Sunday, November 18, 2007

Tip from me to you: All I know about doing craft shows

I am not an expert, and this is not meant to be comprehensive. But I have done a few shows in my day and since every artisan is at a different stage in their business development, it occurred to me I might have a few things to say that could be helpful. Maybe it will give you an overview of what’s involved in doing a craft show, maybe it will bring up questions you hadn’t thought to ask, maybe it will just take the nervous twinge out of your heart every time you contemplate doing shows. Any of these benefits would please me.

Why should I do a show?

Oh, the gambler’s addiction of retail! There’s nothing like taking a chance that you could hit it big and walk out of the venue with a stack of cash and the high that comes from taking a risk that pays off. Oh, and meeting your customers is super fun too. People pick up your things and show their friends “Isn’t this cute!” they say with big smiles on their faces. Someone looks at all your necklaces and says, “I want this one.’ And hands you money! Just like that. You give out a hundred business cards and that quiet woman who didn’t get the necklace she loved? She goes to your Etsy shop and buys it a week later. You meet other people who are doing the exact same thing you are. You network, make friends, share information. You have something to blog about.

What kinds of shows are there?
Show venues can range from bazaars in churches and schools to outdoor markets to juried shows in convention centers. Choose your speed. A high-end show may not be the place for you, your price point per item may be too low to recoup a fee in the hundreds of dollars, think about how many items you would have to sell just to break even. On the other hand, if you’ve won awards for your iridescent hand blown glass ornaments, the school gym may not be the place to find your customers.

Where do I find shows in my area?
Check out these internet sites, start here then Google around, and see what you can find:

I wouldn’t probably travel more than an hour for a show, but I live in a densely populated area full of opportunities. I have experience in eastern Massachusetts with stART on the Street in Worcester, and South End Open Market in Boston and I can recommend both as reputable and reasonable places to set up your wares. I do better with the Worcester shows than the Boston ones, but that's just my experience and yours may certainly differ.

How much should it cost?
I am cheap. When I started doing the Flea in 1990, table money was $10 and ten years later it had gone up to $18 which was still a very good deal. I could always make my table money back, and that’s very important to me.

Some people have formulas for figuring out what percentage of sales your table money should cost you, but I am not great at math and I can never predict my sales. As long as the show looks good; is in a good location, has a good reputation from other vendors and seems like it would have my customer base, I would probably spend up to $75. I have not been brave enough to try a higher end venue because I know how it feels to have a bad show and I would be very upset to be out all that money after all that effort. Plus my items are in the $12 - $50 range, if I was selling items for hundreds of dollars I could move up a step. 01/06/2009 UPDATE: I got into two juried holiday shows this past season, both cost about $400, were well known, well advertised and went for multiple days. Even with this lousy economy (or maybe because of it) I did really well and recouped my table fees handily! So now I am no longer afraid of expensive shows, although I would still cry if I did one and it didn't work out :)

One thing that has worked very well for me is to share a space with another vendor and split the cost. Be sure you are compatible! That’s a long day with someone who is unreliable, unprofessional, and/or annoying (find out if they intend to bring their children!). But it can be a very good day with someone you get along with; you can compare notes, get change from each other, and spell each other for bathroom breaks.

OK, I’m gonna try it!
Do I need to collect sales tax?

You very well might. And this is something you should consider anyway if you are seriously running a business. I know the SOWA show would not let me in without a Massachusetts sales and use tax ID. Check with your local department of revenue on how to go legit!

Should I accept credit cards?
Maybe not at first, but if you like shows and plan on doing more, then YES!! I highly recommend accepting credit cards. Not only will you be more likely to make a sale that might have walked away, people tend to spend MORE when the money is plastic. There are plenty of options, but I have been very happy with ProPay. You can get a machine and slips through Mr. Imprinter. Be sure to put your email address on the plate since that’s what will show up on your customer’s statement and if they don’t recognize your email (if it is different from your biz name) they may contest the sale by accident.

UPDATE 5/2011 Now the best way to take credit cards (in my opinion) is by using Square. You can use Square if you have a smart phone or iPad with a data plan, or with an iPod touch or an iPad if there is WIFI.

