The beauty of handmade products is that you can create literally anything.
Potters make vases, plates, chopstick rests, teapots and more, in any size imaginable, with any design imaginable, and with any combination of glazes.
Jewelers can make a necklace with a chain anywhere from 14" to 40", in a variety of metals, with a variety of stones in a variety of settings.
And if you're a knitter, you have hundreds of patterns that can accommodate any size, and be made with any yarn.
The options can both excite you and overwhelm you.
If you take custom orders, you probably LOVE being able to tell your customers "YES, I can do that" to any request they have.
Plus, you probably love creating with that one customer in mind, and they love knowing that they are receiving something custom and made just for them.
But how do you decide what to make when your options are unlimited? And more importantly, how do you organize your offerings so they are easy for your customers to select and purchase?
4 Reasons Why Unlimited Product Options can be Stifling for You and Your Customers
When I started Hattie Rex, I fully embraced the "fully customizable" aspect of my craft.
Customers could choose their shape, font, metal, text, embellishments, design stamps -- there could easily be a hundred options for one dog tag.
I learned that offering my customers unlimited options actually stifled their likeliness to buy and be satisfied with the purchase.
Plus, it made it nearly impossible for me to price my products and streamline them for web sales and wholesale line sheets.
Here are the four reasons why having unlimited product options can be stifling for you and your customers.
1. Customer Indecision
While offering unlimited customization options certainly allowed my customers to design a true one-of-a-kind piece, it also stifled many of them with too many options.
Having to choose a shape, metal, font, design stamp, and embellishments, plus deciding what text to include on the tag, often overwhelmed them.
Indecision would weigh them down and they would say "I'll decide later."
Of course, I lost many sales to that indecision, because if they don't have time (or desire) to decide now when they are literally right in front of me and my examples, when will they?
And honestly, how do you expect your customers to be able to make a decision when YOU can't make a decision, either? Leaving all of your products fully customizable isn't offering a selection to your customers. It's putting the weight of the design process on their shoulders -- and that's why they are coming to you.
2. Customer Dissatisfaction
Ironically, plentiful options often led to unhappy customers.
Sure, they might think they want a 3" dog tag, but when it shows up in the mail, they think, "this is ridiculously large and I hate it."
Or maybe they didn't know what color copper actually is.
Or maybe they didn't stop to think that their dog Ziggy's name might look hard to read in a script font.
They couldn't see what it would look like before they bought it, and even though you accommodated every one of their requests, they are dissatisfied with the final product.
As creatives, we're blessed (or cursed) with the ability to "see" what a final product will look like before it has even started. And that's the reason that we do what we do.
It's hard to see things from another person's perspective. Or, to imagine how they CAN'T see the things we can see.
The truth is, YOU are the designer. Your customer is not.
And yes, your customers love having something custom made just for them, but the reason they are hiring YOU to do it is that they like YOUR work and YOUR style.
If they had an eye for creating wooden coat racks or fresh floral bouquets, they probably wouldn't be working as an accountant.
As the creative, it's your job to help your customer see the final product, complete with the options.
This means that if you want to offer fire pits in three different sizes, you make three different sizes, photograph them, and have them available for your customers to view.
And if you want to make a hat with the options of blue, red, or yellow embellishments, you make all three, photograph them, and let your customers decide.
Are you worried you'll lose a sale if your customer wants something custom but you don't offer it? It's totally ok to include information on your website that tells your customers that you welcome custom orders. Believe me, if they want something special, they will ask.
But if they're just looking for something to buy right now, by all means, don't make them wait.
3. Impossible to Price
Another downside of having unlimited product options -- or just a big list of options -- is that it's nearly impossible to price.
If you have to sit down and do a math equation every time one of your customers wants to place an order, I guarantee you there are three more customers who have already walked away because they a) assume that if the price isn't listed, they can't afford it or b) don't want to take the time to ask you for a price (talking to people can be intimidating).
And let's say they do come to you and ask for the price on a 12" footed cake stand with etched mountains with a white and blue glaze, and you give them the price, and it's way out of their budget?
Maybe they ask for the same thing in a 10" size, but that's still too high, so then they want to know the price without the mountain design, or with the red glaze instead of blue.
And now you've spent all day trying to show these customers what they can get for $100, instead of just having prices on your designs in the first place.
