I suspect that having a good time as a buyer at craft fairs, if you make handmade products, is one of the factors that encourages you to sell at a craft show yourself. For me, at least, that’s part of my history. For years I visited craft shows, admired and bought merchandise, and in the back of my mind thought, “I really should be doing this.” Five years ago I set up my first craft show booth. Ironically, it was the lack of business at that venue that led me to Etsy, where my audience is much larger and statistically I have more hope of reaching buyers. At the same time, I’m a very small fish in an immense ocean of handmade sellers. As of today’s count, there are 583,354 shops on Etsy. Admittedly, many of the sellers (like me) have more than one active shop, geared to different types of merchandise (JN Originals, Mister PenQuin and 2nd Chance Treasures). That hasn’t seemed to matter, though—buyers seem to be making their purchases online these days more frequently, perhaps because it enables them to shop quickly over a wide range of venues without having to drive from place to place. And that saves both gas and time.
All of this makes me wonder, honestly, how many booth fees are paid by craft sellers, all to no avail. I also wonder how many crafters sell their merchandise at craft shows at prices far below the time and materials they have invested in their products, in the hope that they will at least be reimbursed for their booth fee. I can tell you that at the last two craft shows where I sold earlier this season, I made only a few dollars over my booth fee, definitely not enough to make me even think about going back next year if profit is my main motivation. And I was not alone in sporting these results. Ironically, while I tried to sell my items in person, sales were taking place in my online shops. I still have one more craft show coming up this year, a venue where I did very well last year and hope to have a repeat scenario later this month.
But I am not really sure, at this point, despite all the advice I’ve read and written, what constitutes a successful show. As a seller, you have to prepare an attractive booth, provide a range of products with a common theme, and set different price points to appeal to different types of buyers. You need to be friendly but not overbearing in your approach to buyers, and provide a way for them to find you after the show. Signage, business cards and appropriately labeled packaging are helpful in this regard. But you cannot control external factors such as advertising and the number of buyers who actually patronize the venue, nor can you control the mix of sellers. In a word, every show is a roll of the dice, weighted in favor of the event’s host who will not lose, no matter what, because the organizer collects fees from everyone, often the buyers themselves, not just the sellers.
This weekend John and I visited Ankeny’s 32nd annual Santa’s North Pole Village Craft Show, which is touted as having about 300 craft sellers and vendors all in one place. Well, actually they are located in three buildings: Northview Middle School, Parkview Middle School and Prairie Ridge Middle School. You can take the shuttle that is provided between the schools, or drive your own vehicle to each venue, which is what John and I prefer to do. Out of curiosity, I counted the actual number of sellers at each site, based on the event’s vendor list, and discovered there were 232 booths, plus one outdoor seller. So, there is a bit of a discrepancy between how this show bills itself and reality. But the organizers do advertise well. You can read about the event in newspapers, on the event Web site, on Facebook, and even in e-mails that are sent. So, all of this is good.
I have never sold at this site, but a friend I know mentioned that when she paid for a booth, the only information she received about it was confirmation, the location of the building, and set-up and take-down times. When she arrived at the building, another seller had to tell her where the booth map was so that she could locate and set up her selling space. None of the organizers approached her either during or after the craft show to see if her needs were being met or if she had any questions or helpful suggestions. No food services were provided for sellers, either, which—to be fair—you can plan around if you know about it in advance. Did my friend “make her booth fee?” The year she split the booth space and fees with a friend, yes, but not when she had the space all to herself.
It’s difficult to evaluate a show based on the results of one person’s experience, but often that is all a craft seller has to form an opinion about whether to apply for a show. As John and I walked from booth to booth on Saturday, we could only evaluate results based on what our eyes and feet told us. We noticed that some booths had no traffic at all, while a few others seemed to attract all the buyers. Sometimes extremely low prices, $7 for a pair of earrings, for example, was driving the foot traffic to one booth. John calls these types of products “loss leaders,” products that bring a buyer through the proverbial door into your shop, or in this case, a booth. Usually loss leaders are items sold at a low price (often near or below cost), but they pay for your booth fee (or an ad for a sale) and are intended to encourage people to look at your other products. In a perfect world, you make a low profit from a loss leader and don’t end up with a giveaway!