Should I take checks?
It’s up to you, check your comfort level. I always do and I’ve never been burned, but I fully expect to be someday. Though it will piss me off completely, I consider it the cost of doing business. I always photocopy the checks before I deposit them, and of course get a phone number.

How much change should I bring?

I usually carry about $50 in fives and ones, some coins too. You will either be perpetually out of ones or you will have a wad so large people will think your night job involves a pole. I keep it in my pocket, but you might want to get a cute craft show apron or a locked box you chain to your wrist. No really, I would not be comfortable with a cash box but some folks do it!

OK, got it!
What will I need to bring?

The basics:

Find out the size of the space and use folding tables that are easy to cart around and that fit in the space. I have some old fashioned 3‘x 3’ card tables, but these newer tables seem like a good purchase and you can buy risers to lift them up because higher is better in show display.

Table cover:
I use a solid neutral colored top sheet over both tables to make them look like one. This reaches to the ground which is great because then I can stuff all my things under the table after I’m done setting up and they are hidden. On top of the sheet I have been using accent fabrics I got on super sale at a JoAnn Fabrics. Don’t use anything too patterned that will confuse the eye and take away from your product. You can sew your own cover, which I plan on doing for the holiday shows. (UPDATE: I did that! it's goofy but totally useable. While I was making it, a craft show friend made the great suggestion to leave at least one corner open in the "box" I sewed so I can still get to stuff under the table, so smart!) Professional table covers are also available.

You might want to bring two. But don’t set the second one up if you think you might have a clueless friend stop by who thinks it would be so much fun to hang out all day. The truth is, you might spend the day standing anyway.

I only have experience with the E-Z Up Express II and though there is nothing easy about hauling it around, setting it up or taking it down, it is a good tent for outdoor shows. Get the sidewalls, get the weight bags, and get the extra nuts and bolts package. If yer gonna do it, do it all the way. The walls can really save you if you suddenly find yourself in wind driven rain:

I have yet to have a banner made, but I intend to have one printed up on fabric, or paint my own. UPDATE 5/2011 I had a 4 foot banner printed on vinyl by VistaPrint. Right now I use one a friend printed for me from a file on her large format printer. As a customer at craft shows I always look to see if I know the vendor from somewhere else, I’m sure others would like to know who I am if I am vending, and it helps immensely in branding.

My standard lunch is an egg salad sandwich, carrot sticks and an apple. I also bring nuts for a quick protein pick-me-up if my blood sugar levels get low. Also plenty of water. I like bringing lunch because it’s cheap! And I am picky. And I don't have to leave my booth in search of food.

How should I set up?
Get some ideas and inspiration here. Listen, you don’t have to be an expert your very first show. Just do what you can for now and grow from there.

My set-ups have looked like this lately:

You may want to do a trial run setting your items up at home to see how you can give them height so people don’t have to lean down to see your pretties. If it’s an outdoor show, make sure whatever you display your lovlies on won’t be affected by wind. Wind is evil! I hate wind at a show. Cringe-fest. I have been accumulating my displays over time and adding pieces I find as I go. Everything’s an evolution.

I sell jewelry and small items. I have bought earring stands from Rio Grande and clear plastic risers. I got a 3 tiered cake plate from Goodwill (thanks TIG for the excellent find!) for displaying my flowers like they were cookies. Someone left a perfectly cute handmade wooden display in the lobby of my building for giveaway. I even bought a card spinner from a shop going out of business. So look around and think outside the box. Make displays out of objects meant for other purposes. From what I’ve read, you’ll get a few annoying customers asking “where did you get that fabulous display?” instead of looking at your items. Don’t be insulted, smile and say “I know, aren’t they great?”

Bring a mirror if your items are to be tried on.

The goods:
Bring your merch! I pack it all up the night before a show and pack the car too. That way I just have to grab my lunch and coffee and go in the morning since sometimes it is a very early start. Every time I pack my goods, I do it a little differently, not on purpose, there are just many ways to solve that puzzle and I don’t always remember how I did it last time. I put my goods in small boxes then I put the boxes in fabric grocery totes so everything has a handle.

How many items should I bring?
Bring all you got if you can fit it in your car! Really, it’s so hard to know how much to bring. Just don’t put it all out if it makes your table look crowded, cluttered or confusing.