Not to mention the amount of time you're spending individually pricing each order.
That's time that you could use to create new products, update your website, or even...spend time with your family or take a nap!
Let me share with you an example. I'm on Montana Women's Business Center's fundraising committee and our annual event includes a silent auction.
We like to group different donated products or experiences together to create appealing packages. One of the packages this year will be a catered dinner in a private room, complete with paired wine and local music.
One committee member suggested having a local florist donate some arrangements for this auction item and everyone agreed it was a great idea.
However, the committee member who was donating the private space for the event mentioned that she always has a hard time getting floral designers to give her a price.
She said she hasn't met a floral designer yet who can provide a price list with, say, a $50 arrangement, a $100 arrangement, and a $200 arrangement.
She said everyone she's contacted wants to sit down and discuss the details and price them accordingly. And as an event coordinator, she often doesn't have time for that. She has a budget and she wants flowers, and all she really wants is someone to say, "sure, I can create your centerpieces for $50 each."
Now, as a newlywed, I know that I certainly appreciated being able to sit down with my florist and discuss the details of what would be in my bouquet.
But for events, the minutia isn't as important. If a company has $50 to spend on florals, they won't mind if you omit an expensive bloom if it doesn't fit the budget.
What is important? The price, and the readiness of that price.
4. Inability to Streamline Products for a Website or Wholesale
This is probably the biggest reason to streamline your products.
Honestly, it wasn't until I started selling my dog tags on Etsy that I realized I needed to have a product line.
You're spending all that time to list a product -- don't you want to make sure you can duplicate the product so you don't have to list it again?
For example, let's say you're a blacksmith wanting to sell your forged cabinet pulls to interior designers. The only way you're getting your cabinet pulls in front of that client is by having samples from which the clients can choose.
Show them 10 styles in 3 different finishes (or any number, really), plus the price of each option. Then, they can choose which one they want, and you can duplicate it, and you only had to price those drawer pulls one time.
Doesn't that sound much easier than hoping your interior designer will schedule a meeting with you and their client so you can show them every option under the sun, wait on them to design it in their minds, and then wait on you to price it so they can say yes or no?
5 Ways to Streamline your Options
Now that I've explained to you the four reasons why having unlimited product options can stifle your customers, it's time to find out how to do it. And here's the answer:
By killing our darlings.
"Kill your darlings" is a literary term, originally coined by William Faulkner, which basically means that in writing, you can't keep all of the characters, plot twists, or lines of dialogue just because you love them.
You delete them (kill them) unless they fully add to the greater good of your piece of writing.
With handmade products, this means to only offer the products that contribute to the greater good of your business.
Just because you CAN make something, doesn't mean you should. And it doesn't mean you have to.
Here are three ways to help you decide which product options should make the cut -- and which should be killed off.
1. Kill the darlings that don't sell.
This is a no-brainer. If no one's buying it, get rid of it. Don't keep something in your product offering that isn't making you money.
2. Kill the darlings that get lots of customer complaints.
If your customers are telling you the product is unsatisfactory, believe them.
I used to have an adorable dog tag called the Sofia Maria tag. It was a copper tag that was GLUED to a delicate copper filigree piece. You know where this is going.
The glue would inevitably give out and the feature that made the tag so delicate and pretty would be gone.
After a few customer complaints and the re-makes that go along with such complaints, I got rid of the tag and started focusing on pieces that were durable AND attractive.
If your customers aren't happy, they won't stick around. And they'll take their friends with them.
So, as you're slimming down your product offering, leave off anything that gets less than stellar reviews.
3. Kill the darlings that you hate making.
You're in this for the joy of creating this thing that you love, right? Then why would you include a product that you don't enjoy making?
It's not worth it. If you despise making it, cut it from your list. Done. Bye.
4. Kill the darlings that kill your profit margin.
This is a tough one, but if you have a product that you can't price at the same margins as your other products, you have to kill it.
This could be because the raw materials are too expensive, or the product is too time-consuming to make.
Of course, try to find raw materials that are more affordable, or buy in bulk to save money. Or try and find a way to create the product quicker (maybe assembly line?) to get those costs down.
But if you can't, it has to go. I'm sorry for your loss.
