BALI: It had been weeks since a customer last stepped inside Safira Klau Gallery, a small art and furniture shop in the Kerobokan area of Bali, Indonesia.
The area used to be buzzing with tourists and interior designers from all over the world looking to refurbish their apartments, houses and villas, or to buy statues and small ornaments to decorate their homes.
But since the pandemic, the area resembled a ghost town with very few cars passing the small, winding road, let alone stopping to shop.
Gallery owner Vincen Klau said last year he could make a gross income of between 40 million rupiah and 70 million rupiah (US$2,669 and US$4,670) a month selling chairs, dining tables, wall decorations and small statuettes – carved in the rustic and abstract style of Eastern Indonesian wood art.
“Now, it is quieter than my quiet months,” he told CNA.
Klau said he would count himself lucky if he could get 15 million rupiah a month, which is barely enough to pay rent for his store and house, salary for his employee and various bills.
The shop is chock-full of artworks he has not been able to sell in months, collecting dust and occupying almost every inch of the tiny property, down to the store’s parking space.
Some of his unsold pieces, he said, were supposed to be for a buyer from Java who had abruptly cancelled his order.
“My main clients are people who are building or renovating their villas. Now, all construction and renovation projects had stopped,” he said.
Across Kerobokan, many galleries that could not afford to pay the bills had to close their doors temporarily and Klau worried that his store could be next.
Not wanting his store to go bust, Klau – a short, muscular man in his fifties who until recently did not have an email address – started the gallery’s Instagram account in late June.
But due to his unfamiliarity with the world of social media, his account has only attracted five followers as of mid-September.
The account was barely maintained with the latest post dating back to Jun 24 and the majority of the photos were amateurishly shot, depicting a cluster of random pieces with no clear focal point.
Nearly all of the posts had no caption and when they did, the captions simply read “mask” or “Timorese statuettes”.
Klau said that he does not understand how social media works. As a result, there has not been many curious potential customers liking or leaving a comment on his Instagram posts, let alone expressing interests in buying.
The gallery owner is not the only one struggling with online marketing in Bali. Too used to walk-ins, the craftsmen find their source of income drying up in recent months.
The resort island, which economy is almost entirely reliant on tourism, has seen 59 per cent drop in the number of tourists in the first half of the year, according to the Indonesian Statistics Agency.
When the pandemic hit Indonesia in March, the number of new tourists arriving to Bali was reduced to almost zero.
It rebounded when Bali eased restrictions for domestic tourists on Jun 31 but the number of arrivals in July was a mere 11 per cent compared to the same period last year.
With the central government suspending its visa-free and visa-on-arrival policies for international travellers, businesses such as craft workshops that cater mainly to foreigners take the worst hit.
Many of the artisans who are reluctant to sell online are held back by their lack of exposure to technology and social media.
“I don’t understand technology,” said Made Ariani.
For the last 15 years, she has been selling wooden boxes and souvenirs at the Sukawati Art Market – a half-hour drive from provincial capital Denpasar.
“My children understand technology better than me, but they don’t have the time to help me. My daughter is already working and my son is still too little,” she said.
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Ariani said her main clients are souvenir shops in tourist areas like Kuta and Denpasar. Before the pandemic, they could order up to 500 souvenirs from her in one transaction.
“But they have all closed,” she said, adding that she now relies on the very few customers and locals who come to the art market.
Wayan Cedit, 37, also expressed little interest in selling his wood craft online.
“I don’t have Wi-Fi,” he told CNA with a laugh.
“(Selling online) is too complicated. Even my friends who do (sell online) said it is complicated.”
Among his worries is dealing with fussy customers online.
“We sell handmade goods. We can’t make two products which are exactly alike. Customers will be disappointed if they get a product which is different from the pictures. They will want their money back. And that happened to my friends,” he said.
“(Selling online) is just too difficult. It’s not like dealing with real people. Customers can see and feel the products in person. You can’t do that online.”
