expect you to make a large quantity of a single item for the initial offering, and if it sells well, you need to be prepared to make another large quantity of it. That means being sure you have good, reliable sources for all parts of the item.
  • Make sure you can float the catalog’s 60 to 90 day credit terms. Can you wait that long before being reimbursed for your supplies and other costs involved in creating the jewelry? And what if the company is one of those who delay paying suppliers beyond that, to ease up their own cash flow? A small jewelry business that has fronted a lot of money to create and stock an inventory of products may not be prepared for delayed payments – and can wind up going under.
  • Are you prepared to handle returns? Some of your jewelry sold through a catalog may be returned by a customers for various reasons – it’s not what they expected, it broke or malfunctioned, it was priced too high, etc. Be sure you’ve reached a written agreement with the catalog company in advance as to how these returns are handled, and who is financially responsible for them.
Catalog companies tend to prefer items that customers won't find elsewhere

Catalog companies tend to prefer
items that customers won’t find elsewhere

What’s a Good Jewelry Item for a Catalog?

The following considerations can help you design jewelry that has a good chance of being accepted by a catalog. The more of these criteria your jewelry design fulfills, the more likely a catalog company will be interested in it.

  • The jewelry design is fresh. It needs to be something that’s NOT already ubiquitous in stores or other catalogs.
  • It’s a design that will be appropriate to sell six months from now, so it will adhere to the catalog’s publishing schedule. Catalogs run on a six-month leadtime, from the time your jewelry is accepted to the time it appears in a printed catalog.
  • The jewelry’s retail price is between $5 and $100 – or whatever the catalog company’s required minimum price is.
  • There’s a fairly large market for the design, and it’s a market that can be reached by catalogs.
  • You can supply the item easily on a short lead time, with smooth production and backup suppliers for all the components lined up.
  • The jewelry solves a problem, such as a gift giving need – or even a functional need, such as keeping eyeglasses handy.
  • The piece is attractive and photographs well.
  • It fits in well with the latest popular colors in clothing, since people who buy clothes in the upcoming colors need jewelry to match them.
  • The item is well constructed and is not likely to break or come apart during normal use. It also doesn’t scratch, poke, or cause the wearer discomfort. And if it’s earrings, be sure they’re not too heavy.
  • Your jewelry design demonstrates your thorough understanding of the catalog’s retail customers, as well as the style and culture of the catalog itself. Is it in line with their typical products, price points, colors, and culture? Is it age-appropriate?

Getting Started
Selling Your Jewelry to Catalogs

Although catalog buyers may contact you after seeing your jewelry at a shop, gallery, or show, you can also seek them out.

Determine which catalogs you’re interested in, and send them regular product announcements. (However, don’t send anything that you’d like them to return to you.) Include a letter introducing yourself, a description of a few specific jewelry designs plus top-quality photos, your wholesale pricing, and your order turnaround time. The purpose of this contact is to demonstrate the suitability of your jewelry for their customers, and your ability to fulfill their customers’ orders.

If the catalog company is interested, they are likely to request samples of your work. Ask about their sample return policy before shipping anything. Many companies do not return samples.

If possible, find out from the company’s buyer more about the catalog. How large it its circulation? How many issues a year do they mail out? How long do they fill orders for each issue?

Before finalizing any agreement with a catalog company, be sure to discuss (and get in writing) such details as:

  • The size of their initial order, and whether they pay for any of it in advance.
  • Their requirements for jewelry hang tags / earring cards and any other packaging / labeling.
  • How to ship the items to them, and who pays for shipping.
  • What their payment terms are.
  • How much inventory you are expected to keep on hand.
  • Whether your personal name or business name will be listed in the printed product description – or whether it won’t list your name but will simply state, “handcrafted in the USA” (or whatever your country is).
  • How product returns will be handled.

You may also want to ask for the names and contact info of other jewelry artists or suppliers who have worked with this catalog company before, if you’d feel more comfortable with a good reference from someone who has dealt with them in the past.

As you work with a catalog company, prove that you’re reliable. Never miss a deadline, and don’t make commitments you’re not 110% certain you can fulfill. A catalog depends on reliable suppliers with great products of consistent quality – and that’s what you need to deliver to them if you want a long-term relationship with a catalog company.

Taking the Plunge

Before entering the catalog market, be sure you’re completely ready to accept the type of workload and to be the kind of supplier a catalog company expects.

Know what supply schedule you’re capable of, what inventory levels you can maintain, and what all of your own costs are.

And please take the time to do your due diligence in investigating the catalog company itself, along with all the details of a potential catalog agreement. Ask questions and consider bargaining on any points that don’t seem reasonable to you. GET EVERYTHING IN WRITING. It wouldn’t hurt to have an attorney check out any agreements before you sign them.

If you decide to pursue catalog sales for your jewelry, I wish you all the best, and I’d love to publish your success story here! :o)

To read about the experiences of a jewelry artist who successfully sells her designs through catalogs, see my interview with Amy Peters, whose jewelry designs are currently in over 600 catalogs, stores, and galleries.

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