Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Surviving a bad craft show

Me in the early days of vending, hi mom!
I've been doing craft shows since the late 80s. I remember one of my first, perhaps my very first, was a flea market in Aquinnah (then called Gay Head) on Martha’s Vineyard. I was probably still a teenager. I set up a little 3 foot card table with my polymer clay jewelry in an old white building (Town Hall? Church?) and waited. While it was summer, height of the season on the vacation destination of Martha’s Vineyard Island off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the town of Aquinnah is not in the thick of the summertime bustle. It’s at the far tip of the Island and though people do flock there to experience Wampanoag culture and see the spectacular clay cliffs that run down to the beautiful beach, not many stopped by a modest indoor flea market on that day. I was at least able to eke out my table fee when other vendors kindly bought a few items from me. I can’t say I wasn’t discouraged but that obviously did not stop me.

Making inventory
Craft shows are a gamble, an exciting and potentially lucrative gamble. There’s no better high I know of in my job as a maker than setting up at a show and finding that all the people looking at your work want to become customers. A crazy-good, or even a moderately good show can boost your spirits tremendously. Not only do you suddenly have a wad of working capital in your pocket, you’ve been looking all day at the smiling faces of people who are telling you your work is lovely and worth money! It’s fantastic. All your incredibly hard work has paid off. Your late nights of frantic making, your tedious repetitive tasks, your careful labeling, your thoughtful packaging, your schlepping. All of it rewarded.

So when a craft show is a bust? Not only are your booth fee and hours of your life gone, a bad show can deflate you so fast that it’s hard to remember that it’s not the end of your business. It’s likely not even a comment on you or your work, it’s probably just that your people did not show up. Sometimes that’s because NO people showed up. You can tell that’s the case if other vendors also say the show is lame for them. But if other people are doing fine all around you? That likely means your people are not in this crowd.

That happened to me this past weekend.

In 2008 I applied for the first time to vend in the newish craft show, Art in the Courtyard. It’s a show that runs as part of the Lowell Folk Festival, the largest free folk festival in the nation. Every year the Folk Fest takes over downtown Lowell, MA. The streets are shut down as tents are erected and food vendors set up carts. It’s a wild, fun weekend and thousands of people from all over stream through the city to hear music and eat meat on a stick. Art in the Courtyard is in a great location between a major road and the dance pavilion and food tents. There aren’t many craft/art vendors, maybe 20-25. People who love music of all nations also generally appreciate handmade, it’s a great opportunity. For 4 years I juried in and did super at this show. I especially love that it’s within walking distance of my condo!

Folk Fest 2008
This year I applied but I did not get in. I was shocked and disappointed, but I understand what a juried show means, not everyone who applies gets chosen. I was, however, put on the wait list. I didn’t have too many hopes of getting in but I started making inventory anyway. A week after my rejection I was told there was a cancellation and would I like to vend? Would I?! I was jubilant. This show has historically been excellent for me and provided the money I need to pay for expensive holiday booth fees which are typically due in the summer when makers’ coffers are very low.

My booth this year

Closer up

From behind the table
Saturday is usually the biggest day of the weekend for me and I liked my location. Rain was possible but it didn’t rain for most of the day. Whether it was the gloomy forecast or a new summer music festival that started up in Boston on the same weekend, there just didn’t seem to be the volume of people I’d seen in years past.

My sales were sparse. It feels so baffling while it is happening. And you can start to feel really bad about what you are offering for sale. And the sinking feeling you experience when it becomes clear that each sale will be hard fought for and rare is just so dispiriting. You try not to indulge in fantasies, but your expectations can get so high ahead of a show.

I know other vendors weren’t having super days but they didn’t seem to be having the awful day I was. I tried to puzzle out why. The main thing was I just didn’t see as many of my right people in the crowd. These folks who did show up loved music and exotic foods, but they were not into me at all. I also think my product line has been the same for a long time so the people who love my work and stopped by to say hello didn’t see anything new to get them excited. And maybe I just didn't have enough products in general.

In the end I managed to keep my spirits up because I’ve been in this game a long time and I know not every show is a winner. Sure I felt bruised. You work just as hard for a bad payday as a good one and it’s very hard work. I really liked my show neighbors, super guys with great attitudes who were fun to joke with. I find a multiple day show engenders a bit of backstage camaraderie that I love.

