"Off with her head!" said the Queen.
March 14, 2011 10:39 PM   Subscribe

I have a small business and sold items on consignment through a local studio. The owner/instructor was my friend, until she attacked me personally and said we couldn’t be friends. I waited for the right time to tell her I was leaving consignment sales. Recently I told her, and due to a conflict she packed up my inventory for me early and is strongly suggesting that I take a break from her classes. I might be banned from her business. I need advice.

Sorry for the length.

I entered into a consignment sale agreement with a woman (Jane) who opened a studio related to an activity/hobby we both enjoy. Jane is an instructor and I have been taking classes from her since she arrived in my local area, two and a half years ago (I have been in the local area, involved in this hobby, for six years). We had what I thought was a nice friendship. I even looked up to her as a mentor.

I started a small related business and began selling on consignment at the studio a year ago, and my product has been popular. There are other consignment sellers, but Jane told me directly that I am her biggest seller, aside from herself. (Even then, it's not much to brag about.)

Everything was great for the first 8 months. I was really happy to be helping support the local studio and doing well with my tiny business. Jane was happy to have me and encouraged me and talked my things up to her other students. Then Jane had issues with her full time day-job and chose to quit in favor of working the studio full time. Our local area is small and there is only a small pool of people interested in our niche activity/hobby. The studio had been in operation for a year and a half and Jane was open about the fact that it was not making much money. In fact, she told me if things did not improve she would be closing the studio this fall. I even donated to a silent auction she held to pay for studio fixtures and my contributions earned her about $200. It would be very challenging to expand the studio enough to realistically support Jane. Maybe impossible, given the realities of acquiring and retaining new students in our area. Jane decided to expand her retail offerings to make money … and that’s when the trouble started.

Without communicating to me, Jane became frustrated with my business presence in her studio. She did not like certain things I was offering, even though she originally encouraged me to stock those items. I interpreted Jane’s sour mood as general business stress and didn’t imagine she was upset with me. There were opportunities for her to talk to me one-on-one and she did not. She sent out a general email to consignment sellers where she said that she was going to ask for items that conflicted with her offerings to be removed, and she said that the consignment sales were taking her more time to manage than they were actually worth, which didn't make me feel so good, since I was trying to boost my sales each month so that I was earning the space I was taking up. It was obvious in the email that I was the one in conflict, but the email itself did not specifically say, ‘hey, stop stocking X and Y please’ (which I would have been more than happy to do if asked nicely). She never mentioned which items were a problem.

I became annoyed with the vagueness and expressed it (no cursing or anything I would have a problem becoming public knowledge) in a reply to Jane, and asked to meet in person. Jane said she preferred to communicate via email and criticized my tone and went off on a very long rant. I decided this was an email tone miscommunication and pushed for a face to face meeting. I offered to take Jane out to lunch so we could start things on a friendly note. Jane refused lunch, so I brought cake as a peace offering. In the conversation, Jane told me that I was taking things personally and that this was just a business decision. She said that we couldn’t be friends because of our business relationship. She then told me that I came off as snotty, that I am moody and argumentative and difficult to work with, and that I am a problem student in her class. (There was an incident that could be taken as moody - I was blue on the anniversary of a good friend’s death. I was also praised in my recent annual work review for being very pleasant and easy to work with.) She also threatened to ban me from the studio entirely if I shared a link to an online shop that sold a particular item, similar to what she carries. I got the impression she sees her students as walking wallets and doesn’t want them going online or buying things from anyone besides herself. This bothers me and I don’t see it as being in the best interest of the community (my friends).

I was really shocked by the whole conversation, as she had not approached me about being a problem student. I was sad to lose her as my friend. I knew the minute she threatened to ban me that I was going to have to get out of consignment sales, but I had just invested a significant amount in product that I could not otherwise get rid of. I decided to be quiet and lay low until March, when I needed to pull my stock from the studio for an event anyway. I didn’t want to come across as retaliatory. I stopped investing in product, and I dropped prices on some of my inventory. I told a couple of people a brief account of what happened, because they asked directly, but otherwise was embarrassed to mention it. Maybe I am snotty and argumentative and difficult? I've become reluctant to interact for fear I am being interpreted as she described me.

The past three months have been an exercise in patience. Jane has been petty about various things. She has restricted the times when I can check my inventory. She apparently lost part of my inventory (only $8 worth) and just shrugged it off to her inability to record things properly. There was a matter where she had ordered a custom item from me, then charged me consignment fees, and I had to argue to get those fees refunded, since the item was never intended for the sales rack. She did refund the money, and I thought that was settled. I have tried to be as little trouble as possible, in class or otherwise. I was just waiting for March. I did not want to get banned.

