A Primer on Selling Cloth Grocery Bags

selling cloth grocery bags

Ready to sell some BAGS!

I came up with the idea to sew and sell cloth grocery bags because we at Peschel Press wanted a space at the Hershey Winter Arts show (first Saturday in November at the high school if you’re interested in coming out and meeting us).

sewing cloth grocery bagsAlthough we write and self-publish our books (thanks to the miracle of Amazon and CreateSpace), they aren’t, technically, an arts and crafts item. I had been sewing the tailored bags for years, giving them away to friends, family, and as teacher gifts. Everyone seemed to like them and thought they were useful. The bags seemed like an easy way to fulfill the requirement for the show. So we applied and they accepted and here we are, getting ready for our fifth show.

In addition to the Winter Arts Show, we also show at Art On Chocolate (now the Hershey Artfest & Flower Show, Saturday in mid-May) and at the York Book Expo (Saturday in mid-October).

In my other life as a concerned citizen, I provide information about composting and planting trees at local farmers’ markets and whatever other venues that pop up that like community-service involvement. We also, as ordinary citizens, attend local craft shows and farmers’ markets.

Since we started exhibiting, I’ve been paying attention to what works and what doesn’t; both for us and for the other vendors. If you aren’t selling successfully, then you’re wasting time and money. I focus on craft shows because it’s the only way I sell my bags. I don’t have an online store, and I’m suspicious of etsy. Having one requires setting up a website along with some kind of secure commerce link. Worse, unless you have something truly unique, whatever you are handcrafting for sale plenty of other people are making and selling, too. Your items compete with dozens, hundreds, even thousands of similar items, and the only distinguishing characteristics are price, written description, and tiny pictures.

Etsy may have a million stores, but how many of them earn their owners more than walking-around money? When I type in cloth grocery bags, I get thousands of results at every possible price point. I can’t easily tell how many of those bags were handmade in the U.S. and how many were outsourced to China (not everything on etsy is actually handmade by the store owner). I can’t tell how well-constructed those bags are, and I can’t get the owners’ compelling story.

Selling in person at a craft show avoids those issues. You get to talk to potential customers and show why the features you add allow you to charge $10 for a cloth grocery bag. The biggest show we go to has about 130 vendors, so our competition for books and bags is minimal. Even then, we don’t sell many. Fortunately, bags are not our primary focus. They are a sideline to Peschel Press books. We use cloth grocery bags as a value-added premium. We give one away if a customer buys a book and if they buy three bags we throw in a fourth for free.

If selling cloth grocery bags is your primary focus, then you need to go into the business knowing what we learned the hard way.

Look Like a Business Owner

First and foremost, selling is a business. The skill of selling is unrelated to your skill in sewing bags. As the seller, you want to present a professional image and you want your booth to look professional.

The next time you’re at a craft show, look at the vendors’ clothes. How many of them look like they’re cleaning their garage? Too many, I am sorry to say. Can you tell who is running the booth so you can give them money? You should never confuse a potential buyer this way.

We always wear the same distinctive clothes. My husband wears a shirt I made him covered with rows of letters–he is a writer–along with a leather hat. For winter shows, I wear a Peschel Press sweatshirt I made, with our logo on the back and a funny statement about novel writing on the front. For summer shows, I wear a white T-shirt with a very showy, eye-catching yellow and blue swing coat and my big straw hat. We do not look like we are doing yard work. Repeat customers remember us from year to year and show to show.

I recommend you do something similar. Choose a bright color that coordinates with whatever you’ve chosen as your logo and always wear that outfit. This uniform also helps put you into the mindset of selling. I appliquéd our Peschel Press logo onto my sweatshirt and you should do the same with your logo on your T-shirt, polo shirt, apron, or button-up shirt. Embroidered logos work very well too, either done yourself or hired out.

This applies to any kind of vendor at a craft show, by the way. If you’re an artist, then look like one! If you sell something musical, consider wearing a shirt with a music theme. If you’re selling fancy dog leashes, have a picture of your dog wearing your fancy dog leash silk-screened on your shirt, next to your dog leash company logo. If you sell handmade goat cheese or goat’s milk soap, there better be images of frolicking goats on your aprons.

Recruit a Partner

Have at least two people available during the day. That lets one of you get something to eat, run to the bathroom, network with the other vendors, or deal with two customers. Even a tiny, short sale can take time, and you never want to leave your booth unattended for any reason. The minute you walk away is the minute a buying customer will approach your booth, see nobody to take their money, and they’ll move on.

The other reason is to make sure your merchandise is always being watched. Arts and crafts shows are not immune to shoplifters.

Everyone who helps you should be dressed the same: matching polo shirts with your logo, matching aprons with your logo, or at the least, matching, solid color T-shirts in a bright color with your logo painted on with fabric paints. Make sure the customer knows who to give the money to. Your assistants need to know how to talk to customers, make change, smile, explain and display your merchandise, and demonstrate any special features.

You may need more than two people to do set-up and break-down. We draft our children to provide unskilled labor at both ends of the day. Most craft shows have a limited time-window to set up so you need to get it done fast before the first customers show up. Break down can take a little longer as you aren’t under a deadline.