I can tell you that in my experience if I bring 10 items I may sell one, but if I bring 100, I may sell ten. Unless you are a genius with the hottest item of the century (if so, I would like to meet you) you will never sell ten items if you only bring ten. If you only have ten, perhaps you are not ready for shows yet.

Be sure to price everything, people do not like to ask.

What should I wear?
If it’s outdoors, find out the weather and dress appropriately with the idea that you may be completely wrong. Layers are nice. Comfortable shoes are a must, you could end up standing all day if it's busy. Try to look neat and clean and professional. It does make a difference to your customers. They will take you more seriously if you are not wearing sweatpants.

What else should I bring?
Ah, yes, the check list!
You might want to make a check list so you don’t forget things, so frustrating to forget things, but you might also take advice I’ve read elsewhere to buy doubles of some handy items and pack them in a plastic box you never use except for shows. Then it is all ready to go and you don’t have to panic trying to find your scissors at 6:45 am on a Sunday morning. That’s never fun.

How are people going to take home your cuteables? Do you have bags? Boxes? Do your delicate items need packaging like bubble wrap or shredded tissue? Bring business cards! Put them in with purchased items. I buy small handled bags at a craft shop and put logo stickers on them that I printed at home. You can use return address labels with your business info on them.

Things I always bring:
TAPE! I always need tape. Packaging tape, duct tape and Scotch tape.
Markers, pens
Cardstock (for making signs)
Pencil, eraser (for pricing)
Ruler or tape measure
Xacto knife
Small cutting mat
Jewelry polishing cloth
Jewelry tools (pliers, cutters)
2 Part receipt book
Business cards
Optional: a sign-up sheet for your email list

There are differing opinions on whether or not you should make things during a craft show. I guess the con is that people will think you are busy and not want to interrupt you to ask a question. But I always make things at shows, it gives me something to do, entertains the attendees and shows that I really do make everything myself. I make sure to look up and greet everyone who approaches my table, then I might say something like “I’m needle-felting a new flower if you’d like to see how I do it.” Everyone says yes. Kids like to watch too, and that’s good because it keeps them busy while mom shops at your table for a second and it keeps them from handling all your stuff too. The only drawbacks I’ve experienced are a whole family blocking my table to watch me work, or mom leaving the kid with me and shopping at a nearby vendor’s table. Grrr.

Ok, my first show is next week,
What should I expect when I get there?

Some chaos perhaps. Find out your arrival time, some shows have staggered arrivals. You should be able to pull your car up and frantically unpack then go park. Set up as quickly as you can without breaking things. Smile at your fellow vendors, you are all in this together, you never know who might be there for you when you need to break a twenty or take a quick run to the porta potty. Everyone is a potential friend until proven unbearably annoying. Don’t be too cheerful, however, that will piss off the folks who aren’t morning people.

There might be a morning rush of customers then a lull, then another rush, the day will have a rhythm, but I can’t predict what it will be.

What do I say when someone approaches my table?
Say hello, smile. Maybe mention in one sentence what you are all about “I make all these hats by spinning wool, dying it then knitting it.” Unless they engage you in conversation, leave them alone for a minute to look at your stuff. Look quietly busy, rearrange the pens by your receipt book, make a loop in a head pin. Then glance at them again, if they are handling a specific item say something like “I have that in 3 colors”, or “That’s my best selling item” Then be quiet again. You’ll get the hang of it.

What if someone is rude to me?
Did you read that Etsy thread I linked to earlier? It could easily happen, and it will make your head explode, but try not to react, get out your fake polite and rev it up to full throttle. And don’t talk about a crappy customer after they leave, it’s bad karma and you never know who might overhear you.

What if it’s a bad show?
It could be a bad show, you might not make sales like you hoped. Try to have this attitude that has worked for me in the past: “I am here just to show my amazing work to some folks. They may or may not buy it, I’m just glad to be out where I might make a sale, whereas home alone in my crafting room, it’s most likely that I won’t.” I am guilty of crabbing about a bad show and I regret it. I think desperation and disappointment is palpable. I think it surrounds you like a dingy aura. Pretend to be satisfied. Actually be satisfied that you had the guts to show up at all.

