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To Limp Ice-Cream Box, Stiff Paper, a Couple Pieces of Magic Tape and a Sticky Seal to Close the Lid

by Dick Lehman

After you make a retail sale to a customer, how do you package your work, and why?

For many of us in the contemporary studio pottery tradition, packaging decisions are among the most difficult that we make in the marketing arena - shy of the advertising decisions through which we sweat, in an effort to attract customers to our business locale in the first place. We attempt to keep our prices affordable; at the same time, we are painfully aware that every dollar we spend in packaging and presentation translates into about $2 worth of retail price increase. While we try to keep the customer in mind, we must measure dollars against image, inflation against the reverence and assurance that come from receiving a purchase in exquisite wrapping and packaging.

If you are like me, you likely have experienced a vast range of packaging decisions made by retailers when you are on the purchasing end of the exchange. The same goes for pottery purchases: I have been at arts and crafts fairs where potters simply handed me the piece with no wrappings/packaging whatsoever ("gee, we ran out of sacks about an hour ago") and muttered barely a "thanks." Other times, I have been handed a pot in a recycled sack, with no other packaging/insulation.

I have visited several Mingei-sota-style potteries where the "help yourself" mentality prevails: affordability is translated into "please don't bother me.I'm busy working and trying to be as efficient as I can in order to keep the prices low.you can wrap your purchase in my old newspapers and place it into the grocery sack that my neighbors collect for me; and oh, by the way, here's the cash box..make your own change.we trust you to be honest."

I have also experienced what many of us recognize as the "newspaper-butt-end-roll" packaging: good recycling mentality, and really quite adequate stiff paper to protect from most bumps and knocks. So wrapped, these purchases are sometimes put into a standard new (not reused) paper sack purchased from Sam's Wholesale Club, or some counterpart. Occasionally the sack has been rubber stamped to remind me from whom I made the purchase.

A step down from all of these is the potter who, some years back, apparently recycled some carpet padding from a local dumpster. Carpet padding is a wonderfully safe packing material. But it would have been a much more satisfying transaction (for me, anyway) if, in his dumpster diving, he had chosen carpet padding from someone whose dog had been housebroken.

We have all (hopefully) experienced the step up from this: nicely printed, custom-made paper bags, perhaps in a color other than kraft brown, inside of which purchases are nestled in tissue or even some first-time-use bubble wrap (secured with something other than masking tape).

Handled, custom-printed paper bags are the next step up, in my experience. These sacks sometimes contain tissue-wrapped pots snuggled inside purchased-by-the-pallet cake boxes. A half step up from this (which received a half point extra credit in the grand scheme of things) would include a custom-designed rubber stamp imprint (by hand of course) on the box..smudges optional. (Add one full extra point, if the rubber stamp matches the seller's business card.)

I have also purchased pots that were packaged in well-made, securely constructed gift boxes. Sometimes they are stock boxes; sometimes they are printed with the potter's business name, address and phone (occasionally, a toll-free number!). Some of the nicest gift boxes (even in the kraft variety) have a foil stamp in copper or gold, setting off the commonness of the box, with a classy, legible hot-stamp image.

And very occasionally, I have made a purchase that caused me to wonder whether the packaging may have actually cost me more than the pot: silk-fabric-wrapping, inside a handmade drawstring bag, or a handmade wooden box with or without the fabric treatment just mentioned.

My most memorable purchase with respect to packaging? My treasure was wrapped in rice paper, which was wrapped in fabric, which was in a custom-printed-marbled cardboard box, which was wrapped with handmade rice paper, which was nestled inside a handmade wooden box, which was tied with inch-wide silk ribbon, which was covered in gorgeous wrapping paper, then bubble wrap, and placed inside a first-time-use shipping box that arrived by next-day-air from a foreign country.