In another case, the novelty of the merchandise and a friendly patter brought business to a booth where a farm couple selling at its first show displayed fire starters and fireplace logs with a burning time of 2-1/2 hours. The fire starters and logs are comprised of wood chips from their farm and melted-down candle wax from a candle factory that would otherwise have discarded it. They are perfect for your firepit, and burn cleanly.
Many of the booths that did not have their merchandise moved up close to the aisle—in other words, you had to walk several feet into the booth to see the products—were being skipped by shoppers. Were these types of booths threatening to buyers in the same way that invading a person’s personal space might be? Maybe. This was not true of all booths set up in this manner, however. Having enough space to move and observe merchandise, not having a seller breathing down on top of you, and having interesting and well-made products are always factors that attract buyers.
I want to take a moment to talk about the size of a selling venue. I have sold at small craft shows that had only 35 to 40 vendors, usually a mix of both craft sellers and home business-type vendors. It is critical, when you mix both types of businesses, that there is a balance. If your advertising says you are a craft show, then that is what buyers expect, and their main motivation for attending the show. If they don’t find what they expect, business will likely be slow. Not having enough variety at a show is a sale killer, too, or—for that matter—not having enough new sellers or new types of products. It may be unrealistic to expect high attendance at a small show. Expect a lower booth fee for smaller venues, and avoid like wildfire a higher fee if the organizer does not provide value that justifies the cost. Of course, you should define for yourself what is valuable. It might be having a great variety of booths in one place; it could be a conveniently located and well-timed venue; it might simply be a friendly venue where you enjoy the selling experience for whatever it is, or it might be an abundance of good advertising. Sometimes the value of a show is in the contacts you make for future business, not the actual sales you tally.
On the other hand, really large craft shows have both advantages and disadvantages. It is more likely that there will be a good variety of booths at a large show, ample foot traffic, and also that there is enough space not to have two jewelry booths sitting next to each other or across the aisle. But from a buyer perspective, having more than 100 to 150 booths in one location makes you both foot- and eyesore. John and I only made it through the first of three buildings this weekend before all the sales merchandise melded together visually in our eyes, our feet became tired, and our pocketbook emptied. And as buyers, because we had visited this show previously, we were on the lookout for something novel or fresh. Unless it was a favorite booth, we skipped most previously-visited sellers and made a beeline for the newer sellers. So, it’s unrealistic for a seller to expect that a show that did well in previous years will continue to do so, unless there is something obviously new for repeat buyers to view. I’ll temper this last statement, however, with an admission that certain types of merchandise seem to do well at most fairs. These include candles, bags, and baskets, among many other types of products. Jewelry booths also seem to see a lot of foot traffic, but the competition in this area is fierce because there are often so many jewelry sellers at craft shows. Some craft shows limit the percentage of this type of merchandise for this very reason.
So, what am I looking for personally at a craft show when I set up my booth? I like to do at least one craft show a year. In a perfect world, that show is well advertised, there is a good variety of merchandise, mostly handmade, and the buyers do more than just browse. They buy, in other words. But in reality, a show is successful for me if I have fun at the show, the atmosphere is friendly, and I learn a bit more about what my buyers are looking for. In other words, their feedback is an important part of the product development process. And yeah, I do like to at least “make back my booth fee.” Because my products sell much better online than in person, likely because their potential audience is the world and not a neighborhood, I will continue to place the majority of my products in that online market. But there is still a place for craft shows if I have realistic expectations. How about you? How do you define craft fair success? As a consumer, what balance of products (handmade vs. commercial) is important for you to still perceive a venue as a craft fair? How do you feel about a small versus a large venue from a buyer’s viewpoint? What are your turn-offs and turn-ons as both a seller and buyer of handmade items at craft shows?
© 2013 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.