Some specific things I do to keep my head up when a show is not going well:

1.) Smile and be cheerful and relaxed toward everyone who enters your booth, tell them you are doing great when they ask. It will absolutely not help to appear desperate or grumpy.  (Of course you can vent quietly to friends and fellow makers so you don’t go insane, but try not to broadcast it.)

2.) Remind yourself over and over that your people did not come to this show. Does your work sell well elsewhere? Online? In shops? Then you have right people, they just didn’t shop at this show. Or at least not this year. Or this isn’t the right season for your goods.

Note: If you hate doing shows you will probably not do well at them. But that’s OK, you don’t have to do them at all! It’s not a requirement. If you are just new to shows and don’t hate them, keep going, you’ll get better at selling your work in person over time, especially if you watch seasoned sellers at work and learn from them. If your work doesn’t sell well anywhere then you probably need to reassess your product line and marketing/branding.

3.) Take a look at all that inventory you built up! Yay, you can still sell it; send it to your consignment shops, try to get wholesale orders, stock your online shop, or just be ready for the next show.

4.) Drink. I’m sort of kidding. (But not really). What I mean is, do something nice for yourself afterwards. Take a night off you workaholic! Take a bath, play video games, read a book, whatever it takes to relax and recharge. Get some hugs if you can. If you can’t get them in person collect them online, those work too. Tomorrow you can unpack and reassess. Plan your next move. Use the experience to spur you to make changes, up your game. That’s what I’m doing! I’m speeding up development of new products. My next show is in November and I am going to kick ass!

But if I don’t, I know how to handle it.



  1. I'm so sorry to hear that you had a bad show but I think you handled it like a champ.

    I try to attend a show as a shopper before I sign up for it to see who/what's there first -- but yes, it's a gamble...

  2. What great advice! My husband wants to know where your next show is! ^_^ But I don't know if he wants to be a customer or a rival vendor somewhere near you! LOL He likes your attitude. And since I can't sit at shows, and he's been thinking about sitting there with my stock for me, he ses your advice as very helpful...and so do I. But I ALWAYS find your experienced advice helpful. :-) Thanks for sharing it!

  3. What a great post Liz! Slow shows are always a bummer, but your advice is spot on -- keep your chin up and don't broadcast this news!

  4. i love to do shows and have had both successful and non successful venues...i haven't done any in a few years but hoping to this year... it does build up your confidence when you do sell and talk to customers in person~
    i like to look at the not so good shows as advertising and like you said inventory building ;)
    good luck for your november show,i'm sure you'll do great :)

  5. It seems to me there is a trend that even if another vendor is doing well at a show it isn't as well as previous years. I think there are too many craft fairs over saturating the area and buyers are becoming browsers. I love to buy handmade but can't afford to at each and every show there is, there are just too many and for the most part these shows have the same vendors. It has become monotonous. I realize this may not sound like a pep talk. It is a 'you aren't the only one' talk. Hugs + drinks to you! xo

  6. Liz -- Your booth looked fantastic and you seemed relaxed. I definitely plan to come back next year!

  7. I have sat with you through good and bad flea markets, good and bad craft shows,what a roller coaster!

    How I admire your courage, your energy, your always beautiful smile.

    I love the things you make, the beautiful colors, the excellent crafsmanship.

    I know how hard you work. HUGS

  8. Ug! I'm so tired now!

    I definitely spent a good month getting ready, on top of my usual 60 hour workweek, and for what?

    Between the pricey booth fee, the raw materials and all the incidentals (credit card fees, packaging, meat on a stick), you're not the only one who's not feeling the love from Art in the Courtyard this year.

    And all those sales really were hard won. I actually had someone come up to me and ask me to justify the "sticker shock" on a $68 handwoven. I was like, huh? You mean the cheapest handwoven scarf I have? That took 4-5 hours to make and about $15 in raw materials? Not to mention 4 years in art school? And she was from the Berkshires! She was totally serious, too. She literally didn't understand why she should pay $68 for a handwoven when she could buy a scarf at Walmart! She actually used Walmart as a comparison.

    Those definitely weren't my people, either. Some days it really feels like I should stick to selling grilled cheese.....

  9. This is such a great post, Liz - realistic, yet positive. People who sell handmades are really putting pieces of their souls out there for the public to see and comment on at these shows, and that's never easy. Leanne's comment breaks my heart. It's like we should put everyone through a brief "Handmade 101" orientation before we let them shop craft shows, so their expectations are in line with the goods for sale!

