Nov 052017

This past Saturday was the culmination of months’ worth of evenings and weekends when I crocheted an endless stream of women’s winter accessories: head warmers, scarflettes, fingerless gloves and boot cuffs. I sell these items at only two craft fairs a year, which is likely my capacity because I also work full-time in an office. It can be challenging to create as much product as needed, or to start a new line. This year saw the introduction of boot cuffs.

Saturday’s craft show—the first time at this particular venue—went well. My husband and I rose early to set up our booth space at Santa’s North Pole Village in Ankeny, Iowa. When the doors opened at 9:00 a.m., we were ready to sell, the shoppers were lined up outside the doors, and we were off to the proverbial races.

You never know how a venue will turn out, so you have to be prepared for anything. Two weeks earlier, my husband and I traveled to Clarinda, Iowa to sell the same crocheted goods at Clarinda Craft Carnival. This has been an excellent selling venue for us in past years, but this year the weather was unseasonably warm—weather that does not exactly put winter apparel in the minds of shoppers. Our results, while not awful, were also not spectacular. The lesson learned—and you always learn lessons everywhere you sell—is that it probably would not be a bad idea to make part of my merchandise less weather-dependent. I have already started a list of possibilities, not least among them crocheted lace earrings.

This past weekend’s venue had a number of positive factors going for it, cooperative colder weather among them. The booth space was larger than other venues where I have sold, enabling me to set up my tables in a shallow U-shape. At the two ends of that U-shape, I set up props—one tall boot and one short boot at one end, each accessorized with a boot cuff. For the boot cuffs in particular, having real boots on hand as “models” served a useful purpose; at Clarinda’s craft fair, some people had no idea what boot cuffs are. In fact, many were more familiar with the term “boot toppers” than boot cuffs, and a few people couldn’t understand why you’d wear them at all. I guess that just meant they weren’t my typical customers; you can’t take these things personally!

On the other end of the U-shape, I stood up a table mannequin who wore a head warmer and scarflette. This gave me the opportunity to show how you wear both accessories.

In the case of the scarflette, I could point to the button on the back side of the flower embellishment that allows the two ends of the scarflette to cross and fasten into place. Inevitably, this led to an explanation that there is a second way to fasten the scarflette: you can scrunch up one of the tails and slide it beneath the petal openings of the flower, using friction to keep the tails of the scarflette crossed.

At the end of this weekend’s craft show, John and I packed everything up, counted the earnings, and talked about what we had learned at both craft shows this year.

  1. A prop—not just a picture—is worth a thousand words. One woman’s boot cuff is another woman’s boot topper, and sometimes no one knows what either term means.
  2. Pay attention to traffic flow. Foot traffic was heavy at the Ankeny craft show, moving counterclockwise around the gym in which we were located. The shallow U-shape provided a welcome space for people to stop for a breather, invited conversation, and subsequently drew them to the merchandise.
  3. Pay attention to customers’ comments. A color that I wear a lot—jade—was nowhere in sight among my products. Next year I will remedy that omission!
  4. Don’t set up your booth display the same way at all craft shows. Even if you have sold at the venue previously, you create customer excitement with variety. Brick-and-mortar retail stores do the same thing, rearranging the location of merchandise frequently to draw attention. Think about booth arrangement before you arrive, and get clarification from the show’s organizers if you have no idea what to expect. Often a map of the venue is available online or via email.
  5. Weather can be a factor in people’s shopping habits. Take this into consideration when you evaluate your show’s results. If I had never sold my products previously in Clarinda, I might have come to the conclusion that this is not a good venue for me. Instead, I need to think about how I can minimize the effect of weather on what I can sell.
  6. When you evaluate the worthiness of a craft venue, don’t look at only your sales. There are many factors that define success. Consider not only your expenses (booth fees, travel, meals, hotel accommodations), but also how much you have learned about your customers, future product possibilities, and possibly also other selling opportunities.

Do you typically take the time after a craft show to do more than count your earnings and take inventory of your stock? It’s critical to hold an honest conversation with yourself and possibly a partner to evaluate what went well, what didn’t work, and what you can do differently in the future. In the process, you’ll create better possibilities for your next selling event.

© 2017 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

Sep 172016

It’s that time of year once more, when preparations for fall craft shows are in full swing for crafters everywhere. Although it may feel, especially during the last few weeks before a show takes place, that things aren’t coming together fast enough, preparations for a successful selling event actually begin many months earlier. Unless you are selling at the same venues every year, you’ll have researched different possibilities ahead of time. Registration usually takes place at least six months before a craft show, although it is not unusual for confirmation to arrive as late as a month or two before an event. Meanwhile, you still have to take care of details under the assumption that you will be selling where you have registered.


This post describes some of the usual tasks involved before, during and after craft shows, once you have registered for an event. Whether you sell at only two craft shows a year—which is typical for me—or as many as half a dozen craft shows or more, you’ll go through these preparations.

  1. Identify your best sellers. When you sell at a craft show, it’s not particularly effective to bring everything you make. That’s sort of like throwing mud up against a wall to see what sticks. To be fair, however, you probably will learn what your best sellers are over time. You may have to fail at a craft show before you can succeed. This also means you may need to sell at the same venue several times, tweaking different factors before you discover what works best for you. What I have learned for myself, for example, is that my crocheted winter accessories outsell my handmade books at craft shows, so obviously that is where I need to focus.