What if it’s a good show?
Hold onto your hat! It’s gonna be overwhelming and nuts. But fun, like a carnival ride, just don’t throw up.

Show Etiquette?
These are my personal opinions, your tolerance may differ:

Please be aware of your space boundaries and do not encroach on your neighbor’s area. If you each paid for ten feet, you each get ten feet. If the guy next to you decides to leave 3 feet of space on either side of his 4 foot table, that doesn’t mean he’s not using it so you can slip over the border. It’s up to him how he uses that space or not, stay out!

Alternately, if someone invades your space, smile and firmly tell them you think the edge of your space goes to this line if they don’t mind.

Unless you are selling music, please don’t play music.

Don’t smoke, ew! Don’t do it anyway, but really, don’t do it at your table.

If you are having a chat with a neighbor vendor, stop talking as soon as a customer approaches either their table OR yours. Just stop talking!!! Greet the customer at your table to fill the awkward sudden silence.

Never talk to a customer at someone else’s table unless it is to inform them that their handbag is on fire (handbag must actually be on fire for this to be appropriate). Don’t compliment their cute shoes, nothing. They are not yours yet. Be patient. Customers are like fish, they swim up to a table and any distraction can cause them to dart away. Don’t scare other people’s fish!

Try not to get caught eating, this is hard! Try it anyway.

I don’t really have to tell you not to read a book do I? No, I didn’t think so.

Don’t pack up early! So tacky.

The chaos returns at the end of the show
Pack up and get out! You will be dizzy and possibly hallucinating if you sat in the sun all day, maybe someone else should drive. Go home and veg, eat something. Sleep the sleep of the dead. Take a day to recover unless you are annoyingly twenty-something. Plan for the next show. You’re hooked aren’t you?


  1. Impressive, practical, and friendly guide! Thanks for the wisdom.

  2. Great informative guide. I'm going to be at Shriners in Wilmington this coming weekend vending and you gave me some great tips I wouldn't have thought of. :)

  3. Very cool and helpful guide, will use some of your ideas at this coming weekends Shriners craft fair in Wilmington. If you visit be sure to stop by and say hi :)

  4. Thanks Liz. I had a show today and I was a bit disappointed but you are right. I got some great feedback. I made friends with other crafters. I learned what is selling and what isn't. I got out of the house. I got two custom orders. So I wanted to make more moola but it was my first show and I will improve.

  5. Very thorough! I love the fun little pointers and checklist. I haven't gotten up enough nerve to do a show yet, but this is really helpful. Thanks.


  6. Well done!

    Love, Mom

  7. Great information!
    And what a lovely booth...
    Thanks for all the work you put into this post :)

  8. Got to tis page through Etsy- thanks for all the helpful info- I'm so excited for my first show

  9. Great tutorial on doing shows! I love your blog with all the wonderful info and beautiful photography. :)


  10. Liz, this is such a great and thorough post about doing shows! Thanks for all of your input!

  11. thanks for this and all the links! I am going into my first show on the 9th and this is really helpful...the arts and craft show flickr pool is a treasure trove of ideas!

  12. Great overview article for doing a craft show :)

  13. What great info--thanks for sharing all of this! :)

    MonsterBug Blankets

  14. WOW... thanks so much Liz, this is an amazing find of information! :)

  15. I love your set up because it looks like a boutique -- lots of levels and not boring, like so many are!

  16. Thanks so much for the great advice. I'll be doing my first show in March. I'm so excited but super nervous. This post really helped paint a picture of what I might expect.

  17. this is great! I'm doing my first big show in November and I'm super-nervous! I'm tracking my adventures on my blog, and this is sure to come in handy!

  18. Liz, you're a goddess! Thank you, thank you, thank you for your e-mail and this post.

  19. LOL, that was pretty comprehensive!! I'd say you've become quite the expert on it. Your tent/tables always look so nice.

  20. I've never met you, but I like you. I like your writing style and your line of thinking. Thanks for sharing yourself online!

  21. Fantastic. I know this is years old, but in searching out help for a friend I ran into it. I used to do about 20 juried craft shows a year and now only do two, but even though they're the same two each year, with the same demographic, I still am finding that things keep changing, and I have to change with them.

    Love your blog! Just became a follower.