Of course, for each of these choices along the packaging spectrum, there are good (legitimate and defensible) reasons for choosing any of these options — except, perhaps, those of the misguided dumpster diver. Fancier, pricier and more extravagant do not necessarily translate to "better." Our choices are driven by our location, our customers/market, our product price range, our style of work, our competitors, our individual sensibilities, our profit margin, our marketing experience, our aesthetic — the list goes on.

Each of us must find a way of packaging that "fits" us, our budget, and most importantly, perhaps, that fits our customers. Occasionally, we will pick up subtle hints from customers regarding the propriety of our choices. Other times, their comments will hit us over the head. Such was the case of the letter that I received many years ago from a customer who had visited my studio on a Saturday, and made a purchase. And while I was not personally at the studio when he arrived, had I been there, his experience, sadly, would most likely have been no different than that which he here recounts.

To receive the full force of this letter, be sure to read it with a stiff English accent. And, if you do not sense the caustic edge that this letter intends (although somewhat mellowed by his high regard for my work and his sincere wish that my studio had done a better job by him with regard to packaging), return to its beginning and start reading all over again.

Dear Mr. Lehman:

I visited Goshen and your gallery last Saturday, March 9th, with the sole purpose of purchasing an example of your saggar-fired porcelain. I believe I have obtained a fine example, and am very pleased with it. On the other hand, I would like to offer a suggestion, which would give customers like myself who are not experts in the field of pottery, more a feeling of having obtained a unique piece of art, a treasure, rather than an object of utility.

Let me contrast the situation with that of a couple of months ago, when visiting a store in Okayama with a Japanese friend. We had traveled a considerable distance by taxi to obtain an example of Bizen pottery. It was his wish that I would do him the honor of accepting a gift both unique and of beauty. The saleslady showed us a number of choice pieces. My friend selected two for me to choose the one that gave me the greatest pleasure. The decision was made, the gift was swaddled in a piece of cloth, lowered into a cloth bag of fine material, put into a white wooden box of exquisite construction, and the whole finally lowered into a fitting carrier bag. As I left the store to get on the train, I was in possession of a treasure. The reverence in the way it was handled and the manner in which it was packaged gave assurance.

Well I guess you must know what is to follow: the limp cardboard box of the type ice-cream cakes are packaged, the heap of paper in the bottom, the bottle wrapped in the same stiff paper - not even the tissue you would get when buying an ordinary cup and saucer. A couple of pieces of magic tape and a sticky seal to close the lid. Finally, the box deposited into a brown paper sack similar to those used at the grocery store.

There is no doubt in my mind which of the two treatments the majority of customers would prefer. As to the difference in cost involved, does one really care?

I now have a dilemma. The bottle is intended as a gift for my Japanese friend who will be visiting the U.S.A. at the end of this month. Should I repackage it in the materials that were used for the Bizen vase? No, I guess it more appropriate to break with the tradition of a neatly wrapped gift, and just hand it to him unadorned.

At the moment, it stands in my curio cabinet and is an object of pleasure to me. I will certainly have to visit Goshen again in the very near future.

Yours sincerely, R. J. Addicott

While one may or may not agree with Mr. Addicott's suggestions and conclusions, over the years, this letter has served well as a reminder to me of just how important packaging decisions can be. I have kept it at the very front of my correspondence file, where I must see it each time I file a letter.

I have always been grateful that Mr. Addicott took the time to write to me. Difficult as it was to receive and read his letter, it has really been a gift to me. I always think of it when making conscious determinations (and not merely decisions by default) about how I send purchases on their way.

And, oh yes, if you are wondering: I no longer have the limp ice-cream cake boxes. I have both stiff paper and tissue paper. For some pieces, I have hand-made drawstring bags. And for those who wish to purchase them (as Mr. Addicott did on his very next visit), I have handmade wooden boxes (at no small expense, I might add): but then for some, "Does one really care?"

This article is reprinted with expressed permission from the June/July/August 1999 issue of Ceramics Monthly Magazine, PO Box 6102, Westerville OH 43086-6102, USA; www.ceramicsmonthly.org

© Dick Lehman, 1999. All rights reserved.

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