  1. Design your booth. What I appreciate as a shopper often guides me in setting up my booth as a seller. An attractive display, merchandise that is organized and accessible, and easily visible signage are important to me as a shopper, so those are some of the basics to which I adhere when I set up a booth. Make sure you know ahead of time whether the ambient lighting is appropriate for your items, or whether you will need to supplement it. Don’t assume electricity will be available; research ahead of time and pay for accessibility, if necessary. Be prepared for different table setup configurations, too, unless you have been guaranteed a specific location in advance. Although many venues will rent tables to you, you increase your flexibility when you bring your own tables. I have four-foot, five-foot and six-foot long heavy-duty folding tables that I can set up in various ways. Additionally, design your booth so that your merchandise does not lie entirely flat. The closer you can bring items to eye level, the easier you make it for your customers to shop. This also makes your booth more visually interesting. Don’t be afraid to invest in fixtures; over time that investment will pay off. The same thought applies to attractive table coverings; even if you use table cloths (as I do) instead of fitted coverings, make sure you stick to one color that doesn’t detract from what you sell, and make sure the table covering extends to the floor, especially from the customer’s side.
Blogging Business Artisans friend, Edi Royer, uses fitted black coverings for her tables. She varies the height of merchandise on the table, and has a shelving unit for her laser-etched glassware.

Blogging Business Artisans friend, Edi Royer, uses fitted black coverings for her tables. She varies the height of merchandise on the table, and has a shelving unit for her laser-etched glassware.

  1. Price your merchandise. I cannot state strongly enough how important it is for your items to be clearly marked with prices. Many shoppers will simply move on to the next booth if they have to ask the seller about the price. Absolutely use price tags, consider using removable adhesive labels that don’t leave a residue, and use tent cards. Post clearly whether or not you accept credit cards. Most people bring a limited amount of cash with them and don’t want to spend it in only one booth. Research payment options such as Square, PayPal, or Etsy that use a smart phone to process credit card transactions. (See also this post, My new Square reader finally arrived.)
  1. Have an advertising plan. Sometimes customers are not ready to purchase from you at a craft show. Provide as much information as you can, answering questions and suggesting options. Most importantly, prepare for post event sales by having business cards on hand that provide contact information. Consider having a banner printed for your booth that similarly provides contact information. Vista Print, for examples, prints high-quality banners for under $20 and even provides online design options. If you are doing multiple craft shows, have a stack of handouts available that provides buyers with dates and locations. You can also invite buyers to join your email list; be very clear, however, how this email list will be used. Many people feel that email lists are a source of spam.
I use a banner from Vista Print that I pin to the table covering for my handmade books.

I use a banner from Vista Print that I pin to the table covering for my handmade books.

  1. Arrange for help. Will you need assistance in toting tables, shelves and merchandise to the craft show? Will you need help after the show, when you vacate your selling space? It takes energy to set up selling space, energy you’ll need to use when you chat with potential buyers, so the more help you get with housekeeping tasks, the better you’ll feel overall about the selling experience. It’s nice, too, if you can find a friend or relative to help you sell; you never know when you will have to leave the booth for bathroom or snack breaks, or to take care of other business.
My husband, John, helps me during every craft show with booth set-up, take-down and selling.

My husband, John, helps me during every craft show with booth set-up, take-down and selling.

  1. Plan for the next show. Be situationally aware while you are at a craft show. Listen to your buyers’ conversations, noting suggestions for wished-for items or alterations. Obviously you will not be able to please every person, but you can take note of any patterns in questions or comments. Keep your eyes open for booth display ideas, and take time to chat with other sellers. You never know what selling tips you will pick up. When you get home from a craft show, assess your results. What items sold out? What items were requested that you did not have on hand? What items sold best or least? What items do you need to replace before the next show? Identify what went well, what could be improved, and what steps you can take to make future changes.

You’ll find other tips for craft show preparation in some of my older posts, as follows:

If you are planning to sell at one or more craft shows this fall, what preparation tips can you add to this list?

© 2016 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

Nov 042013

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.

LeAnn Frobom, sells vintage items in Aunt Pheba's Vintage (left) and PasqueFlower Creations (right) on Etsy.

LeAnn Frobom sells vintage items in Aunt Pheba’s Vintage (left) and PasqueFlower Creations (right) on Etsy.

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.

Craft show

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 is not easy to cover a booth fee of $135 when you are selling products with a price tag below five dollars. This cute little greeting card was made by someone named “J.W.” No business card was provided.

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.

These fire starter log chips were produced by Kent and Amy Allen on their farm in Altoona, Iowa. Visit Hall-o-Logs for more information.

These fire starter log “slices” are produced by Kent and Amy Allen on their farm in Altoona, Iowa. The slice looks a lot like a cow pie, but smells quite good! Visit Hall-O-Log for more information.

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.

The seller who designed this beautiful bracelet moved her booth tables close to the outer edges of her space, and raised the tables to make jewelry easy to view. One way of accomplishing this is to use bed risers below the table legs. You can hide these with a table skirt.

The seller who designed this beautiful bracelet from Swarovski crystals moved her booth tables close to the outer edges of her space, and raised the tables to make jewelry easy to view. One way of accomplishing this is to use bed risers below the table legs. You can hide these with a table skirt.

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.

We fell in love with this garden angel yard ornament, which includes a battery-powered solar light. I'd love to look at more products from this seller, but she included no business card with her merchandise, and didn't have any available at her payment station. There is a lesson to be learned here!

We fell in love with this garden angel yard ornament, which includes a battery-powered solar light. I’d love to look at more products from this seller, but she included no business card with her merchandise, and didn’t have any available at her payment station. There is a lesson to be learned here!

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.

One of the sellers I like to visit each year is Patricia Griffith of Cambridge, Iowa, who designs original corn husk dolls.

One of the sellers I like to visit each year is Patsy Griffith of Cambridge, Iowa, who designs original corn husk dolls.

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.