Last week we launched a three-part post on Selling Handmade Crafts. Although it describes how we sell our books and cloth grocery bags, the best practices are applicable to anything you want to sell.
Rehearse the Set-Up and Break-down
Be organized. This means packing your car so you take out you need first. That means your tables and display racks go into the vehicle last so they get set up in your booth first.
For our very first show, we rehearsed what we were going to do. In our living room, we set up the card tables, lawn chairs, free-standing book shelf, and folding screen used to display the bags. We could take our time, see if we missed anything (cash box? book stands? flyers?) and learn if we could fit the tables into our booth space. At that show, we had an 8-foot-by-12-foot space. and could not exceed those parameters. Rehearsing our set-up a few days ahead of time let us figure out where to put everything and if we forgot something important.
Load your vehicle the night before! Some shows wanted us set up by 9 a.m. The time to load your car is not 6 a.m. the morning of the show. It’s a busy, long, stressful day already.
Speaking of vehicles, do you have one that’s big enough? We use our little Ford Focus sedan for shows. That forces us to stay very local since we have to make two trips to haul everything. If you’re traveling any kind of distance, then you should have something bigger. If you’ve strolled through the vendors’ parking lot, they all have big SUVs, panel vans, pickup trucks or trailers.
The only exception we have found is the York Book Expo. The organizers provide tables and chairs and it is indoors. That means we don’t have to haul our canopy, card tables or chairs 50 miles to York, so we only have to make one trip. If your indoor venue provides tables, you’re in luck. Remember to ask if chairs are provided; sometimes you get tables but not chairs. You may have to pay extra for their table but if the fee is small enough, and the venue one you couldn’t do otherwise, it may be worthwhile.
Buy the Right Equipment
Outdoor shows require a canopy. No exceptions. The venue may not tell you this. Instead, you’ll find out the hard way as you sit there for hours in the blazing sun. Or worse, you’ll sit there in the rain. Most craft shows are rain or shine so you need to be prepared. We’ve now done a show where it rained on and off all day. Surprisingly, it was our best sale ever because everyone who came out was determined to shop and spend money. Canopies also mean that if summer afternoon thunderstorms crop up, you can save your merchandise from weather damage.
We bought our canopy for about $250 at Costco. This is not the same as the lightweight dining tarps you use at family reunion picnics. It is bright white, decently sturdy, and came with side and back panels. We don’t normally use them but on that rainy day, we were glad we had them. Get a white canopy because it reflects the heat better. If someone you know has a canopy, and you are just starting out, see if you can borrow it. Canopies are also useful for other occasions, such as Girl Scout cookie sales in parking lots or when providing composting information at the farmers’ market. Our canopy gets used as often for something else as it does for a craft show.
You should also invest in a set of weighted bags to hold the canopy’s legs in place in the wind. The vendors we’ve spoken to all say high wind is much worse than rain. The weighted bags hold the canopy down, keeping it from becoming airborne. It may come with stakes and guy lines, but some shows won’t let you use them. Either the canopies are too close together or you are on asphalt. Weights take care of this problem.
Books, our stock in trade, must be protected from wind and weather, so we bought heavy canvas bags that attach to the canopy’s legs. We’re supposed to fill the bags with stones or sand, but I went a step further. I filled quart-size freezer ziplock bags with fine gravel and tucked them into the bags. This kept the gravel from getting wet and water-logged. It also meant that if one bag sprung a leak, the other bags still contained their gravel. Gravel also drains better than sand. At 40 pounds apiece, the weight bags work without being too heavy to manage and they also fit within the canopy when the side panels are installed.
Any heavy, reasonably small weights will work so long as you can carry them and they aren’t a tripping hazard. We’ve seen vendors use sandbags, big salvaged truck gears, and the kind of weights you use when building your biceps. They all work.
Advertise Your Business
Have a sign for the front of your canopy above eye level. A sea of white canopies all look alike. The next show you go to, take a look around. Vendors who spent some money on a custom canopy that shows their line of craft beer or handmade goat’s milk soap really stand out. Even a long, skinny sign protected by clear plastic contac-paper is a good compromise on price. We got our Peschel Press sign from Staples for about $30.
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It is bright, light blue with our name and logo. It shows up nicely, stretched across the front of our canopy.
When you are at the show, pay attention to the customers. I’ve been to too many shows where the vendor is paying close attention to a smartphone and not to the person standing in the booth looking to hand over some money. Don’t do this.
Think of what you want to say to people walking by. We always say hello and thank you for coming to the show. We don’t do a hard sell. We’ve also, over the years, perfected our sales pitch about our books and what they cover, as well as how I make the bags, how I choose the fabrics, and how well they hold up. Smile and be friendly. Customers who don’t buy on the spot often come back later. Sometimes, they come back the following year. Does everyone stop in? They do not, but that’s okay.
Another way to attract customers is to do something interesting inside your booth. Many vendors paint, carve, sew, crochet, throw pots, or make jewelry. All of those things give a customer a reason to stop and ask questions.
Keep your booth attractive, neat, and well-organized. Watch out for foot hazards as you don’t need the hassle or the lawsuit. Your display units should stand securely so they don’t wobble when someone is examining a bag.
Make sure you bring plenty of bags, in an assortment of colors as you won’t know what will sell. Arrange them to attract customers into the booth. We’ve laid them flat, and hung them from the canopy and from chains attached to a folding screen. See what other people do and figure out what you can do to make displays without laying out money until you know, for sure, you’ll be doing this often. We still use our card tables and lawn chairs as they work. Remember that you have to haul around any display units, so consider their weight and size before you buy or build them.
Find creative ways to attract your customers’ attention. We don’t haul out our laptops or my sewing machine to attract business. Instead, I make and give away butterscotch crunchies; a powerhouse fusion of sugar, salt, and texture. These cookies are stellar and everyone who walks by is invited to enjoy one. After several years, we now have people who stop by solely because of the cookie. We provide copies of the recipe to everyone who wants one. Since people don’t throw away recipes, we provide a catalog of our books on the back side so if a cookie baker later wants to go to Amazon to buy a book from us, they can.