A couple of my fellow students requested a custom order from me recently. I knew they would be at the studio for their class, so I met them in person to deliver part of their order to make sure it was suitable. I did enter the studio (it was -15 outside) to give them their items. They did not have money, and I waved it off and said to pay me when I had completed the full order. Later on, they asked Jane about paying for the order. Jane emailed me wanting to know the details to take payment herself. I said that it was a custom order and to just let them know they could pay me directly when the order was finished. There was no need for Jane to hold money for me. I also told Jane (same time, different email) I would be removing my inventory from the studio on the 22nd. She can purchase things from me at a wholesale rate if she chooses. I thought she would be happy - all my “conflicting items” would be gone, and she stands to make twice the profit from what items she chooses to buy from me. It’s win-win, right?

Well, Jane is very upset about the custom order. She views custom orders as a threat to her sales. Heck, I think she views the existence of my business in any form a threat. The next day she emails and says she packed up all my inventory early, and it is waiting for me to pick up. She strongly suggested (in bold) that I take a break from classes, citing that I am late to class and also that I barely talk to her and I am not friendly to her. I fully admit that I have sometimes been late to class, but not more than five minutes. People commonly arrive after I do. Our local area is very hazardous to travel in the wintertime. As for not being friendly … well, she said we weren’t friends. I’ve been polite but I’m not going to chit-chat with her. She hasn’t been overly friendly to me.

Jane insists (via the example of a mutual friend who makes custom items but does not sell on consignment) that entering into a consignment relationship with her entitles her to charge consignment fees on custom orders and pretty much anything. This makes me glad she packed up my things so I can get out of her studio even faster.

I told her she had two options: she could ban me, and I would tell everyone that she banned me from her classes and why, and I would tell the exact truth about the whole stupid mess. The other students like me and I think they would be very shocked by this woman’s actions. If she bans me for tardiness and not being friendly enough, she could go nuts and ban anyone. She can’t afford to have students discouraged from attending class. But I don’t know if she knows this.

Her other option is that she can not ban me, and I’ll keep taking classes if I wish and I’ll be perfectly civil to her (but I do not want to see her socially). I won’t tell anyone about how she tried to boot me out of classes, and I won’t deliver custom orders inside the studio.

I told her to let me know what she decided.

Jane is the only instructor for this particular niche activity. It’s not that she’s such a fabulous instructor, but that I really enjoy the company of my fellow students and it has been a cornerstone of my social world for the entire time I have lived in this location. I know everyone in the community. I can be polite and put up with her as an instructor and pay for classes so I can see my friends every week.

My questions:

Is there any way she could be right about being owed consignment fees on custom orders which are specially made for one person and not intended for the sales rack?

Is there a better way to handle this? Should I just offer to pay her $20 to quit bitching at me about the consignment fees? It would be more than what I would owe her. I hate “giving in”, but this ranty petty drama is a waste of my time, and if $20 ended it for good, it would be worth every penny.

I just want to take classes and have my little business making neat things on the side and not have any more crazy issues with this lady. I am moving far away from the local area in 18 months, so I only have to put up with her for that long. If my reputation gets a bit tarnished, in 18 months nobody is going to give a rat's ass.

What options might I be missing?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm having trouble following the nature of your relationship, but I thought this part: I told her she had two options did sound snotty and argumentative (and that's coming from someone who can be, so I should know). I got a "I'm going to embarrass you to all your friends" vibe, which makes you seem like a bully (and which never really works, because even if other people like you, the reasonable ones won't support you acting like a bully). And did you really threaten to share a link with all her students about where they can find cheaper work similar to hers online? That wasn't very nice. And it all comes down to $20?!? Apologize, pay up and let it go. I'm also not clear on why you'd want to take class from someone you feel superior to, but maybe someone who recognizes what it is exactly that you do can help you work through that.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:53 PM on March 14, 2011

"...I thought this part: I told her she had two options did sound snotty and argumentative..."

See, and I thought that was the best part of the story! It totally took balls!

OTOH, this is about very small amounts of money. Plus, I still don't see why you want to continue in an environment where you are unwelcome. Your reasons sound poor. I mean, these are private classes, right? I don't think there is any moral, ethical, or legal reasons this person is required to keep you on as a student if she no longer wishes to teach you.

Furthermore, it was maybe a bad idea to do business on her premises once the relationship changed.

In essence, you are threatening her with the exposure of her (at least perceived) bad behavior towards you to keep you in class. That's blackmail!

Then again, if you can stay on, you personally avoid the embarrassment of "disappearing" from the environment you share with your friends and classmates. And she avoids the drama of that fall out, too.

Maybe that is worth it for both of you??