5. Kill the darlings seasonally.
If you still have too many products and can't bear to kill another, take some inspiration from the McRib.
Take it off the menu seasonally, or label it as a limited edition. Then, when it's time (or when you just miss it so much you can't stand it) bring it back. If the product has a following, your marketing is done for you (just don't forget to notify your customers, and absolutely build up the anticipation of the relaunch)!
4 Ways to Organize Your Products
Now that you've killed your darlings (may they rest in peace), it's time to take those remaining products and organize them!
This is the part that gets me excited. I'm giddy as I type this.
Even if this is more fun for me than it is for you, I guarantee you, you'll feel so good when it's done.
Remember that having these organized options is supposed to make it EASIER for your customers (retail and wholesale) to shop your line.
1. Group similar options together as one product with variants.
If you have products that have one common feature, and the options only vary by size and color (or any two options), group them together as one product with different variants.
For example, if you're selling shirts, you might have one shirt that says "I love tacos" that you offer in 4 different sizes and 3 different colors. That should be one product. The customer would choose "taco shirt in red, size medium"
Another example: We make a variety of circular dog tags at Hattie Rex. We used to have each size tag listed separately, but then we'd confuse customers. They'd ask, "What's the difference between the Frankie tag and the Stella tag?" or, "can I get the Frankie tag in a bigger size?" (Essentially, it was the same tag, just a different size.
So, we grouped our tags together according to the text layout.
Tags that have the number curved along the bottom are in the "Stella tag" product, whereas tags that have the number straight across below the name are in the "Trax tag" product. Each product has options for size and metal.
It's a good idea to include only 2 variants (size, color, for example) on each product.
So now you might be asking:
But what if the different options are priced differently? Great question.
Have only one variant that changes the price.
So for Hattie Rex, that variant is the size. The larger the tag, the more expensive the price.
Having more than one price-changing element will confuse your customer. And confused customers usually end up not buying, or making you wish they hadn't bought (you know the type).
And now you might be asking:
How do I put all those options on my website?
Shopify allows for up to two variants, and it would even let you have more than one price-changing variant if you wanted (although I don't recommend it).
If you're using another website platform that doesn't allow you to use product variants, you might consider switching to Shopify or another platform that can accommodate your unique products.
2. Set up a system for SKUS
Your SKUs don't have to be organized or make sense, but it certainly helps.
Most SKUs can contain letters and numbers (check with your platform to be sure), which makes it really easy to assign meaningful SKUs to your new products or use the SKUs to identify older products.
We like to use a series of letters. The first two letters are the name of the product.
The third letter represents the product type (pendant, necklace, ring, bracelet).
And the fourth letter represents the metal from which its made (silver, brass, copper, etc).
So, for us, the SKU "MLPB" stands for "Montana Love Pendant in Brass"
and "AHRS" stands for "Arrowhead Ring in Sterling Silver."
Your SKU system doesn't have to be like mine, but I do recommend that you have a SKU system.
3. Use a grid or spreadsheet on your line sheet
If you're offering lots of different options for your wholesale line sheet, it's a great idea to group the line sheet into a grid or spreadsheet.
That way, your wholesale customer can match up the variants to the price, and you can keep your line sheet to one-page front and back -- nice and tidy, with all the options clearly marked with prices.
4. For options with more variants, group by price or category.
If your products don't exactly fit into the examples listed here, a good rule of thumb is to group the products by a factor that is significant, like price or function.
This would involve things like a $50 centerpiece versus a $100 centerpiece, or a drawer knob versus a cabinet pull.
If you've read this far, you're probably realizing that this is going to be a lot of work.
But, you reading this far tells me that you really need to streamline your current products.
In that case, I sincerely hope this helps you. If you have other questions, get in touch or reply in the comments.
And I promise you, THIS IS WORTH THE TIME.
I mentioned it earlier, but I want to make this point twice.
If you love custom work, don't stop offering custom work.
Keep that option on your website, or even on each product description.
And if you do create something custom, charge extra for it.
It takes more time to set up the order, price it, and create it. If it's worth it to your customer to have something custom, it will be worth it to your customer to pay a little bit more for it. You're worth it. Don't forget that.
But definitely do yourself and your customers a favor and have a tidy little product list ready for them at all times -- even if it's just online.