  10. I believe that the area and I'm speaking of Maine is saturated with festivals, art shows, craft shows and ArtWalks. Every weekends starting in May and going into October there are over a dozen of shows each week. Then in November we start with Christmas bazaars in every school and church using the proceeds as fund raisers. Help! it's no wonder we can't make money...

  11. Boy oh boy can I relate...both to the highs and the lows. Thanks for sharing.

  12. You're a rock star Liz! Thanks for the tips and reminders. I have a 3 day show this weekend and I am going to go all positive!!! The mental game can often be more challenging than anything else. Look forward to seeing your new pieces!

  13. Fantastic post! Great tips and it's mind boggling to me that you didn't do well at FF - love LOVE your work!!! Big hugs to you dear one! xo

  14. LaAlicia: Thank you my dear! Yes, getting a feel for a show before signing up is a great tip. This was my 5th year and the show had been a knockout the first 4 years so... who knows?

    PoetessWug: Hahaha! Tell your husband he is welcome! Makers are not competitors, we are comrades! That is so sweet he wants to sell for you! Have him read my post on vending at a craft show for a feel of how the day usually goes.

    Thanks, Vicki! Yes, keeping a cheerful face on is HARD but vital.

    andrea creates: Good point about a show being advertising. I once established a fantastic relationship with a shop owner at a show where I barely made booth fee! You never know.

    k.o'brien jewelry: Thanks for comiserating, I haven't found the same issues but I am not doing a bunch of shows either. Here's hoping the holidays are as good as ever!

    Robin: So glad you could visit and had a good time! I was sorry I had to work and couldn't chat more.

    Mom: you are the BEST craft show co-pilot! You were there from the very start, you really have seen it all; celebrities, hurricanes, good days and bad. Thanks for your endless support for all I do, it means everything to me!!

    Leanne: I'm shocked that someone actually said that at Folk Fest, I don't usually get that kind of person at this show. Although now I am remembering one girl who made a point to inform me my $12 rings are "REALLY expensive." LOL, I told her I was raising the price to $14 after the show :)

    Diane: it's true, it is personal! That's why the rewards are so high and the lows are so low. I try to kindly explain why my items are worth the price, and I do feel like I've educated a lot of people about the awesomeness of handmade. But I know everyone comes from different places with different perspectives. we can only do our best!

    Coastal Art Glass: That does sound like a lot of shows! I'm hoping that more shows create more buyers and more appreciation for handmade. Maybe I'm naive but it's possible that making handmade goods more available will make buying handmade more common too.

    Susan: thanks for stopping buy, I appreciate it!

    Thanks Amy, your work is gorgeous, I'm a big fan! I hope your shows are fantastic!

    LRod! You are so sweet, I appreciate your kind words so much! It was the WEIRDEST show ever!! Oh well, onward and upward!

  15. You really put into words what it feels like when you have a bad show. How even though you have had great shows, this one BAD show can bring you down! Thanks for posting!!!

  16. Great pics! Hope your next show is a huge success!!

  17. Hello Liz,
    Your blog post is very well written. I'm humbled by your emotional honesty of craft show disappointment. I got accepted to be one of the vendors at the December 1st Union Square Holiday Market in the "Precinct", MA. It'll be my first show ever. I've sold my work at local businesses but never at a craft show. It took me 2 years to finally open an Etsy store and make enough products to sell at a craft show. One of the things that I've been worried about is what I'll do if the craft show on December 1st doesn't go well. First experiences for things are usually very important, it's a foundation for determining reactions to future experiences of that nature. I've been having really high hopes in the past 2 years about what will become of my handmade business. This hope has carried me through a lot of rough moments. Reading your emotion filled blog post is helpful to me. I now have a better idea of what to do if my first craft show on December 1st doesn't turn out well. Thanks Liz! - Theresa Zhong (I've seen your great work at Gather Here last winter's makers' sale)

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Theresa! I hope your first show goes really well :) Growing a handmade business is full of personal feelings as well as business parts. It is tough finding the balance. All I can say is, time helps.

  18. I just went from twittering with you to finding this post when I searched "do any craft show make money" - your title is perfect, and then I noticed your name looked familiar! Having just had an exhausting show, I was glad to read your post.