I like that you stuck up for yourself. I don't like that the stakes are so small.

I think the option you are missing is that you can sell your items on the internets and maintain your relationships without this woman and her studio.
posted by jbenben at 11:16 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is there any way she could be right about being owed consignment fees on custom orders which are specially made for one person and not intended for the sales rack?

If the custom order was placed through her then she deserves the consignment fee. It's a little unclear but that's what it sounds like in the first example, so you should pay her the consignment fee that she already refunded. In the second example where your friends apparently placed custom orders directly with you Jane doesn't deserve the fees. But it was gauche of you to then handle these transactions at her studio, her place of business, with no benefit to her. It's understandable that she'd be miffed in that case, especially since she seems to be increasingly viewing you as a threat to her business while hers is maybe struggling.

I also can't imagine why you want to continue to take classes from her, and it even sounds vaguely like you're trying to blackmail her into letting you continue the classes, although I'm sure that wasn't your intention. And some of what you've done sounds like you want to force interaction upon her (meet in person/lunch/cake/classes/etc). Why continue to make the situation uncomfortable for both of you? It's not like you have some right to take classes there or sell your stuff at her studio.

In any case it's probably time to just move on. Regardless of what relationship you and Jane used to have it's pretty clear she no longer wants a relationship with you and, rightly or wrongly, views you as a threat. Continue to do your work and try to develop a network of friends and clients outside of Jane.
posted by 6550 at 11:20 PM on March 14, 2011

Move on. Why stay where you aren't wanted? Your items are popular, so your customers will probably follow you wherever you go next/direct sales.
posted by elpea at 11:35 PM on March 14, 2011

Yeah, you didn't sound argumentative or snotty when you said "You have two options..." I was impressed with your gumption and practicality.

In all honesty, I think the smartest thing is to leave this drama-queen far, far behind. I realize she is the only person who teaches classes in your hobby, but after being in the hobby for a number of years there are certainly a few people you know on a first-name basis and exchange emails with? If you're looking for the social crafting time, why not start a monthly (or bi-monthly! or weekly!) crafting social time at your house. Tell people to bring their own supplies, or, if you wish, you can provide them for small fees if they want to get them there and you feel like stocking them.

That way you get the chatting and the creative sharing and you miss out on the drama-bonanza that is the crazy woman.
posted by arnicae at 11:35 PM on March 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

And may I suggest that you consider peddling your crafts on etsy? They are modestly-priced (in terms of fees for sellers, though I know others will disagree with me) and I know some crafters think of etsy as their online sewing circle (or knitting group. or felting buddies. or metalsmithing shop. or fishingline co-enthusiasts...it goes on as far as you, and regretsy could ever hope it could).
posted by arnicae at 11:37 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Is there any way she could be right about being owed consignment fees on custom orders which are specially made for one person and not intended for the sales rack?

First of all, the fees and how they are applied should've been laid out in a contract from the start of your relationship. If you have no contract then what you "owe" her is legally vague, which makes it easy for a little bit of animosity to sour the whole relationship very quickly. If you do have a contract, you should read it.

Contract aside, it might help to stop thinking of / calling these fees for custom orders "consignment" fees. Jane is providing and paying for physical place and business entity through which these things were sold. It seems very likely that you wouldn't have gotten these orders at all if not for Jane's shop. For these reasons, it's completely reasonable for her to expect to get a cut of the action, even though these custom items aren't taking up space on a store display for 3 months until somebody buys them. But it's up to you to negotiate a fair rate. Unless there's already a contract that covers this, there is no "correct" percentage written on a tablet somewhere. You and she have to collaborate to invent an arrangement that makes sense for both of you. I would think that you could negotiate a custom order commission that is lower than the consignment fee.

Again, it's up to you to work this out with her. Neither of you gets to unilaterally dictate the terms of your business arrangement, unless one or the other of you decides that you simply don't want a business relationship at all... which seems to be where you're at now anyhow. The chances that you can salvage this, or that it's worth salvaging, seem remote.
posted by jon1270 at 4:32 AM on March 15, 2011

Sounds like she has a poor business plan and she's starting to realize it. Sounds like she'd like to profit from what you've learned selling through her business. She'd like to sell the products you sell and she needs to create personal drama in order to justify cutting you out. She's probably not even aware that she's doing it. Do not call her out on it. The only way you win is by walking away.

Her story will always be that you were difficult to work with and you were jealous of her success. You can't control the story she tells.

Your story, going forward, should be "I was surprised and disappointed it didnt work out...I wish her well."
Any other story you tell will confirm hers. But tell the story I suggest, and you'll sound classy----it will contradict her story of you as unreasonable.
posted by vitabellosi at 8:58 AM on March 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Regardless of who is right and who is wrong, I'd try to eliminate the drama wherever possible. Living in a small(er) town there are a finite number of people and conflicts can really make a mess of relationships.

