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.


Friday, July 6, 2012

Makers in Business Episode 3 - Liz Stewart of Lush Beads

The Lizzes

In Episode 3 of Makers in Business I talk with Liz Stewart of Lush Beads. Liz and I have been friends since I introduced myself to her when she opened a retail bead supply shop on Merrimack Street in downtown Lowell, MA.

Our lively conversation covers how she got started in the business and the choices and challenges she's faced as an independent shop owner and maker.

Please check out Liz's website and visit her shop when you are in town!

Here's a link to the online Audio only version:

And here's the link to subscribe to the audio-only Podcast of Makers in business on iTunes:

The show airs locally on Tuesdays at 6:30 PM and Thursdays at 8:30. New shows monthly. For more information about Lowell Local Access TV, visit http://LTC.org