Originally written for Merion Art's blog
“Cashiers”, “sales staff”, “register guy”, “The Lady at the Counter”- we go by many names. We are art materials retailers, and we are your point of contact during your shopping experience. When you’ve been working in the Art Retail business for awhile, you begin to see trends in questions you’re asked, problems you need to solve, and issues you encounter over and over. Despite this, one of the things I hear most frequently is “NOTHANKS!JUSTLOOKING!” in response to “Can I help you with anything?”
While I understand the impulse to avoid overzealous salespeople, as someone on the other side of the counter, I want to explain why you should chat with the cashier. Aside from the obvious facts that 1) it’s our job to ask customers if they need help, and 2) the sales floor staff know where all the things live, there are plenty of reasons why it’s a good idea not to tune out the sales staff at your local art store. In art as in many other aspects of life, communication is key. Here are four reasons why talking to your art materials professionals is a really good plan.
1.) We don’t mind special ordering items for you: In store, we stock about 30,000 items on a regular basis. Our suppliers carry hundreds of thousands of different art and architecture supplies. In a brick-and-mortar store we’re limited in what we can keep in stock all the time. But we know that a huge part of making art is pushing boundaries, trying new things, and experimenting with new ways to use various media.
Sometimes this requires an artist to reach beyond standard oils, acrylics and charcoal- for instance, trying new painting mediums, unusual colors, non-standard sizes and shapes of paper and canvas, and any number of other hard-to-find specialty materials. We are constantly ordering from a variety of suppliers, and we are more than happy to special order whatever items you need. It’s no trouble to us, and we love to be able to help our customers. However, we won’t know you need it unless you let us know. If you don’t see what you want, just ask. Heck, even if you don’t know what you want, ask anyway, and we’ll see if we can figure out what would work best for you!
2.) Our staff are experienced artists- so please ask technical questions: Sometimes at a big box store, you’ll encounter a well-meaning employee who was chosen for their ability to handle a cash register, but who has no in-depth knowledge of the merchandise they sell. With art supplies, that would be a huge disadvantage. At small indie stores, floor staff are not “just cashiers,” they are artists with experience. Every member of our staff is required to prove their familiarity with various art materials. Many of us have college degrees in art, and most produce and sell our artwork professionally.
If there is an item you’re considering buying, chances are one of us has already tried it in our own work. Working on the sales floor of an independent art supply store, you become an art teacher who specializes in very fast lessons. We are both qualified and eager to answer your technical questions, whether its “Will this work with that?” or “Which brand is better?” or “How do water-mixable oils work, really?” Like many professionals, we love to talk shop and we love to share our knowledge in order to help your art to improve. We don’t just want to make a sale, we want to solve your unique problems and get you the right supply for the job. Never feel like you’re bothering us, and never feel like we won’t be able to answer your questions. If we’re not personally experienced with the issue at hand, we’ll find you someone who is.
3.) A great reason to have a long conversation with an art materials professional is the fact that there’s more than one way to solve most problems- If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail; but at an indie art store, we’ve got a whole toolbox! When you need to figure out the best way to do something artistic, it’s good to remember that often there isn’t one best way, and there are any number of good ways.
Different mediums can solve the same problems with different results. Different painters have varied methods for painting the same sky, hair, and trees. Different primers have various effects on the paintings they produce. Sometimes you’ll need to rethink a problem from a new perspective, or try a few different things before you arrive at your right way. Talking through a problem with your art retailers is a good way to figure out creative new approaches- if we haven’t encountered the problem ourselves, we act as a clearinghouse for other artist’s problems, and we may have heard of something that will give you a new point of view.
4.) Art supplies have intended uses and going outside those uses can have unintended results- and art materials professionals might be able to keep you from making terrible mistakes. Here are some dramatic real-life examples: I’ve had customers ask for oil paint... to paint their bodies for a college football game. I’ve had customers request day-glo spray paint… for people to spray on each other at a kids paint party. I’ve had customers buy chalk pastels... for coloring hair. None of these things are a good idea. The only paint you should use on a body is body-paint (it’s right there in the name!). I managed to talk all of these people out of inadvertently doing potentially harmful things to themselves (except chalk pastel-hair-girl- that wasn’t really harmful, just very, very messy). I asked “What kind of project are you working on?” and through a series of follow-up questions, I steered them away from terrible ideas and towards the correct product (body paint, body paint, and hair dye respectively).
If they hadn’t talked to their Friendly Neighborhood Art Retailer, they could’ve been dealing with full-body rashes, pigment poisoning, ruined clothes, allergic reactions, and sad, uncleanable, fluorescent spray-painted pre-teens (to say nothing of wasted high-end art supplies- the football guys were going to use Williamsburg Artist Oils!). On the less physically terrible side, I’ve also stopped people from melting styrofoam sculptures with spray paints (propellants can melt foam), from painting plastics with water-based paints (they will peel), and from using Sharpies for things they want to be permanent (Sharpies are notoriously not lightfast, and fade easily). Talking to your art retailer can stop you from making easily preventable mistakes, and even save you an unfortunate trip to the doctor (while spray-painted neon yellow).
Art materials retailers- we’re always there: solving problems, finding the right products, offering unique approaches, and preventing catastrophes...using our powers for good, in a world full of murky and uncertain product choices. Next time you see “The Lady at the Counter”, remember, we’re here to help, and we’d love to chat. So... Can we help you?