Cedit said he used to make a gross income of 70 million to 100 million rupiah a month and could employ up to 15 freelance workers at his workshop.
“Now, it’s virtually zero,” he said, adding that his workshop had not produced anything in months and his freelance workers have now become farmers.
Of the 68,000 small- and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) registered in Bali, only a handful have social media accounts. “The percentage is very small,” chief of the Bali Cooperative, Small and Medium Enterprises Agency Wayan Mardiana told CNA.
The Bali government has trained a number of SMEs selling food and beverages to go online, with the help of ride-hailing companies GoJek and Grab, but has not been able to do the same for handicraft SMEs.
“Unlike food, their market is domestic and foreign tourists, not local Balinese,” he said.
“There are many artisans who are not familiar with technology. They are not familiar with social media. We have to change their mindsets and we are trying to come up with a training programme so they can sell their goods online,” Mardiana added.
POWER OF SOCIAL MEDIA
The challenges cited by the artisans were mainly just excuses, said a workshop owner who has tasted success in using Instagram to promote his work.
I Wayan Gede Mancanegara, who runs the Ganesha Art Gallery, said many of the business operators claimed they stay away from social media because they do not want their work to be copied.
“Some said their Internet connection is not good. But these are all excuses. They just don’t want to learn new things,” the 32-year-old said.
His workshop in Kedisan village – a 20-minute drive from the nearest town Ubud – is among the few places that are still busy working on wood art orders and commissions. The fourth generation artisan has diversified his product line to offer sleek and modern designs alongside traditional Balinese style wood arts.
On a recent Friday, the workshop was abuzz with the sound of hammers and chisels as four workers carved a wooden sign for a cafe, an ornately decorated door and a statue of the mythical bird Garuda, the official symbol of Indonesia.
Lying on the floor at one corner of the hilltop workshop was a soon-to-be finished name plate, intricately carved for a high-profile politician from Jakarta.
The shop has only been around for less than two years, but it has already attracted the attention of President Joko Widodo, Bali governor I Wayan Koster and a number of high-ranking officials and politicians.
It also attracted international clienteles, with orders coming in from the United States, Germany and Singapore.
Part of the reason for his success was his savviness to promote his work on Instagram, set up as soon as he opened his business.
“I felt that having a social media presence was essential. It is especially relevant during corona where everyone could not or would not go out or travel,” he told CNA.
Mancanegara said he tried to upload at least one post or story a day to keep his 2,300 followers engaged.
He added that 90 per cent of his sales since the pandemic hit can be attributed to his social media efforts. Before, 40 per cent of his income came from locals, tourists and expatriates visiting his workshop in person.
But that does not mean business has not slowed down. A drop in walk-in customers and a devastated global economy that discourages people from spending on arts and crafts have caused his revenue to drop by 30 to 40 per cent.
Mancanegara is trying to convince artisans from his village to at least try selling and promoting their work online.
“I told them,‘There are no customers coming to our workshops now. Why don’t you promote your work on social media? I got many orders from social media. Why don’t you ask your kid to set up for you?’” he said.
He has helped three neighbouring workshops to set up their own social media accounts, besides sharing tips and tricks on how to get their audiences engaged.
“I also set up a different (Instagram) account for those who don’t know how to start social media. Some don’t have galleries of their own. So I act as the account’s administrator and promote their work,” he said.
Only two people have agreed to be featured at the collective account so far. “But I want all of the workshops in my village to join so they can realise the power of social media,” Mancanegara said.
The potential reach of social media, for instance, should not be underestimated, especially when one has quality goods to offer. “If you deliver quality products they will order more, recommend us to their friends or tag us on their own social media accounts,” he said.
Mancanegara is not afraid that the fellow artisans could one day be his competitors.
“I want people in my village to be able to have some income. For every workshop that can stay afloat during this hard time, there will be a dozen artisans who can continue to be productive,” he said.