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Saturday, May 06, 2006

Deciphering the Market


I managed to snatch a nice group photo of a lot of the pipes that we have in stock here at the moment - This pic gathers together every pipe on hand except for a few Ligne Bretagnes. The only LB I managed to fit in is the nice smooth Canadian, over on the left. It does make for an interesting bit of size scale comparison between the Classic grade mortas and the larger Signature grade. For those who aren't on our email list, I've posted four new mortas today - one Signature grade sandblast, and three smooth Classics... or rather, two Classics and a Spoon.

My topic idea today was spun off some comments I wrote in the email notice, namely that it can sometimes be quite a challenge predicting what buyers will like! And, it can also be a mystery. I do a lot of original designs - I guess I am known for it. I enjoy, and value, genuine creativity more than just making variations of popular shapes that are guaranteed to sell. I want to stress, however, that this is not another of those, "I am such a radical outcast, too good for the establishment, too talented for the plebians to recognize, I'll never deign to lower myself to produce for the masses"-types of precocious rants that usually come from wannabe "artistes" that are just trying to succour their own egos over their inability to connect with success. I do believe there is such a thing as art that is so exotic that it can't ever hope for mainstream success... but is still excellent art... as well as art that is just innately lousy, and that's why it never connects.

But how to tell the difference between the two!!

And perhaps more importantly, how to consciously balance the need to make what people want with the drive to just "play", and make what we-the-pipemakers want to make. For instance, my pipe The Mariner - This was something done totally for myself. I worked on it in my spare time, I never expected it to sell or even to be popular, but I kept at it because it was a personal project - a little tribute to an early inspirational figure for me and also just a fun piece. I did not expect it to sell and it has thus far met my expectations, though it has only been available for a month.

(I should digress here to mention that I consider myself deliriously lucky to be able to make work that usually sells quickly. For whatever reason, good fortune, kind watching spirits, or whatever, my pipes have consistently sold fast for eight straight years now. Not a day goes by that I am not thankful for this! But, it produces the amusing flip side which is that, whenever a pipe sits unsold for a few weeks.... and consider that many high grades have shelf life measured in months or sometimes years... it sometimes spurs me to fret, and wonder what I've done horribly wrong with a particular piece)

In any event, the Mariner is quite pretty to me but I never expected anyone else to like it. I am a bit surprised, however, that I still have the best shape example of my Moebius Bolus design in stock - That is one that I'd expected people to snap up like crazy. When a pipemaker finds himself looking at a hot seller that didn't sell hot, he asks himself questions like:

Do people just hate the shape? I like it very much, myself, and will be pleased to keep it and smoke it if it never moves, but it does give great pause to the idea of making more.

Is it a matter of timing? Everyone is at Chicago, or saving for Chicago. Pipe sales are dead for the weeks beforehand.

Is it perceived as too expensive? (I must admit to wondering, if the pipe had a Halloween Pipe stamping on it, it likely would have sold instantly for twice the price....) Given the labor intensive process of making a Moebius shape, they will never be cheaper than Signature grades, so if they can't sell for the prices they need to command, they just won't be made.

Am I just worrying needlessly? Maybe I should just relax and realize that it will likely sell, just on a more "normal" timetable.

I don't say this strictly for myself, but rather to express what most pipemakers go through as they try to figure out exactly what the market wants from them. The flip advice is normally, "Don't try to figure out the market, just make what you like and if it is good, then the market will come to you." This, while bearing a lot of truth, is unfortunately a bit simplistic, because as working artisans we do need to eat. Also, in my personal opinion, making only "play work", ie, fun goofing-around, is ultimately overly self-indulgent - if a creator of any type isn't willing to consider and try and please the desires of his audience, he is essentially engaging in ego masturbation - It isn't all about the maker, it's a compact between maker and buyer that makes the difference between what is defined as quality work and what is just wasted effort.

This brings me to the title today - How does one decipher what one's individual market wants? And, now that I've typed far more than I intended, that will have to be continued on another day....