Were it me, I'd exit the business relationship as politely as possible while carrying yourself gracefully through the situation. In order to minimize the drama, Jane needs a way to also exit the business relationship gracefully. Give her an out.

Draft an email (or a letter with enclosed payment) --

"Dear Jane --
I may have misunderstood the terms of our consignment arrangement and as the single custom order in question is a source of contention, please accept payment of $xxx to cover the cost of the consignment fees for this item. As I have already communicated to you my intention to remove my items from consignment at your shop, please let me know if there are any outstanding issues we need to resolve before our consignment agreement ends. I have enjoyed being able to support your local studio.

The craft community is one I value and I will continue to be involved in crafting. I plan to continue to attend classes and support the studio."

I also don't think is a need to make any "contingency" statement -- ie, if Jane does this, you will do that. Simply clearly state how you plan to proceed. Project an agreeable outcome for both of you and move forward as you have planned and stated to Jane.

Some folks would argue that standing up for the principle is more important. My suggestion is consider the principle, yes, but consider the people first. Is the principle worth the loss or strain in your community? Is the principle worth extending the drama?
posted by countrymod at 10:05 AM on March 15, 2011

Be as polite and cordial as possible, while still sticking up for yourself. Sounds like you're already doing this, but doubting yourself. She's being a pain in the neck. I think you're doing fine.
posted by theora55 at 10:19 AM on March 15, 2011

From the OP:
Thank you all for your perspectives and suggestions. I see that I don't have the experience to have handled this situation in the best way from the start. I should have been more proactive. I probably should have removed my items from the studio after the initial disagreement, but I was hoping that I could wait and pull my things out quietly later, and with the business component removed we could work on being friendly again.

This is indeed a dilemma over a truly pathetic amount of money. It boggles my mind that she thinks it is worth her time to pursue. There wasn't a policy for custom orders and I should have requested that something formal be put together when the initial problem occurred with Jane's order.

I am definitely done with consignment sales at her studio and will not go back. I have already set up an Etsy shop (which was how I planned in advance to transition out).

I don't like being "disappeared" from classes. It seems like my student role is being punished for the issues Jane has with my business role. I don't know what to tell my friends who will ask why I'm not there. I don't know what I will do if I am kicked out. It will make me very sad.

The way I see it, Jane has given me the option of slinking away in the dark, silent and shamed, or I can be honest to my circle and say that, yeah, she banned me, over ~$15 (she doesn't even know it's that much), being a few minutes late to class occasionally, and "not being friendly enough". It won't make me more popular, and nobody will stand up for me, but at least the truth will be out.

Thank you for helping me see both sides, and my mistakes.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 1:41 PM on March 15, 2011

If she's truly struggling, it's not a small sum of money. That $20 could easily be her grocery money for the week. It's probably a good idea for you to use some version of the excellent letter drafted by countrymod, give her the money and take a little time off from class. It's ok to manufacture an excuse about this to your friends. In a couple weeks when this has blown over a bit, talk to her about resuming going to class. Giving yourself distance can only improve this situation.

Don't harm this woman's ability to feed herself by airing your private problems with her. I know that it's painful and you want to be seen to be in the right. But it's not taking the high road to try and make your friends take sides. I know how satisfying it would feel in the short term, but think about how you would feel three or six months down the line if she's forced to close the studio from lack of business.

If you need some blase excuses about why you're taking a little time off:
A very minor physical malady (sprained ankle or wrist) that the doctor told you to take it easy on but is otherwise completely fine.
Needed a few nights to wrap up a super important work project.
Needed a few nights to paint your cabinets.
A friend/family member visiting from out of town for a night or two.
Seasonal allergies.
Sudden urgent volunteering need at a local charity.

Just something very minor that you can brush off when you come back to class. The best excuse is one with some truth in it. Stopping right now doesn't mean stopping forever. But a break and distance will help both you and Jane.
posted by stoneweaver at 2:05 PM on March 15, 2011

I'm really sorry you feel kicked out of classes. But realistically, wouldn't you feel kind of uncomfortable in the classes anyway? You won't be vanishing - people who could be customers already have your contact details, right (or if not, get them to them PDQ!). And your friends will know where you're going.

Realistically, crafting stores with casual classes have populations that come and go all the time. So, I suspect that most of the people won't realize there is anything more than the ordinary busy schedule, different interests involved when you stop coming.

Try not to be too hard on yourself, or care too much about what everyone else is thinking about you. Hugs.
posted by arnicae at 7:22 PM on March 15, 2011

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