The Nitty-Gritty Behind Selling at Art Shows, Craft Fairs, and Book Festivals

This is the third and final part on how Peschel Press handles selling at art shows, craft fairs, and book festivals. The post starts here then moves on to this post.

craft show booth

The Peschel Press booth at Art on Chocolate. Note the printed sign at top, and the black bags anchoring the canopy’s legs

Be prepared to spend the entire day. It can be exhausting, so be ready for that too, with coffee, aspirin, throat lozenges, sunscreen, snackies, plenty of water, and comfortable shoes.

sewing cloth grocery bagsKnow in advance how you’re going to handle money. We use a cashbox and keep a very close eye on it (another reason to never leave your booth unattended). We accept cash, checks (we’ve never been stiffed) and now that my sister has gifted us with a smartphone, we signed up for Square, a service that allows us to accept credit cards and debit cards. I’ve seen vendors who insist on cash only. It’s up to you, but cash-only will limit your sales. The advantage of cash and checks (besides privacy all around) is that you keep all your money. Credit card and debit card companies charge you, the vendor, a small fee for the privilege of accepting the customer’s card. So does Square.

Keep careful track of what you sell and how much money you take in. Your accountant will need to know when tax season rolls around. Have her explain to you what to do about sales taxes. You may want to include the sales tax in your price so you don’t have to spend time calculating it. That’s what we do.

selling at art shows

Signs can be printed at an office-supply store or printer, then spray-glued onto cardstock.

Have clear, easy-to-read signs. You want your customers to know who you are, what you sell, and how much things cost. Our signage is simple because we set one price for the cloth grocery bags and another for the books. We also provide our book catalog (which we print ourselves), business cards, the butterscotch crunchie recipe, and our website information. Since we do two shows here in Hershey, when we see customers at one show, we tell them about the other.

Finding Shows

How should you choose shows? We look first for shows that are close to home, then for shows that have juried and non-juried categories. A juried category means that you have to send photos and descriptions of your work so the venue holder can evaluate what you do and does it match what they want. Better arts and crafts shows nearly always do some jurying, because they want to keep out Chinese-made junk being passed off as locally made handicrafts. If you’ve ever been to a craft show full of poorly made Disney knock-offs and yard sale fodder, you’ve seen a non-juried show.

Because we sell our books along with my bags, a juried show, with a non-juried component (which is where we fit in) gives us a good chance to get customers who might buy books as well as the usual craft show items. A strictly art show won’t take us. Books, despite our writing them ourselves, and my cloth grocery bags, no matter how well designed and made, don’t count as art.

At this point, we haven’t wanted to stretch ourselves. Many people on the craft show circuit range from doing a few shows a year like us, to one a month, to one every single weekend. Believe it or not, there are multiple shows running every weekend from spring to fall, with many Christmas shows as well. There are multiple listings found on line, organized by state. The lists don’t overlap so you need to check several websites to get the contact information.

But the easiest way to get started is to check what is happening in your area. Ask around and attend the shows within 20 miles of you. Most advertise in your local newspapers or in the upcoming events sections that radio stations and TV stations maintain. Your local chamber of commerce and tourist bureau should also know what’s going on. Many, many churches and social organizations also organize small bazaars and shows.

When you visit, see if the show looks like a good fit for you. Talk to the organizers. They will have a booth, and the staff will be happy to answer questions. They may be open to new vendors, have a five-year waiting list, or want only specific types of arts and crafts.

selling at art shows

Before investing in a canopy and major shows, start small and see if you like the retail scene.

A small church bazaar is a good way to dip a toe in the water and see if you want to sell your work. It will be very local, everyone will be friendly, and it will be small and so not so overwhelming.

It should also be cheaper. A one-day show like Art On Chocolate wanted $85 for a 10-foot-by-10-foot space. A big, multi-day show like Quilt Odyssey will cost much, much more, and you have to be there every single day, from open to close.

Selling direct puts more pressure on your bottom line. In order to earn a profit, you have to sell enough bags to pay the booth rental fee, plus cover your fabric and labor costs, travel time, gas, meals, lodging, taxes, etc, and only then will you start making money.

Make no mistake: This is work. Not 9-to-5 work but work nonetheless. Your results depend entirely on how hard you work, how good your stuff is, how many shows you attend, and how lucky you get. Luck matters more than you think. We’ve done a dozen shows, and each one has been different. You don’t know how many people will show up, what they want to buy, or what the weather will be like. You won’t know what your competition will be like either, until after you set up and walk around.

But if you are flexible and outgoing, it’s a fun experience! You get to talk to all kinds of people, ask them what they like and, if you are willing to listen, they will tell you what they are looking for. They will also tell you what they cannot to find, which can be useful if you want to expand your craft business outside of cloth grocery bags.

Pay attention to what happens at a show and figure out how to do better next time. You will find, like we did, that we had to adjust our game plan. We learned to store our materials carefully so we could pull them out for the next show. If anything needed to be fixed, it was seen to immediately; we didn’t wait until the night before the next show. We kept track of how much money was in our cash box and how many of each item we sold. If you do this, you’ll find that the next show will go a little smoother and the one after that smoother still. It will never be easy, mind you, but you might make some money and you will certainly learn a lot about running a small business.

(This post is a draft from the upcoming book “Sewing Cloth Grocery Bags.” A complete list of the posts can be found here.)